Subjects: Paris terrorist attacks, Syria, refugees.
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: But first, the Paris attacks have raised questions about Australia's involvement in trying to end the conflict in the Middle East. So far our involvement has been limited to air strikes, air drops, aid drops, and a small number of Special Forces advising and assisting the Iraqi Army. Now Malcolm Turnbull says Australians could also play a peacekeeping role in Syria. For more I'm joined on the line by Defence Minister Marise Payne. Minister, good morning.
MINISTER PAYNE: Good morning Michael.
BRISSENDEN: Now this will inevitably mean a greater level of direct engagement by Western military forces in Syria you would think, wouldn't it?
MINISTER PAYNE: Well it will certainly mean a very significant focus on how matters are progressing in Syria and what further contributions can be made. And I have to say, just at the beginning of this discussion Michael, that our thoughts and prayers are with so many families from all over the world indeed, and particularly those in Paris after these appalling events.
BRISSENDEN: Do you think this will change the overall approach to the fight against IS?
MINISTER PAYNE: Well I think the overall approach, right from the very beginning, has been the defeat of ISIL in the field, in Iraq and in Syria in particular in this context, and that remains of primary importance. What we take from these events will be a subject of some discussion for a period of time, but most importantly Australia, the United States, the other allies who were involved in these efforts, will continue and maintain them to the greatest of our strengths.
BRISSENDEN: Okay let's look at our own role. How will that change, or could it change? Malcolm Turnbull has suggested that Australian peacekeepers could play a role if a political solution is found. Is that likely and is there more that we can do?
MINISTER PAYNE: Well that is some way off as I said, because obviously these matters have to be considered very, very seriously in the cold harsh light of day, and those discussions connecting in Europe, and in part at least in Turkey around the G20 table now, are very important aspect of that. We're making the second largest contribution at the moment. I know you said at the beginning of this discussion our involvement was limited to, but I think really it is a very considerable contribution that we are making, and if we are to enhance that or to change that in anyway that will be a considered step by the Australian Government.
BRISSENDEN: Sure but we have as I understand it around 80 special forces that are on the ground now, that has been reduced from the initial 200 or so that were sent, I assume that it's certainly possible to increase that again?
MINSTER PAYNE: Yes those discussions are certainly possible, and I will be dealing with the Prime Minister as he returns to Australia in due course, the Prime Minister and other members of the National Security Committee to address those concerns. We will take advice from the Chief of the Defence Force and Senior Officials to determine the best way forward. And I think it's very important to say that we don't do that in isolation, we do that in consultation with the people we're already working with. And most particularly with the Iraqi Government, because this is after all about the self-defence of Iraq.
BRISSENDEN: Sure, and their role perhaps could change because they are currently restricted to advising and assisting, although there is some suggestion that they may also be able to accompany Iraqi forces. That's been a... I guess a subject of considerable discussion over the last few months, and presumably there will be more impetus to make that happen?
MINISTER PAYNE: I'm not going to pre-judge that now. As you know the Prime Minister is away and will be for a few more days, and I don't think it's appropriate to pre-judge that in a public discussion before we have the chance to take that advice from the senior military advisors and to consider their recommendations, and also to consider what is sought from us by our international partners.
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Okay the Prime Minister has suggested a role for Australian peacekeepers, presumably there needs to be peace before we can send peacekeepers, how do we get to that point?
MINISTER PAYNE: Well indeed, and we've been very clear about the need for a political solution as well in this process. We won't take a step backwards from taking the fight up to ISIL in Iraq and now in Syria, but at the same time, and as the Vienna talks have been progressing, we know there's a need for a political solution that is going to be a very, very complex political process as you can imagine. And only by the point at which we can arrive at that can we start to discuss what we might do in the context of a peace.
BRISSENDEN: Is this whole problem, is it an indication that we're not winning this fight?
MINISTER PAYNE: I think this is a very, very challenging environment, there is no question about that, and we have seen changes in ground taken in Syria recently where there have been some very significant shifts away from ISIL, they're very important. At the same time the discussion - the international discussion has to be around winning the - winning in inverted commas - winning the hearts and minds if you like as well of those who are tempted to engage in this sort of violent extremism, and that is something which we need to focus on simultaneously. I know that we here are doing that, I was speaking to other defence ministers in Kuala Lumpur the week before last about the sort of work they're doing, and what they call religious rehabilitation, and I think there's a lot of work to do in that area as well.
BRISSENDEN: So there is a potential that we could... or there's a danger that we may overreact in a military sense, do you think?
MINISTER PAYNE: No, I don't think that we will overreact in the military sense, because as I've been very clear to say anything that we do will be very, very considered, and very, very carefully managed in conjunction with international partners in this context. But what we have to do is make sure we're able to do all of these things at the same time, and we have a very significant focus on that in Australia, and I was very interested to hear about the focus on that in the region, particularly in relation to returning foreign fighters.
BRISSENDEN: Okay there's clearly some concerns in Europe about the potential for terrorists to pass themselves off as refugees, should we have similar concerns?
MINISTER PAYNE: Well we are very, very careful about how we deal with incoming refugees, and the safety first and foremost of our community here is at front of mind when we are dealing with these issues. The concerns that have been expressed internationally I think are real because the situation in Europe is literally physically - if for no other reasons - physically so much different from that that we have here in Australia when you think about the ease of movement and the capacity that that volume of people have to move around. Making sure that we meet that aspect of that for us here in Australia, whether it's our security and character checks, they have to be undertaken properly, we are not going to rush that process here until that has been done, because our number one priority is protecting Australians.
BRISSENDEN: Okay we'll leave it there, thanks very much for joining us, that's Defence Minister Marise Payne.
MINISTER PAYNE: Thanks Michael.
Henry Budd (Minister Payne's office) 0429 531143
Defence Media (02) 6127 1999