TOPICS: Comments made by Mr Abbott during a visit to Afghanistan; Australia’s troop commitment in Afghanistan
KIERAN GILBERT: Mr Smith, thanks for your time. What do you make of Tony Abbott's comments in Afghanistan last year in the wake of Lance Corporal Jared MacKinney's death?
STEPHEN SMITH: When we're faced with difficult and complex circumstances and terrible and tragic issues, we all express ourselves differently. I don't think Mr Abbott intended to say anything which would be offensive to the family and he has quite rightly spoken to Jared MacKinney's widow and that's appropriate. But we need to bear in mind that whenever we talk about Afghanistan, it will be a terrible reminder to 22 families.
Yesterday, for example, we saw a very moving and appropriate condolence motion on the death of Richard Atkinson. That was of comfort to his family but also a reminder of their tragic loss, but that would have also reminded 21 other families of their own loss.
So I don't believe Mr Abbott said anything that he intended to cause offence and he has spoken to the widow. That's appropriate.
KIERAN GILBERT: The father of Jared MacKinney says the comments made him feel sick and were out of line. You're defending Tony Abbott's comments?
STEPHEN SMITH: It's not for me to defend Mr Abbott. It's not for me to give a running commentary on what he has said.
He was in Afghanistan. The circumstances were that Lance Corporal MacKinney had been killed. There were suggestions at the time that not enough resources had been allocated. He was speaking to local commanders about the allocation of resources and the substance of the conversation was essentially that resources were allocated but these were terribly difficult circumstances and in the fog of war terrible things occur.
Now, people express themselves differently. As Minister for Defence I express myself in a particular way and, as Mr Abbot himself has said on radio this morning, the Australian people will make their own decision, their own judgment, form their own view about what he said and how he has responded. But I have tried to be particularly careful, as Defence Minister, to not talk about these matters in a way which anyone would interpret as being party political or politically critical because in all of these issues we're talking about not just our national interest, an effort in Afghanistan which is supported by both the major political parties, but also circumstances where whenever we speak about these things in general terms it'll be a terrible reminder to 22 families of a tragic loss.
KIERAN GILBERT: A number of Mr Abbott's colleagues have said this morning there is no way he would make light of the death of an Australian digger. I think many people agree with that. Certainly many of our viewers have written in to Sky News saying as much, that there would be no way that those comments could be seen in that light, but if we look at the reaction when he was played the comments on the Seven Network last night, there was that silence and it went for over a minute on the raw tape, apparently.
What did you make of the response of Tony Abbott?
STEPHEN SMITH: Firstly I share the view that I don't believe Tony Abbott would deliberately say anything which was flippant or insulting or critical about an Australian soldier, an Australian soldier's death or our contribution in Afghanistan. I share that view.
As for the rest of it, again, if Tony Abbott's colleagues want to make their own comments about how they view that, it's a matter for them. I'm not proposing to be drawn and give a running commentary on what Mr Abbott or how Mr Abbott has responded.
I'm very happy to speak about what I regard as the substance of these issues, which is when we have the death of a soldier in Afghanistan it's a blow to our nation and a tragedy for the family.
Our contribution to Afghanistan is to help stare down international terrorism. We think very strongly that's in our national interest. That's supported by Mr Abbott and his political party. And, thirdly, whenever there's a suggestion made that we haven't allocated enough resources to do the task that we have in Afghanistan we make sure that that is exhaustively investigated, which is what is occurring in the case of the death of Lance Corporal MacKinney.
KIERAN GILBERT: And one other issue, I need to get your reaction to a secret plan, apparently, to slash troop numbers in Afghanistan. It's reported in the Fairfax press this morning, suggesting that there will be a draw-down, worked on almost immediately, to save money, to ease the budget, the pressure on the budget. What do you make of that story?
STEPHEN SMITH: I have to say the story came very much as a surprise to me, as it did to the Chief of the Defence Force who I spoke to early this morning, as I often do.
We have, on average, 1550 Defence Force personnel in Afghanistan, including over 700 engaged in a training and mentoring role.
Our mission in Uruzgan Province is to put the Afghan National Army and, to a lesser extent, the Afghan National Police, in a position to take responsibility for security. As late as this morning the Chief of the Defence Force's advice to me is that we think we're on track to achieve that over the next two to four years and the 1550 on average that we have is appropriate for that task.
We certainly don't envisage any draw-down of that number of troops in the course of this year or, indeed, potentially next year. But as we are successful in our training plan, as we get closer to 2014, the international community's aspiration date for transition, then of course there will be changes to the composition of our…
KIERAN GILBERT: So you're saying the story's without foundation. You're obviously rejecting it outright?
STEPHEN SMITH: I'm saying in my eyes the story is baseless. It came as a complete surprise to me and it came as a surprise to the Chief of the Defence Force.
KIERAN GILBERT: And there is no funding squeeze, particularly in light of the cost of relief operations in the Queensland floods and the cyclone?
STEPHEN SMITH: We absolutely do not allow cost matters to get in the way of our operational commitments, whether it's Afghanistan, whether it's the Solomon Islands, whether it's East Timor.
Yes, we have a big Strategic Reform Program and we have budget rules for Defence but we make sure that effectively our Afghanistan contribution is put to one side and that's why we are confident that the resources we allocate are appropriate. And that, frankly, was the substance of the discussion between Major General Cantwell and Colonel Creighton with Mr Abbott, that the resources were there in sufficient number, it was the difficulty and the fog of war which caused the problem.
KIERAN GILBERT: Defence Minister Stephen Smith, thanks for your time, appreciate it.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thank you.