TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH LYNDAL CURTIS ON ABC 24
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 6 September 2011
TOPICS: Afghanistan; US Force Posture Review; Offshore processing.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Stephen Smith, welcome to News 24.
STEPHEN SMITH: Pleasure.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Four Corners last night raised some questions about the strategy being pursued by troops in Afghanistan, saying sometimes the wrong people are pursued and killed, and it raised one example where it said Australian troops were trusting the wrong local leader. Is the strategy getting it wrong?
STEPHEN SMITH: No, it's not. Australian Special Forces, together with Afghan Special Forces, US Special Forces, are making a real impact against the Taliban in Afghanistan and in Uruzgan Province where we're based. There were a lot of suggestions on Four Corners last night, and I think it's important to lay out some general principles.
Firstly, we don't rely upon single-source intelligence; we use multiple sources. We are very careful and very assiduous about starting operations, and it's not just the operations we do; it's also the operations that we don't do because we're not confident of the basis for them.
Secondly, of course we're aware of the rivalry that exists amongst a range of powerbrokers and important tribal influences in Uruzgan and in Afghanistan, and we pay very careful attention to that.
Thirdly, if something does go wrong, if there is a civilian casualty, then it's investigated and that investigation is shared with Afghan authorities, with the International Security Assistance Force, with the United Nations Mission and the like. We have a longstanding, well deserved reputation for being very careful through our rules of engagement and in our general conduct about civilian casualties.
LYNDAL CURTIS: And sometimes things go wrong. Is that just the way war is?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I thought Four Corners made the surprising revelation last night that Special Forces are operating in Afghanistan. Now that I've taken my tongue out of my cheek, I have made it clear since I've been Defence Minister that of course we are utilising Special Forces in Afghanistan. The so-called night raids have been very successful in removing insurgents, key insurgents from the battlefield.
It is a war. It's not a war in the nature of an old-style war that many Australians would be familiar with, World War II and the like. It is non-state actors, counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency. So it is different, but we are very careful about what we do.
But where there are civilian casualties, which are terrible and regrettable, they're investigated and we take every precaution to ensure it doesn't occur.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Now, closer to home, you're also looking at finalising agreements giving US troops more access to Australian bases. US military leaders have visited Australia to look at the options. When will the deal be done, and do you know how many troops that might involve?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I think people need to be careful about getting ahead of themselves. We are talking here about the United States Global Force Posture Review. At AUSMIN last year in Melbourne in November, then Secretary of Defense Gates and I agreed that we'd set up a joint working party to look at what possibilities might emerge into the future. And both Secretary Gates and I have said publicly, what are some of the possibilities: prepositioning of stores, greater use of exercises, more ship visits, and the like.
Now, no decisions have been made. I've seen some speculation today. That's no doubt because in a week or so we have this year's AUSMIN in the United States. We will have a further discussion about how we progress this matter.
It will be the single biggest change or advancement of alliance relationships since the joint facilities regime was established back in the 1980s. So in that respect, we have a responsibility as a government to do it in a careful and methodical way, and that view is shared by our United States partner and by the US Administration.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Speaking of being methodical, the Prime Minister said she'll take that approach to the issue of asylum seekers. Cabinet met last night. The Prime Minister has said if the Government opts for a continuation of offshore processing it would require legislative change, but she's not saying yet if that's the direction the Government will go in.
Do you think that the Government will continue to opt for offshore processing as the best way to break the people smugglers' business model?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I never talk about Cabinet discussions, but I think it's quite clear what the government is doing is in response to a High Court decision, which frankly was a surprise and broke new ground so far as an interpretation of the law was concerned, that we are now seized, all of us - the current Government, the nation, the Opposition - with a very serious legal and policy issue which is that a High Court decision has thrown doubt over the efficacy of offshore processing.
So the Cabinet and the Government will work its way very carefully through these issues, and as the Minister for Immigration has said in response to such a High Court decision, effectively all options have to be on the table, and the Minister and the Prime Minister and the Cabinet will progress this in the days ahead.
LYNDAL CURTIS: But why continue to consider offshore processing when you have the option of onshore processing? It's part of your party's platform. Why not just say, we will process onshore and work on a better regional solution to stop the boats leaving for Australia?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, firstly, the suggestion so far as Malaysia was concerned was consistent with a regional framework and a regional approach. That's the first point. So what we're doing is consistent with the understandings that have been reached with countries in our region through the so-called Bali Process, which I previously attended and which the Minister for Immigration and the Foreign Minister have attended. So we have the option of pursuing Malaysia because it's consistent with the regional framework.
But I don't think it helps the current consideration to get ahead of ourselves. The Government has to work very carefully through the ramifications of the High Court decision. Now, those ramifications apply equally to the Leader of the Opposition and the Opposition, and they apply equally to any future Australian Government, whether it's Malaysia, whether it's Papua New Guinea, whether it's Nauru.
LYNDAL CURTIS: A little over a year ago when Julia Gillard took the leadership from Kevin Rudd, she said the Government has lost its way. Is there any evidence that the Government's found its way, that the public thinks the Government's found its way?
STEPHEN SMITH: We are obviously going through a difficult political time. There's no point shying away from that. In my view, that's because we are fronting up to some serious policy challenges. They're not just a policy challenge for the Government, they're a policy challenge for the nation. Now-
LYNDAL CURTIS: But it's more than that, isn't it? You're confronting the issue of dealing with carbon pricing with the Prime Minister's broken promise overhanging it, you're trying to come up with solutions to asylum seekers. But East Timor fell over, now Malaysia's been dealt a blow by the High Court. It's not only that you're confronting them, but the public's watching you struggle with actually trying to implement anything.
STEPHEN SMITH: And we're not the first government that has had political difficulty at a time when it is trying to effect policy change. Yes, we are trying to take carbon out of our economy and out of our environment because there's too much carbon in our environment. That confronts us with a long-term structural change. Getting structural change through the Parliament is difficult.
But we're not the first government who, in its first year, has had what people describe as political difficulty.
LYNDAL CURTIS: The public also seems to be telling you through a number of polls that they would prefer Kevin Rudd to Julia Gillard. Was the decision the party made last year the wrong one?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, what we have to do is to confront the challenges of the future. We made our choice about leadership. There's no vacancy. No one is seriously suggesting that be disturbed. I strongly support the Prime Minister's efforts because she is very assiduously, in a very determined way, confronting on behalf of the Government and the nation some long-term structural difficulties for Australia.
LYNDAL CURTIS: But you can't really say whether over the next two years the situation is going to improve enough for you to win government again.
STEPHEN SMITH: But what I can say is that we have two years to go, and I think it's ill-advised for anyone to count out a government when there are two years to go. I think people should just very calmly examine the political circumstances. The political circumstances are we've got two years to go, and at some point in the cycle, the community will expect from Mr Abbott not just a political attack, they will expect from Mr Abbott a comprehensive plan for the nation's future.
Now, frankly, I don't think he is capable of doing that in a national security, economic or social sense. But at some point in the cycle when we're closer to the end of the Government's term, people will start making the real comparison. The real comparison there is the Prime Minister and the Government versus Mr Abbott and the Opposition. That's the comparison that needs to be made.