TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH HUGH RIMINTON, MEET THE PRESS
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 9 October 2011
TOPICS: Progress in Afghanistan; Haqqani network; Newspoll; WA Labor; UNAMA report; future submarines.
HUGH RIMINTON: Welcome now to the program, Stephen Smith, from Perth. Good morning Minister.
STEPHEN SMITH, DEFENCE MINISTER: Good morning, Hugh.
HUGH RIMINTON: Now Minister, it's 10 years since Australia got involved in Afghanistan. You are just back from Afghanistan, you come with a positive report saying in our province, Uruzgan Province, there's evidence that Taliban-led attacks are diminishing.
Does this mean we can now expect to see a deceleration at least in the death toll among Australian troops in Afghanistan?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I don't know that we can say that. Both the Prime Minister and I have said repeatedly we have to steel ourselves for future fatalities and also for further casualties in terms of woundings. But what I am cautiously optimistic about is that it's quite clear that on the ground, the Taliban have not made any significant or any take-back or they haven't taken back any ground from us. Indeed, we have consolidated.
We are very confident that we can put ourselves in the position of transitioning to Afghan-led responsibility for security matters in Uruzgan by 2014. And at Brussels, my Ministerial colleagues and I focused on the post-2014 transition world.
And that’s very important because we need to send a message that the international community, when the transition occurs, won’t be leaving, it won’t be exit – it won’t be one out, all out - there'll still be an ongoing international presence, and that’s very important. But in Uruzgan, on the ground-
HUGH RIMINTON: What do you say about Australia's presence then, post-2014? What are we committing ourselves to?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, what I have said to my Ministerial colleagues in Brussels, and what I said publicly here and what the Prime Minister has also said is that we envisage that we’ll have an ongoing presence in Afghanistan. Once we finished the training and the mentoring, there'll obviously be a substantial draw-down because the bulk of our troops are doing a training and mentoring role. But we do see potentially a role for advisors, a role for trainers, we do artillery training, we see a role potentially for officer training or headquarters training and also potentially an ongoing Special Forces role.
Now, we need together with the international colleagues, to work out the detail of that. We would prefer that on the basis of on ongoing United Nations mandate, but we do see a need for ongoing contribution. In that context it's important that NATO and Afghanistan are striking up a long-term strategic agreement, the United States and Afghanistan are striking up a long-term strategic agreement, as has India. So it's important that any resolution in Afghanistan is supported by the neighbours, including, and in particular, Pakistan.
HUGH RIMINTON: Well, let's talk to Pakistan, because the outgoing American Joint Chiefs Chairman, Admiral Mike Mullen, said in the past few days that Pakistan itself is running one of the most deadly, I suppose, of the insurgent groups – the Haqqani network. Here’s what he had to say.
ADM MULLEN (CLIP): The Haqqani network for one acts as a veritable arm of Pakistan's Internal Services Intelligence agency.
HUGH RIMINTON: Do you believe he's right?
STEPHEN SMITH: We’ve made the point to Pakistan that they need to redouble its efforts in its anti-terrorism, anti-insurgency work. We have been-
HUGH RIMINTON: But isn’t that the point, Minister, if I can cut you off? The point’s been made to Pakistan again and again and again that you’ve got to stop funding and organising groups hostile to our entire strategic intention there, and they still continue to do that. At what point do you have to ramp that up?
STEPHEN SMITH: A number of points. Firstly, the Pakistan civilian Government has denied any links between it and the Haqqani network or other terrorist organisations.
HUGH RIMINTON: As they always do-
STEPHEN SMITH: Pakistan is a very complex society. We’re not turning a blind eye to the fact that there's evidence out there which would suggest that elements of Pakistani agencies have links with terrorist organisations. And privately and publicly we’ve called on Pakistan to redouble its efforts in this area. It's quite clear that the United States has spoken and is speaking very sharply to Pakistan’s administration about those matters.
We have for some time been quite considerably concerned about the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area. We have become increasingly concerned about the operations of the Haqqani network in recent times and it's quite clear that action needs to be taken on this front. But we urge Pakistan to redouble its efforts so far as terrorism and extremism is concerned. This is not just a problem for the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area, this is a problem for Pakistan itself, indeed, some say a problem and a threat to Pakistan's very existence.
HUGH RIMINTON: While you have been on the front lines, Graham Richardson has been down in the trenches. He says Julia Gillard would be gone in a Caucus leadership vote were it held today, and he says that Kevin Rudd is actively undermining her. Here’s what he’s has to say.
GRAHAM RICHARDSON (CLIP): I don't think Kevin Rudd has more than 15-20 votes, so I don't think he can win. You need another candidate. Who would it be?
HUGH RIMINTON: Stephen Smith, who would it be?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, firstly, there's not a vacancy. There's not going to be a ballot. I would pay more attention to what Mr Rudd has been saying in the last couple of days than what Richo has been saying as a commentator.
Yesterday the Foreign Minister made it absolutely clear that he strongly supported the Prime Minister, as do the rest of us, and that he was very happy being Foreign Minister and he proposed to continue being Foreign Minister and will continue to support the Prime Minister.
HUGH RIMINTON: Do you believe him?
STEPHEN SMITH: Absolutely. We take him at face value. There's been plenty of media commentary. But look carefully at what Mr Rudd has been saying – whether he’s been saying publicly on TV yesterday or to children as he did in Hobart during the week that he’s very happy being Foreign Minister, he wants to continue in that role and he strongly supports the Prime Minister. As do the rest of us.
HUGH RIMINTON: Mind you, we all know the game, and we know quite clearly, because people around Kevin Rudd are happily putting it out. We are in the early phase of a destabilisation process to weaken the Prime Minister, to de-legitimise her in preparation for a launch on the leadership. That is how it's being read, and around Canberra, there is plenty of [indistinct] evidence that that’s where it's going.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, what you are referring to is plenty of media speculation and commentary. What the reality is, is that the Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd has pledged his absolute support to the Prime Minister. He wants to continue being Foreign Minister, he says that not just in front of TV cameras, but to school children.
Now we know we are going through tough and difficult political times as the Government always does in the first year of office, particularly when it is dealing with long-term economic and other structural reforms. No surprise that we’ve got some political trouble, but we have two years to go before the next election.
We'll work our way through those issues, and when we get to the election in the last quarter of 2013 the community will make the contrast between Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott and between the Labor Government and the Liberal Opposition.
HUGH RIMINTON: Okay, we'll take a break and return with the panel.
HUGH RIMINTON: Welcome back, you are with Meet the Press. Our guest is Defence Minister Stephen Smith, and welcome now to the program our panel – Steve Lewis from News Limited and Nick Butterly from The West Australian. Good morning to both of you.
NICK BUTTERLY: Good morning.
STEVE LEWIS: Good morning.
NICK BUTTERLY: Mr Smith, there are reports out of Perth this morning that you are being considered…a secret plan being hatched to parachute you in as state Labor Party Leader. Is this something you are seriously considering?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, Nick, this is such a secret plan that not even I know about it. I made it clear to the newspaper yesterday that I’m very happy continuing to be the Federal member for Perth and very happy being Defence Minister. I don’t know where the story has come from, but there’s absolutely no basis to it.
I made my choice about which Parliament I wanted to be in a long time ago, and I’m not proposing to shift. I’m happy doing what I’m doing. And I’m very pleased that the Labor Party in Western Australia and the people of Perth continue to support me as the Federal member for Perth.
STEVE LEWIS: Minister, though, if you look at the Newspoll, and as we understand it, your own internal polling in Western Australia, Labor would face a complete wipe-out if a federal election was held. How bad are things in the West and why wouldn’t you be tempted to look at a switch to the state Parliament?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, the election’s not going to be held today or next week. We have two years to go before the next election, it will be September, October, November of 2013. So we are in the first year of our second parliamentary term, and yes, we are going through a range of political difficulties because we are dealing with some tough reform.
But I want to see that reform through, just as I want to see this Parliament through to its natural conclusion and then in the last quarter of 2013 we’ll be in a battle for a third term, with Julia Gillard facing up against Tony Abbott and Labor facing up against the Liberal Party. The next state election in WA is February/March of 2013, so that’ll occur before the next federal election.
STEVE LEWIS: But aren’t you facing a rout in WA, including your own seat of Perth? Aren’t you deeply concerned with the Prime Minister’s own approval ratings at what, minus 60%, that there is no way back for Labor?
STEPHEN SMITH: It’s always tough for federal Labor in Western Australia. That’s always been the case historically. In my own case, I always treat my seat as a marginal seat and work it very hard, as I should. But you would be wrong 12 months into our second term to count us out. If you had done that, you would have counted out the Howard and the Hawke Governments at various times in their history.
Yes, we are going through tough political times both in WA and nationally, but we are working through those because it’s absolutely in our national interest that we continue to confront the structural and economic change that’s required to take us forward – whether that’s taking carbon out of our economy or our environment or whether it’s appropriately taxing the profits that mining companies make. So yes, we are dealing with tough issues but they’re in our national interest and that’s in the end why on those issues we’ll prevail.
NICK BUTTERLY: Mr Smith, returning to the subject of Afghanistan again. There’s a major UN report out this week about prisoner mistreatment in Afghan prisons. Australian forces stopped sending prisoners to Afghan-run facilities some time back – how long have we known about the mistreatment of prisoners in Afghan facilities and what exactly is the intelligence about what is going on?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, in July of this year we were approached by the International Security Assistance Force, through its regional south command where we are in Uruzgan, drawing attention to some allegations that have been about some Afghan-run facilities in the south. As a consequence of that, we immediately stopped, at ISAF’s request, we immediately stopped transferring detainees to the Afghan-run facility in Tarin Kot.
And we continue to keep that suspension in place. In the course of my meeting in Brussels, Staffan de Mistura, who is the United Nations representative in Afghanistan, the UNAMA rep, indicated that a United Nations report was expected to be released as early as next week, drawing attention to some difficulties in a range of facilities.
We believe and understand that the Uruzgan facility that we have previously transferred detainees to – the National Directorate of Security facility in Tarin Kot – is not one of those being called into question. But until we see the report, we’ve had a chance to consider it, we’ll continue to suspend the transfer of detainees to Afghan facilities.
We are now transferring to a US facility in Parwan Province and we do that because we take our obligations to make sure detainees are treated in accordance with international humanitarian law. We take that very seriously, as we should.
HUGH RIMINTON: So we are not about to see Abu Ghraib in Tarin Kot?
STEPHEN SMITH: I don’t believe so but we’ll wait until we get the United Nations report and we’ll look at that very carefully and consider what we do as a consequence. But we have our own monitoring system in place, we are very transparent about what we do so far as detainees are concerned.
And it’s absolutely essential that detainees – whether they’re held by us, whether they’re held by the United States or whether they’re held by Afghanistan authorities – are treated humanely and in accordance with international law.
HUGH RIMINTON: Okay Minister, your pledge to open up all military combat positions to women in five years has the support of Defence Force chiefs, it does not have support from everyone who held senior rank, take a listen to this.
MAJGEN MOLAN (RETD) (CLIP): And I would much prefer the Minister to be putting his effort into why the army’s helicopters don’t work, why the Joint Strike Fighter is teetering on the edge of collapse and why the submarines don’t work.
HUGH RIMINTON: That’s Jim Molan there, in case you didn’t recognise the voice. While you were overseas you met with John Coles, who’s doing a review into the Collins Class submarines. What has he told you about the state of these essential vessels? We are told that only one of the six of them frequently is capable to go out on deployment.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, my most recent advice on our Collins Class submarines is that two are available for operational duties and that is the requirement for our submarines. But we do have a long-standing, very difficult sustainment and maintenance issue so far as the Collins Class is concerned.
That’s why I asked John Coles to do a review of what we do so far as maintenance and sustainment is concerned. I saw him in London. He’s expecting to deliver the first phase of his report to me end October, early November and I’m very hopeful, indeed I have some confidence, that his report will enable us to do for submarine maintenance and sustainment what the Rizzo Report did for maintenance and sustainment of our heavy amphibious lift vessels. We do have to improve in that area, it’s been a long-standing difficult for successive Governments.
STEVE LEWIS: Minister, are you still committed to the 12 new generation submarines?
STEPHEN SMITH: Yes, we are committed to having a new submarine fleet of 12 submarines, it’s a very long-term project. Our commitment is to assemble those submarines in South Australia. But because it’s such a big project and because we want to get it right, we are being very careful and very methodical about our early planning.
That’s included discussions with our United States alliance partner on strategic implications and any assistance they might give in terms of such a big project. But I’m expecting in the course of the end of this year, early next year, we’ll start the formal planning processes before the National Security Committee of the Cabinet.
But one analysis that we do have is that where we run into trouble on capability and procurement, 80% of our problems are caused by mistakes at the beginning of the project. That’s why on a large defence procurement project, we are being very, very methodical and assiduous about our early planning.
HUGH RIMINTON: Well, Minister, you survived Afghanistan and jetlag to join us today, we do thank you for coming on board., thank you very much.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks Hugh. Thanks very much.