TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH JOHN MCGLUE, ABC 720
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY AND E & OE
DATE: 6 AUGUST 2012
TOPICS: Polling; US Alliance; Defence spending; Olympic Hockey
JOHN MCGLUE: Stephen Smith, welcome to 720 ABC Perth, good to see you.
STEPHEN SMITH: Good morning, John, good to see you.
JOHN MCGLUE: The Labor narrative in recent weeks has hinted that the current opinion polling indicates people are still coming to grips with carbon pricing. But the Labor Party’s own polling must scare the living daylights out of you, the fact that everybody in Western Australia – the three MPs, Gary Gray, Melissa Parke and yourself in the city – in the federal seat of Perth, that all of you could be wiped out. How does that make you feel?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I approach my own seat on this occasion the same way that I have on every occasion. I’ve always treated my seat as a marginal seat and that’s what I will continue to do. But you don’t need opinion polling, whether it’s internal party opinion polling or published opinion polling to know that Labor is doing it tough, both in Western Australia and generally. Now, if the election was on Saturday, in a week’s time, no-one is under any illusions that would be very tough for us. But the election will be in September, October, November of 2013. So, we’ve got 12 months or so to go.
And as you get closer to a poll, the comparisons start to come into play. People won’t view us in isolation, they won’t view Tony Abbott in isolation. They’ll start to put the weights on him and make the comparisons. So, what’s my demeanour? We’re doing it tough and we’re doing it tough because we’re engaging in a range of necessary political and policy reform for our long-term national interest.
Whether it’s putting a price on carbon, because there’s too much carbon in our environment and in our economy, or whether it is trying to implement substantial improvements for education, following on the Gonski report, or whether it is disability. And whenever you engage in big changes, you cop political flak, and that’s the part of the cycle that we’re in.
JOHN MCGLUE: This polling was particularly devastating. Was this shared with you or was this as was reported, something that was between the PM and the National Secretary of the ALP?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I haven’t seen the alleged polling. I’ve seen references on Channel Seven, I’ve seen references in The Australian newspaper and other media reports. So, I don’t know the basis on which it proceeds. But again, I say, if you look at any of the published polling, most pundits on that basis would say Labor is behind, Labor has to make up substantial ground to win the next election, but I’m not despondent to or phased by that. There have been governments – whether it’s been in recent political history, the Howard Government, the Keating Government or the Hawke Government- who have been substantially behind at comparable political points in the cycle.
JOHN MCGLUE: But not this far behind.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I think these days you have less and less people directly attached to the traditional institutions of society, whether that’s a political party or whether that’s a trade union or, indeed, whether that’s the ABC. So, there are more people, if you like, sloshing around whose votes are up for grabs. I think you can mount a bit of an argument to say that’s a - you know, in the old days, 30-odd years ago, there’d be 40 per cent rusted onto Labor, 40 per cent rusted onto Liberal or National and you’d be – or Country Party and you’d be fighting for 20 in the middle. Now, there’s much more floating around that you’ve got to get up and win. But as we get closer to the election in the third or the last quarter of next year, then people do start to make comparisons. And one of the comparisons they’ll made will be, you know, are we really satisfied that Tony Abbott has got the judgement to manage the national security issues and to manage the economic security issues that are so important to the nation’s future.
JOHN MCGLUE: But I want to get onto those in a moment. But one final question on this issue, what’s your personal strategy for dealing with the situation you face at next year’s election? Are you going to spend more time in Western Australia protecting your seat? How are you going to do it, what’s the plan?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, my plan was to do what I’ve always done, which is to be as assiduous as I can about my local seat. Now, clearly, when you are either a Government or an Opposition backbencher or an Opposition Shadow minister, the national and the international demands on you are much less. So, I have the obligations of the Defence Minister to discharge, and I need to do that, again, you know, with a lot of time, a lot of effort and assiduously. So it’s a - it’s a matter of balance. But I get a lot of feedback in my electorate which is either, you know, we see you on the tellie, keep up the good work, or it’s nice to see you continuing to do the local stuff.
So, these things are a balance. And, in the end, the community in Perth, just as they will elsewhere in the country, will make a judgement about the national issues, the national choices, but also the local choices. Insofar as the local choice is concerned, I’ll be doing all of the same things that I’ve been doing for nearly 20 years.
JOHN MCGLUE: It’s 12 past nine. You’re with John McGlue on 720 ABC Perth. If you’ve just joined me, my guest is Defence Minister, Stephen Smith. And let’s talk about Australia’s military relationship with the United States. There’s been a lot of that in the new… a lot spoken about in the news in recent times, and that relationship with the United States continues to evolve. And no surprises that with the budgetary pressures in Australia, in relative terms, our defence spending is going down. That must have struck the Americans as, really, quite odd. They love spending on defence in the United States. How did you break that news to your counterparts in the US?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, it’s pretty easy to break news to a US Secretary of State for Defense, who’s my counterpart, when he’s got the job of taking nearly half a trillion dollars out of the United States defence budget over 10 years. But I spoke to him before our budget, and I said, we are going through a difficult fiscal period and we’re going to take about five and a half billion dollars out of our four-year forward estimates period. Now that, in terms of a GDP spend, has us closer to 1.5, 1.6 than 2 per cent. I’d obviously prefer to be closer to 2 per cent. Leon Panetta’s response to me, and I’ve spoken to him on this now on three occasions was essentially, Stephen, you shouldn’t think you’re an orphan. He made a speech in Singapore at the Shangri-La dialogue that all of the Defence Ministers from our region go to, where he said, everyone needs to understand we’re facing here a new fiscal reality. We have to balance the fiscal reality with the national security reality.
But if you look at Australia’s defence budget, in 2009, that budget was the first time over the four-year forward estimates period that the defence budget had hit $100 billion. We’re still spending $100 billion. We’re still thirteenth or fourteenth largest defence spender in the world. We’re still, per capita, you know, one of the highest defence spenders. So, yes, we’re going through a tough time, but what I’ve also done is to make sure that as we have been forced to reduce spending for broader economic reasons, and no-one should underestimate that a strong economy actually helps defence and the Defence Force and national security.
We’ve ring-fenced a range of key areas, so no adverse implications for our operations overseas, whether that’s Afghanistan or the Solomon Island or East Timor, and no adverse implications for the things that we are doing with the United States in terms of our United States – Australia alliance, whether that’s marines through Darwin or the prospect of greater access by United States aircraft to our northern RAAF bases, or indeed down the track, whether it’s greater access to HMAS Stirling, our Indian Ocean port here.
JOHN MCGLUE: Well one of the other links with the US that has been floated was the possibility of a major US base in Australia, in fact here in Western Australia. You quickly poured cold water on that. The Americans are an incredibly important military and political ally to Australia. If they’re such an important partner, why not have a major base here?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well we don’t have United States military bases in Australia, and we’re not proposing to. We have a joint facility – Pine Gap – which is the best illustration of a joint facility. But in terms of our other cooperation, our practical, on the ground cooperation with the United States, United States defence force personnel effectively since World War Two have had access to our own facilities. So we don’t need and we’re not proposing to have a United States military base here, and we do that because it’s not required, but we also do that for the obvious national sovereignty reasons. If you have a military base of another country, whether it’s the United States or anyone else, then a military base of another country in your country takes away from your sovereignty, and that’s not the Australian approach or view, but what we’ve been doing – we’ve had an alliance that’s worked very well since, effectively, World War Two, formalised in the ‘50s and we’ve recently seen the 60th anniversary.
But for the last two years I’ve been working very closely, firstly with Bob Gates, who was then the Defense Secretary, now Leon Panetta, to enhance the practical cooperation that we have. And that’s also coincided with what the United States describes as its rebalance back into the Asia-Pacific; so, a rotation of marines through Darwin on a six-monthly basis. We’re about to start work on greater US aviation access, and as I’ve said repeatedly in due course – as India rises in importance, as the Indian Ocean rises in importance – HMAS Stirling will become strategically more important as our Indian Ocean port. Whether that’s working closely with the US and greater access with the US, or whether it’s indeed working more closely with India, which is one of the things I’ve generally been trying to encourage. But we don’t need to have a US base to continue that relevant practical cooperation.
JOHN MCGLUE: Seventeen past nine, you’re with John McGlue on 720 ABC Perth. I’m speaking with Defence Minister Stephen Smith, and, Stephen Smith, you mention Australia’s sovereign integrity – I’m paraphrasing you – and the fact that you don’t want a major US base here in Australia.
STEPHEN SMITH: Any US base.
JOHN MCGLUE: Any?
STEPHEN SMITH: Yes, there’s no US base here; we’re not proposing to have one.
JOHN MCGLUE: But to what extent in arriving at that very quick conclusion are you influenced by the rise of China?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well-
JOHN MCGLUE: And the criticism that China has made of Australia and its links with the US? I mean, China is, I think, looking for Australia to have a newer, a different relationship, in terms of its political allies. To what extent did China influence that decision?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well firstly, this was not a decision that I sort of, you know, just did overnight and announced on radio in response to an independent think-tank report that came our last week. This has been the whole basis of Australia’s relationship with the United States for a very long period of time. And when we came – over the last couple of years – to start looking at the enhanced practical cooperation, the starting point was: we’re not proposing to disturb the long-standing basis of our relationship, which is an alliance, a joint facility in Pine Gap, and then access to our facilities, but no permanent United States base or presence. So far as China is concerned, I’ve made precisely the same point in China, which is: we’ve now – this year – we celebrate the 40th anniversary of Australia’s recognition of China. So - and over that period of time we’ve gone from a fledgling relationship to a comprehensive bilateral relationship, and we now engage in military to military and defence to defence exchanges with China.
I’ve made the point in the United States, in the region, in Australia and in China, that if you’re worried about Australia’s alliance with the United States – a military alliance that’s served us well for 60 years. The last 40 years of which we’ve seen a comprehensive relationship grow with China – if you’re from China and you’re worried about that relationship, you’re really worried about your relationship with the United States, not a country like Australia of less than 25 million people. And if you’re worried about 250 US marines in Darwin growing over a period of five or six years to 2500, then it’s really the relationship with the United States that you’re worried about. And this comes right to the heart of the most important bilateral relationship we have for our part of the world in the first part of this century. Unless we have a productive and cooperative relationship between the United States and China, then there will be tension.
So you’ve got a very, very close economic engagement between China and the United States. What we need to do is to make sure that the political relationship, the strategic relationship, the military relationship and the defence relationship grows to the same level, so you don’t have what I describe as a strategic competition between United States and China. And eventually those two will be joined by India, and so the three most important relationships will variously be China-US, China-India and India-United States. So if you’re worried about 250 marines in Darwin from the Chinese perspective, it really means you’re worried about the relationship with the United States; and that goes to the heart of the starting point in this part of our region and the international community’s development.
JOHN MCGLUE: Minister, let me ask you a question about the Australian Defence Force. We’ve had rolling revelations in the last year about bad behaviour inside the force, a lot of it at the academy. You’ve had the DLA Piper report on this sitting on your desk for some time – you’re deliberating over how best to respond to this. Have you started to lean one way or the other in terms of what your next steps are?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I don’t want to sort of, if you like, tilt the lever one way or the other until I’m in a position together with the Attorney-General to make a formal announcement. But I’ve had the final report since the end of April. It goes through five or six decades worth of allegations, so it’s complex and complicated; but we’re not too far away from making a decision and coming to announcements. In the meantime all of this arose as a result of the so-called ADFA Skype issue, and there’ve been a range of cultural and other reviews. But the most important document in my view that’s been published to date is a document under the signature of the Chief of the Defence Force, General Hurley, and the Secretary of the Department, Duncan Lewis, which is called Pathway to Change. And that document essentially says, Look, in the past there has been inappropriate behaviour. In the past there has been from time to time the turning of a blind eye. In the past there has been a culture which has not been supportive of people bringing complaints to attention. That’s all over, there’s now a zero tolerance for that. So there’s a very good prism now through which conduct – good conduct or bad conduct, good behaviour or bad behaviour, appropriate behaviour or inappropriate behaviour – now needs to be viewed.
But we’re not too far away from making judgements about DLA Piper’s report, and all options remain on the table from looking at how we can make life easier and better for victims in the past, trying to provide or providing a fair process for people who have either – who are either – the subject of allegations or who are making allegations, looking at prospects for compensation for those people who have been badly treated, and also not discounting the notion of a Royal Commission.
JOHN MCGLUE: Okay Minister, good to see you. Thank you for your time today.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks very much John, and I’m sorry I was slightly late and caused you anxiety, but I couldn’t help but watch the Kookaburras vs Great Britain on replay this morning.
JOHN MCGLUE: It’s a shame they didn’t win, but it’s good result – well, it’s not bad.
STEPHEN SMITH: Look, it’s a good result. We’ll end up being one or two in our group. It’ll be – Australia and Great Britain will be facing off against Germany or the Netherlands. So that’s pretty much where we thought it would be. Spain hasn’t done as well as we thought. They had a couple of bad injuries, but in the end this was always going to be a nail biter, when you got to the semi-finals, and that’s what it’ll be.
JOHN MCGLUE: It’s interesting the Kookaburras – red hot favourites to win gold. We’ve had the silver streak. Are you concerned that perhaps the Kookaburras might fall the way of all the other athletes who were wanting to get gold?
STEPHEN SMITH: I think whilst, if you like, sort of, people looking from outside say they’re the best team in the world and therefore they’ll win, Ric Charlesworth, my predecessor – and I know him very well and I follow hockey assiduously – and all of the guys have been saying for some time, this will be tough. And when you get down to teams of the class of Great Britain, Australia, Netherlands and Germany in semi finals, going for games, then it can roll on a sixpence. So I – look, a couple of things, firstly, we’ll be disappointed if the Kookaburras don’t win, but it won’t be through lack of effort or training and the like.
Secondly, whilst we always like to do well, from time to time we do under-appreciate the fact that if you come to the Olympics and get a silver medal you are the second best in the world, and that’s nothing to scoff at. So, yep, it will cause us to say, This might be our worst individual gold tally result since Atlanta’s, and maybe we’ve got to look back again at what we do with the Institute of Sport. After Atlanta we created the Institute of Sport and then other countries stole that from us, so we’ve got to go back and think about all of the things that we do, but I wouldn’t be ashamed of walking away from a large number of silver medals which essentially say to young Australians, you’re the second best in the world and that’s nothing to scoff at.
JOHN MCGLUE: Stephen Smith, thank you.