TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH DAVID SPEERS, PM AGENDA
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY AND E & OE
DATE: 1 APRIL 2013
TOPICS: Indonesia; North Korea; Afghanistan; Superannuation.
DAVID SPEERS: I spoke just a short time ago to Defence Minister Stephen Smith ahead of his departure tomorrow.
Well, Minister, thanks for your time. You leave tomorrow for talks this week in Jakarta along with the Foreign Minister Bob Carr with your Indonesian counterparts. What will be on the agenda for these annual talks?
STEPHEN SMITH: One of the things we've worked very hard to do in the last couple of years in our all-important relationship with Indonesia is to increase the tempo and the level of our high-level visit. So last year we saw for the first time the first annual formal Annual Leaders' dialogue which took place in Darwin. We had our first so-called two-plus-two, which was Foreign and Defence Ministers getting together, we did that in Canberra. And for the first time last year back in September in Jakarta I also held the first of our formal Annual Defence Ministers' dialogue. So we've increased the tempo and that reflects the most important relationship that we have with Indonesia. We've enhanced our practical cooperation with Indonesia across the board over the last half dozen years and so this meeting will go through the array of practical cooperation but also deal with some of the strategic and security challenges and issues that we have not just in our part of the world but further afield, and particularly given recent conduct North Korea will be part of our discussion.
DAVID SPEERS: I want to get to North Korea in a moment, but will people smuggling actually be on the agenda this week?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, only so far as it's one of the areas where there is very high-level intense practical cooperation. As chance would have it we see tomorrow the meeting of the Bali Process, obviously in Bali. That will be attended by my ministerial colleague the Immigration Minister Brendan O'Connor. Also in attendance will be the Foreign Minister, so it's really at that meeting where asylum seeker and refugee convention issues will be considered. There've been a number of meetings for the Bali Process in recent years and that's very much the forum where Australia discusses the regional implications of people movement and boat people and asylum seeker issues, and so the main coverage so far as asylum seeker issues are concerned will be conducted at that meeting-
DAVID SPEERS: The efforts-
STEPHEN SMITH: -in large part by Immigration Minister.
DAVID SPEERS: -for regional agreement are one thing, but this bilateral cooperation between Australia and Indonesia seems pretty important. Is there scope for greater cooperation between Australia and Indonesia and specifically aerial surveillance? Would you like to see Australian planes being able to monitor what's going on much closer to Indonesian shores?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, in terms of any additions to our already very high level of practical cooperation, that'll in the first instance be a matter for Minister O'Connor and his counterpart. But just a general proposition, we have increased our level of practical cooperation with Indonesia across the board over the last half dozen years, and whether that's on asylum seeker issues, refugee convention issues, whether it's Australian Federal Police cooperation, whether it's humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. When I was last in Indonesia in September I was accompanied by the Transport Minister Mr Albanese and also the Minister for Home Affairs Jason Clare and we had intense discussions with our Indonesian counterparts about enhancing the practical cooperation so far as search and rescue matters were concerned.
DAVID SPEERS: But is there scope for cooperation on this front, on patrolling-
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we're very-
DAVID SPEERS: -boats leaving Indonesia?
STEPHEN SMITH: We're very pleased with the practical cooperation that we have. Issues about asylum seekers and people movement and boat people are issues which are of concern not just for Australia but for other countries in our region and that's why the Bali Process will be important. But we are very pleased the long-standing high level of practical cooperation that we have with Indonesia, and-
DAVID SPEERS: Would you like to see more though, Minister? Would you like to see an agreement to allow Australian planes to better monitor boats leaving Indonesia?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we're very pleased with the practical cooperation that we have. One of the issues that we discussed when I was in Jakarta with Minister Albanese was the notion of enhanced Australian aerial access, particularly when we were dealing with search and rescue missions. Minister Albanese went back to Indonesia in December of last year. Those conversations are ongoing, but we are very pleased with the high level of practical cooperation across the board that we have with our Indonesian counterparts, whether that's at Ministerial level or at the relevant agency level, and that substantial cooperation has increased substantially in recent years.
DAVID SPEERS: Aside from the people smuggling issue, when we talk about regional security we know that Indonesia, a couple of years ago, when the announcement was made for US Marines to be stationed in the Northern Territory near Darwin, Indonesia raised concerns about that. Do you think Indonesia is now happy with this arrangement or does it still have concerns?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, they certainly weren't concerns raised by the President of Indonesia and indeed very shortly after the announcement by the Prime Minister and President Obama in Darwin back in November of 2011 President Yudhoyono indicated that he would be very pleased if Australia, the United States and Indonesia were able to utilise trilateral exercises, particularly in the humanitarian assistance and disaster relief area. We have warmly welcomed those remarks and we are, as we speak, planning for trilateral engagement between Australia, Indonesia and the United States particularly in the humanitarian assistance and disaster relief area.
And SBY, the President of Indonesia, his comments also saw an enhanced level of practical cooperation through the ASEAN Defence Ministers Plus Meeting, which is essentially the Defence Ministers' equivalent of the East Asia Summit. And in Brunei, when Ministers meet in Brunei, Defence Ministers meet in Brunei later this year, we'll see for the first time an ASEAN Defence Ministers Plus exercise involving humanitarian assistance and disaster relief and also military medicine. And Indonesia has been very strong in its support of these both trilateral and regional exercises because if you do that people get to know each other, interoperability becomes more common and custom or second place to people.
So these are very good initiatives and Indonesia fully supports the notion of using the presence of marines in Darwin for trilateral exercises but also to engage in multilateral exercises with our ASEAN colleagues, particularly through the ASEAN Defence Ministers Plus format.
DAVID SPEERS: You mentioned that North Korea is likely to be discussed. What impact or effect do you think additional pressure from the region, from countries like Indonesia and Australia, would have on North Korea at this point? I mean, the threat of sanctions has seemingly had little impact in stopping things ratcheting up to where they are now.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, certainly Australia has been at the forefront of those countries who strongly support the United Nations Security Council resolutions on North Korea's nuclear program. We've also, together with countries like the United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union, imposed our own autonomous sanctions. Foreign Minister Carr has made the point that not only given the most recent set of provocations, not only will we stand shoulder to shoulder with the Republic of Korea and Japan in the face of these provocations, we'll also have a look at the implementation of the existing United Nations sanctions and also see whether there are further autonomous sanctions that can be brought to bear.
But we've also urged, privately and publicly in the past and continue to do so, urged China to seek to influence North Korea and to have North Korea desist from its provocative statements and actions but also to desist from its nuclear program which successive United Nations Security Council resolutions have effectively said is a threat to international peace and security.
DAVID SPEERS: How worried should we be about North Korea? Is this just the sort of bluster we've seen before, or do you regard it as something different?
STEPHEN SMITH: We need to take the current circumstances very seriously and Australia always has. My United States counterpart, Secretary of Defense Hagel earlier on the Easter weekend was out there making it very clear that the United States was taking this seriously, as I put it, standing shoulder to shoulder with the Republic of Korea and also Japan in the face of these provocations. The Republic of Korea has withstood very significant provocations from North Korea in recent years and they've exercised a very, very large measure of restraint. But you have to take these issues seriously. You can mount a very respectable argument that North Korea's nuclear program and Iran's nuclear program are the two most serious threats to international peace and security and that's one of the reasons why Australia, together with like-minded countries, has been fully supportive of all the action taken by the international community to seek to see restraint on the part of North Korean but also to bring Iran's nuclear program to brook.
DAVID SPEERS: Just a couple of other matters. Afghanistan, two Australian Special Forces soldiers have been wounded there, I believe one not so seriously and one more seriously. What's the latest you can tell us about the sort of wounds inflicted there and their conditions?
STEPHEN SMITH: There was an incident over the weekend, over the Easter weekend. Our Special Forces, operating in partnership with ISAF and Afghan authorities in Helmand Province, which is one of our adjoining provinces, Special Forces were are authorised to conduct operations if they're of benefit to circumstances in Uruzgan. The ever-present risk of IEDs or the roadside bomb - there was an IED strike, two Australian soldiers were wounded, one in a minor was lacerations and cuts and the like. He's now returned to duty so we're pleased about that. The second was very seriously injured, required an operation. He's now in a serious but stable condition. He's conscious, but we expect over the next 24 hours that he'll be transferred to Landstuhl which is the military medical facility in Germany, and it's a good sign that he is stable. It's a good sign that we expect in the next 24 hours he'll be able to travel, but the fact that he's going to Landstuhl does indicate the seriousness of his condition and the seriousness of his injuries, but we are hopeful and confident that he will fully recover, so that's good news for him and his family but he's designated as being in a serious condition but stable and he is conscious.
DAVID SPEERS: Okay, and on just finally a domestic matter. Simon Crean has warned the Government not to do anything retrospective on superannuation or anything that would tax superannuation earnings. Does he have grounds for concern here?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I think people need to view this issue in a couple of very important contexts. Firstly, this Government has, over the five to six years it's been in office, made the point that it doesn't engage in any number of speculative stories that you'll see in the run up to a Budget. There'll be a Budget in the middle of May and particularly in my own case, being a member of the Expenditure Review Committee which deals with these matters I wouldn't get into a detailed discussion. But we have, as has been the practice of previous Governments, made a point of not getting into the thousands of speculative stories that you'll see in the run up to a Budget.
Secondly, and in some respects more importantly, when it comes to superannuation successive Labor Governments, the Hawke, the Keating and the Rudd and the Gillard Governments have not only created our superannuation system but have consolidated it. What we want to do is to make sure that superannuation, which is there to supplement income in retirement years particularly for low and middle-income Australians, is sustainable and for the long term. And I have to say that when I see some of the comments made overnight and over the weekend by spokespeople from the Liberal Party, I really do raise an eyebrow. This is the party who violently and trenchantly opposed the creation and institution of the superannuation scheme. They fought it uphill and down dale. They continue to fight the notion that employer-
DAVID SPEERS: But Minister-
STEPHEN SMITH: -contribution should go from-
DAVID SPEERS: -these comments are now coming from your own side as well-
STEPHEN SMITH: -9 per cent to 12 per cent.
DAVID SPEERS: I appreciate you don't want to rule in or rule out things before the Budget, but is there a risk if you don't rule out changes, particularly on superannuation earnings, people might start withdrawing their investments and putting them elsewhere?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, people should simply wait until they see the Budget outcomes. I regularly say to people if you're interested in what's going to be in the Budget turn up on Budget night. In the meantime, as we get close to the Budget, it's entirely appropriate and open for the Prime Minister, the Treasurer or the Finance Minister to make some more general remarks or more focused remarks about areas of interest and draw people's attention to areas of interest so far as the Budget is concerned, but in the meantime people should simply proceed on the basis that this is a Government which, together with its predecessors, created the superannuation system, made superannuation available to the vast bulk of Australian employees and workers. This was not the case before Labor created and instituted the superannuation system, and we want to make sure that superannuation is a sustainable system where there's access to superannuation for particularly low and middle-income Australian workers and employees and income earners, and also where they are able to utilise superannuation to supplement in their retirement years any pension income that they might be entitled to.
People should not focus on the scare campaign that we see out there from the Liberal Party, but focus on a Government which has got a long-term commitment to not just the creation of superannuation but to the consolidation of superannuation as a long-term sustainable post-retirement income stream for Australians.
DAVID SPEERS: Defence Minister Stephen Smith, we will have to leave it there. Thank you for joining us.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks David. Thanks very much.