TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH KARINA CARVALHO, ABC NEWS BREAKFAST
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 21 FEBRUARY 2013
TOPICS: Afghanistan; whaling; Joint Strike Fighter; Defence Budget; Federal Election.
KARINA CARVALHO: Stephen Smith, thank you very much for your time. You've said that-
STEPHEN SMITH: Pleasure.
KARINA CARVALHO: -Australia has been in Afghanistan for too long. Critics would say we're possibly leaving too quickly. How many Australian troops will remain in Afghanistan beyond the end of this year?
STEPHEN SMITH: We're taking it step by step. All of the advice, all of the discussions over the Monday and Tuesday when the Chief of the Defence Force and I were in Kabul and then Uruzgan Province led us to the conclusion that transition is on track, in Uruzgan by the end of this year and in Afghanistan generally by the end of 2014. But we've got a big logistical process now of bringing our kit and our troops back home at the same time as making sure that we see the transition job through to the end.
So, it'll take us until about the middle of this year before we can be precise about the drawdown, but what we do know is that transition will be complete in Uruzgan by the end of this year and that will see our troops start to come home. And I made the point they'd been there too long and that was largely a result of the Iraq distraction which cost us five or six years, but we don't believe we're coming home too early. We believe that we're doing the job of transition and setting up the Afghan National Security Forces to ensure that Afghanistan again doesn't become a breeding ground for international terrorists.
KARINA CARVALHO: Now, Japan has called off its whale hunt in the Southern Ocean, that must be welcome news, but Sea Shepherd is calling on the Australian Government to send the Navy to monitor the situation. Will you consider that?
STEPHEN SMITH: We're not proposing to do that and we've never contemplated sending Navy assets down to the Great Southern Ocean. When we first came to office, we sent a boat down there to collect evidence, video and photographic footage. That was for the purpose of a potential case before the International Court of Justice. We've now got that case before the International Court of Justice.
Our argument is that whaling in the Great Southern Ocean is unlawful, but we'll now wait until the International Court of Justice rules on that matter. In the meantime, it's absolutely essential that those people who are in the Great Southern Ocean, whether it's people protesting, or Japanese whalers, conduct themselves in a manner where life at sea is not put at risk.
KARINA CARVALHO: I want to ask you about the F-35 Strike Joint Fighter program. That purchase has been the subject of much criticism. Now the man heading the US F-35 program, he's told Four Corners it's been put into production before proper testing has been done. Is the Government still confident with the purchases it's made?
STEPHEN SMITH: We have committed ourselves contractually to two Joint Strike Fighters. We'll receive those in 2014 in the United States for training purposes. We've announced that we will take another 12, effectively our first squadron, but we have not made a judgment as to when we will place the orders for those. I've made it clear since the time I've become Defence Minister that we won't allow delays in the Joint Strike Fighter project to leave us with a gap in capability and at the end of last year, we placed a letter of request with the United States authorities to enable us to investigate the potential purchase of up to 24 more Super Hornets.
We've now got a fleet of 24 Super Hornets, 12 of those can be wired up for the electronic warfare capability Growler, and we've got about 70 Classic Hornets. But the delays in the Joint Strike Fighter project do raise a risk of gap in capability and I've made it clear we won't allow that to occur. We've always been confident that in the end the plane and the project would get up but it has been subject to very serious scheduling delays and that's what's causing us to risk a gap in capability.
KARINA CARVALHO: Because the former Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon, he says that Defence officials were running interference to protect the program. Have you ever felt pressured by Defence officials to continue with this program?
STEPHEN SMITH: The only pressure I feel is the pressure to make sure that we make judgements which are in our national and national security interests, and it's not in our national security interests to allow a gap in our air combat capability to occur. To his great credit, Brendan Nelson made sure that we purchased 24 Super Hornets. Joel Fitzgibbon, as one of my predecessors, made sure that that purchase was fully effected.
I've made sure that we've been able to acquire the electronic warfare capability Growler, which is linked to Super Hornets, and I'll also made sure that we don't leave any risk that delays in the Joint Strike Fighter project will see a gap in our capability and that conjures up, which we're investigating, the potential for purchase of more Super Hornets.
Now, I've also made it clear at the end of last year that we're now looking not just to the Super Hornets being a gap in capability, but whether into the longer term it makes sense for Australia to have a mixed fleet, a mixed fleet of Super Hornets, Growler and Joint Strike Fighters, which is what you essentially see the United States Navy and Air Force now embarking upon.
KARINA CARVALHO: Given the precarious position the Government finds itself in ahead of the budget, you expect Defence to be hit further by spending cuts?
STEPHEN SMITH: Defence made a substantial contribution to the 2012 Budget, as part of our fiscal responsibilities. Defence has not been called upon since that time. I never speculate about budgets, so those interested in the budget and the Defence budget should turn up on budget night.
I've also made the point that the leader of the Opposition, Mr Abbott, at his first outing at the Press Club this year, essentially committed himself to no further reductions which means the Opposition has the same four-year forward estimates fiscal position as the Government. So there's an outbreak of bipartisanship on Defence spending, but when it comes to the next budget I'm not proposing to speculate. People should just turn up and examine the budget on budget night.
KARINA CARVALHO: The Government's been under immense pressure recently. Are you confident the Government can win the next election and are you confident you'll be able to retain your seat of Perth?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, on paper I've got the safest Labor seat in Western Australia. I always treat it as a marginal seat, I have since I first became the Member back in 1993 and my margin today is about the same as it was when I inherited the seat from Ric Charlesworth, so I'll leave no stone unturned in Perth.
More generally and nationally, I've always been of the view that as we get closer to the election, now we have the date for September, it was always going to be a competition. And those people who write the Government off will be wrong, just as in the past people who have written off previous governments who have been in a comparable position in the published polls at this point in the cycle have been written off. At various times, the Hawke Government, Keating Government and the Howard Government were written off. People are wrong to write us off.
It'll be a competition, and my own judgment has always been when people see been that when people see the whites of Tony Abbott's eyes they will come to the conclusion that he has neither the demeanour nor the character to be the Prime Minister of the country, and won't have the skills to manage the economic security risks that we face or the national security risks that we face.
KARINA CARVALHO: But how destabilising is all the leadership speculation? Kevin Rudd is very much back on the public media scene and now there's Bill Shorten hosing down leadership speculation on his part as well.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, the person that I've seen, from afar, do the most to hose down leadership speculation has been Kevin himself. There's plenty of media commentary, but you will recall when Kevin was resoundingly defeated when he challenged the Prime Minister some 70 votes to 30 votes, the largest margin in Labor Party leadership contest, he said at the time he would not challenge again and he went further and said that if anyone else tried to challenge he would effectively be a human shield between anyone who is challenging and the Prime Minister.
He's made it clear repeatedly and consistently that there's no vacancy, he's not proposing to challenge and that's the basis on which I proceed. There's no vacancy and Kevin Rudd has said that if anyone challenges, and no-one is out there saying they're challenging, that he will be a human shield protecting the Prime Minister and that's a very good thing for him to do and to say.
KARINA CARVALHO: Stephen Smith, we appreciate your time this morning.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks Karina. Thanks very much.