TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH LYNDAL CURTIS, ABC NEWS 24
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 22 NOVEMBER 2011
TOPICS: Budget; Afghanistan; Global Force Posture; Cluster Munitions Prohibition Resolution.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Stephen Smith, welcome to News 24.
STEPHEN SMITH: Pleasure.
LYNDAL CURTIS: If we could go first to the budget? In a paper you presented to the Defence Department Senior Leadership Group last week, you said the Government is committed to returning the budget surplus and Defence has to expect that we will be called on - again called on - to make a contribution in this respect. Will your Department be delivering savings for the budget update?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, firstly as Defence Minister and as a member of the Expenditure Review Committee, I'm obviously not going to go into any detail in advance. In the course of the last budget, Defence effectively made a contribution of about four billion dollars over five years to help return the Government to surplus and that was as a result of more effective work we were able to do under our Strategic Reform Program. I simply made the same point publicly to the Department which every minister has made to their own departments.
It's absolutely essential that we return the budget surplus. We’ve got a timetable ended deadline for that, so we will all be called upon to look at making a contribution. And as one of the bigger budgets, you obviously expect the Defence will fall for consideration. But–
LYNDAL CURTIS: If there are savings found in Defence will there be real savings or delaying spending? And could, if there is a delay in spending, could that create a capability gap?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well two things. Firstly, again I won't get into the detail; people should wait until my MYEFO comes out or, in some respects more importantly, wait until the budget comes out next year before descending into the detail.
But in terms of capability as we know because you're dealing with a big capability program and you've essentially got a capability plan which covers a span of a decade or more, there's always movement, there's always moving around. We've seen that in the past and there are no surprises there. And that always occurs not just under this Government but under previous Governments - I suspect it always will. What we don't want to do is to do things that have an adverse impact on capability or on operations and I've consistently made it clear as Minister that if Defence does make a contribution to a general budget outcomes then that will not in any way adversely impact upon our operations. Firstly whether that's Afghanistan, Solomon Islands or East Timor and secondly, we are always very conscious about capability; but there's always movement on the capability front either as a result of action by industry or as a result of technical or other difficulties. There's always movement at that station.
LYNDAL CURTIS: If we do go to Afghanistan. The Prime Minister made it clear that Australia’s in that - the progress in the Uruzgan Province - given that progress the transition may well be complete before the end of 2014. If it happens early what does that mean for Australian forces?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I think I’ve said myself on ABC 24 that we’re on track for 2014, but we may get there a bit earlier than that and the Prime Minister has in a sense formalised it. We're not proposing to put a date or a definition on that because people will rush and look at that and not look at anything else.
The fundamental point here is we are on track, we believe, to make the transition to Afghan-led security responsibility. The aspiration which President Karzai and the international community have set is 2014 - we think we are on track. We might get there a bit earlier but as has always been the case, once we do effect the transition to Afghan led security, then the training and mentoring people that we have there will essentially finish their job. And so that will then present an opportunity for a drawdown and I've made that point previously as has the Prime Minister.
LYNDAL CURTIS: If we could go now to the announcement that troops will be, US troops will be based in Australia for six months of the year. There’ll also be more visits by US planes and potentially by US ships. There's been a lot of talk about the training and exercising those troops will be doing. But if they were to be called upon to take part in a US operation while they’re on Australian soil would that be allowed under the law?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well firstly we never talk about, and this has been long-standing Government practice, we never talk about the potential or how Australia might respond to conflict in our region or beyond, so I treat that very much as hypothetical.
LYNDAL CURTIS: But it is matter of what is legally allowed, what's allowed under Rules of Engagement if there are any. Is there the potential for the troops to be engaged more than just training and exercising in Australia?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well one possibility I am obviously happy to talk about is it may well be that some of the Marines that are based here are called upon to do some work outside of Australian territory in pursuit of a matter which has triggered the ANZUS Alliance that is obviously a possibility. But I never talk in terms of hypotheticals, particularly when it goes to potential for conflict and for example successive Australian Governments have not been drawn on how we might respond if for example there were terribly ever renewed conflict on the Korean Peninsular or conflict so far as Taiwan is concerned.
But more importantly, I was very pleased to see President Yudhoyono and Foreign Minister Natalegawa make this point at the East Asia Summit, that we very much see this not as something which will promote conflict but something that will be an agent for peace and security and prosperity and the ongoing presence, indeed enhanced presence of the United States in our view, will be precisely that. The United States has been a very good agent of peace and security and prosperity in our region since World War Two and with more economic, strategic, political and military influence moving to our part of the world with the rise of China, the rise of India and the rise of the ASEAN economies combined, that makes in our view, very much perfect sense.
LYNDAL CURTIS: The Caucus has this morning passed a Cluster Munitions Prohibition Resolution. What will that mean in practice? Will it mean Australia can't stockpile cluster munitions, but will it mean that foreign militaries having a presence in Australia can stockpile them here and that Australian forces could use them if they're engaged in military cooperation with foreign powers?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well the Caucus has previously approved the introduction of a Bill which has been through the House and is now in the Senate; and there's been a lot of public conversation about aspects of the Bill. So, this morning I, on behalf of the Foreign Minister and the Attorney-General, after consultation with the relevant Caucus committee, tabled a statement which makes crystal clear a number of points.
Firstly, that Australia has not and will not authorise the stockpiling of cluster munitions in Australia, from whichever foreign country might seek to do so and we will make that part of our annual Transparancy Statement to the Cluster Munitions Convention. Secondly, when it comes to Australian Defence personnel operating overseas as third country deployees, they're effectively embedded into other nations' forces, which occurs on a regular basis. If it is a nation which is not a party to the Cluster Munitions Convention, we've made it crystal clear that Australian Defence and military personnel will be bound by Australian law and Australia’s obligation under the Cluster Munitions Convention which will mean they won't be in a position to use or develop or acquire cluster munitions.
And so the three Ministers, the Attorney-General, the Foreign Minister and Defence Minister have made that clear in a statement to the Caucus today which the Caucus has accepted, and we’ll repeat that publicly in the Parliament when the Senate deals with the matter.
Australia's work on cluster munitions and anti-mine work is first class and this is consistent with that tradition.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Stephen Smith thank you very much for your time.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thank you, thanks very much.