TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH MELISSA CLARKE, ABC NEWS BREAKFAST
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 23 JANUARY 2012
TOPICS: Asia Pacific; Future Submarines; JSF; Kirkham; Mandatory Pre-commitment.
MELISSA CLARKE: We're joined now by the Defence Minister, Stephen Smith, in London. Stephen Smith thanks very much for joining us.
STEPHEN SMITH: My pleasure, Melissa, good morning.
MELISSA CLARKE: Can I start by asking you, the UK has plans to cut thousands of jobs out of its Defence Forces and we know the US is tightening its Defence Budget as well, does that risk leaving Australia and the Asia Pacific region a little bit vulnerable if those two big powers are starting to wind back their military force?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, certainly not so far as the United States is concerned. When President Obama addressed our Houses of Parliament he made it clear that whatever budgetary restrictions or difficulties the United States faced it would not adversely impact upon its enhanced commitment to the Asia Pacific region and when he announced, together with my counterpart, Defense Secretary Panetta, his latest defence strategic guidance which was released a few weeks ago, he also made it clear again that it would not have an adverse impact on the Asia Pacific.
So far as our United Kingdom colleagues are concerned, they are going through a very difficult time and that has seen a diminution in some of their assets, one of which we have picked up, a Heavy Lift Amphibious Ship, the Largs Bay now called HMAS Choules, but the United Kingdom focus in terms of assets has for a long time been in Europe but part of the meeting that the Foreign Minister and I will have with our respective counterparts looks to the rise of the Asia Pacific and the need for all countries, including the United Kingdom, including European countries, to understand that this is very much the rise of the Asia Pacific.
So in terms of an intellectual commitment I don't see any difficulty so far as the United Kingdom is concerned and so far as the United States is concerned they've made it clear they won't let their budgetary difficulties stand in the way of an enhanced commitment to the Asia Pacific.
MELISSA CLARKE: Perhaps not in an intellectual capacity but in terms of hardware and presence, is it possible that we may see less UK presence in the region or perhaps less involvement in something like the Five Powers talks as a result of this little bit of a wind-back from them?
STEPHEN SMITH: The Five Powers Defence Arrangement is, if you like, the one current practical defence arrangement that the United Kingdom has in our part of the world.
Together with new Defence Minister Philip Hammond and our colleagues from Singapore, Malaysia and New Zealand, we celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Five Powers Defence Arrangement late last year and UK Defence Secretary Hammond made it clear, as his predecessor Liam Fox had made it clear, that the United Kingdom does see in this century the Five Powers Defence Arrangement as a very important part of the regional architecture and a very important part of Britain's practical potential to continue to engage in our part of the world.
So, again, there's been no diminution of support so far as the Five Powers exercises and arrangements are concerned. Indeed, both UK Defence Secretary Hammond and I and our counterparts saw nothing but the potential for a rise in the practical exercises that the Five Powers Defence Arrangement effect and, in particular, doing that in the humanitarian assistance and disaster relief space so, no, I don't see an adverse impact for the Five Powers Defence Arrangement either.
MELISSA CLARKE: Can I ask you about Naval matters? Because I understand you're visiting some of the submarine facilities whilst you're in the UK and, of course, Australia is looking at how it's going to pull together the 12 new submarines that the Government has committed to. Are we hoping that we can pick up some more bargain basement deals as we did with the Largs Bay and perhaps get some arrangement with the UK when it comes to submarines?
STEPHEN SMITH: Certainly submarines and the maintenance of surface vessels is on my agenda here. I'll be meeting with members of the Coles Review team. You might recall I asked John Coles, a UK expert, to do a study on the maintenance and sustainment of our Collins Class submarines and I released his first report before the end of last year so I'll be meeting with members of his team and I'm expecting to get the Coles Review second report, in the course of the first few months of this year.
But I'll also discuss with Defence Secretary Hammond and his officials some of their experience both on submarines and on surface vessels.
As a general proposition we want to enhance the cooperative arrangement that we have with the United Kingdom both in terms of procurement but also in terms of our own experiences and the United Kingdom has run an extensive submarine fleet and surface vessel fleet for a long period of time so, yes, I think there's some shared experience that we can gain valuable insights from and that'll help us as we move forward with two very big challenges, the maintenance and sustainment challenge of the Collins Class submarine, which we need to substantially enhance, that's been a long term endemic problem that has bedevilled Chiefs of Navy and Governments over a long period of time but also the challenge of getting our new submarine project right.
We've committed ourselves to 12 new submarines in the 2009 White Paper; that'll be the single biggest Defence capability job that we've seen, so we've got to get that right; and the UK experience, I think, will help us in that respect as well.
MELISSA CLARKE: While we're talking capability, can I quickly ask you about the Joint Strike Fighter program because, of course, we have Defence doing a review over the next 12 months as to whether there's going to be any capability gaps because of that delay in the US in that program.
Will that review consider scrapping Australia's involvement in the Joint Strike Fighter program altogether? Is that an option the Government would be willing to look at in this review?
STEPHEN SMITH: No, I've always been of the view that in the end the Joint Strike Fighter program will be a successful one, but we are at risk of delays in terms of schedule and also increased cost. We've committed ourselves to 14 Joint Strike Fighters, and I've made it clear that I'm not going to allow any air combat capability gaps. So we're doing an exhaustive review of the risk to schedule and the like in the course of the early part of this year; and in the course of 2012, I'll make a judgement about whether there is any risk to capability gap and if there is, we will take measures to ensure that doesn't occur.
We have been-
MELISSA CLARKE: I just wanted to quickly get in two more questions, if I may. On the Kirkham Report - that has been handed to you and you've had it since mid-December - looking into the Skype sex scandal; there's been much criticism for that Report not yet being made public.
Doesn't Commandant Bruce Kafer have a case and an entitlement in having that Report being made public so that the circumstances around that situation can be seen by the public?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I'm proposing when all of the work has been done by the Vice Chief of the Defence Force and the Chief of Air Force to proceed on the basis of making that Report public.
Yes, I received a copy of the report in mid-December, but there was a lot of work that needed to be done by the Vice Chief of the Defence Force to follow up on that Report.
I got some further advice last week and I'm expecting more advice in the near future, but that Report - either in a redacted version or in a summary version - will be made public when all of the work has been done to ensure that everyone's rights are protected. And when it is released it'll be, obviously, the subject of very intense public and media interest; and that's as it should be. But I have been criticised by some for allegedly sitting on the Report after I had the Report for 24 hours, so, frankly, I take those with a grain of salt.
The sensible and responsible and appropriate thing to do is to deal with that report in a methodical and careful way, just as I am proposing to deal with the various Reviews that I commissioned in a methodical and careful way, and just as I'll deal with the 1000 allegations about inappropriate conduct which I have referred to the law firm DLA Piper. And we'll deal with those in a sensible and methodical way so that we get the matters right and not rush to judgement just because people want to see a story in the newspaper.
There are rights that a whole range of people have in these various issues, and together with the Secretary of the Department and the Chief of the Defence Force, we want to deal with them in a proper way which underlines the importance of proper standards and proper conduct so far as members of the Defence Force is concerned.
MELISSA CLARKE: And finally, can I ask you, as a Senior Government Minister who is in WA, on poker machine reforms - because, of course, WA doesn't have some of the same pressures around poker machines because they're restricted to casinos in your state - I think that makes you perhaps a little more removed from some of the electoral pressures that some of your colleagues face.
Your colleague Craig Thomson has written today that the new trial arrangements are positive and that to do otherwise would have flown in the face of proper policy making. Is he right that the Government's original plan to push ahead with mandatory pre-commitment technology by 2014 would have flown in the face of proper policy making?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, a couple of things; firstly, yes, I do come from Western Australia and there, for a long period of time, the State Governments under both political persuasions have chosen not to go down the road of poker machines in clubs. So, yes, from that respect I don't have the same day to day practical experience that some of my other colleagues do.
So far as the policy is concerned, the Prime Minister made a commitment so far as mandatory pre-commitment was concerned and she and the Government believed that that was a sensible policy aspiration.
What has become clear - and she has made it clear over the weekend - is that there is not a majority support for that view in the Parliament. And the choice of the Government was quite clear; we either make some progress on reform or we go down in a screaming heap. And the Prime Minister and the Cabinet made, in my view, the sensible judgement which was this is a serious social issue and we are best off here making some progress rather than failing to advance-
MELISSA CLARKE: But Craig-
STEPHEN SMITH: -what we see-
MELISSA CLARKE: -but Craig-
STEPHEN SMITH: -as a-
MELISSA CLARKE: -Craig Thomson was saying the position in the first place was not proper policy process. He's not saying that the compromise is a good thing or it's best to get a little bit more than nothing at all; he's saying the original position of agreeing to it was improper policy process.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, Craig's entitled to his view, but so far as the process was concerned, that was an agreement entered into by the Prime Minister and the Government. In the event we haven't been able to meet that commitment because it's been made crystal clear by the parliamentary process that there's no support for that policy objective.
Craig's entitled to his view, but it's frankly an academic view because we have long since passed that. It's now become crystal clear that we can make some incremental progress on this front, but we can't meet the commitment that we originally gave. I would much rather make progress on a very difficult social issue than to go down in a screaming heap and achieve nothing.
MELISSA CLARKE: Stephen Smith thanks for giving us so much of your time this morning.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks, Melissa; thanks very much.