Stephen Smith MP
Minister for Defence
BARRIE CASSIDY: Stephen Smith, good morning.
STEPHEN SMITH: Good morning Barrie, thank you.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Now, the Prime Minister has announced this morning that she's going to a NATO summit later this month to have further talks on Afghanistan. You'll be going with her on that trip. Given there are AUSMIN talks going on right now, why is there the need to do this?
STEPHEN SMITH: The NATO-ISAF summit in Lisbon later this month will be dealing very directly with the transition in Afghanistan. So we're obviously part of the 47-country International Security Assistance Force. Everyone has agreed we've got to transition to Afghanistan security competence and responsibility, and so Lisbon's a very important both NATO and ISAF summit to start mapping out the transition to Afghan responsibility.
We continue to be of the view that we can do our bit, our job in Uruzgan, in the next two to four years, training the Afghan National Army and Police in Uruzgan Province.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Is this a heads of Government meeting?
STEPHEN SMITH: It's a leaders' meeting. But there will also be Defence Ministers there. Obviously it's a NATO-ISAF meeting, so I'll be accompanying her. In addition to the formal meeting itself of course, there's opportunities for a range of bilaterals.
So it's an important international community meeting on Afghanistan, and it's a very good thing that the Prime Minister's been able to find time to go.
BARRIE CASSIDY: What will Australia essentially be telling the other participants?
STEPHEN SMITH: We'll be saying to the rest of the international community that we are committed to transitioning to Afghan-led security in Afghanistan, that whilst we can't leave tomorrow, we can't be there forever. So we have to train the Afghan National Army, the Afghan National Police and the local police forces to be in a position to manage security arrangements themselves. And this is the strategy and the approach that we have outlined.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Not there forever, but you will be there for at least 10 years.
STEPHEN SMITH: Our current training mission we see being done in two to four years, which is consistent with the timetable set by the Afghanistan Conference in Kabul earlier this year.
But after that we do envisage the capacity for us to be there in some oversight or embed capacity. Time will tell what the detail and circumstances of that are, but the Prime Minister and I have outlined that in the course of the Parliamentary debate. But also we envisage that we'll be there in terms of making a contribution on the civilian capacity building and development assistance front for a long time, and I expect the international community will be there in that respect as well.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Now, the Secretary of State said yesterday that Australia has offered more accommodation on ports and facilities. Why do they need to increase their access at this point?
STEPHEN SMITH: I think we need to take it step by step. There's been a lot of leaping to conclusions in the media over the last couple of days. But the United States is conducting what's called a Force Posture Review, looking at how it positions its forces throughout the world.
It has bases in other countries - Japan, for example; it has a presence in the Republic of Korea. And inAustralia, of course, we have joint facilities. So in the course of the United States considering its Force Posture Review, the possibility arises that the United States could utilise more facilities in Australia. And that's very high on the agenda for AUSMIN tomorrow.
And we've been cooperating for a long period of time under the Alliance, both in an exercise sense, in a cooperation sense, in a training sense. We certainly envisage that that will increase and enhance, but in terms of detailed positions there's a bit more time to go for that.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Okay, but why would they want to?
STEPHEN SMITH: The United States is a significant power. It conducts strategic reviews from time to time, as we do, and so you look to the future. But it's also making changes to the disposition of its forces throughout the Asia Pacific, reducing, for example, the number of forces it has in Japan. So it's looking at those matters.
But we welcome it very much, because we want to see the United States engaged in the Asia Pacific. That's very important to Australia, it's very important to stability in our region. We've had that stability since the end of World War II, largely as a result of the United States' presence.
So an enhanced engagement is something we very strongly support, whether that's, for example, through the United States joining an expanded East Asia summit or the United States taking part, as Australiadid, in the ASEAN Plus Defence Ministers Meeting.
All of these are unambiguously good things for our region and also for Australia. It's certainly in our national interest to be very positively disposed to enhancing our engagement in that military and defence cooperation sense.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Now, whenever Australia and the United States get together there's a lot of talk about China. Is it true to say that the Americans are generally a little more wary of China, more suspicious of China, than Australia is?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I wouldn't characterise or categorise it in that way. China is obviously on the rise, it's a rising power. And, indeed, as the Incoming Government Brief, made clear, that rise is even quicker and stronger than people anticipated a relatively short period ago.
We believe, Australia believes, that China will emerge as - to use a Chinese phrase - into a harmonious environment; it will be a responsible international stakeholder. And that's what we want to see.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Do the Americans believe that?
STEPHEN SMITH: I think the Americans, well, I'm not putting words into the mouth of America, but I think both Australia and America want to have positive and constructive relationships with China. Certainly from Australia's perspective, a key bilateral relationship into the future will be the bilateral relationship between China and the United States. We want that to be a positive and constructive one.
But sometimes when people think about the rise of China they somehow think that the United States is going away. Well, to use an American expression, the United States ain't going anywhere. Of course its relative power will be eclipsed as other powers like China and India rise, but it's not going away. Indeed, all of the evidence is that it wants to enhance its engagement in the Asia Pacific, and that's a good thing.
But the rise of China, the rise of India, the bilateral relationships between the United States and China, the United States and India, and India and China will be the most important, in very many respects, bilateral relationships in the second half of this century.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Well, given the language you've used - and Hilary Clinton did use words like that, positive and she wanted a cooperative relationship - would it be true to say that this Administration is more open to that than the previous Administration in the United States?
STEPHEN SMITH: Again, I wouldn't reflect on respective Administrations. I think what not just theUnited States, not just Australia, but the international community is seized of is China's rise and how rapid that has become.
In addition to its economic and social growth, of course, we also see military modernisation, andAustralia says on that front that any country, as it expands economically, is entitled to see a comparable expansion in its defence or military arrangements. But we have made the point to China, both privately and publicly, that there does need to be transparency about China's military strategy. And that's an issue which we raise with China, as does the United States, as do, for example, our ASEAN colleagues in our region.
BARRIE CASSIDY: And, given what Hilary Clinton had to say about Kevin Rudd's role in the region and his knowledge of China, was it a deliberate decision, then, that he should go to China in the week leading up to these talks?
STEPHEN SMITH: I think the Foreign Minister's travel is not necessarily linked one to the other, but the United States does very much appreciate not just Kevin's expertise on China, but the fact thatAustralia is in the region. We have, in terms of our own relationship with China, been, in very many respects, on the ground floor with China's development with our early recognition of China back in the 1970s through the Whitlam Government.
So they value very much our analysis of China's rise, just as they value very much the sorts of intellectual contribution we bring to the table.
BARRIE CASSIDY: You say it's not only Kevin Rudd, but Kevin Rudd's name was the only one mentioned yesterday. She didn't say she'd be picking Julia Gillard's brains on China.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, they pick Australia's brains, which is one of the reasons why one of the things that the United States very much appreciates are our embed offices dealing with them in a direct basis, whether it's in Kabul Headquarters in the International Security Assistance Force, or just doing what we do this weekend with the AUSMIN Meetings. We let America know what our view is - what our strategic view is, what our tactical view is; we work very closely with them as our Alliance partner. That's appreciated, but certainly that relationship remains the bedrock of our strategic and security and defence arrangements, and it's unambiguously in our national interest to keep on that path and, indeed, to enhance it, which is the prospect that this particular meeting holds out.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Now, on the issue that Brian Toohey raised before on the F35, the Joint Strike Fighter, the Pentagon - apparently - is about to announce a major cost blow-out. How much wriggle room have we got on this project?
STEPHEN SMITH: We’ve committed to buy 14. We've got what's called the conventional, or the Strike Fighter A version. Bob Gates commissioned a ground floor or a basement review some time ago; he's expecting to receive that before the end of this month. We have already calculated into our thinking both the capacity for cost and scheduling - scheduling delay and cost blow-out.
So it's never a surprise in a very big project that's technologically challenging that these things occur. But we're going to take it step by step. We will wait and see what the basement review that Bob Gates has commissioned says. I'll obviously have the opportunity today and tomorrow to speak generally to Secretary Gates about this matter, but we'll wait to see that analysis and what implications, if any, flow.
One of the advantages we have is that the Strike Fighter we propose to purchase is, as I say, it's described as the conventional Strike Fighter. It's already been the subject of testing and trialling in theUnited States in advance of its schedule, so we may well be better placed than other countries who have committed to buy different versions...
BARRIE CASSIDY: … but this conventional aircraft, that's the one that some experts describe as a second rate aeroplane.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we don't describe it in that way. Every major defence capability project, whether it's one we're doing in conjunction with the United States or one we're doing by ourselves, will always have these challenges, will always be subject to criticism. Our job is to make sure that we make the right strategic decisions and we match that with capability.
Now, this has never been an easy area. And now, as a result of the White Paper, as a result of our Force 2030 Review, as a result of the budget decisions we've made in respect of Defence, we've now got external parameters in which we make all of these judgements. We do need, in my view, to bring more rigour to individual projects of this nature, and that's one of the things that we're working very hard on doing.
BARRIE CASSIDY: So you're not committed to buy 100 aircraft?
STEPHEN SMITH: We've said in general terms we're looking at purchasing up to 100. We've committed to buy 14, and that will occur. The timetable for that is effective delivery into Australia and operation into Australia 2017-18. But we expect, on the current timetable, that they'll come off the assembly line in 2014. There will then be some training and operational matters in the United States.
But that timetable hasn't been disturbed - subject, of course, to what we discover when Secretary Gates's review comes into his hands. And we'll obviously, once that has occurred, have detailed discussions with the United States. But I'll speak to Secretary Gates about it in the course of the weekend and tomorrow.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Okay. Just on domestic issues, there does seem to be quite a divide between State Labor in WA, in your home state, and Federal Labor. Eric Ripper, the Opposition Leader there, is with the Premier and against you on the GST receipts, on the national health agreement, on the mining tax, on the Northam facility for asylum seekers. Have they got a better feel of what West Australians really want than Federal Labor?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, with respect, I think it's a bit of simplistic bundling up of those issues. I'm not going to put words into Eric Ripper's mouth, but on the mining tax he like we believe that the mining industry can pay more tax under a resources rent proposal.
Eric does want to see changed arrangements to the GST formula. The point I've made, both to Eric and to Colin Barnett and generally, is that the current GST formula was effected by the Howard-Costello Government in conjunction with the Court Government of which Colin Barnett was a senior Minister. We understand the capital pressure which is placed on Western Australia as a result of a mining boom, and that's why both to date and into the future the current Government, the current Commonwealth Government, our Government, is investing in Western Australia on infrastructure in a manner in which we've never seen before. And that will also include $2 billion - $6 billion from the proceeds...
BARRIE CASSIDY: … that's not the way it's being seen though. You've got three out of 15 seats in WA, you've got your state opposition leader running a contrary point of view on a number of issues. There has to be a problem there that they identify and you don't?
STEPHEN SMITH: I don't think anyone from Federal Labor, certainly not me, is denying that the handling initially of the mining tax was very bad from a political and perception perspective in Western Australia. Since we've made the changes we have the support of the key players in the mining industry, in terms of BHP and Rio and Xstrata. We're also working very hard with the so-called transition group to get the detail right so far as the smaller players are concerned. That process is going very well.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Sure, but what about now the issue in Northam, and there's a lot of emotion in that discussion. During the week people were talking about, you know, the asylum seekers jumping fences, somebody said they'll slit your throat in a second. These sorts of emotions are being stirred up in that community - are you determined to go ahead with it?
STEPHEN SMITH: Yes. Yes, there are a lot of emotions, at two levels - and you use the phrase 'stirring up'. At the meeting at Northam the other night, there were people there who weren't local Northam people. There were, for example, office bearers of One Nation. They were there for their own political purposes. Our experience in this, is that - and to use the phrase that Minister Bowen has used, he believes that local residents are entitled to be cynical until such a time as they see the services delivered and concerns met.
So we're working very hard at that level, but there was always, in an emotion-charged environment, the capacity for other people to get up to political mischief.
But Northam, of course, was a site which Premier Barnett himself recommended to Chris Bowen's predecessor, Chris Evans. It's an appropriate site, and Minister Bowen's working very hard with the locals to make sure that their concerns - legitimate concerns about pressures on the local community - are met.
But our experience has been that often there is this sort of reaction, but once things settle down, the local community does come to see that there are benefits which flow. And it's not as if the commentary on Northam is all one way. Chris Bowen had a very good meeting with local members in the local council. There are significant economic benefits which come to a town like Northam with the siting of a detention centre there.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Okay. We're out of time, but thanks for your time this morning.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks Barrie, thanks very much.
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