TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH SABRA LANE, ABC PM
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 3 May 2013
TOPICS: 2013 Defence White Paper.
SABRA LANE: Stephen Smith, thanks for talking to PM.
STEPHEN SMITH: A pleasure.
SABRA LANE: This White Paper is a big departure from the last White Paper in 2009. Is it an acknowledgement that the 2009 paper was more of a political document, if you like, designed to make Kevin Rudd sound very tough on China?
STEPHEN SMITH: I don't think either document was or is political. They're both national security strategic documents. The main difference between this document and the 2009 document is the frank, open, and transparent acknowledgement that we're going through very difficult times.
SABRA LANE: That characterisation they're the views of Australia's longest serving ambassador to China, Geoff Raby. He says, very much, that that's how the 2009 paper was understood.
STEPHEN SMITH: I might be a minority of one, and the majority of commentators seem to take Geoff's sort of view or position. I've always thought that the Government's articulation of the rise of China, our relationship with China, the way in which China needed to emerge, the seminal importance of the relationship between China and the United States - I've always thought we were entirely consistent on that.
What the White Paper says is China is on the rise. Its economy will continue to grow. It will modernise its military as a consequence. We simply ask for transparency of strategic intention in that respect. But we welcome China's rise. But the key factor - the starting point will be a positive and constructive relationship between the United States and China - that's the key to it. And we welcome the fact that in recent times, in addition to a highly entangled and enmeshed economic relationship, they're now growing their political, strategic, military, and defence relationship. And that's an unambiguously good thing for us, for our region, and for the world.
SABRA LANE: Is this new document a more realistic plan for Defence? Made after a sober assessment of the international situation and of the capability of the ADF?
STEPHEN SMITH: I think it's a sustainable and objective assessment about the fiscal reality and the economic reality that we face, not just domestically, but internationally.
SABRA LANE: The Government says that spending on Defence will be increased to two per cent of GDP when the financial circumstances allow. Got any rough idea as to when that might be?
STEPHEN SMITH: I'm not putting a timetable on it.
SABRA LANE: But you've got respected analysts like Peter Jennings who say, it just shouldn't be left to chance. You should be able to give people an idea of when that might be.
STEPHEN SMITH: I don't want to shop Peter, but Peter was intricately involved in a former life with the detailed working of the 2009 White Paper. He was one of the people who thought that you could map out, for Defence, a guaranteed share of spending with dedicated growth paths from 2009 through to 2030, over 21 years. Well, life is not like that, and the Global Financial Crisis taught everyone that life's not like that.
SABRA LANE: Was it a mistake to cut Defence spending back to what is now effectively 1.56 per cent of GDP? Because it's going to be a massive task now returning it to that two percent figure.
STEPHEN SMITH: What we did in last year's budget, when we, like every other agency or department made a contribution to the Government's fiscal requirements, was to make sure that what we cut was not adversely impacting on our priorities, and that's the key.
SABRA LANE: And was it more about the surplus rather than the global financial crisis?
STEPHEN SMITH: The Government had to respond to the difficult financial circumstance that we found ourselves in.
SABRA LANE: The decision to knock out the off-the-shelf ideas of the submarines and make these submarines in Adelaide, is that a strategic choice, or is it a domestic one? When the Prime Minister was asked about this she point-blank first-up said this is a good announcement for South Australia.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, it is a good announcement for South Australia. South Australia is our submarine base. But we put four options on the table to examine over 12 months ago; an off-the-shelf purchase, a modified off-the-shelf, an evolved Collins design or a brand new design. We've come to the conclusion - and the Chief of the Defence Force, the Chief of Navy, the Secretary of Department, all share this view, which I also have, and the Government has - that there is no off-the-shelf model which gives us the strategic or the operational capability to do the things that we need to do as a maritime country and a maritime continent. To go to anything off-the-shelf now would be a retrograde step and give us a lesser capability than the Collins, at a time when we want to add to the Collins capability.
SABRA LANE: And they'd be cheaper options than what the Government's now-
STEPHEN SMITH: Well - but from a strategic point of view-
SABRA LANE: But that's true, though, isn't it?
STEPHEN SMITH: It's true, but from a strategic and operational point of view, they wouldn't be much worth having from our perspective. They're good for the Baltic Sea, but not for the Southern Ocean, or for our northern and western approaches.
SABRA LANE: You haven't won many friends in Defence. Retired general, Jim Molan, says Defence under the Rudd and Gillard Government's has been appalling. And he says, of you, as a CEO equivalent, you don't seem to like the ADF, you don't trust it, you don't want to be its CEO, you have no strategic long-term vision, you're not prepared to pay for defence, you show no interest in its operational effectiveness, you constantly tell half-truths to the Australian people, the shareholders, and he says if the Australian Defence was a business, would you really want to buy shares?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, he's a Liberal Party activist. He's a Liberal Party activist. He's a party political activist. He turns up to Tony Abbott's doorstops, he hands out how-to-vote cards for the Liberal Party. He wants to be a staffer in a Liberal Party Government. He's Liberal Party, of course he'd say those things.
SABRA LANE: He's not alone in his views. There are a number of senior Defence personnel who agree with what he says.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I'm sure there are plenty of Liberal Party supporters who take that view. I'm very happy for the Australian community to make their judgements about what I do as Defence Minister. And they can judge me on the quality of the White Paper, which is strategically, to use Peter Jennings phrase, it is strategically perfect and will stand the test of time as a strategically sensible document in Australia's national interest. And in terms of budget and finances, will be regarded as a sensible approach in a very difficult fiscal circumstance, not just for Australia, but for all comparable countries from the United States down.
MARK COLVIN: The Defence Minister, Stephen Smith, speaking with our chief political correspondent, Sabra Lane.