TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH ALI MORE, LATELINE
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 15 NOVEMBER 2011
TOPICS:ALP National Conference; Obama visit; Afghanistan.
ALI MOORE: Minister, sore throat and all, many thanks for joining Lateline tonight.
STEPHEN SMITH: Pleasure, Ali. I might be a bit croaky, but it's nice to be on your show again.
ALI MOORE: Why is now the right time to change the policy on uranium sales to India and not, say, the party conference in 2009- because, of course, you justify this decision by referring to the US decision to export to India and that was made back in 2008?
STEPHEN SMITH: I justify the changed circumstances as the response of the International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Governors and the Nuclear Suppliers Group to effectively endorse and approve the US-India civil nuclear arrangement.
That occurred effectively in 2008. And the judgment then was, let's let a bit of water go under the bridge, to make sure that this is accepted by the international community.
Australia certainly supported the consensus in the IAEA Board of Governors and the Nuclear Suppliers Group that India had made a range of undertakings. India had made it clear historically it wouldn't join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but here was an opportunity to bring it under the umbrella of the international nuclear regulators and that was a very good thing.
That's now accepted, and so far as India is concerned, that has really changed the circumstances and there's no reason why, together with one of Australia's traditional bilateral safeguard arrangements, that we can't now safely export uranium to India.
ALI MOORE: I guess the obvious question though is why now? What's magic about three years?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, it's more what's magic about two or three weeks. We've got a National Conference coming on in early December. As a general proposition, governments can do it one of two ways.
You can make a Cabinet decision and bind the Cabinet and bind the Government and go to the conference and impose your will- or you can do as the Prime Minister has done and said this is an opportunity for the Labor Party National Conference to make a decision about the long term which is actually very importantly in Australia's strategic interests.
And the conference should, rightly, be afforded that opportunity. And, yes, there'll be debate, yes, there won't be unanimity, but it's the sensible thing to do now, it's the right thing to do now. Not only is it a sensible thing to do in terms of further advancement of non-proliferation, it's the sensible thing to do in terms of recognising that India is also a power on the rise and should be treated accordingly.
ALI MOORE: Of course, the Left is not happy though. Have you done the numbers? Will it get through on the conference floor?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, it'll be a matter for individual delegates to make their judgment. I've seen people out today, some like me supporting, others of my colleagues opposing. That's in the nature of the run-up to a National Conference.
But the Government has been very disciplined to date in essentially saying it's a longstanding ALP policy about not exporting uranium to a country that hasn't signed up to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
The Government has respected that, but now given those changed circumstances of the international nuclear regulators approving what India has undertaken, makes the way clear for us to make a sensible judgment about our relationship with India and export of uranium. As Martin Ferguson, my colleague, has said, if we can export uranium to China and Russia, we can export it to the world's largest democracy.
ALI MOORE: But just go back to the floor of the conference, you're pretty good at doing the numbers- what's your tip? Will it get through?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well it's been a long time since I was active on that front, but I think the conference will respond well to the proposal that the Prime Minister is putting forward. It's a good thing for the party, it's a good thing for the nation.
ALI MOORE: Is it though the thin edge of the wedge in terms of the, I suppose, strength of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, because if you can exempt one country, why not another? If you can be safe in the knowledge of the final destination of Australian uranium in one country, why not another? You're either satisfied with the rigorousness of the process, or you're not.
STEPHEN SMITH: I think the difficulty, really, has been that India, for historical reasons, despite all of the urgings from the international community, has made it absolutely crystal clear it will not sign the non-proliferation treaty.
So, how do we bring India under the umbrella of international regulators- India made it clear that it would cease nuclear testing. It hasn't tested for a long time. It made it clear that it would open itself up to the International Atomic Energy Agency's inspectors to effectively track the use of its civil uranium. It made it clear it would separate civil use from military use.
These are all sensible things, and in a de facto or a de jure sense, reflect substantially what we find as a result of the arrangements that take place under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
India is the only country-
ALI MOORE: But why not another country, for example Pakistan? They're saying that they too should be eligible for export of uranium. As they point out, they suffer huge power outages and they would like to have the option of buying Australian uranium.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I think India has special circumstances, and one of those very special circumstances is that no serious person has ever suggested that there's ever been any proliferation of nuclear materials or nuclear technology so far as India is concerned and I'm very confident about the way forward so far as India is concerned. That doesn't mean that-
ALI MOORE: And you can't say the same thing about Pakistan.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, it's on the record that there have been over the years a number of very serious concerns about proliferation, leakage from Pakistan. That's on the record. But this is not a comparison, India v Pakistan or India v any other country.
I think there are very special circumstances which attend to India. The international community through the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Nuclear Suppliers Group has responded to those special circumstances, and I think that opens the way for Australia to make a sensible decision about our exports and a sensible decision about a very important relationship that we need to continue to grow into the future.
ALI MOORE: Indeed, an important relationship. Julia Gillard said today that, "For us to refuse to budge is all pain, no gain." Is that really an acknowledgment of the damage done to the relationship with India?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I've said on a number of occasions, and I think the suggestion that this has been a stumbling block in the relationship, in growing the relationship between Australia and India has frankly been overstated.
I'm not saying that it hasn't been a matter of serious concern for India. But what I do say is this- when I spoke to my Indian counterpart as Foreign Minister in 2008/2009,
when Australia had to make a judgment about the way in which it would respond as a member of the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency and as a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, my simple question was what is more
important to you- support of the international community and Australia for this arrangement in the international community and Australia for this arrangement to set you up for the future? Or, exports of Australian uranium? To which the answer was, Minister, we want the strategic endorsement, Australia's uranium can come later.
And it is of course on the record that India does not require exports of uranium from us at this point in time. I suspect that will take some time.
ALI MOORE: So what did the Prime Minister mean by all pain, no gain?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I think this would have continued to be an issue which some people would have unnecessarily dwelled upon. Everyone talks about the rise of the Asia-Pacific, that this is the century of the Asia-Pacific. Everyone sees the rise of China. Not enough people see the rise of India.
The rise of India continues to be underappreciated. And this decision in part reflects the fact that in the course of the first half of this century we will effectively have three superpowers: the United States, China and India. And I think India is entitled to be accorded that status, particularly given the track record of non-proliferation that it has, despite the fact that it has for historical reasons not signed up to the non-proliferation treaty.
ALI MOORE: Of course Barack Obama arrives in Canberra tomorrow, Darwin on Thursday. You've acknowledged, the Americans have acknowledged, that there will be an announcement about closer military ties in Darwin - more planes in, more planes out, more troops in, more troops out. Will it amount to a permanent military presence?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, there are three responses to that.
Firstly, we don't have United States bases in Australia and there's no proposal for such a base. That's important because that goes right to the heart of sovereignty. That's the first point.
Secondly, we have joint facilities and Pine Gap is the obvious example where there's full knowledge and concurrence.
And thirdly, we have exercises and training and access to facilities, and that is done under essentially a status-of-forces agreement which has been in existence since the 1960s. What we have in contemplation - and I won't go to the detail; that'll be a matter for the President and the Prime Minister in the next few days.
What we have in contemplation is greater utilisation of access to facilities, greater training, greater exercises. It'll effectively be a continuation and an expansion of what we currently do.
ALI MOORE: But rotating Marines through bases in the Northern Territory, why is that different to a permanent presence? Yes, the US Marines may be different, but there's still going to be a permanent group of Marines waiting to get on the next ship.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, firstly it will be rotational. That's the first point. Secondly, the United States already has some 200 to 300 Defence or military personnel in Australia who are here for a posting of two or three years. You could, if you wanted to, typecast those as a permanent presence. Australia has officials in the United States and elsewhere, and the United States do likewise.
So, I'm not proposing to get hung up on that, but what we have in mind is training, access to facilities, exercises and the like. Will that involve larger numbers? Yes, it will. Will that involve rotational activity? Yes, it will.
But just to give you this example: one of the very important exercises that we do with the United States envisages and saw, the last time we held it, some 14,000 United States personnel, military and Defence personnel in Australia for the purposes of an exercise. So, I'm not so much hung up on the quantitative aspects of it or the terminology.
Is this an unambiguously good thing that we're doing- yes. Why is that- it’s good for Australian interoperability with the United States. but it is also good to ensure that the United States not only continues, but maintains its presence in the Asia-Pacific region.
ALI MOORE: But as part of that rotation, we end up with, I'm assuming, thousands of US Marines potentially here at one time. That would be a significant step-up in this military alliance, wouldn't it?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I'm not going to get into numbers. I'm not going to, as I say, get into the detail-
ALI MOORE: Are we talking thousands though? I mean, these ships take a lot of people.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, my advice to you is to patiently wait. Patiently wait over the next few days when I'm sure the president and the Prime Minister will very happily take your question on notice and answer it. So I'm not talking in the hundreds or the thousands.
We're looking on the one hand, an expansion of what we currently do, but secondly, I do believe that this will be the most important practical, co-operative development in our Alliance arrangements with the United States since the joint facilities were agreed upon in the 1980s.
ALI MOORE: If I can turn to Afghanistan, Minister. Last month the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, told Pakistan's largest TV network that, "If there is a war between Pakistan and America, we will stand by Pakistan." Given the efforts of the allied forces in Afghanistan, did you find that statement extraordinary?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I often take with a grain of salt some of the things which President Karzai says and so do others. So, I would not place too much weight upon that.
Firstly, I regard the notion of conflict between the United States and Pakistan at remote, hypothetical and unlikely, and that's because both the United States and Pakistan in very difficult circumstances are working very hard to try and together help stare down the extremist and insurgent threat which we find on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and which we find in Afghanistan, particularly in the old federally administered territorial areas.
So they're working very hard on that. And that is not to try and be simplistic. Pakistan is complex and complicated. There are very many strands to what other people would regard as Pakistani institutions or Pakistani elements of governance.
But it's very important that the United States, Australia and others continue to engage with Pakistan. Pakistan won't get over its extremist or terrorist problems without also getting over its economic problems and it needs every assistance from us and every engagement from us in that respect.
ALI MOORE: You say you take with a grain of salt some of the comments of President Karzai, but he's still an extremely important figure, and indeed as a Deputy Commander of NATO's Afghan training mission Major General Peter Fuller said after those comments from Karzai, "You've got to be kidding me. I'm sorry, we just gave you $11 billion and now you're telling me, 'I don't really care.'" Now Fuller of course has lost his job since he made those comments. But it does raise questions, doesn't it, about where allegiances lie and what the security situation is?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, Mr Fuller's ultimate fate may well tell you the sense or otherwise of his remarks.
I don't give a running commentary on what President Karzai says. From time to time, it's well known that President Karzai says things which he or his officials might at the time or subsequently regret.
But we deal with the cards that unfold. President Karzai is the elected president of Afghanistan. The last meeting he had with the Prime Minister in Kabul recently was a very successful and productive meeting. He appreciates very much the work that Australia does.
He appreciates very much the sacrifice that our personnel have made. And he is very encouraged by the sorts of commentary that Australia makes about we're there to transition by 2014, but we also see a need for the international community to continue to render some assistance in the post-transition world.
And that's very important, because that sends a signal to Afghanistan and to the region that the international community will be there in some manner or form once transition has been made to Afghan-led security responsibility.
ALI MOORE: Well Minister, thank you very much for joining Lateline tonight and I'm glad your voice held.
STEPHEN SMITH: I'm not sure that it, did but thanks very much. Good to speak to you again.