TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH GEORGE NEGUS, 6.30 WITH GEORGE NEGUS
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 6 OCTOBER 2011
TOPICS: Progress in Afghanistan; NATO/ISAF Defence Ministers Meeting.
GEORGE NEGUS: Time, we reckon, to put some questions to Defence Minister Stephen Smith who has just made a surprise visit to the Australian troops in the Afghan war zone.
We tracked him down a little earlier after visiting to the NATO headquarters in Brazil - in Brussels, sorry.
Mr Smith, you've been to Afghanistan and you've seen the troops there and now you're there to talk to NATO in Brussels. If you were talking to the 64 per cent of Australians who don't think we should be there, we should withdraw, what would you say your assessment is of what a lot of people think is an unwinnable war?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, what I'd say, George, is our mission is to train the Afghan Security Forces, the Army and the Police, so that they can take responsibility for security.
Yes, we've been there for a long time but we are there with the United Nations mandate as part of a 49-strong International Community Assistance Force, and we've made substantial progress in the last 12 to 18 months.
GEORGE NEGUS: So what you're saying is that the two-thirds of Australians who don't think that's the way we should go, that we should withdraw, are wrong; it's that simple?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we have a very strong view as a Government that it's not in our national interest to withdraw now, that to do so would put Australians and the international community into the future at greater risk.
GEORGE NEGUS: So, leave the voters out of the picture for a moment, what do you say then to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute who say that, in the longer term Pakistan is a bigger worry than Afghanistan, and the way the Pakistanis are behaving could tear the whole effort in Afghanistan to pieces?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, a couple of things. We know, for example, that the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area is a real difficulty for us. And, as a friend of Pakistan, we also know that Pakistan has got very significant terrorism and extremism issues. And that's why over the last three or four years we've doubled the number of Pakistan military officers who we train in counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency. We've doubled our development assistance.
Pakistan is a significant nation. By the middle of this century it will be the largest Muslim populated country in the world, and it's got nuclear weapons. So, international community assistance to Pakistan is absolutely essential.
GEORGE NEGUS: Could I ask you this before we let you go. Your name has come up recently in the concern over Julia Gillard's leadership of the party and the Government, and Kevin Rudd being the most preferred Prime Minister of the country in the country's eyes. Who is going to win that battle? That's going to get pretty messy.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I've said before and I say it again, Julia Gillard will lead the Government and lead the Labor Party to the next election, which I expect will be in the last quarter of 2013. Yes, we're going through some tough policy and political times but that always happens in the first year of a Government's term in office, particularly if you're taking on some big policy challenges that we need to address for the country's future.
So, Julia Gillard has got the very strong support of-
GEORGE NEGUS: No Rudd challenge? No Rudd challenge, as you see it?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, Kevin has said he strongly supports the Prime Minister, and that's why I say. I strongly support the Prime Minister, as do the vast bulk of our colleagues.
So, yes, we're going through tough times but I very much admire the very courageous and determined way in which the Prime Minister is staring down a whole range of very serious policy challenges for our nation. We've got too much carbon in our atmosphere, and in our economy we have to address that. That's a challenge for any Government. And so there are a range of issues which-
GEORGE NEGUS: Not going to put your hand up yourself?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I'm very happy doing what I'm doing, George, and there's no vacancy and there won't be a vacancy.
GEORGE NEGUS: Stephen Smith, good to talk to you. Why did I know you were going to say that.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks George. Thanks very much.
GEORGE NEGUS: Defence Minister Stephen Smith in Brussels, George.