TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH KEIRAN GILBERT, SKY NEWS AM AGENDA
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 26 JULY 2011
TOPICS: Afghanistan; Joint Strike Fighter; Collins Class Submarines; Malaysia Deal.
KIERAN GILBERT: Stephen Smith, thanks for your time. As we heard there, you've just met the UN Secretary-General. Obviously Afghanistan dominated your talks.
STEPHEN SMITH: Afghanistan was one of the issues we spoke about but I'm in New York today really dealing with Australia's contribution to United Nations peace-keeping and peace-building so our contribution in Afghanistan was one subject matter, a possible Australian contribution to the new United Nations mission in South Sudan was another and also the contribution we make together with the United Nations in East Timor. So really a round of talks dealing with those areas where Australia has or can make a substantial contribution to peace-keeping and building peace and security.
KIERAN GILBERT: You move from New York to Washington for talks with your defence secretary counterpart, Secretary Leon Panetta. Obviously you want reassurances from the United States administration about the draw-down of the surge troops, that it won't adversely affect our troops in Uruzgan province.
STEPHEN SMITH: Yes, I leave New York tonight, New York time. I spend Tuesday and Wednesday in Washington and on Wednesday I'll speak with, and formally meet with new Defense Secretary Panetta.
Afghanistan obviously will be one of the issues we speak about. Secretary Panetta was there in the last week or so, so we'll share our assessments and, yes, we'll have a conversation about the US draw-down but I expect that Secretary Panetta will confirm what we've - the advice we've received from other US officials which we are not expecting that the draw-down of 10,000 troops between now and next summer, the next northern hemisphere summer, will have any adverse implications for us in Uruzgan province.
But I'll have that conversation with Secretary Panetta and also just conf- [indistinct] just share our own assessments about progress that we're making in Afghanistan.
KIERAN GILBERT: Minister, seven regions in the past week have been handed over, control of those regions, to the local Afghan forces. Tell me, is there any prospect on the upside that things happen a bit faster than expected and that the Australian troops, the Australian draw-down might happen sooner than expected?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, a couple of things. Yes, in accordance with the agreement that we struck effectively at the Lisbon summit, which the Prime Minister and I attended late last year, the first seven provinces or districts were transitioned to Afghan-led security responsibility last week, including Bamiyan province where our New Zealand friends have their contribution.
Uruzgan province, there's never been an expectation or an anticipation that we would be in the first set of provinces to transition to Afghan-led security responsibility. We believe we're on track to do that by 2014, just as we believe and the NATO and International Security Assistance Force defence secretaries believe we're on track to transition to Afghan-led responsibility across Afghanistan by the end of 2014. So we think we're on track in - in Uruzgan and we don't have any proposals to draw down the 1550 that we have in Uruzgan province or in Afghanistan, the bulk of which are in Uruzgan province.
Our advice from the new Chief of the Defence Force continues to be that we've got our contribution about right to enable us to achieve our mission which is the transition of security responsibility but I again make the point, which I've made in the past, we won't succeed in Afghanistan on a military means alone, there needs to be also a political solution, a political settlement and speaking about a political settlement in Afghanistan was one of the issues that I discussed with the United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, in our conversation earlier today.
KIERAN GILBERT: On the military hardware side of things, as I understand it you'll be seeking US help with Australia's plan to build 12 new submarines and also I guess you'll be wanting an update on the joint strike fighter project.
STEPHEN SMITH: Yes. On the joint strike fighter, we've committed ourselves to buying 14. When our order was placed and our schedule or program was originally decided upon, we'd left plenty of space for slippage on delivery. We're starting to rub up against that now because there have been delays so we're keenly following that and I'm going to benefit very much from the conversation about the joint strike fighter I have with Defense Secretary Panetta but also his officials but we are watching that program and that project very carefully.
On submarines, our new submarine fleet, the 12 new submarines, this will be the single biggest defence project that Australia has embarked upon so we need to get the planning absolutely right.
There are two areas where we believe the United States can be of assistance. Firstly, strategic considerations. We need to ensure that strategically we're complementing the United States but also in some areas - weapons systems, communications system and propulsion systems - we believe we can get some benefit from discussions with the United States officials and also with United States industry.
The United States of course run a nuclear submarine fleet. We're not proposing to contemplate a nuclear fleet. Ours will be conventional, as our Collins Class submarine is, but we do believe there are some areas where United States industry and United States government can be of assistance to us, so getting the planning right for the submarines is very important.
KIERAN GILBERT: On another issue before I let you go. It's not your area of responsibility but your counterpart, Bowen, signed that Malaysia deal finally yesterday in Kuala Lumpur. This is a risk for the Government, isn't it? Once the quota is full, that 800 quota, you're back to square one on this very difficult issue.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, the detail of course is for Immigration Minister Bowen. Most importantly, given that I'm at the United Nations headquarters, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Commissioner Guterres, effectively signed off on the arrangement so that's a good thing.
But we very strongly believe that - that this is a - an arrangement with Malaysia which will see 4000 more refugees come to Australia from Malaysia, which we think will be a good thing, but we also believe that it'll break the cycle, break the people-smugglers' business model.
So we think it'll be effective but, as you know, we're also in discussions, the Immigration Minister, in discussions with Papua New Guinea about other possible arrangements as well, but this is a, we believe, a most important step and already we've seen, since the arrangement was announced back in May, a slowing of boat arrivals and we believe that is directly linked to the adverse publicity that the people-smugglers have got as a consequence of this arrangement.
KIERAN GILBERT: It's going to cost a fair bit, isn't it? One paper describes it as the Malaysia deal blank cheque because Australia's undertaken to pay and care for the 800 asylum-seekers for as long they're in Malaysia.
STEPHEN SMITH: It's budgeted for $216 million, from memory. Very much of that is also for the refugees who come to Australia, the settlement and the resettlement of refugees. So it's not just the cost that Australia provides in terms of the refugees who'll be - the asylum-seekers who'll be transported to Malaysia. It's also a substantial increase in the number of - of refugees who'll come to Australia.
There's always a cost of settlement and resettlement but the most important thing, in our view, is to break the people-smugglers' business case so that the flow of boats is - is reduced or eliminated and we believe that this is a most important contribution to that.
KIERAN GILBERT: Defence Minister Stephen Smith, in New York, appreciate your time, thanks.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks, Keiran, thanks very much.