TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH JIM MIDDLETON, NEWSLINE, AUSTRALIA NETWORK
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 19 APRIL 2011
TOPICS: East Timor, Solomon Island and Afghanistan ADF Commitment; Reviews of ADFA and ADF Culture.
JIM MIDDLETON: Stephen Smith, welcome to the program.
STEPHEN SMITH: My pleasure, Jim.
JIM MIDDLETON: Do you agree, first of all, with Jose Ramos-Horta that it would be an admission of failure on Dili's part if East Timor still needed foreign forces to manage its security beyond the end of next year?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I was there last week, and I must say I was very positively encouraged at the improvement in security, in the stabilisation since I was last there a couple of years beforehand and like the President - we had a very good meeting - I very strongly believe that on the basis of the current stabilisation of security arrangements, provided that next year's election goes well, it's full and free and fair and the outcome is respected, then I think there is very much a realistic prospect that we can see a transition from the international stabilisation force to East Timorese responsibility for security - and that would be a very good thing.
So certainly I share the optimism, we just do need to take it step by step. I don't talk in terms of failure, but I very strongly agree that next year's election we can very much regard as the transition point or the turning point.
JIM MIDDLETON: So you're convinced, are you, that East Timor has now overcome those regional enmities which, in large measure, fuelled the violence within the security and police back in 2006?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, 2006 of course was a very desperate time. And then more recently we had the attack upon President Ramos-Horta himself. In some respects that attack really crystallised the need for East Timorese responsibility and since then, over the last couple of years, there's been a very significant improvement and I detected it everywhere I went.
I met not just the President, but the Secretary of State for Defence, the Vice Prime Minister, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and also the UN Special Representative, together with, of course, our own people - Australians making up the stabilisation force, together with New Zealanders. And everyone is singing the same tune, which is very considerable progress and optimistic about the future and optimistic about the transition.
And you can - anecdotally, you can see that on the streets; much more productive social and economic activity on the streets than when I was there a couple of years ago and all the signs are pointing in the same direction. What's also important is that on the basis of the substantive conversations I had, Australia, the United Nations, East Timor, all thinking the same way; all looking to the aftermath of the election for the transition. And I know from my discussions with my New Zealand counterpart in the past, that New Zealand also shares that view which, of course, is important given their role in the stabilisation force.
JIM MIDDLETON: Turning to another regional trouble spot - if I can put it that way - with both Australia and New Zealand involved - it's the Solomon Islands. What's the likelihood that RAMSI will remain in place beyond 2013, given warnings and I've seen [indistinct] Solomon's government that the imminent end of logging there, which produces something close to 70 per cent of GDP could provoke renewed conflict. How worried are you about that?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, of course, in RAMSI we've got essentially the regional mission in RAMSI - Australia, New Zealand on the military side. Also, PNG and Tonga on the military side and other Pacific Island nations providing police assistance, together with the Solomon Island Police Force.
I think the difference between East Timor and the Solomon’s is that it's hard to see the obvious transition point in the Solomon’s. It's crystal clear now to all concerned, so far as East Timor is concerned, but it's more difficult to discern so far as the Solomon’s are concerned. And as well, of course, with the Solomon’s, we have the history to put it, if you like, anecdotally, of the lesson of leaving too early only to have to return again. So that weighs upon people's minds.
So in that context, I don't see a natural turning point, or a transition. So our attitude - the Australian Government's attitude is that we remain in the Solomon Islands doing a security and stabilisation job in conjunction with Pacific Island colleagues and we'll do that until such time as we are confident that there's a transitional returning point.
JIM MIDDLETON: All this costs a lot of money, these foreign engagements. The Government's desperate for savings at the moment. Is there enough money for protracted Australian military involvement around the world?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well we, of course, have our operation - significant operation in Afghanistan and you've referred to our two stabilisation forces and I've made the point in the run up to a difficult budget for the Government, that we will continue, very assiduously, to adequately and appropriately resource those operations. So they won't, in any way, be affected by the difficult budget situation that we find. And, of course, we are in Afghanistan to help stare down international terrorism and we are in East Timor and the Solomon Islands because we take very seriously our responsibility, as a Pacific country, to help ensure peace and security in our region and other countries, smaller countries look to us to play a leading role and we do.
So we discharge those obligations, because we regard that as part of being a good international citizen, but also being a leading country in our part of the world.
JIM MIDDLETON: You mentioned Afghanistan. Australian commanders there are looking at the return of the summer fighting season with some apprehension. They say the gains that have been made against the Taliban are fragile. How worried are you about the possibility of reverses?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well firstly, in the - I'm worried about the forthcoming fighting season, because I think that will be difficult and dangerous. We have made progress against the Taliban in Uruzgan Province, and generally, as an International Security Assistance Force over the last nine to twelve months and the Taliban know that they have to try and make that ground up.
So it's going to be a difficult fighting season, and in addition to attempts to claw back territory on the ground, whether it's Uruzgan or elsewhere, you've also seen in recent times their other strategy which is to seek to inflict high profile damage - whether it's the Defence Headquarters in Kabul or a police headquarters in Kandahar, to give them high profile propaganda to try and wage against, effectively, arguments so far as the civilian population of the country and the International Security Assistance Forces are concerned.
So it's going to be a tough time. We have made grounds and we've continued to make up those grounds in the course of the winter months, not just in Uruzgan but elsewhere, but it will be a tough time in April, May, the formal start of the fighting season will of course depend upon the weather, but we are bracing ourselves for a difficult period ahead.
JIM MIDDLETON: You've been much preoccupied in recent days with the sexual abuse episode at the Australia Defence Force Academy. The Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick who you met today, she's no stranger to the Defence Force and is inquiring into this episode. She says there are cultural challenges and pockets of resistance in Defence. That certainly suggests that this is a massive task that you're undertaking.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well a number of points. Firstly the Chief of the Defence Force and the Service Chiefs have worked very hard in recent years to try and advance the interests of women in the services. And the Sex Discrimination Commissioner has been involved as part of the Chief of the Defence Forces women's advisory group. We have made progress but we need - we know we need to do more, and we've asked the Sex Discrimination Commissioner to make as a first priority an assessment of the treatment of women in the Australian Defence Force Academy to look at the academy first but then to look more generally at the treatment of women, the pathway for women in the Defence Force, the leadership pathways and prospects for women, to look more generally throughout the Australian Defence Force, do a stock take of what we've initiated over recent years and then obviously look to what more we can do.
So the priority will be the Academy but she'll also have that wider task and she'll be assisted in that task with a small group of - a small group or a small team of helpers, and they'll be approved by the Human Rights Commission as officers able to act under the Human Rights Commission Act and work with the Sex Discrimination Commission in the forthcoming weeks and months.
So it's an important task but I'm very confident that she can do it and her previous experience working in and with Defence will help her in that way.
JIM MIDDLETON: Look no one doubts the fighting prowess of the Australian military, but given the persistence of these sorts of episodes over the years do you think there's some confusion about who's actually in charge - the Government or the military?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well a general response firstly to what people focus on. Yes we have had in recent times some very bad examples of inappropriate conduct, and the Chief of the Defence Force, the service chiefs and I as the minister have zero tolerance for inappropriate conduct, and we do need to continue to effect social change whether it's use or abuse of alcohol, whether it's inappropriate use of social media which becomes public, whether it's not conducting oneself appropriately either in Australia or offshore when in uniform. All of these things are ongoing issues that we need to address.
But you've got to balance that with what we know is, in the main, tremendous conduct and performance by Australian Defence Force personnel whether it's rendering humanitarian assistance in Japan or in New Zealand in the aftermath of a tsunami or earthquake, or whether it's helping Australians in the aftermath of cyclones or floods. So people often forget the good work that the Australian Defence Force does, whether it's peacekeeping as in effectively East Timor or in the Sudan, whether it's disaster relief, whether it's effecting a combat role to stare down terrorism.
Often the good contributions and the regard that the Defence Force is held, is forgotten in the aftermath of bad personal conduct. But we've made it clear as a Defence leadership that bad personal conduct cannot be tolerated, people have to accept responsibility for their own actions and their own conduct and there are adverse consequences when people make mistakes. And there is zero tolerance in that respect, but we're not the only armed force to have from time to time these issues or these difficulties and also we're not the only institution in Australia where some of these difficulties emerge, and Australians would well know some of the difficulties that our sporting codes have had, in particular for example the NRL, the National Rugby League.
JIM MIDDLETON: We'd better leave it there, Minister. Thank you very much once again.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks, Jim. Thanks very much.