TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH HUGH RIMINTON, MEET THE PRESS
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 23 SEPTEMBER 2012
TOPICS: Afghanistan; Japan; Defence Budget; Secretary Appointments; Tea Party.
HUGH RIMINTON, PRESENTER: This is Meet The Press. Now welcome back to the program, Defence Minister Stephen Smith. Good morning, Minister.
STEPHEN SMITH: Good morning, Hugh.
HUGH RIMINTON: Now, we’ll get on to the Budget shortly, but first let’s go to the war - when are we going to be able to resume doing patrolling with our Afghan partners?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well that will be a matter for the Regional Command South. Late last week we approached Regional Command South, asking them for permission to resume work at below Kandak level. Now we expect to receive a response to that in the near future, but I don't expect, nor does the Chief of the Defence Force expect, that that will see us return immediately to business as usual. It will be a gradual process, but we've been working very closely with the Afghan commanders on the ground at Kandak or battalion level, and we’ve put that formal request in, and we will go from there. But it will be a gradual return to the full partnering operation at less than Kandak or battalion level.
HUGH RIMINTON: Okay, so we have an indefinite suspension. We don’t know the end of it. We’re not patrolling with them, at the moment it's not safe to sit down with them inside a forward operating base. All of our so-called Green on Blue victims have been inside forward operating bases. So while that is the case, the core element of our strategy there of training and mentoring remains suspended, does it not?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, below Kandak level, that’s right, but I don't put the same characterisation on it as you do.
HUGH RIMINTON: But below Kandak level, which means battalion level, all our patrolling is not at battalion level, it’s smaller units. It’s company and below that go out and actually do the patrolling. So to suggest that it's only below Kandak level is to obscure the point, isn’t it?
STEPHEN SMITH: It’s not, because our process of transition will see, at the patrol level, the Afghans take complete responsibility for that in the not-too-distant future. There will come a time in transition in Uruzgan where the Afghans will be patrolling by themselves; we will be back doing the backup, the logistics, helping with the planning and the like. So a natural consequence is for the Afghans to be doing all of the patrols themselves. So it is a pause – it’s not an indefinite pause – it’s a pause in those arrangements. We expect that in the near feature we will receive approval from ISAF to resume those, but it’ll be done on a gradual basis.
HUGH RIMINTON: The Taliban tactic of Green on Blue attacks has spectacularly worked, hasn't it? We have blinked.
STEPHEN SMITH: We have not blinked, because our core strategy remains in place, and that's been made clear by the Secretary General of NATO, by General Allen, the Commander of ISAF, and also by all relevant leaders from the Prime Minister, the President of the United States, and the UK Prime Minister and the like. So that core obligation, that core commitment, the key timetables for transition, remain in place. But no-one expected this would be easy, and I've been saying for some time the Taliban would resort to high-profile propaganda-based attacks - child suicide bombings and the like, and that includes taking credit for Green on Blue. And yes, that does run the risk of undermining trust, which is why we are taking it so carefully, and being so precise about our force protection measures.
HUGH RIMINTON: Sure, but the fact is that right now we are on a mission in Afghanistan, but we can't trust our Afghan partners sufficiently to walk across a paddock with them. Is this exercise now worth the life of one more Aussie digger?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I've been making it clear for some time, we have to steel ourselves for further casualties. But it remains in our national interest to see the task through - to work with over 50 countries under a United Nations mandate to reduce the risk of Afghanistan - particularly the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area - again becoming a haven for international terrorism. And that's very pertinent in the run-up to the anniversaries of the Bali bombings, because we've been victims - we've seen our citizens victims in Southeast Asia, in Europe, and in the United States. So it was never going to be easy, but we remained on task, and the fact the Taliban have resorted to these high-profile propaganda methods tells you that we have made up security on the ground and in the population centres.
HUGH RIMINTON: I know you’ve got a busy schedule, you’re off to Japan tomorrow. Another issue brewing - tensions very high at the moment between Japan and China. The United States has indicated that its defence arrangements with Japan would mean that if there is any conflict over disputed islands in the East China Sea, the United States would go in, with Japan, to defend Japan. Where do we sit on that?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I think that's an overstatement of what has been said, in terms of the United States and Japan Treaty. That Treaty's been in place since the 1960s, and as early as the 1970s the United States was saying that it applied to those disputed islands. But both the Japanese Foreign and Defence Minister, in Australia a week or so ago, and US Defense Secretary Panetta, in Japan this week, have said what Australia has said, which is we want these disputes – these maritime or territorial disputes - to be settled amicably, to be resolved in accordance with international law including the convention of law on the sea.
HUGH RIMINTON: But if push comes to shove, do we have to choose sides?
STEPHEN SMITH: We don't need to choose sides. The only side we choose is the side which says that we can be a voice and a force for peace and stability and security in our region. We expect that China will emerge as a responsible international stakeholder, and we believe that the rise of China and the rise of India will see shifts in the strategic balance, but we will continue to see our part of the world being peaceful and stable, and a place of investment and prosperity.
HUGH RIMINTON: Okay, we’re going to take a quick break, we’re going to come back with the panel. Now marriage equality might have been defeated in Parliament last week, but the spirit of change seemed to touch a couple of Coalition MPs.
MAL WASHER: He keeps kissing me on the damn head, but at least when he bends over to do it I check his prostate out.
HUGH RIMINTON: Welcome back, this is Meet The Press. We have as our guest the Defence Minister, Stephen Smith. Welcome now to our panel, Andrew Probyn, from 'The West Australian' and Nasya Bahfen, from Radio Australia. Good morning to both of you.
ANDREW PROBYN: Minister, your current Defence Secretary, Duncan Lewis, who departs for Brussels on October 10 - he said that the $5.5 billion in Defence cuts were hard but manageable. Will your next Secretary have more, or be required to find more savings?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, that will be a matter for future budgets, and I don't ever go into hypotheticals. Like very many countries, the United States, United Kingdom, New Zealand, Canada - we are facing a tough fiscal time. It's what US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta describes as “the new fiscal reality”. But we had a $100 billion budget for Defence over four years for the first time in 2009. We've still got that. We're protecting our core capability and we’re protecting our offshore operations, and I agree with Duncan's assessment - it is tough, it’s difficult, but it is manageable, and I refute absolutely some of the more outrageous remarks I've seen about terminal decline and the worst days since the fall of Saigon.
HUGH RIMINTON: Well some of those comments have come from Jim Molan, the retired Major General. He had some views about the departure of Duncan Lewis. Here’s what he had to say.
JIM MOLAN: Several weeks ago he gave a speech in which he said what the Minister was doing, fundamentally, he said what the Minister was doing was inadequate. Several weeks ago, the Prime Minister offered him a job in Brussels, a marginal job. I think we can only assume that he was pushed.
NASYA BAHFEN: Minister, he's not the only one who believes that retired Major General Duncan Lewis was pushed. Can you tell us the full story?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well people can't criticise the strength and the quality of these appointments - Duncan Lewis to NATO, now an important national security post, Dennis Richardson to Defence, and Peter Varghese from India to DFAT. No-one can criticise that, so they're plucking at strands of motivation or angle. Duncan Lewis' speech said exactly what Hugh had characterised as our Budget circumstance was tough but manageable. He didn't say anything which was contrary to what I had said or to Government policy, and it's just wrong to say that NATO, that Brussels, is not an important post. It's now an essential national security post with responsibility, effectively, for transition in Afghanistan and relationships with NATO. If it's good enough for a former Minister; it's good enough for a secretary.
ANDREW PROBYN: Minister, had your relationship deteriorated?
STEPHEN SMITH: Absolutely not. I've known Duncan for about five or six years, working closely with him on the National Security Committee of the Cabinet, in a couple of individual positions for both of us. And I've worked closely with him. I regard him as an important part of our national security apparatus and what you've seen is essentially a reallocation of important national security jobs, and in my view, it's strengthened the disposition of our national security apparatus.
ANDREW PROBYN: That said, you have had - Defence has had four Defence Secretaries, you’ve had three Defence Ministers and lots of junior ministry chops and changes. How is this consistent with stable management of a very important portfolio?
STEPHEN SMITH: I've been Minister for two years, and I expect to remain Minister for all of this term, and we are working on very important challenges, and I've done that closely with my colleagues on the National Security Committee, and with officials from Defence and elsewhere. We will see a White Paper in the first half of 2013, we're dealing with our budget difficulties, but we're also engaging with our partners in the region, and we are transitioning down and out of Afghanistan, East Timor and the Solomons. So there are a whole range of new challenges for us - getting back to the Pacific, getting back to our neighbourhood - and these will all culminate with the white paper in the first half of next year.
NASYA BAHFEN: Minister, you’ve maintained that it's in our core interest to be in Afghanistan – how?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, Afghanistan started with an international terrorist attack on innocent citizens. And the breeding ground for that was in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area. We can't be in Afghanistan forever, we don't want to be in Afghanistan forever, but we do, under a United Nations mandate, have a responsibility to do our bit to reduce the threat and the prospects of international terrorism from that area. And that's why we strongly support the Lisbon and Chicago Summit Transition Strategy to give the Afghans the responsibility and capability for dealing with security matters, and why we believe, after 2014, there should be an ongoing support from the international community to ensure that the Afghan institutions of state can do that.
NASYA BAHFEN: Do you see the attacks on our soldiers from Afghan troops increasing?
STEPHEN SMITH: It’s a risk, and that's why we're managing it very carefully. We have got an Afghan national security force of over 350,000, and we've seen 50 or so such attacks in the last 12-18 months. So it is a small number, but the repercussions are very significant and very severe, and that is why the International Security Assistance Force Commander, General Allen, with whom we work closely, has been playing very close attention to this and making the force protection changes that we have implemented.
ANDREW PROBYN: Minister, was it – just regarding your previous role as Foreign Minister – was it wise for Wayne Swan, on the eve of a Prime Ministerial trip to New York, to start lamenting about how the Tea Party's cranks and crazies had taken grip of the Republican Party? Do you think that was wise?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, he didn't actually say that – he’s made his remarks about the Tea Party – he’s made them before, he’s said them again. He’s drawn attention to the dangers of that strand of economic thought to global economic recovery. So I think some people are making a bit of a meal of this. The Treasurer’s very strong in his robust defence of firm fiscal management, and the important need for the international economy to continue to grow so that Australia takes the benefit of that.
HUGH RIMINTON: Defence Minister Stephen Smith, we're out of time. We do appreciate you joining us on the program today.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks Hugh, thanks very much.