TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH JIM MIDDLETON, NEWSLINE
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 24 APRIL 2012
TOPICS: ANZAC Day; Papua New Guinea; Malcolm Fraser.
JIM MIDDLETON: Stephen Smith is Australia's Defence Minister and he is marking Anzac Day in Port Moresby.
Minister, welcome to the program.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks Jim.
JIM MIDDLETON: As Defence Minister, you've commemorated Anzac Day in a number of places around the world. Why Papua New Guinea this year?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, this year is the 70th Anniversary of the Kokoda campaign, so vital and significant battles and a vital and significant battleground in World War II, in very many respects a turning point so far as the campaign in the Pacific was concerned; also the start and the basis of the modern relationship and friendship between Australia and Papua New Guinea. So on Anzac Day, at a cemetery outside of Port Moresby, we not only commemorate the contribution of Australian servicemen and women but also the fantastic contribution that those Papua New Guineans, who we now affectionately describe as the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels.
So both a turning point in the Pacific, the 70th Anniversary but also the starting point for the closeness of the relationship between Australia and PNG.
JIM MIDDLETON: You're obviously aware of the political difficulties that Papua New Guinea's been going through recently. Elections are due in June. What assistance will the Australian Defence Force be providing to help facilitate voting?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well for this year's election our contribution will be significantly greater than it's been in the past, and that's a very good thing. Our Australian Electoral Commission has been making a contribution for some time. We've got the Australian civilian corps here. There'll also be election observers and the like. So it's a very substantial contribution and we do that.
It reflects the friendship and the partnership between Australia and PNG but also underlines the fact that an election in Papua New Guinea is a big logistical exercise, a lot of it in remote and rugged terrain whether it's the highlands or else where, and we very willingly assist and take part in that exercise because successive well conducted elections in Papua New Guinea are very important to Papua New Guinea as a country and very important to the region.
JIM MIDDLETON: I think you're the most senior Australian Minister to visit PNG since the stand off between Peter O'Neill and Sir Michael Somare began. What will be your message to Peter O'Neill about the apparent ambivalence that some PNG politicians at least have been displaying towards holding the elections as scheduled in June?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well Australia has stated both publicly and privately to Papua New Guinea that we think it's very important that an election be held on a timetable consistent with Papua New Guinea's constitution, and that point's been made on a number of occasions. The two Prime Ministers have spoken recently, and indeed when I arrived this afternoon the local paper has got a very prominent story on the front page from Prime Minister O'Neill reaffirming his commitment to the writs issuing in May and an election being held on the June-July timetable. So obviously I welcome that very much.
But my personal message to Peter O'Neill, whom I've met before and dealt with before as a Minister, when I see him later today, will firstly be Australia's thanks to Papua New Guinea for their effort during the Kokoda campaign and how much that is appreciated by Australians, secondly, the strength and the warmth of the friendship and the partnership between Australia and Papua New Guinea, which has grown up as a consequence and, thirdly, our strong support for Papua New Guinea's election processes, for that occurring in accordance with the constitution.
JIM MIDDLETON: Just how seriously would it affect Australia's relations with Papua New Guinea if the elections were not to go ahead as scheduled?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I think in these areas it's always most important to take it step by step and I welcome very much the reports that I've seen today. The Prime Minister welcomed very much indications from Prime Minister O'Neill that an election would be held on the constitutional timetable with writs issuing in May and an election in June-July. But we also acknowledge that it's a very big logistical exercise, getting the roll right, getting the ballot papers out to remote locations. The conduct of the exercise is a big and difficult logistical exercise and that's why successively, whether it's for this year's election or for previous elections we have, as a general proposition, made a contribution and, as I say, our contribution this year is bigger than we have effected before. That's a good thing.
But I again just simply underline: we want the election to take place in accordance with Papua New Guinea's processes and we're confident that it will and that's reflected by Prime Minister O'Neill's statements yesterday and reporting of those statements today.
JIM MIDDLETON: One final subject, former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, and indeed a former Defence Minister too, has publicly criticised your Government's decision to allow the basing of US Marines in northern Australia. He is right, isn't he, when he says that steps like that will not necessarily ensure that the United States guarantees Australia's security into the future?
STEPHEN SMITH: Jim, I always have a wry smile when I see former Prime Ministers, former Defence Ministers, former Chiefs of the Army or the Defence force making a contribution which seems to stand most incongruously with the attitude that they had when they were in office. Malcolm Fraser was Defence Minister at about the time when the Australian Government was being roundly criticised by very many people in Australia for going all the way with LBJ, for not being independent about his posture and for not thinking through issues in accordance with his own national interest. So he's factually wrong. His comments stand incongruously to the attitude he adopted as Minister for Defence and as Prime Minister.
What we're doing with a rotation of a small number of US Marines through the Northern Territory, growing to over two and a half thousand over the next five or six years, is reflecting the fact that economic, political influence is moving to our part of the world and it presents a very good opportunity for Australia and the United States to be engaged in cooperative exercises with our ASEAN colleagues. Indonesia and Singapore have already indicated interest in doing joint exercises, particularly on the humanitarian assistance and the disaster relief front, and Indonesian President SB Yudhoyono has suggested that in the long term it might also be possible to see exercises between Australia, the United States and China, and the United States and I have both welcomed that as a long term prospect.
So we see this as a force for ongoing stability and security in our part of the world. It's an unambiguously good thing, and if Malcolm Fraser had done it as Prime Minister or Defence Minister, he would have been unambiguously proud of it. So I'm not quite sure how he's wandered off that track over the last 30 years or so.
JIM MIDDLETON: Minister, we better leave it there but thank you very much.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks Jim. Thanks very much.