TRANSCRIPT: DOORSTOP – HMAS STIRLING, FLEET BASE WEST
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 27 APRIL 2012
TOPICS: Submarines; Force Posture Review; Budget; Peter Slipper; China; AUSMIN.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thank you very much for turning up. I am very pleased to be at HMAS Stirling this morning and I’m very pleased to be here with Captain Brett Wolski who is the Captain here at Stirling, I've just conducted, together with Captain Wolski, an inspection of the USS Michigan, one of the Ohio Class Submarines, and very pleased that Captain Bob James, the Commanding Officer of the submarine, has escorted me and Captain Wolski on that inspection.
My Ministerial colleague Gary Gray, who's the local Federal Member for HMAS Stirling, joined us on that inspection, but he's had to go for another engagement.
I'm very pleased to be able to be here to do the inspection. We've seen, in the last couple of weeks in Perth some significant US Naval visits. Of course we've seen US Naval ships and submarines visiting Australia for a long period of time. Submarines of course are very significant and there are two aspects of submarines which are worth drawing to attention today.
Firstly we are of course committed to 12 new submarines under our Future Submarine program. We have been, as part of the methodical study and work that we're doing on that project, in discussion with our US colleagues. It's very important that just as the Collins are that our new Future Submarines are interoperable with the United States.
Secondly, so far as a US Naval visit is concerned, whilst these visits have occurred for some time and are occurring in the normal course of events, you'd of course be aware of the United States Global Force Posture Review and our own Force Posture Review which we are doing to make sure that Australian assets are appropriately geographically distributed for the challenges of the future.
So far as the United States Global Force Posture Review is concerned, in November the Prime Minister and the President announced a rotation through Darwin of 250 Marines in the course of this year leading to over the next five or six years 2500 Marines. Recently in Darwin I welcomed the first arrival of the Marines, and we're very pleased that that initial rotation is going well.
As part of the announcement by the President and the Prime Minister in November last year we also envisage greater access, so far as United States aircraft are concerned, to our airfields and bases in the Northern Territory, particularly RAAF Tindall and RAAF Darwin, and that also the third cab off the rank so to speak, because of the growing importance of the Indian Ocean and the Indian Ocean rim, greater access by United States Naval vessels in due course through HMAS Stirling.
So this visit is very welcome, it reflects the importance of the practical cooperation between Australia and the United States under our alliance, which has served us well for over 60 years, but it also points a signal to some of those future commitments so far as the Government is concerned and some of those future challenges; namely our Future Submarine program but also our Global Force Posture Review.
I'm happy to respond to questions.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well a number of things. Firstly we already have a significant amount of potential for interoperability here, when a US Navy submarine vessels, there are things that we can do in terms of assisting, and that's been occurring for some time.
We have made as our priority bedding down the arrangements in the Northern Territory so far as the Marines are concerned, and in due course will move to the issue of greater access to US Naval vessels, both surface vessels and submarines, here.
One of the things that we have done on a one-off occasion in the past has been a crew rotation, so that possibility into the future does exist, where the US could fly a crew into Western Australia or Perth and essentially do a crew transfer.
That's occurred on one previous occasion as a trial and that prospect is there for the future.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well two aspects; firstly so far as our own Force Posture Review is concerned I received the progress report or the progress Force Posture Review from its authors Ric Smith and Dr Allan Hawke, two former Secretaries of the Department of Defence, I received the progress report at the end of last year and I released that earlier this year. The beginning of this month I received their final report and that's currently under consideration, in due course that will be made public. And, as I've said in the past, the recommendations of that Force Posture Review will feed into the preparations for our next White Paper.
One of the issues that the Force Posture Review progress report and the final report will draw to attention is the need to ensure that we have appropriate infrastructure around the country to accommodate our growing fleet, but also to accommodate vessels such as United States vessels.
So, for example, in the progress Force Posture Review Report you'll find references to improving the infrastructure at a range of Navy ports around the country to ensure we can accommodate our landing helicopter docks, our large amphibious ships which we expect to arrive in the middle of this decade, and also for example to receive HMAS Choules which was formally commissioned here just before Christmas.
So yes the question of upgrade, the question off infrastructure improvement is relevant, and that will form part of the consideration of the final Force Posture Review. But we do that in any event on an ongoing basis, making sure that the Naval vessels that we have are able to have access to appropriate ports around the country - not just out to primary Navy fleet bases, HMAS Stirling or Fleet Base West, and Garden Island or Fleet Base West in Sydney.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well as I've said in the past the only option that we have ruled out is nuclear propulsion, and we rule out nuclear propulsion because we don't have a nuclear industry in Australia. If we were to acquire nuclear submarines we would effectively have to outsource the maintenance and sustainment of those submarines entirely to a different country, and we're not proposing to do that.
We are working very assiduously on the array of options. In December of last year I released, together with the Defence Materiel Minister, Jason Clare, a range of scoping studies and information that we put into the public arena.
We're not too far away from making announcements about the first stage of what will be the single largest capital works program the Commonwealth of Australia has ever engaged in. Not just a Defence project, but a capital works project generally.
And that's why we have been proceeding very sensibly, very methodically, and very diligently before we start the design and construction stage of the program. All options are on the table from a military off the shelf option to an entirely new design. And we're working our way through those. But we're not too far away from making some initial announcements in that respect.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well with Captain Bob James, of course, we had a conversation about the advantages of interoperability, not just in a port like HMAS Stirling, but also, as currently occurs, the Collins Class Submarine fleet is interoperable so far as communications is concerned and weapon system is concerned. And I've made it clear in the past that has to be a most important factor so far as the Future Submarine program is concerned. It doesn't make sense for us to have a submarine fleet that is not interoperable with the United States fleet so far as communications and weapon system is concerned.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well the US only has nuclear submarines, so that option's not open to us, but I've had discussions in the past at the highest level in the US system, with Defence about the need for Australia and United States to cooperate on the Australian Future Submarine program. And that's occurring.
There is support at the highest level and support at officer level. And the United States have indicated any assistance that they can give - so far as design is concerned - they will do that readily.
So we've been in discussions with the United States about all matters related to our Future Submarine program, including strategic but also including design.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well there are US submarine designers but they are in the main designers of nuclear submarines. Ours will be a conventional submarine - diesel propulsion, we've ruled out nuclear propulsion.
So the options or the opportunity for that are limited if not zero.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I've made it clear that Defence has to expect to make a contribution to the return of the Budget to surplus as it should. Other departments and other agencies will also make a contribution, so we are going through a very tight fiscal period.
Defence will make a contribution to the Government's Budget surplus.
All details, of course, will await Budget night, Tuesday week. But there are a couple of general things I can say - firstly, I have made it clear in the past, and make it clear again today that there will be no adverse impact on any of our overseas operations.
And so the fiscal constraints will see our operations in Afghanistan, our operations, our peacekeeping and stabilisation missions in East Timor and in the Solomons, they will effectively be ring-fenced from any fiscal consideration.
So there'll be no adverse impact on our overseas operations.
Secondly as I've made clear in the past there'll be no adverse impact on the number of personnel that we have on the military side of the Australian Defence Force. The Chief of Army recently underlined the importance of that as did I, so in two important areas there'll be no adverse implications. As for the rest, we need to await Budget night, but as a general proposition it's important to say this.
We've seen in recent times both the United Kingdom, for example, and the United States subject to very stringent cuts so far as Defence spending has been concerned, and they have both done that which has seen changes to their Budget arrangements in the Defence area.
So we won't be the only country going through a tight fiscal regime so far as Defence expenditure is concerned, but the United Kingdom have managed that. The United States has managed that.
And we'll be able to manage that as well.
STEPHEN SMITH: I’ve seen retired defence personnel, and commentators and the Liberal Party made comments to that effect. I haven’t seen any serving Service Chief or the Chief of the Defence Force or the Secretary make comparable remarks, on the contrary, in any Budget the Minister for Defence works closely with the Chief of the Defence Force, the Secretary and the Service Chiefs and that’s what I’ve been doing.
That’s not to say that we won’t be making some tough decisions where we have to choose between competing priorities but there will be no adverse impact on our overseas operations, there will be no adverse impact on our military numbers.
As for the rest just as the United Stated has been the subject of very significant budget cuts so far as defence expenditure is concerned just as the United Kingdom has been subject of very significant budget cuts so far as Defence expenditure is concerned and they’ve both coped with that, so Australia and the Australian Defence Force will cope with the contribution that we make to turning the Budget back to surplus.
One thing that is always good for Defence is a strong economy and it is very important for a strong economy that we return the Budget to surplus.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I’ve seen the Liberal party out there trying to make a link between these two matters and frankly I don’t see the link. So far as Commander Kafer was concerned, he was placed on leave by his immediate superior the Vice Chief of the Defence Force.
The only institution that can suspend the Speaker is of course the Parliament itself. The Speaker has taken matters into his own hands by standing the outcome of what is effectively a criminal investigation and the Government has made it clear that we should allow that process to take its course.
The Speaker has published information in the last 24 hours and my own judgement is that those processes should be allowed to take their course and people should make their judgements when those processes have completed.
As a general proposition, I think the Speaker has done a very good job as Speaker. These matters are not related to the discharge of his obligations in the House itself, I think he’s done that well but we should simply await the outcome of these processes.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, as I’ve said previously these are not matters in my knowledge. My observation of the Speaker is in the House, particularly at Question Time and he’s done a very good job.
These allegations have been made publicly, they are the subject of both civil and criminal investigations. The Speaker has made it clear that he believes that he is innocent of the allegations so far as the criminal matters are concerned and he’s also said publicly that he believes the allegations so far as the civil matters are concerned are wrong, we should allow these processes to their natural course.
STEPHEN SMITH: The processes need to come to their conclusion. He’s released information in which he says exonerates him of any criminal allegation, we should simply allow the process to take their natural course.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well in the end any question of parliamentary support for the Speaker is a matter for the Parliament itself, it’s a matter for the House of the Representatives and it’ll be a matter for any individual Member of the House to take whatever action any individual Member for the House thinks is appropriate.
So far as I’m concerned, I think we should allow the current processes to take their course which is effectively a criminal and civil investigation. The Speaker has released information which he says that exonerates him of any criminal allegations.
As I’ve before and as I’ve said today we should allow these processes to take their natural course.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, it’s not a matter for me to make that judgement.
STEPHEN SMITH: So far as these matters are concerned, they are not matters within my knowledge, they don’t go to his conduct in the House as Speaker. On my observation he has been a good Speaker in the House.
He’s been a Speaker who in my view has been the equal in the House of any of the Speakers that I have served under as a member of the House of Representatives.
STEPHEN SMITH: Whenever allegations are made whether they are criminal allegations or civil allegations against a Member of Parliament and in the course of this Parliament we’ve seen both criminal and civil allegations be made against Members of Parliament.
We should simply allow the processes to take there course and make our judgements after those processes have concluded.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well there are any number of examples in the past where Members of Parliament including Ministers, including Ministers in the Howard Government have had civil allegations made against them and they have continued in their roles and that’s the point the Speaker has made and it’s also the point that Mr Albanese as Leader of the House has made.
STEPHEN SMITH: No, absolutely not. We are going through a period where strategic influence is moving to our part of the world, strategic influence, political influence and economic influence.
It’s not just the rise of China, the rise India, the rise of the ASEAN economies combined, the ongoing strength of the Japanese economy and the importance of Japan and importantly the ongoing importance of the United States.
The United States has been a force in Australia’s view for peace and security and stability but also for prosperity in the Asia Pacific, since the end of World War II and the United States ongoing engagement indeed enhanced engagement in the Asia Pacific is very important in our view to continued prosperity but also to continued peace and security.
It is not in my view possible to use the phrase that others use – to contain China – a country of 1.2 billion people. It’s not possible in my view to contain a country like India, also a country of over a billion people.
So this is about our part of the world and the international community itself adjusting to the fact that there are other changing strategic influences and from Australia’s perspective it is strategic, economic, political influence moving to our part of the world and we have to wise to that and that’s why we have been arguing for some time and saying for some time that in very many respects that the most important bilateral relationship in the course of the first half of the century will be the bilateral relationship between the United States and China, closely followed by the bilateral relationship between United States and India and China and India and we are confident that those bilateral relationships and the relationships generally will be positive and productive and we’ll see an ongoing period of not just prosperity but also peace and stability in our region.
STEPHEN SMITH: When we met in AUSMIN which is the Australian Defence and Foreign Minister and the United States Secretary of State for Defence and the United States Secretary of State and when we met at that Ministerial level meeting which we do on an annual basis in Melbourne in 2010 we agreed that Australia and the United States should establish a joint working committee to look at the implications for Australia and our region with the United States Global Force Posture Review and that work has seen the announcements made by the President and the Prime Minister in Darwin in November of last year.
So this has been very much a joint exercise, we welcome very much the announcements that have been made and the first part of those enhanced practical cooperation measures, the rotation of Marines through the Northern Territory has started and that’s a very good thing.
From Australia’s point of view it opens up the prospect not only of the doing joint exercises with the Marines so far as amphibious ship to shore exercises for example are concerned but also opens up the possibility of doing joint exercises with doing some of our ASEAN colleagues.
Indonesia and Singapore have expressed interest in that respect and I’ve also welcomed the suggestion by Indonesian President SB Yudhoyono that at some stage in due course we might also see trilateral exercises between Australian, the United States and China particularly in the humanitarian assistance and disaster relief area.
STEPHEN SMITH: Two things, we dealt with that issue recently and that issue is over and secondly in my experience it doesn’t much matter what other issues are floating round on Budget day, on Budget day the Budget is always the centre of attention and that’ll be the case this year and if not even more so given the Governments stated intention of turning the Budget to surplus.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I don’t believe that’s the case. The President of Indonesia made that suggestion after our announcement and I welcomed that as did the United States and that’s something we could look at in the long term.
Shortly after the announcements in Darwin Australia and China, the PLA and Australian Defence Force personnel were doing a exercise in Sichuan province so we have a good working relationship with China as well but there are some people who believe that because China is rising economically and India is rising economically that somehow the United States is on the wane. That is not my analysis at all, the United States has made it clear that not only will it continue its engagement in the Asia Pacific it intends to enhance it and that’s a very good thing for Australia and a very good thing for the region.
Unless someone has something entirely new we might avoid the rain.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, the Unites States have had nuclear submarines for a long period of time and I’m not aware of any adverse incidents so far as a United States nuclear powered submarine is concerned and we’ve had visits on a regular basis of United States nuclear powered submarines for as long as I can remember under Status of Forces Agreement that we’ve had with the United States since the 1960’s and that will continue and indeed in due course we are confident that will be enhanced.
STEPHEN SMITH: The 60th Anniversary was last year, we celebrated that in San Francisco when we had AUSMIN.
STEPHEN SMITH: We regarded the 60th Anniversary was last year at our AUSMIN meeting in San Francisco which was in September, so we took that as the 60th Anniversary but whether it’s the anniversary of the agreement or the anniversary of the signing there is a substantive response and that is the United States alliance has been a positive contribution so far as peace and security is concerned from Australia’s perspective and it has served Australia well for well over 60 years and the enhanced practical cooperation measures that we see will serve Australia as well.
So its been a bedrock of Australia’s Defence and national security policies for over 60 years and it has served us well and will continue to serve us well into the future.
Ok. Thanks. Thank you very much.