STEPHEN SMITH: Can I say how privileged I am to have been asked by the Prime Minister to becomeAustralia's Defence Minister, and I'm looking forward very much to that occurring at the formal swearing in next week.
Can I also say how much I have enjoyed being Australia's Foreign Affairs Minister. That has been a great privilege, and I've welcomed very much the opportunity that I was extended by two Prime Ministers - Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard - to perform that role on behalf of Australia.
Can I congratulate Kevin Rudd on his appointment as Foreign Minister by Prime Minister Gillard.
As Defence Minister, of course, there are very important aspects of defence for Western Australia. And from a Western Australian point of view, I am very pleased to become Western Australia's first Defence Minister since Kim Beazley. So I'm very proud, as you would expect, of that obvious personal and Western Australian Labor connection.
Of course, today is the anniversary of the terrible attack on 11 September. And so we should, on this day, pause to reflect on that terrible attack and on the tragedy that families suffered on that day. That, of course, also takes us to Afghanistan, where we have troops currently serving in our mission to prevent Afghanistanfrom again becoming a breeding ground for international terrorism, to prevent terrible atrocities like 11 September, like attacks on Australians in Indonesia, from occurring again.
In that context, of course, Afghanistan also brings with it terrible tragedies for Australian families. And yesterday we saw the funeral of Lance Corporal McKinney. Can I take this opportunity on this day of expressing my condolences to his family and his friends; of course, to his wife Beckie. And we saw yesterday, in the midst of that terrible tragedy, the birth of their son Noah Jared. So our thoughts are with Lance Corporal McKinney's family, Becky and their new son, Noah Jared, on a day like today.
I'm not proposing to be making any detailed comments on defence matters until I'm sworn in.
Can I also take this opportunity of complimenting my good friend and colleague, Senator John Faulkner, who's been Minister over the last period. He has done a very good job as Australia's Defence Minister.
In general terms, of course, I've referred to Afghanistan, but most importantly to our national security and defence arrangements is our Alliance with the United States. That, of course, continues to be the bedrock of our strategic security and defence arrangements. So attending to matters in Afghanistan, attending to the ongoing centrality of the United States Alliance will of course be very crucial and very important in my new role as Defence Minister.
So I'm very pleased to respond to your questions.
QUESTION: Do you do this with a heavy heart, Minister? You've gone from probably the most high-profile ministry to one that's a little further down the pecking order.
STEPHEN SMITH: The Prime Minister, when I spoke to her, both when she became Prime Minister, during the election campaign and since it became clear that Labor could form a minority government, asked me what portfolio I would like to serve in. I said I was very happy to continue in Foreign Affairs. But also, equally, I took very seriously the notion that allocation of portfolios was a matter for the Prime Minister at any point in time.
When the Prime Minister indicated to me this week that she was proposing to appoint Kevin as Foreign Minister and she asked what I would like to do, I said Defence. I see Defence as being a very important part of any government. Protecting the national security interests of the Commonwealth and its people is any government's highest priority.
So I've served as Foreign Minister; I've very much enjoyed that. I've served at capacity sitting around the National Security Committee of the Cabinet, and I look forward to discharging that obligation as Defence Minister.
QUESTION: So just to clarify, you weren't given a choice then, were you? You were told, 'Someone else is doing Foreign Affairs, what would you like?'.
STEPHEN SMITH: The Prime Minister this week advised me that she had decided that Kevin Rudd would be our next Foreign Minister. I entirely accept that. I have said from Day One that when it comes to the allocation of portfolios, it's entirely a matter for the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister asked me what I would like to do, and I said I would like to do Defence. I regard serving as Defence Minister as a privilege, and I will work very hard, as I have in the past, to discharge what is a heavy burden, a heavy obligation.
Part of the question I had earlier was: do I feel any obligation. Of course I feel the obligation. Being responsible in a ministerial sense for seeing Australians serve in dangerous conditions overseas is always a heavy responsibility. And seeing Australians die in the service of their country, as we have all too frequently in recent times, is also a very heavy responsibility. And you would have seen that that has, of course, weighed very much on Defence Minister Faulkner, as it does on any Defence Minister.
QUESTION: There has been some suggestion that you offered to move from Foreign Affairs during the election campaign. Is that true?
STEPHEN SMITH: What I've always said, and this was in my discussions with the Prime Minister, both when she became Prime Minister, in the course of the election campaign and subsequent, it's always entirely a matter for the Prime Minister of the day to allocate portfolios, whatever the time, whatever the circumstances. And I made it clear to the Prime Minister from the first moment that I was in her hands and, effectively, at her disposal. I said when the question was first raised with me some time ago, 'I might be old-fashioned, but I very much take seriously the notion that the allocation of portfolios is a matter for the Prime Minister of the day'.
And, of course, she has decided to appoint Kevin Rudd, an entirely appropriate appointment for a former Prime Minister. It reflects his standing as a former Prime Minister of our country, but also a person who served as Shadow Foreign Minister for a number of years when we were in opposition, and who is well known for his keen interest in these matters.
QUESTION: Did you feel there was unfinished business in your Foreign Affairs work?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, there is always unfinished business. The plates of foreign policy, the plates of international affairs, the plates of national security always continue to move.
And I spent the election campaign and the transitional period as a caretaker Foreign Minister. I can assure you that I had plenty of work to do over that period. That's not always the case in domestic portfolios, but it is the case in our national security portfolios like Foreign Affairs, like Defence, like the Attorney-General's position.
So I've had plenty of work to do over the recent period, but I'm looking forward very much to starting up as Defence Minister.
QUESTION: Mr Rudd is notoriously difficult to deal with. What advice do you give to your former staff at the Department in dealing with their new boss?
STEPHEN SMITH: I've seen those comments. I have to say, as Foreign Minister when Kevin was Prime Minister, that wasn't my personal experience. I worked very well with Mr Rudd when he was Prime Minister.
As Foreign Minister and I once used this expression in respect of Foreign Minister Gareth Evans and Prime Minister Paul Keating; when Mr Keating became Prime Minister I was, of course, on Mr Keating's staff at the time, that you can never have a crack of light between a Foreign Minister and a Prime Minister. And that has been the approach that I have assiduously adopted, whether my Prime Minister was Mr Rudd or my Prime Minister was Julia Gillard.
QUESTION: Have you had a conversation with Mr Rudd and...
STEPHEN SMITH: Yes, Kevin and I saw each in the Caucus Room during the week. We had a quick chat, we wished each other well. As we have done in the past, as you would expect local members of Parliament to do, swapped notes about our local results. I was keen to make sure that he was fit and well after his recent operation, and he was keen to make sure that I was in good spirits. So I had a good chat with him.
QUESTION: Did he offer any words of sympathy for the fact that he's taking your job?
STEPHEN SMITH: Look, we're colleagues, we are professional colleagues, and we wished each other well.
QUESTION: What's the thinking behind you coming out ahead of the official announcement of Cabinet?
STEPHEN SMITH: I wouldn't read anything into that other than logistics. I'm home on a Saturday. So some people might regard that as unusual, but my appointment as Defence Minister was confirmed in the press overnight by the Prime Minister, where she had some very generous comments to make about me, so I don't regard myself as breaching any protocol. But it's purely a logistic thing.
QUESTION: Well, new Government, new Minister. Can you foreshadow any review of Australian defence personnel in Afghanistan?
STEPHEN SMITH: One thing I am looking forward to, so far as Afghanistan is concerned, is a Parliamentary debate on Afghanistan. That, of course, has come out of discussions with the Independents and Mr Wilkie and the Greens. My colleague Defence Minister Faulkner very strongly supports that notion. I think that is important.
It is a difficult and dangerous mission, and our objective is to enable the Afghan Government, the Afghan security services, the Afghan army to take responsibility for security matters in Afghanistan. That's the transition we want to effect. Our objective is to prevent Afghanistan from again being a breeding ground or a hotbed of international terrorism.
Often Australians will ask questions about the value of that in the abstract, in the face of terrible tragedies like we've seen with Lance Corporal McKinney's family. Australians will always focus on the tragedy that our service overseas in conflicts brings. Often it's hard to see in the abstract what we're trying to prevent, but on a day like 11 September, Australians will be reminded that there are terrible consequences for Australians if international terrorism is allowed to run free.
QUESTION: So to keep a lid on that hot bed of terrorism, as you say, do we need a long-term commitment, then, to Afghanistan?
STEPHEN SMITH: We've always made it clear that we have an enduring commitment to Afghanistan, but it is conditions-based. We want to transition to the Afghan security services to enable them to take responsibility for security arrangements. That is the thrust of our training and mentoring in Uruzgan Province, and that is the thrust of the Obama strategy, it is the thrust of the international security assistance force strategy.
We should always bear in mind that the international security assistance force is in Afghanistan as a result of a United Nations mandate. So the international community, as last reflected by the conference in Kabul of Foreign Ministers in July-August, made it clear that it is that transition that we want to effect. Obviously that can only be conditions-based, we can only effect that transition when the training has been done to enable it to occur, but that is our objective.
QUESTION: Mr Smith, one of the - I would think one of the advantages, perhaps, of what - of your new role would maybe be being able to spend a bit more time, perhaps, with your family in Perth. I would have thought that would have been one of the advantages.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, that is something that I have reflected upon with my family.
But Western Australia and Western Australians have always been keenly interested in Defence. So I am looking forward I have to tell you, to spending a bit more time in Perth, a bit more time in Western Australia. We have some very important defence assets in Western Australia. HMAS Stirling, the Pearce Air Force base, and also very importantly particularly in the context of what we've just been talking about, the SAS base in Swanbourne.
So yes, I'm looking very much forward to spending a bit more time in Perth and Western Australia, a bit more time in Australia as well. As I said earlier, I am very privileged and I'm very proud that I can say that I've become the first Western Australian to become Defence Minister since Kim Beazley. I'm very proud of that personal, political and Labor Party and Western Australian connection.
QUESTION: Mr Smith, the result here in WA for the election was diabolical for the Labor Party. You now have three seats compared to four last time round. Obviously I know you're Defence Minister, but I would think your presence here in WA a bit more might help that. What do you see as some of the challenges for Labor in WA?
STEPHEN SMITH: I don't want to go into detail on that other than to say we have a big rebuilding job to do inWestern Australia from the federal Parliamentary Labor Party's point of view.
My Senate and House colleagues, Chris Evans and our other colleagues, met formally in Canberra on Wednesday of this week after our Caucus meeting. We have to start a rebuilding of our support in Western Australia. Obviously, as we have made clear nationally, we'll do a formal review of our campaign nationally, we'll also do a formal review of our campaign in Western Australia. But I am very much looking forward, as Chris Evans is, as Gary Gray is, as Melissa Park is, to the job of rebuilding brand Labor federally in Western Australia.
QUESTION: Do you agree with Alannah MacTiernan that the federal campaign appeared to be a bit of a re-run of the 2008 state election campaign?
STEPHEN SMITH: As I say, I'm not proposing to get into a detailed public discussion about these things until we've had the chance to do our formal review at the national level. We'll also do a formal review at the Western Australian level.
QUESTION: Have you been given some advice, maybe from Kim Beazley? He's done the job, and I know you're a close mate of his.
STEPHEN SMITH: I'm a very good friend of Kim Beazley. I will ask him for his own thoughts, but as he has made the point to me for the last year or so, he now reports to me, and he'll report to me until early next week, when I officially become Defence Minister.
But I will be interested in the views of all of my colleagues who have previously served as Defence Minister, whether it's Minister Faulkner, former Minister Beazley, former Minister Ray or, indeed, former Minister Nelson, with whom I've worked closely in his capacity as Ambassador to NATO. And, of course, in that capacity as Minister for Defence, I will still work closely with Ambassador Beazley in the United States, given our Alliance there, but also with Ambassador Nelson, given our strong commitment in Afghanistan and the role that he plays in that.
Okay, thanks. Thanks very much.
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