TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH PETER VAN ONSELEN, SHOWDOWN
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 13 MARCH 2012
TOPICS: Cantwell remarks; Kirkham report; Afghanistan transition.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Stephen Smith, thanks very much for joining us on Showdown.
STEPHEN SMITH: A pleasure, Peter.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: I wanted to make my first question around John Cantwell. Now, he wrote this article on the weekend in the Sydney Morning Herald. It was more than a little vicious about yourself and Joel Fitzgibbon as well. What is the basis of this? How do you respond?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, when I saw it I was surprised, I was disappointed and, frankly, I was saddened. I didn't think that it was a fair or accurate reflection of either that visit or my commitment to our troops in the field, and I made that point in the Parliament today, and Mr Fitzgibbon has also made the point that he doesn't believe he was fairly treated in that respect either. So I-
PETER VAN ONSELEN: And Minister, I heard you make those comments in the Parliament. I guess where I'm going with this is that the genesis of what he says, that you don't have respect for the troops. Now, I put it to you that the way that he's written this, he clearly doesn't have respect for Ministers, either yourself or Joel Fitzgibbon. Do you agree with that?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, certainly, Joel Fitzgibbon, a former Defence Minister and I very strongly believe that his article is not an accurate reflection of our contribution and commitment to our forces in the field, or in Joel's case, to the White Paper process in 2009.
I'll deal with my own circumstances. I thought it was unfair, I thought it was wrong, and I don't believe it's an accurate portrayal either of that visit or of my commitment to our forces in the field.
I've been to Afghanistan on four occasions. No-one has put these or comparable points to me in the past. But the point I also make today is, in the end, judge us by what we do, not what we say. And both the current Government and myself, as Defence Minister, have always made sure that, in terms of kit and resources, our troops on the ground in Afghanistan have got everything they need. I think that's the real test of the Government's contribution or a Minister's commitment to our forces in the field, and in Afghanistan, it's everything from upgraded Bushmasters to better fire power in terms of rifles, to better armour, better camouflage and better equipment to protect against the roadside bombs, the IEDs.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Interestingly though, I mean, you talk about judge you by what you do. One of the issues here seems to be that his argument is that you don't have respect for the troops.
Now, whether that's true or not, you must at least be worried culturally that if someone as senior as him, presumably, as respected within the Army as he is, that this attitude may well filter through if you don't, sort of, nip it in the bud. What can you do about it?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, firstly, I reject absolutely the assertion that I don't have respect for our Defence Force personnel, for our troops in the field. I accept absolutely the obligation I have as Defence Minister to pay very careful attention to our national security interests, our national security obligations, but also, to our forces in the field, whether that's Afghanistan, whether it's peacekeeping or stabilisation in East Timor or in the Solomon Islands. So, I take that obligation very seriously. So, I reject that absolutely.
Now, I don't want to, and I'm not proposing to get into a running commentary with Major-General Cantwell. He's recently retired. He made a distinguished contribution and I'm not going to go into a blow-by-blow assessment in terms of what he's written. I simply make the point, I thought it was wrong,
PETER VAN ONSELEN: I can under-
STEPHEN SMITH: I thought it was unfair.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Sorry to interrupt, but I can understand that that's your attitude, but, that said, it looks like he's only just getting started. I mean, the byline at the bottom of the article on the weekend says that he's now writing a book about his experiences, presumably in time when that comes out, or even with sort of precursors to it through the media, this is just the beginning of the beginning rather than the beginning of the end, as far as he's concerned.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, if he wants to write a book it's entirely a matter for him. We live in a free society. That'll be a matter for him and he had wide experience in Afghanistan and other theatres, in particular Iraq. That's entirely a matter for him.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Okay-
STEPHEN SMITH: And people will make their own judgments. I simply say I thought his characterisation of my trip was wrong and unfair and I reject absolutely the assertion that I don't have regard for our troops in the field. In that respect I say don't just judge me on what I say, judge me on what I deliver in terms of equipment and resources to our troops in the field.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Now, on another matter, the ADFA Skype sex scandal, now, I wrote about this on the weekend, I backed your judgment in terms of what you've said in relation to Commandant Kafer, previously about a year ago.
Now, the issue however is going forward. Now, he's been reinstated. You did decline to say that you had or that he had your confidence as Minister, at the press conference at the time. Does he have your confidence as Minister?
STEPHEN SMITH: I've made the point on a number of occasions, as has the Chief of the Defence Force overnight, that his appointment is a matter for the Chief of the Defence Force and the Vice Chief of the Defence Force. I've got absolute confidence in the Chief of the Defence Force and the Vice Chief of the Defence Force and the Service Chiefs to make the appointments to these positions which is a matter for them not a matter for me.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: But is it a fair characterisation to say that you may not directly have confidence in him but you've got confidence in those that appear to have confidence in him?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, it's an absolutely fair categorisation to say that I have absolute confidence in the Chief of the Defence Force, the Vice Chief and the Service Chiefs to make these appointments but it's also correct to say that I stand by what I said at the time of the ADFA Skype incident which is I believed then and I believe now that it's an error of judgment to allow the character of the innocent victim of an alleged sexual abuse to be brought into play.
Now, I make no apology for standing up for an 18-year-old member of the ADF when she was in difficult circumstances and in a vulnerable position and I make no apology for stating that I don't resile from what I said at the time in terms of bringing her conduct into play at a time of the height of the ADFA Skype incident.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: And I agree with you about that. Something that I don't agree with you about, however, was your decision to launch Karen Middleton's book The Unwinnable War about Afghanistan.
Now, I realise that people launch books that they don't always agree with all the content all the time but it strikes me that it's just not a good look for a Defence Minister when we've got troops on the ground in harm's way, in the theatre of war that is being described in the book, when the title of that book is The Unwinnable War.
STEPHEN SMITH: It was actually a quote from David Petraeus who was Commander of ISAF, Commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. He played a comparable role in Iraq and now of course he is the Director of the CIA. So it was a quote from him and I made some remarks at the time that I thought Karen Middleton's book was a substantial contribution to the history of our involvement in Afghanistan.
So I wasn't in any way thrown off by the title. If you go to the book you'll see the precise quote from General Petraeus.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: And, Minister, it is a good book, I mean, let me make that point. I mean, I've had a good read of it myself and it is a good book and it's far more nuanced than just that simple title but I guess I'm just wondering in the optics of politics it's just one of those things where troops considering the title of the book and you launching it - it's troops that have raised this with me, that they have concerns about this. They just don't think it's a good look. I wonder whether that is part of this issue about members of the Defence Force taking umbrage with yourself in some respect.
STEPHEN SMITH: I don't believe so. If you read the quote from General Petraeus, you see the context, there's that old adage don't judge a book by its cover, well, don't judge this book by its title. Nor can you ascribe to me or ascribe to the Government our commitment to seeing the mission through in Afghanistan because of the title of a book.
To me there was no reason to be scared from what was a thoughtful contribution to our history in Afghanistan but I also made the point then, as I do now, we don't want to be in Afghanistan forever, we believe we're making progress in terms of transitioning to Afghan-led security responsibility. We'll get there by 2014, indeed, if not earlier.
We think we'll be in the so-called third tranche of transition so far as Uruzgan Province is concerned. That should occur in the course of the middle of this year or the second half of this year so we're on track. We can't be there forever, we don't want to be there forever, but if we don't see the mission through then we run the risk of Afghanistan, the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area again becoming a breeding ground for international terrorists.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: All right, Defence Minister Stephen Smith, we'll let you go. We appreciate you joining us on Showdown. Thanks for your company.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks, Peter. Thanks very much.