Stephen Smith MP
Minister for Defence
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 29 NOVEMBER 2010
TOPICS: Victorian election, WikiLeaks, North Korea
KIERAN GILBERT: Here in the studio with me, the Defence Minister, Stephen Smith.
Mr Smith, thanks for your time.
STEPHEN SMITH: Pleasure.
KIERAN GILBERT: We've got a few other issues to get to, the WikiLeaks story, also the precarious situation on the Korean Peninsula.
First though, I want to get your reaction to the Victorian election result. It looks like John Brumby is gone. Do you concede that this does make things a lot more difficult for the Gillard Government in the next year?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, firstly in terms of the ultimate outcome, I'll leave that to Premier Brumby to make comments about.
But it's always very tough trying to go from a third term to a fourth term. You know, Premier Brumby and Labor knew that this would be a tough election, and we will see where the cards fall.
But it's not uncommon or unusual in Australian politics for one side - one of the two major political parties - to be in Government in Canberra and the other political party in Government in some or all of the states.
KIERAN GILBERT: So politically, it's not detrimental to the Gillard Government?
STEPHEN SMITH: As a Labor Party member, as a Labor Member of Parliament, I don't like to see Labor Governments lose, whether it's state, territory or obviously, federally. But in terms of the Gillard Government's own political fortunes into the future, at the next election, the community will judge us on our merits and the point that the Prime Minister and the Leader of the House, Mr Albanese, have been making today is that at the end of a five-week parliamentary term, we've got over 50 pieces of legislation through.
The Parliament is running effectively and well, and so there's no reason why this Parliament shouldn't go its full term. And at the end of that full term, we'll be judged on our merits, not on the fortunes or otherwise of respective State Governments.
KIERAN GILBERT: Okay. On the issue of WikiLeaks, the information, according to the Attorney-General, could prejudice the safety of Australian people referred to in the documents. It also could prejudice our national security interest.
Is it fair to say that those concerns that you and the Attorney and others in the Government hold relate to Afghanistan?
STEPHEN SMITH: No, it's potentially broader than that. This is the third series of leaks that we've seen. The first two were almost exclusively in my patch, in Defence, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and there was the potential there for prejudice to our national security interest, prejudice to our operations, prejudice to people either in Iraq or in Afghanistan who assisted Australia.
This set of leaks, the full extent of which we haven't yet had the chance to see or examine, are essentially United States diplomatic cables which traverse a whole range of areas, so we need to take it as we are and as we will, step by step. But our starting and end point is essentially protecting Australia's national interest.
But this is an act which again one has no option but to absolutely condemn it. It potentially puts national security interest and it puts the safety and welfare of individuals at stake.
KIERAN GILBERT: Is it embarrassing that this person responsible, from your Government's perspective, is an Australian, holds an Australian passport?
STEPHEN SMITH: He's an Australian citizen, the holder of an Australian passport, but like all of us, he will be judged on his conduct.
Certainly, the United States and the rest of the international community is under no illusions about the Australian attitude to this and the Australian Government's attitude, which is we absolutely condemn the unauthorised and almost certainly illegal leaking of this material. It does put people's lives at risk. It puts ours and others' national security interests at risk and it's conduct which is completely irresponsible.
KIERAN GILBERT: You made reference to the other episodes in relation to the WikiLeaks drama. Now, there was a Defence task force...
STEPHEN SMITH: Yes.
KIERAN GILBERT: ...it found, as I understand it, largely that the information released was benign when it came to our interest. Are you confident that this situation will have a similar outcome?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we hope so. But firstly, in the case of the leaked materials with respect to Afghanistan, we established - my predecessor, John Faulkner - established a Defence taskforce that reported in recently and essentially indicated that no damage had been done to Australian interests.
That same group of officials is now working painstakingly through the Iraq materials, and as I said at the time, the early indicators were we were hopeful that no great or any damage had been done.
But in the case of these cables it's a much wider remit, and as a consequence, we have an across-Government committee effectively coordinated by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, which includes representatives and officials from Defence, Attorney-Generals and Foreign Affairs and other relevant departments and agencies because it does have the potential to cut right across very many areas of Government because they are, as I say, reporting cables which come in from United States Embassies, including potentially our own.
And to its credit, the United States Ambassador and Embassy here has been at pains to put the Government and relevant Ministers on notice that this very unfortunate and regrettable circumstance was about to occur.
KIERAN GILBERT: Well, another regrettable circumstance in recent times has been on the Korean Peninsula. It remains precarious. Does a positive outcome to this rest in the hands of China to negotiate with Pyongyang?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, certainly, as the Foreign Minister has said, Australia has both publicly and privately indicated to China over the recent past that it does have influence with North Korea and we want it to seek to exercise its influence.
Russia has been quite robust on this matter. That's a good sign, which is not where Russia was in the aftermath of the investigation into the sinking of the Cheonan.
So we continue to urge restraint. We believe that the Republic of Korea has conducted itself with great restraint in the face of a lot of provocation, not just in this matter but the sinking of the Cheonan and North Korea's nuclear program.
And we believe it's appropriate that the planned naval exercise between the United States and the Republic of Korea, which has been planned for some time, continue, and that's occurred today. And Australia's Defence Attaché to the Republic of Korea was onboard the USS George Washington observing those naval exercises as part of a complement of United Nations Command Military Armistice Commission officials.
The formal United Nations Command is responsible for administration of the Armistice Agreement. We're not a party to the Armistice Agreement, but we are a party to the United Nations Command Military Armistice Commission and in that capacity, we were asked to observe the exercises today and we did, and that's a good show of support for the Republic of Korea.
KIERAN GILBERT: And is your analysis of this situation that it's all about North Korean internal political dynamics? Is that, do you believe, the catalyst for what we've seen here?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, a couple of things. Firstly, North Korea is a very impervious Administration, very hard to get into the workings of their minds, firstly.
Secondly, they are masters at provocation and masters at getting other countries and the international community to take note of them.
And then thirdly, of course, we have the potential succession to which you've referred.
Whatever the analysis, and we will work our way painstakingly through that, what we do know is that their conduct has been reprehensible. We strongly support the Republic of Korea and also the United States in this matter.
When the Cheonan incident occurred, we provided officials to take part in the official investigation. Often when there is an incident relating to the Korean Peninsula under the Armistice Agreement, a group of officials is asked to investigate. And if Australia is asked to provide officials for any such investigation, then as we did with the Cheonan, we would happily provide officials to assist in that process.
KIERAN GILBERT: Mr Smith, it's been a long Parliamentary year. Appreciate your time throughout. Thank you.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thank you. Thanks very much.
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