TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH KIERAN GILBERT, SKY NEWS
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY AND E & OE
DATE: 22 May 2013
TOPICS: Oklahoma tornado; Australia-US Alliance; Afghanistan; Defence White Paper; Same-sex marriage
KIERAN GILBERT: Minister, thank you very much for joining us. First of all, the Oklahoma, devastating tornado there. This is obviously dominating the thoughts and attention of the Obama administration.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, the first thing I did in my meeting with Secretary of Defense Hagel was to express our condolences. It's a terrible tragedy. These sorts of tornadoes and hurricanes are not what we experience in Australia, so the images have been very disturbing and quite shocking, from our perspective. Fortunately, the loss of life has been revised downwards. That's good. At one stage we were looking at between 90 and 100, and because we've got Australians throughout the United States, I can again confirm that DFAT advises that no Australians have been caught up in this tragedy.
We've also got a couple of Defence officials who work in an area about 80 kilometres or 80 miles south of where the tornado hit. They work in an artillery training school as part of our contingent in the United States. Fortunately, they and their families are safe, so I can also confirm that none of our Defence Force personnel who are here in the United States have been caught up. So that's good news from an Australian perspective, but a tragedy so far as United States is concerned, and we've relayed those views to Secretary Hagel and the other United States officials that we've met today.
KIERAN GILBERT: You've mentioned you've held your first talks with Secretary Chuck Hagel. The draw-down in Afghanistan was obviously discussed. Is there any more detail, can you be any more definitive, as to what Australia's role might be post-2014?
STEPHEN SMITH: No. I've repeated the comment or the undertaking that the Prime Minister and I have made, which is we will make a post-2014 contribution, certainly in the training area. We'll do some officer training. I've also, again, made it clear that, if there's an appropriate mandate, Australia will make a special forces contribution, whether that's a training contribution or counter-terrorism.
But the United States is still working its way through the - what we would call the Status of Forces agreement with Afghanistan, what Afghanistan calls a bilateral security arrangement, so it'll be some more time yet before that is finalised. And officials indicated that the United States continues to work its way through the drawn-down of United States troops and how many United States personnel will be left behind after 2014.
But I continued to make the point to Secretary Hagel and his officials that, if there is an appropriate mandate, that we would make a contribution so far as special forces is concerned, because we see that as being a good way, not just of keeping our cooperation going with the United States, but also a substantial contribution to help prevent Afghanistan again becoming a breeding ground or a safe haven for international terrorists.
KIERAN GILBERT: You obviously also looked at the US rebalance to the Indian-Pacific region. How much focus does the United States have on recent tensions between China and Japan over the Senkaku islands, and also, obviously, a great deal of focus on the recent missile launches on the Korean Peninsula?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we discussed all of those issues. Firstly, I took Secretary Hagel and other officials through our White Paper, the notion of the Indo-Pacific and what I also described, in a sense with my tongue in my cheek, an area that now goes from Hollywood to Bollywood. So we're now looking at that area as a strategic arc, and United States officials agree with that depiction.
We dealt with an array of issues, the United States officials and Secretary Hagel making it clear to me that President Obama has indicated that, irrespective of the financial difficulties that they face through sequestration, they will continue their rebalance. I indicated that we had a modest increase in our defence budget following the White Paper, and we will assuredly continue the work we're doing with the United States, whether that's marines in Darwin or enhanced aerial access.
In terms of some of the potential issues of concern, yes we spoke about the provocation we see in North Korea, and so far as the South China Sea and East China Sea are concerned, both the United States and Australia, without wishing to speak on behalf of the United States, want to see those issues resolved amicably, in accordance with international law and the law of the sea and we don't want to see those maritime or territorial disputes become cause for concern.
So we can - we discussed all of those issues but, most importantly, we discussed the underpinnings of Australia's ongoing security and strategic arrangements, which is our alliance with the United States, and I think both parties agree that we're at a higher practical cooperation level than at any time since World War II, and that's a very good thing, and that will continue despite whatever fiscal difficulties the United States or Australia might [inaudible] in the near future.
KIERAN GILBERT: The White Paper was fairly positive that Australia could manage the US and China relations concurrently, but obviously there are risks, and one of them is a flare-up between China and Japan. We've seen it intermittently over recent months. How real is that risk, and is the pentagon taking it seriously?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, the United States made it clear to me, through Secretary Hagel and other officials, that the strategic analysis that we put forward in the White Paper, they agree with. They also agree with the view that the most important part of the strategic environment at the moment is making sure that there's a positive and constructive bilateral relationship between Australia and the United States, and that - between China and the United States, and that China and the United States need to grow the political, strategic, defence and military side of their relationship. They've got a highly-developed economic relationship, but we need to grow the strategic and political and military and defence relationship, and we welcomed very much President Obama's announcement that he'd invited Chinese President Xi to California for a couple of days of informal talks.
It's that sort of initiative which will help grow that part of the relationship, but all of us understand that, where there are territorial or maritime disputes, that we need to make sure that the countries concerned and the region deals with those matters calmly and in accordance with international law and the law of the sea and both Australia and United States continue to urge China and Japan and other parties, other countries who are involved in territorial and maritime disputes, whether that's the Philippines or Vietnam, to resolve these matters amicably so that they don't become causes of concern or causes of possible miscalculation or misjudgement.
KIERAN GILBERT: And Mr Smith, finally, on a different issue, the gay marriage debate has again be reignited by some comments by Kevin Rudd who's changed his position. But Penny Wong - I'm going to get your thoughts on this. She's accused the conservative Australian Christian Lobby of bigotry, of pedalling prejudice by their suggestion that same-sex marriage would create another Stolen Generation. What do you make of that?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I think in this area I regard it as a matter of conscience, and if it's a matter of conscience it's important that everyone respects everyone else's view. I announced in the run-up to the 2011 ALP national conference back in December 2011 that I'd changed my mind on this matter. Six or so months ago I voted for the Private Member's bill to allow gay marriage. That was resoundingly defeated on the floor of the House. Kevin Rudd voted against that at the time. He's indicated a change of position. We all come to our views on conscience matters at different times in different ways for different reasons.
The most important thing in this area is that people respect other people's views and, from time to time when that doesn't occur, you see the debate descend, and I don't think that we should see that occurring in these issues and other conscience issues. I think, in very many respects, the most important thing is to simply accept that this will be an area where people have different views, strongly and firmly held, and they should be respected for their own view rather than other people seeking to impose a view upon them.
KIERAN GILBERT: Defence Minister Stephen Smith joining us from Washington this morning. Thanks so much for that.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks Kieran. Thanks very much.