TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH KIERAN GILBERT, SKY NEWS
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 19 OCTOBER 2011
TOPICS: Minehunters; Super Hornets and Growler; ADF Ship Choules; CHOGM; Labor Leadership.
KIERAN GILBERT: Stephen Smith thanks very much for your time.
STEPHEN SMITH: A pleasure.
KIERAN GILBERT: First, the nation’s seaports are apparently vulnerable to attack because of a lack of minesweeping capability within the Navy. Is that true, and what's being done about it?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I've seen that report in one of today's papers and I don't think it's a fair report. I don't think it accurately reflects what our current capability is, nor the history of our capability. Defence Estimates are on today and I'm sure the Chief of Navy will set this story to right.
The facts are that historically we've had six minesweepers. In 2006, under the previous government, two of those were mothballed. They were subsequently brought back into service but subsequently mothballed again; so we've got four. Currently we've got four minesweepers, and two are in Papua New Guinea doing their work, clearing ordnance on an exercise that we're doing with the PNG Government and the other two are on training.
KIERAN GILBERT: So you feel entirely comfortable with the Navy's capability when it comes to minesweeping, and the suggestion in the report in the Australian paper today that the sea-lanes and the seaports are vulnerable to terrorist attack, that that is not accurate?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I think it's massively overstated. Of course we are very conscious of any risk to Australia so far as terrorist activity is concerned. But that threat has been constant for a considerable period of time.
There is an issue or a difficulty with minesweepers and that is it's a specialised task. So historically the Navy, whether it's now or in the past, has had to work very hard to make sure that we've had the crews and the capability and it's working very hard to do that.
KIERAN GILBERT: Can I ask you about some other capability matters?
The Air Force Super Hornets - in Libya and the Libyan conflict the US electronically equipped Growler, as they called, was very successful. Apparently Australia is now looking at acquiring 12 of these, is that true?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well what's occurred is that this week the last four of the 24 Super Hornets that we've purchased arrived in Australia; and we made the very sensible decision when Joel Fitzgibbon one of my predecessors was Minister for Defence to wire up 12 of our 24 Super Hornets for the Growler capability and we are now starting the process of looking very closely and carefully at whether this is a capability that Australia should acquire.
There is plenty of reporting on the record which shows that this electronic warfare capability was used very effectively by the US Navy in the initial stages of the Libya campaign–
KIERAN GILBERT: So it's a no-brainer when you look at it in terms of regional superiority, air warfare superiority?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well we have to ensure that our air combat capability is up to the mark. That's why we've pursued the previous government's decision to acquire 24 Super Hornets. That's why have made it clear that if there is any delay on the Joint Strike Fighter I won't allow a gap in capability.
But the Growler capability is an electronic warfare capability and what we are now doing having made the sensible and prudent decision to wire up 12 of our Super Hornets for that possibility or potential, is in light of the Libya experience to now start the process of looking very carefully about whether acquiring Growler is in our national interest, whether it's something we should do and whether we have the financial capacity to effect it.
KIERAN GILBERT: Okay, on a naval acquisition the Largs Bay, decommissioned British vessel, has been officially handed over apparently in the United Kingdom. There were reports that it was ‘HMAS lemon scented', described as such after a chief engineers, chief engineering officers report found a couple of faults. Now have you been reassured that those faults have been managed and dealt with?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well the very strong advice I had at the time was that was a nonsense report in one of our newspapers. We are very pleased with the Largs Bay or HMAS Choules as it will be formally commissioned when it arrives in Fremantle in the middle of December.
At the end of last week it was formally handed over so it is now an Australian Defence Force vessel. It will now start to, in the course of next month, to journey to Australia.
We are very pleased that we picked up what is essentially a heavy amphibious lift ship that is six years old; it's in very good condition. It's got the capability of the Tobruk, the Manoora and the Kanimbla combined. So it's a very successful acquisition. We are looking very much forward to it arriving and we're very pleased that we've named it after Claude Choules.
KIERAN GILBERT: Defence Minister, Her Majesty the Queen is arriving in Australia today. She is going to be paying a visit to a couple of Defence facilities. What involvement will you have in that?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well obviously we're very pleased that she is arriving in Australia, very pleased that she will be in Perth for CHOGM.
So far as being Defence Minister is concerned, I'm very pleased that shall be going to Duntroon for the unfurling of the Royal Colours there. Also significantly she’ll be going to the Australian War Memorial and that's very important. And in Perth of course I'm looking forward to seeing her take part in the CHOGM formalities and as the Member for Perth and a West Australian I'm looking forward to the barbecue on the foreshore which I think will be, certainly in the eyes of Western Australians, the highlight of the tour.
KIERAN GILBERT: And just on one other issue, the leadership issue. You've been touted as a possible alternative. There was a poll this week, you were trailing behind Kevin Rudd; you’re being touted as a third option. Would you take it if tapped on the shoulder?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well as I've said repeatedly when this issue has raised, I strongly support the Prime Minister; she's doing a very good job in difficult circumstances.
I strongly believe that she'll be the leader of the Labor Party as the Prime Minister when we go to the election in 2013 and I've made it clear as the Foreign Minister has made it clear, that we're both very happy during our jobs. We support her strongly and we don't believe that there will be any change.
KIERAN GILBERT: So there's no prospect of a return to the former Prime Minister?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well Mr Rudd says that that's not going to occur. I've seen plenty of chatter from commentators, but the Government, its Cabinet Ministers are getting on with the job of addressing some of this serious policy issues that face Australia; one of which is reducing the amount of carbon in our atmosphere and in our economy.
KIERAN GILBERT: Minister Smith, appreciate your time.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thank you, thanks very much.