Stephen Smith MP
Minister for Defence
LAURIE OAKES: Mr Smith, welcome to the program.
STEPHEN SMITH: Pleasure, Laurie.
LAURIE OAKES: Before we get on to Afghanistan, John Howard says that the Labor Party made a colossal mistake in dumping Kevin Rudd before the election. Does he have a point?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well it's not a view that I want to dwell on. I mean our most important task now is to govern and govern well from the position that we're in. So I'll leave it to others to reflect upon the 2010 election. That's not a view, for example, that some of us, including myself, expressed on the night of the election. But I'll leave it to the commentators. We have to focus on governing; we have to focus the next election in 2013.
LAURIE OAKES: But he's right, isn't he, that Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister could have put forward a simple re-election message that his Government had saved Australia from recession?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well that was a message that the Government put forward. That Prime Minister Gillard put forward. That the Treasurer, Mr Swan, put forward. And that's a very important point, and the strength of our economy, now going into the 20th consecutive year of economic growth, saving the country from recession, has been a very important part of the context of the negotiations with Independents but also the context that we now find ourselves in. So that point was made well and truly and I think it's a point which there is now a much stronger appreciation of, particularly effectively on the anniversary of 20 consecutive years of economic growth which hardly any other country in the world can look back on.
LAURIE OAKES: The Caucus and particularly the Ministry turned savagely on Kevin Rudd. You were one of those who voted against him. How is he getting on with the people who dumped him now that he's a Minister?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, firstly, Kevin to his great credit resigned so there was no vote, and Julia Gillard unanimously became our leader and the new Prime Minister.
LAURIE OAKES: It's a technicality, there’s no vote because he would have lost humiliatingly?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I don’t regard it as a technicality but the more important point I think is how is Kevin is getting on. I work closely with him in the last Parliament, as you know, and I’m working very closely with him now. So he's doing a very good job, and my dealings with him have been their usual professional and high personal standards. He's in good humour and doing a very good job. And he's really, as everyone expected, taken to the job of Foreign Minister as a duck takes to water. So it's good to see, it’s good see him working well and it’s good to see that he's happy in that task.
LAURIE OAKES: John Howard for just a minute, he also says in his memoir that he has contempt for Labor over Iraq, because the Labor Party wasn't against the invasion of Iraq, it was against doing it without one more UN Security Council resolution?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I think Peter Costello in a different context has said that John Howard's making a range of self-serving comments in the case of his view of the past. Our position on Iraq was quite clear. We had a different position from the Liberal Party and the National Party. We believed that Iraq should be held to account in terms of weapons of mass destruction but that needed to be done appropriately through the international community, including through the United Nations Security Council. And we also went to the 2007 election with a different policy in terms of withdrawal of troops from Iraq. But you can now make the historic contrast of course, which is one of the reasons we find now longer enduring support on Afghanistan is that it is mandated by the United Nations Security Council resolutions, going back to 2001, and the most recent one in the last couple of weeks which was unanimous. So it's an important point and one which John Howard at the time and historically continues to ignore.
LAURIE OAKES: There's one big story around today. It's the biggest security leak ever - 400,000 pages of military information out of Iraq. Have you had a report on this? Are you concerned about the security of locations for Australia in any way?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well there was an earlier similar leak in respect of classified US military information onAfghanistan. My predecessor John Faulkner established a Defence Task Force to painstakingly go through that material to make sure there was nothing in it which prejudiced Australian interests.
LAURIE OAKES: We've never seen the results of that, have we?
STEPHEN SMITH: No, he received an interim report in the course of the election campaign which under the caretaker provisions he shared with the Opposition. But on Friday, I received from the Defence Department the final report on the Department's investigation into the WikiLeaks classified information leaks on Afghanistan. I'll let Defence release that in the course of the week but in substantive terms, fortunately there has been no prejudice done to Australian interests, and no prejudice done to other people who may have assisted Australia in the past. The great danger of releasing such unauthorised information is that it does prejudice the security of our operations. It enables people to have an insight into them. But the substance of the report is that no damage has been done, and thankfully, that's a good thing.
LAURIE OAKES: What about this latest WikiLeaks revelation about Iraq? Do you know whether that contains any information about Australian forces and their activity?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, again, we'll do what we've done previously. The Task Force that we charged to look at the earlier unauthorised leak of classified documentation will now be given the task to painstakingly go through this large volume of documents. And we very much hope the outcome is the same. But it does, whilst it's in a different contest, it’s an early history, and we have no troops or forces or personnel militarily in Iraq, and so therefore the danger is in that respect less. It still does potentially give people an insight in to the way in which we do operations and it does potentially put people at risk who have assisted us in the past. But we will go through that painstaking course and treat it in exactly the same way that we’ve treated the earlier unauthorised disclosure of classified military information.
LAURIE OAKES: In the last week, we've seen the first-ever Parliamentary debate on our Afghanistancommitment. I think 20 MPs spoke in six and a half hours of debate. Did anything come out of that that has changed your thinking or the Government's thinking?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well not so much changed mine or the Government's thinking about the task ahead but I think it has been a very good debate and it will continue both in the House and in the Senate next week. The Senate starts on Monday and the House will continue on Monday. I do think it's been a good thing for the Parliament. It has been a good thing for the issue. And I think it's been a good thing for the public. I think there's a much greater appreciation now of some of the essential facts of Afghanistan, that we are there under a United Nations mandate. We are there not just by ourselves and not just with the US, but with an international Task Force of 47 countries all up. And there's also a much greater focus on our role, our mission in Uruzgan Province, which is to train the Afghan National Army and police force, to enable a transition to them taking responsibility for security arrangements in the next two to four years or on the international community's rough timetable of 2014. So there is also greater appreciation of the desire now for transition to Afghan responsibility and that's a good thing.
LAURIE OAKES: I think the biggest news story out of the week was Julia Gillard telling us that we will be continually involved in Afghanistan for another 10 years. That caused shockwaves around Australia, didn't it?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I think what the Prime Minister wanted to do, and it was a good thing, was to not allow the false impression to arise that just because we believed we were on task for the end of our training mission in Uruzgan Province over the next two to four years, that would not automatically see the end of our commitment or the end of Australian troop presence there. Time will tell precisely what our role and presence will be once our training role has completed. It might be an overwatch task, as for example it was in Iraq. It might be some of our people embedded with the International Security Assistance Force. Our officers embedded into the headquarters in Kabul are very highly regarded. Or it might be general institutionalised training. Time will tell and we know the international community will certainly be there in the sense of assisting on development assistance and civilian capacity building for some time. But time will tell precisely what our role will be. But I thought it was a good thing for the Prime Minister to make it clear that just because we're on task to complete our training mission, doesn't automatically mean that that will see a withdrawal or an exit. And the same applies to the international community generally.
LAURIE OAKES: That message ‘we're there for at least another 10 years’, is in sharp contrast to President Barack Obama who said, "I'm not doing 10 years, I'm not doing long-term nation-building?"
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I think some of the reporting of that 10-year comment or did not focus clearly enough on how we envisaged those commitments will change. We have on average 1550 people there now. Rule of thumb, about 800 are engaged in the training exercise. We believe we're on track, as does the international community, to complete that training exercise over the next two to four years. So once the training role is over, there will be a diminution in the number of forces committed to training, and then there will be an adjustment of our role as we effectively transition out. So, some people are proceeding on the basis that our current arrangements will last for another decade. That's not the case. That's not what the Prime Minister said. And indeed it's not what I've said in the past nor is it what my predecessor, Minister Faulkner, has said in the past. We've always tried to make it clear that as circumstances change, as conditions improve, our role will change. We don't want to be there forever. We can't leave tomorrow. That would not be in our national interests. But we can't be there forever which is why we're very squarely focused on our training obligation.
LAURIE OAKES: The former Liberal Minister, Alexander Downer, has called for a new approach based on negotiation. And as Paul Kelly pointed out in the Australian yesterday, that means that Julia Gillard is to the right of Alexander Downer. Does that embarrass you?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I'm not sure that analysis is right, Laurie. We have made it clear as a Government for some time, particularly in the run-up to and at the London Conference on Afghanistan in January this year, that we very strongly believe that the effort in Afghanistan will not be successful by military means alone. There has to be a political effort as well. There has to be a political strategy. And that's why at the London Conference in January of this year, I very strongly on behalf of Australia supported the notion that there had to be reconciliation. There had to be reintegration, there had to be a political approach that has to be led by the Afghan Government. But there will be people currently in Afghanistan who we hope will throw away their arms, will adhere to the Afghan constitution, and take a part in a peaceful Afghan society. So we have very strongly supported the notion of reconciliation and reintegration for a long time. This is I think one of the other good parts of this debate is that there has been a bit of a lag effect. People have now gotten on to issues or aspects of our policy which have been there for some time and they're now appreciating them much better. If Alexander Downer had made that comment three or four years ago, it would have been valid but it's not been valid for the last two or three years because we've strongly supported the notion there has got to be a political effort as well.
LAURIE OAKES: Final question, Julia Gillard said that the key reason for us being in Afghanistan was to show that we stand firmly behind the US Alliance. It's the same excuse that was given for Iraq, the same excuse that was given for our troops going in to Vietnam?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, the way I articulate it and the way the Prime Minister articulated it in to her speech as well, is that we're there because we believe that is in our national interests. We believe it's in Australia's national interests to help to stare down international terrorism. We've very tragically been on the receiving end of international terrorists, whether it's been in the United States or Indonesia or in Europe. But we're also there as part of a United Nations mandated 47-country-strong force. Yes, of course we're there with the United States. Indeed, the Alliance with the United States, or ANZUS arrangement, was triggered back in 2001 in the initial effort into Afghanistan. So, yes, we're there because we're a good friend and ally of the United States. But we're there because it's in our national interest; it’s in the international community's interest to stare down international terrorism which is a threat that will be with us for a long period of time to come.
LAURIE OAKES: Minister we thank you.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks, Laurie. Thanks very much.
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