TRANSCRIPT: Interview with Barrie Cassidy on Insiders
TRANSCRIPTION: Proof copy and E & EO
DATE: 11 September 2011
TOPICS: Afghanistan; Defence EBA; AUSMIN; Offshore processing; Leadership.
BARRIE CASSIDY: We'll go to our program guest. The Defence Minister, Stephen Smith, joins us from Perth. Minister, good morning, welcome.
STEPHEN SMITH: Good morning Barrie, thank you.
BARRIE CASSIDY: So 10 years on. Afghanistan then was a safe haven, as they said a safe haven for terrorists. To what extent has that changed?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well we've certainly made progress in Afghanistan. We've denuded and degraded al Qaeda's capacity. Al Qaeda has not gone away entirely in Afghanistan or Pakistan. And the danger for us is that if we were to withdraw now or withdraw peremptorily then we'd leave a vacuum into with al Qaeda or its remnants or other international terrorist forces could fall. So that's why we strongly support the international community's transition arrangements. So, yes, we've had some success in recent times. The death of bin Laden obviously was both a symbolic and a practical, of practical effect. But we have to be ever vigilant. And that applies not just to Afghanistan but generally.
BARRIE CASSIDY: But if you go through those transitional arrangements and Australia and its allies effectively pull out by 2014, how easy would it be for the Taliban to return and to take the situation back to square one?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well two things: Firstly the transition arrangements carefully hold in prospect what we describe as post transition arrangements. And I've made it clear that I expect that Australia may well continue in Afghanistan after transition, whether that's Special Forces for counter-terrorism purposes, whether it's training, whether it's capacity building and development assistance. So at the end of 2014 when the transition occurs I'm not expecting the international community will withdraw immediately. Indeed we see NATO in Afghanistan engaged in discussions for a long term strategic partnership, the United States and Afghanistan engaged in discussions for a long term partnership. So whilst we've got to get the transition to Afghan security, Afghan responsibility for security purposes, there will still be support and assistance for the Afghan institutions of state. But underlining all of that I think importantly is the view very strongly held by the international community and Australia that this can't be won by military means alone.
There has to be a political settlement, a political solution as well. And those members of the Taliban who are prepared to lay down their arms, to abide by the Afghan constitution; there is a potential role for them to play in a political rapprochement, a political settlement, a political reconciliation in a future Afghanistan.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Now you mentioned the death of Osama bin Laden. But al Qaeda is still recruiting. The head of ASIO, the Director-General David Irvine said in an interview with News 24 that their ideals and their objects are being taken up by other groups.
So are we really any safer?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I think we are now more prepared and more effective against international terrorism. But you can never give a guarantee. And that's why the central message I think of the Director General of ASIO, David Irvine's central message in the last couple of days has been one of we need to be ever vigilant. And I think that's right. Whilst on the one hand we can't allow the threat or the prospect of international terrorism or home grown terrorism to grind us down as a nation, we do have to be ever vigilant. And as we reflect upon September the 11th, yes we understand the ongoing dangers. But it hasn't crushed the United States. It hasn't crushed Australia. We continue to be prosperous and thriving democracies. And I think it's very important that we reflect that it hasn't brow beaten or ground down either the United States or the rest of the world.
BARRIE CASSIDY: I want you to listen now to something else that David Irvine said, talking about the risk levels in Australia.
DAVID IRVINE, ASIO DIRECTOR-GENERAL: We've had a number of threats here in Australia that yes they do follow the model set overseas. We've had people who've tried to get together the elements to make up bombs. We've had people who want to get weapons to go and do a lot of shooting and so on, yes. Currently ASIO has quite a large number of investigations going on into Australians - mostly Australians - who are toying with the ideology of extremism and could at any point you know tip over into extremist acts.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Now I wonder if those potential extremists would be less likely to tip over the edge, as he puts it, if Australia was not in Afghanistan.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I don't believe there's a link there Barrie. We are in Afghanistan because we believe we can make a contribution to United Nations mandated International Security Assistance Force to help stare down international terrorism. That's the first point. Secondly we know that the Afghanistan/Pakistan border area is not the only place where there is a threat from international terrorism.
Al Qaeda we know is active on the Arabian Peninsula. And we also know we've got threats in the Horn of Africa. The point that David Irvine has made about if you like home grown threats is something we've also seen both in the United States and in the United Kingdom. What we're really combating here is not just extreme Muslim attitude, which is not tolerated by mainstream Islamists, is not tolerated by mainstream members of the Islamic community, whether that's in Australia or elsewhere. What we're combating here is violent extremism. Whether that has as its alleged basis an Islamic belief or some other religious belief or some other ideology is in some respects neither here nor there.
What we are battling against is extremism and violent extremism. And we need to do everything we can both in a preventative security sense to make sure that we're not on the receiving end. But we also need to be doing the positive things which is holding Australia out as a country which is tolerant, where people's views are respected. And if you have a different view that's part of a natural and normal way of life. But an extremist violent view is not one which is tolerated, condoned or accepted by Australia and nor should it by the rest of the world.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Well you're saying being in Afghanistan doesn't make a difference. But would they be less likely to be toying with extremism if we hadn't gone into Iraq?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I've often described Iraq as a distraction. We went into Afghanistan subject to and supported by a United Nations mandate. Also we triggered the formal ANZUS Treaty, our alliance with the United States, because a mainland attack had occurred on the United States. And without completing the job we were distracted by Iraq. And when we came back into Afghanistan the international community didn't have a sufficiently focused military or political strategy to do the job in a reasonable time. And one of the biggest difficulties we have now with Afghanistan is the sapping of political will which comes as a result of having been there for 10 years.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Now this Age report, this estimate this morning that the ballpark figure would be $30 billion that has been spent on security over 10 years, would that be of the extent of the risk?
STEPHEN SMITH: I haven't tried to test that Barrie. What I do know is that our annual Defence expenditure for the Department that I'm responsible for on the civilian and military side is $26 to $27 billion. So I haven't done the tally but I'd make this very simple point: When we are in the sure and certain knowledge that we are in the face of an international terrorist threat, it's not the money that we spend, it's the preventative measures that we take and the effectiveness of those measures. So it may well be a very large amount of money. The key thing is, are we better prepared, are we doing better and has that money been well spent? And I think we are much better prepared. Our agencies, both our intelligence agencies and our national security agencies are much better integrated these days than they were 10 years ago. There's a much more effective whole of government or across government consideration of these issues. In the past we made the mistake of operating in silos. Well you can't operate in departmental or agency silos when the threat you are facing is, to use the jargon, a non state actor. So a lot of the original structures we had were the traditional prospective arrangements for nation state versus nation state. We're now dealing with a modern challenge, a multi-headed challenge. And it requires that we are much better integrated and much better prepared.
So I think the real question is: Do we think we've got value for effort, value for money? Do we think we're better prepared and better organised? And my answer is yes I think we are. And I think that applies not just domestically but also with the cooperation we have on all fronts with our partners, in particular the United States.
BARRIE CASSIDY: You say you spend 26, $27 billion on Defence and yet you're asking both civilians and uniform people to take effectively a pay cut.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well let's, I wouldn't characterise it in that way. And I wouldn't get into the mistake of believing that negotiations and a standard normal process which is under way will be the eventual or the ultimate outcome. There are two things here. Firstly as part of the general across government enterprise bargaining arrangements the civilian side of Defence is currently in negotiations for a new enterprise agreement. The original offer from the department has been rejected. It's now the subject of the usual negotiations.
On the military side there is a standard set of negotiations and a process in place. The Defence Remuneration Tribunal will make a judgement about these matters at the end of October/early November. And the military side, the diggers will have every opportunity of putting their view. The offer that's been put on the table is essentially a 9% increase over three years. But let's not rush to judgment or characterise it as a pay cut. We are going through the usual processes and in those usual processes both the civilian side of Defence and the military side of Defence will be respected. We want to have a competitively paid military and defence service and our recruitment levels show that we are doing very well on that front.
BARRIE CASSIDY: You are off to the AUSMIN (Australia-United States Ministerial Consultations) talks this week in the United States together with the Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd who is back in harness. Julia Gillard says that Australia will do more with the United States. Given the experience of Iraq though wouldn't it be a good idea to occasionally be a little more cautious and a little more judgemental?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well one of the things that will come up at AUSMIN will be the United States Global Force Posture Review. And we've got a joint working group with the United States. I've made the point very clearly that whilst that force posture review does throw up the option and the opportunity of dealing at an operational level more closely with the United States, this will in very many respects be the single biggest change or advance we have seen to the practical operation of our Alliance arrangement with the United States since the Joint Facilities Program was effected in the mid 1980s. So we are taking it very sensibly, very carefully. And we are in very careful discussions with our alliance partner. So we're not rushing to judgement here.
But the notion that there might be as the whole world moves to the Asia Pacific, the rise of China, the rise of India, the rise of the ASEAN economies combined, the emergence of Indonesia as a global influence - it would be no surprise that the United States' role in the Pacific will not just continue but be enhanced. And so there is obviously a prospect of greater practical, operational and training activity between Australia and the United States.
Whilst we haven't made any judgements I think that would be an unambiguously good thing.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Now Minister, on the issue of asylum seekers and you've got Cabinet and caucus meeting tomorrow, clearly what you want to do is legislate to get around the impediments thrown up by the High Court. To do that basically you are nakedly declaring that you are not fussed about the way that these people are going to be treated in third countries.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I just don't think that's right Barrie. And that certainly wasn't the approach that the Minister for Immigration took when he painstakingly had discussions with his Malaysian counterpart. But yes Cabinet and caucus tomorrow will consider this issue. Now this is a very challenging and difficult issue for the Labor Party, for the Government, as it is for the nation. The High Court has effectively changed the rules so far as offshore processing is concerned. We went to the last election with a commitment to effect offshore processing, together with a regional framework, a regional arrangement. But it's clear that to pursue that there needs to be legislative change.
But as the Minister for Immigration and the Prime Minister have said, because this is an issue which throws up challenges not just for the Labor Party but also for Governments into the future, including the current Opposition and the Opposition Leader, we need to work our way through it very carefully. So we'll have that discussion in Cabinet and at caucus tomorrow.
BARRIE CASSIDY: How is it that under Julia Gillard's leadership you've got a record low primary vote and yet you and others say the leadership of the party is not an issue?
STEPHEN SMITH: Because we are dealing with a range of very difficult challenges for the country and the country's future. And they are challenges which will be challenges for future Governments as well. We want to stop the irregular movement of boats coming to Australia because we don't want people risking their lives on the open seas. But also our experience and the history of Australia has been that if you have a large number of irregular boat movements ultimately you undermine confidence in our migration system and we don't want to that occur.
We also have too much carbon in our economy and in our environment and we're seeking to effect a structural change to take account of that. So we are dealing with large and difficult issues for the country's future. And often that means that if you are in the first year of a term of government you're going to have some political difficulty and some political challenges. And the Prime Minister is working her way in a very determined way through all those issues and challenges.
BARRIE CASSIDY: How long has she got?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well she has until September, October, November of 2013 when we expect the next election will be. And she will be the leader at that election and she will face a contest with Tony Abbott, where Tony Abbott at that time will be called upon to put out an alternative plan for the country's future. And I just don't believe that Tony Abbott can be relied upon to put out an alternative plan for the country's future, whether it's national security, whether it's economic, whether it's social. Mr Abbott wants to essentially whinge and whine his way into office and he would prefer to do that before this term was up for its full term because he hasn't really accepted the fact that he didn't become Prime Minister after the last election.
BARRIE CASSIDY: But Kevin Rudd is more prominent in the weekend press than Tony Abbott. There is a report in The Daily Telegraph saying that he has forgiven those who plotted against him and there will be no jihad against those who knifed him. What does that suggest to you?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well what it suggests to me Barrie is what I have said in the past. I believe the Prime Minister will be the Leader of the Labor Party from now until the next election. The contrast that needs to be made, both by political commentators and by the community will be the contrast between Julia Gillard as Leader of the Labor Party and Prime Minister and Tony Abbott as Leader of the Opposition. So far as all those other issues are concern Barrie we've made our judgements about leadership and I don't believe there's any enthusiasm on the part of the party to revisit those issues.
BARRIE CASSIDY: And it doesn't suggest to you, those words from his backers, that it's those who pushed him out who are in need of forgiveness?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well as I say Barrie I don't believe there's any enthusiasm on the part of the caucus or the party generally to revisit any of the issues. They are essentially now matters of history. And certainly the focus that the party and the Government needs is a focus for dealing with the very substantial policy challenges that we have as a Government but which the nation has as well. That's the key point.
BARRIE CASSIDY: There was another weekend report quoting a friend of Stephen Smith. And it says what they are doing, that's the Rudd backers, "what they are doing is they're starting up rumours about Smith as a way to get the debate going over the leadership. Then they insert Rudd into the middle of it." You're the decoy apparently.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I'll leave others to make that analysis Barrie. Whichever friend it was, and presumably there are many, whichever friend it was hasn't confessed to me that it was him or her. I'll leave others to make their judgement about that. I again make the single point, all of these issues are issues which in my view the party has no enthusiasm to revisit.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Thanks for your time this morning.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks Barrie. Thanks very much.