TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH DAVID SPEERS, PM AGENDA
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 27 SEPTEMBER 2012
TOPICS: Retired Major-General Cantwell; Defence Budget; ALP.
DAVID SPEERS: Defence Minister, Stephen Smith has been in Japan for much of this week. He arrived back this morning, and joins me now live from Perth. Minister, welcome.
STEPHEN SMITH: Pleasure.
DAVID SPEERS: Let's start with a criticism from John Cantwell. He says the war in Afghanistan is not worth the lives being lost. Now, clearly you disagree, but what do you know that he doesn't?
STEPHEN SMITH: If we were to leave now, or leave before transition was effected, then we would run the very grave risk that Afghanistan, particularly the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area, would again become a breeding ground for international terrorism, and we're on the cusp of the 10th anniversary of the Bali bombings, where innocent Australians lost their lives in South East Asia to terrorism. And we've seen that occur in the United States and Europe, so we want to finish the job and put the Afghan National Security Forces in the best possible position to manage their own security affairs. And that has been the focus of Australia since almost all the time we have been in office.
I think John Cantwell overstates the notion of nation building and instilling a Western-style democracy. In the aftermath of Iraq some people had that view, but that has not been this Government's view. We do need to build capacity in Afghanistan, we do need to try and make sure the institutions of state in Afghanistan have got every prospect of withstanding whatever pressure comes on them after transition, but the key focus of our mission in Uruzgan and generally, is to put the Afghan National Security Forces in a capacity to manage security affairs on their own.
DAVID SPEERS: But he was there leading Australian forces up close and personal, how ready or otherwise the Afghan National Forces are to take over that security control. And he has a pretty grim view of their capacity.
STEPHEN SMITH: He's not on the ground now, and he hasn't been on the ground since January of 2011. And so I take the advice of the Commanders on the ground, and the Chief of the Defence Force. And the consistent advice that I have had – and it's the same advice which General Allen, the Commander of ISAF, gets from his Commanders throughout Afghanistan – is that slowly but surely a couple of things are occurring.
First, over the last 18 months to two years, the International Security Assistance Force has taken more of the combat space, and the Taliban have in the recent past resorted to the high profile propaganda style attacks, suicide bombings and the like, relying upon the roadside bombs, the IEDs, and also trying to get maximum propaganda value out of the so-called insider incidences, or the green on blue. So we've made up security ground and, at the same time, the Afghan National Security Forces, Army and Police is now between 300,000 and 350,000, and on any measure they have improved considerably and continued to make ground, in terms of their capacity, to manage security affairs on their own, and that's our objective.
DAVID SPEERS: What do you really think is going to happen in the Uruzgan province, where the Australians are now, when the Western forces leave?
STEPHEN SMITH: We want to make sure, through our work with the international community, that we give the Afghan National Security Forces all of the experience, all of the skill, all of the expertise, that we can impart to them-
DAVID SPEERS: Yeah I appreciate that, but
STEPHEN SMITH: -so that they can do the job by themselves.
DAVID SPEERS: What do you think will happen when we go?
STEPHEN SMITH: What I think will happen when we go is that they will continue to need some important support, and that's why we have said that, together with our international colleagues, we are prepared to look at beyond transition in 2014, further high-level or niche or specialised training, officer training, artillery training and the like and, if appropriately authorised, we would also look at a special forces contribution for counter-terrorism purposes.
And it's also the case that Australia has struck up a long term partnership with Afghanistan, just as NATO has, as the United States have, as India has, so the international community also understands that they can't leave Afghanistan by itself. So there's a long-term general commitment to stability in Afghanistan and its region. But they will continue to need assistance.
So the single biggest problem with Afghanistan is that we have been there too long. That is very largely a result of the Iraq distraction, which cost us a half a dozen years. The Iraq distraction also cost us a focus on what the objective and the mission should be, and it was frankly only with the Riedel review, which President Obama commissioned and President Obama driving the focus on training and mentoring and transition, that we got back to a correct focus in Afghanistan. We don't want to be there forever, and we can't be there forever.
DAVID SPEERS: In the last few weeks, we have seen the French, we've seen the Dutch, we've seen others withdrawing or drawing down their troop numbers there. One of the other central arguments from John Cantwell is the main reason we're there is to maintain, uphold our military alliance with the United States.
STEPHEN SMITH: John was also in Iraq, and in Iraq we did not have a United Nations mandate. My side of politics opposed the intervention in Iraq, and opposed our contribution to it. John was there, and Iraq has now come to be widely disapproved after the event and by very many people, including my political party, Labor, at the time. One of those reasons was it wasn't supported by a United Nations mandate. We've been in Afghanistan for too long, yes, but for all the time we've been there, it's been under a United Nations mandate.
We're not there just with the United States, we're there with 50 other countries, all forming part of a large, broadly-based International Security Assistance Force. And those countries you've mentioned, yes, they've drawn down some or all of their combat forces, but they remain there, either substantially engaged in development assistance or capacity building, or in police training and the like.
DAVID SPEERS: Let's turn to Tony Abbott's defence plans, announced this week. Now centrally he wants to return to a three per cent annual spending increase in real terms when the budget can afford to do so. Do you share that aspiration?
STEPHEN SMITH: I've said I'd prefer, obviously, that Australia's defence spending was closer to two per cent than 1.6, which is where we are in the end of this forward estimate period. And if you could give Defence a guaranteed share, in perpetuity, of overall Government spending that would be a good thing, but experience has shown us that is very difficult. The 2009 White Paper, which set out some budget rules, also made the point that the single biggest challenge we had was the global financial crisis, and we've seen that continue longer and deeper than anyone expected at the time, particularly through Europe.
DAVID SPEERS: Nonetheless, you share this aspiration?
STEPHEN SMITH: I think you're being very generous in referring to Mr Abbott's contribution during the week as a plan or an aspiration.
DAVID SPEERS: Well, he calls it an aspiration.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, frankly it's magic pudding. On the one hand, he says we don't like the fact the Government has money out of the Defence budget; on the other hand he refuses to say that he will reinstate that money. And again, even more, he says, and by the way, we're going to take some more out. We're going to even further reduce the civilian component on the Defence side, so not only will he not-
DAVID SPEERS: Yes, and put that into front line services. He's in opposition. How much can he give in the way of guarantees about defence spending?
STEPHEN SMITH: He's in opposition and he hasn't given any guarantees. He's saying that in 18 months after they come to office, so in two and a half years' time, they'll have a White Paper. We'll have a White Paper, April, May June of next year. He says that in 18 months time, after they come to office, they'll make a judgment about submarines. We are working very sensibly and carefully through our future submarine program, and expect-
DAVID SPEERS: But that's taking a very long time, and there is a concern, and the capability gap opening up there for submarines.
STEPHEN SMITH: Yes, and this is the point I'm making. Tony Abbott said in the course of his contribution during the week that they would make their decision on submarines in two and a half years' time, 12 months to the next election, then 18 months in, and doing it 18 months in would avoid a capability gap, so thank you Mr Abbott very much for confirming, out of your own mouth, that under our approach there won't be a capability gap in submarines.
DAVID SPEERS: All right well let me ask you this, can you guarantee no further cuts in Defence spending before the end of this year?
STEPHEN SMITH: I'm a member of the Cabinet, I'm a member of the Expenditure Review Committee, I'm also a portfolio Minister and I've never got into the rule-in rule-out game.
DAVID SPEERS: [Indistinct].
STEPHEN SMITH: But I also don't want people to get ahead of themselves. But also bear this in mind, during the week the Finance Minister indicated some further savings and efficiency measures: Defence was excluded from those because we had made a substantial contribution in the budget itself. So people should not get ahead of themselves. We have in the course of a very difficult fiscal period, which Secretary of Defense for the US Panetta describes as the new fiscal reality - bear in mind he's taking out nearly half a trillion dollars over 10 years - we've protected our overseas operations, particularly Afghanistan, we've protected military numbers and we've protected our core capability. Including since the budget-
DAVID SPEERS: But as a proportion of GDP the US still remains well ahead of us.
Just a couple of other issues quickly-
STEPHEN SMITH: The GDP measure is not the only measure. We remain, both before and after the budget, in the top 13 or 14 Defence spenders. The first time the Australian Defence budget was over $100 billion in the forward estimate years was 2009, it's still about that mark and since the budget we've ordered Growler, we've ordered 200 Bushmasters and we've ordered a fleet of tactical military aircraft lifts. So those people who say the system has grounded to a halt are just wrong.
DAVID SPEERS: Can I ask your reaction to Lindsay Tanner's critique of the Labor Party this week. He says the Party is no longer generating ideas, what big ideas has Labor come up with lately?
STEPHEN SMITH: I think on the one hand Lindsay was trying - I haven't read his book so I obviously caveat that. On the one hand I think Lindsay was trying to say the Government of which he was a member was a good Government, and on the other hand Labor has got some long-term difficulties.
I think that this Government, when people look back, however long we last, will say that in very difficult economic circumstances we protected our economy and protected jobs. We embarked upon a whole range of reforms, whether it was an historic increase in pensions, whether it was aged care, whether it was mental health, whether it was disability and the like.
I have been around long enough to have witnessed the Whitlam Government, the Hawke Government and the Keating Government and throughout all of those governments, period, people were out there from the Labor Party and elsewhere saying this is not a very good government and they've walked away from true Labor credentials. And when we look back at all of those governments they are now widely lauded for the Labor mainstream reform that they effected. And the same will be true of this period of Labor Government, however long it lasts.
DAVID SPEERS: Okay, we'll have to wrap it up there unfortunately Defence Minister Stephen Smith, thank you for joining us this afternoon.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks David, thanks very much.