TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH KIERAN GILBERT, SKY NEWS
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 15 NOVEMBER 2011
TOPICS: Uranium exports; Force Posture Review.
KIERAN GILBERT: With me here in the Canberra studio I have Defence Minister Stephen Smith. Good morning Mr Smith.
STEPHEN SMITH: Good morning.
KIERAN GILBERT: Now, you're backing the Prime Minister's push for uranium sales to India. How much has the ban on uranium exports hurt the bilateral relationship with India?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well my assessment has always been that, whilst India would have preferred us to have approved uranium exports to it, it understood that our position was a long-standing party policy position just as Australia understood that India would not sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.
I think what's changed circumstances in the last couple of years has been the International Atomic Energy Agency through its board of Governors and the Nuclear Suppliers Group, both of which organisations Australia is a member of, so they're affectively two of the international nuclear regulators.
The IAEA and Nuclear Suppliers Group approving in 2008/2009 the India-United States Civil Nuclear Agreement. That affectively changed the dynamic and is seen not just the United States but other comparable countries like Canada proposing to export uranium to India.
So it's really been that change which has seen the Prime Minister indicate that she's proposing to go to the conference to seek a change of policy.
KIERAN GILBERT: Do you concede that it has hampered the bilateral relationship? Manmohan Singh for example was not at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, there were also suggestions it's hurt trade, investment, security linkages, you don't concede that?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I don't agree with that analysis. A range of things, firstly India has been our fastest growing trading partner over the last half a dozen years. Yes, off a low base but the trade between Australia and India is in my view set for very substantial ongoing growth and with CHOGM in Perth everyone's eyes were open to the potential for great Australian trade through Western Australia for India and also for Africa.
KIERAN GILBERT: But Australia could do with a PR boost in India, you reckon, you’d concede that?
STEPHEN SMITH: There is no doubt that over the years as we've been trying to build our relationship with India, we have been hit by some bilateral difficulties. The treatment of Indian students in Australia was one of those. Now some people overstate in my view the uranium issue and Prime Minister Singh didn't go to CHOGM because of travel and domestic arrangements, not because of uranium.
I know that as Foreign Minister when I sat down with Indian counterparts and officials and discussed what is more important to India, the approval of the US/India civil agreement by the IAEA and the Nuclear Suppliers Group more strategically important or Australia changing its policy to allow the export of uranium.
And the answer was the obvious- which is, it's more important to get the approval of the international nuclear regulators of the position that we are taking, and uranium exports can follow.
KIERAN GILBERT: Okay, you've made the point this morning but there will be a stink with the left of the Labor Party, no doubt about it. Doug Cameron is out this morning, already saying he's vehemently opposed to rescinding the ban- so there will be a stink, will the Prime Minister have the numbers? Are you sure that she'll have the numbers on the floor- it would be humiliating if she got rolled on this.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well a number of things. Firstly I-
KIERAN GILBERT: At the ALP conference I'm talking about.
STEPHEN SMITH: Sure, I understand that. A number of things, firstly I've been saying quite correctly as has the Prime Minister, as has the Foreign Minister, as has generally other Ministers said that we are bound by our current party platform, which is we don't export uranium to a country other than a country which is a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
What the Prime Minister has said is that she's going to go to the conference to change that approach, so far as India is concerned.
Now that will be a matter for the National Conference, but I'm very confident that the conference will adopt that approach and adopt that approach because we've now got very significantly changed circumstances so far as India is concerned. India has agreed to separate its civilian and military nuclear arrangements. It's agreed effectively to IAEA tracking so far as uranium is concerned, so you have comparable safeguards now as a result of the changed arrangements approved by the nuclear regulators in the last couple of years.
KIERAN GILBERT: The Nielsen poll today shows 71 per cent of voters feel the US Alliance is about right. Now we're expecting an announcement this week of a permanent presence of US Marines at the Robertson Barracks in Darwin. Are you concerned that Australians might be reticent about this, they think the alliance is about right, they don't want it any closer? Are you worried that you're going ahead of the Australian community here and just engaging too much, particularly in the context of the rise of China? Won't that be seen as – sensitively, and as containment in Beijing?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, what we do strategically is not about any one country, and certainly, to use your phrase, I don't believe that it is sensible for anyone to contemplate the so-called containment of China. It's not possible, it won't occur, it's not Australian policy.
China is emerging as a world power. India is as well. The United States’ importance is ongoing, and we see the rise of the ASEAN economies combined and the ongoing economic importance of Japan. So all of those factors lead to changing circumstances in our part of the world, which is what the international community and our region needs to grapple with.
But our alliance with the United States has served us well for 60 years. The President's visit here marks the 60th Anniversary. It's strongly supported by the Australian people, and part of those arrangements see extensive exercises and training and interoperability with the United States.
What the Prime Minister and the President announce in forthcoming days, time will tell- but as I've said publicly, what we've been looking at in terms of the United States Global Force Posture Review is on the one hand ongoing exercises and training, but in very many respects the most significant potential practical enhancement of the alliance arrangement since we approved the joint facilities in the '70s and the '80s.
KIERAN GILBERT: Minister Smith I appreciate your time, thank you.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thank you, thanks very much.