TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH VIRGINIA TRIOLI AND MICHAEL ROWLAND, ABC NEWS BREAKFAST
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY AND E & EO
DATE: 8 NOVEMBER 2011
TOPICS: Afghanistan; Obama; Global Force Posture Review; Commando Welfare Trust; Newspoll.
MICHAEL ROWLAND: A new trust has been set up to provide long term financial support to the families of Australian soldiers killed or seriously injured while serving.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: The Commando Welfare Trust will support the initial emergency funding and the long term financial requirements of families of service men and women.
The Defence Minister Stephen Smith joins us in the studio now to discuss that and other issues. Minister good morning, thanks for joining us again.
STEPHEN SMITH: Pleasure.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Well we’ll get to the Commando Trust but there is a very important news story that's in Fairfax papers today talking about the redeployment and the drawdown of Australian soldiers out of Afghanistan, numbers being reduced but those left behind being deployed to more dangerous areas. Is that true?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I think the most important part about this story in the Fairfax papers today is a line that says no decisions have been made. Now we've got on average 1550 in Afghanistan. The bulk of those are in Uruzgan but we do have people in Kandahar and we do have people in Kabul. Of that between 700 and 800 are doing the mentoring and training roles. So we believe we're on track to finish the mentoring and training by 2014. So as that role finishes and we transition to Afghan responsibility we'll be able to drawdown those troops and there's no surprise in that.
But what we've been looking at in recent times and the last two occasions I've been in Brussels for NATO and ISAF Defence Ministers meeting I've made the point, we're now starting to look at what we describe as the post-transition arrangements. What will the international community leave there after 2014 when the transition is made to Afghan lead responsibility? And I've been quite open about this. We are looking at whether there's a possibility for us to leave Special Forces behind in some role. Now if we do do that, Special Forces wouldn't be based in Uruzgan, they'd be based either out of Kabul or out of Kandahar, out of a regional centre, so that's essentially what the story is trying to say.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: So it sounds like it's under active consideration that redeployment then?
STEPHEN SMITH: The last two times I've come back from Brussels at Defence Ministers meeting, I've said publicly we're looking at the post-2014 transition arrangements. I've said Australia potentially we could be in the position of indicating a provision of further training. We do artillery training, officer training, so niche higher level training to continue to assist the Afghan National Security Forces. Also the potential for advisors, for military advisors or army advisors which we haven't done since Vietnam. But also ongoing use of Special Forces and as well development assistance, capacity building for helping the institutions of Afghan society, governance arrangements and the like.
MICHAEL ROWLAND: These places Kabul and Kandahar of course being hot spots of late, lots of suicide bombings and other insurgent activity. This would put those Australian forces if they were to go to those two areas, in much greater harms way.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I don't want to make the trite [indistinct] comment but everywhere in Afghanistan is dangerous while the Taliban continue. Now we've been very successful, not just Australia in Uruzgan but the International Security Assistance Force which is some 50 countries under a United Nation’s mandate in pushing back the Taliban. The Taliban have been unable to regain ground from us over the last 12 to 18 months. I've been saying all year they will resort to these high profile propaganda motivated suicide bomb type attacks and regrettably they've been terribly successful, particularly with the assassination of former President Rabbani. And yes, they do have the effect of undermining confidence and sapping political will, which is what they're aimed at.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Just before we quickly move on to other subjects. So that sort of transition of those forces into other areas specifically, that would not take place until after 2014?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well we're on-track for transition by 2014. We've already seen the transition in seven provinces and districts to Afghan responsibility. We're expecting by the end of this year the second so called tranche will occur. That's subject to President Karzai and the Afghan Government's approval. That would see nearly 50 per cent of Afghan territory under the responsibility of Afghan Security Forces. We expect in Uruzgan that the transition will occur in what's called the third tranche, which would see some time, 2012 a transition, but effecting that by 2014. We might get there a bit earlier but currently all the advice is we're on track to make the transition in Uruzgan to Afghan led security responsibility by 2014.
MICHAEL ROWLAND: Now President Barack Obama visits Australia at last - next week and there's been lots of speculation about announcement about closer Defence ties between the two countries, what can we expect from that visit in terms of seeing US troops, US facilities based even more permanently on Australian soil?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I've been around long enough to know that you wait until the President and the Prime Minister open their mouths on the day before you anticipate what might unfold, but-
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: But none of us should fall down in shock and horror if something like that's announced?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well we've been working very closely for over 12 months now with the United States. It started here in Melbourne with AUSMIN 2010. The United States are doing what's called a Global Force Posture Review, how they should position their forces throughout the world. We've had a working party with them looking at potential greater use of training and exercise and facilities in Australia. We're not looking at US bases, we don't have US bases. But it's a greater potential utilisation of what we currently do. We do significant training and exercises with them. So it's what I anecdotally describe as more troops in troops out, more ships in ships out, more planes in planes out.
Also looking at what we can do together on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. But time will tell whether the President and the Prime Minister are any more definitive about that during his visit.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Do you expect to get any grief from the Greens about that given they often have historically a bit of a problem with closer military ties with the United States?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well the primary focus of the President's visit is the fact that this is the 60th Anniversary year of the Alliance between Australia and the United States. That has served us very well. I don't think the Greens support the Alliance so there's a fundamental difference of approach there before you start getting down to the weeds, if you like, of the military engagement.
MICHAEL ROWLAND: Just before we touch briefly on domestic politics, you are announcing your Commando Trust to help the families of Commandos killed [indistinct].
STEPHEN SMITH: Yes, there was a dinner last night put on by the Commando Welfare Trust. Over the years in addition to Governmental assistance we've seen private benefactors assist the families of deceased service men and women. The SAS established a trust in the 1990s and in the last couple of years we've seen the establishment of the Commando Welfare Trust. It's the SAS and the Commandos who do the bulk, if not all, of the Special Forces operations in Afghanistan.
Last night I announced that we would make a contribution of $8 million to that Trust to enable a start to their capital raising so that income from that Trust can be used for the families and the children of Commandos killed effectively in Afghanistan, particularly for educational purposes. And in 2008 we made a comparable contribution to the SAS Trust.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: That money has to be simply a recognition of just how deathly dangerous it's been for Australian soldiers at the moment.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well we've had 32 fatalities, three in recent times in very terrible circumstances and we saw the ramp ceremony over the weekend. Also involved in that terrible event were seven wounded Australians. They returned to Australialast night, to the Amberley Air Base.
But if you look at our fatalities 32, almost half of those are from our Special Forces, from SAS and Commandos and associated Regiments. It's a terrible sacrifice and not only should Governments help but historically we've seen private Australians, whether it's through Legacy or through private trust also helping and it's a very good thing to support.
MICHAEL ROWLAND: Just before we go, did your heart lift when you saw The Australian's front page today and the Labor Party's primary vote above 30 per cent?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I have to confess to you I haven't yet got that far into the newspaper so I don't know what the front page of the The Australian is. But I make the simple point about the Newspoll. It's the trite line which is in the end there's only one poll that you shriek joy about or cry tears over and that's the election which will be in the last quarter of 2013.
What this poll I think does show that is it does make the point that we're one year into a term and two years out. We've been going through some very difficult policy and political issues but I think we're making progress. That's I think reflected not just by today's Newspoll but it's also been reflected by the feedback I've been getting in the community. I was in Perth for all of the CHOGM week and slowly but surely I think we're dealing with the big issues and making ground and that's a good thing and I think the Prime Minister's had a very good couple of weeks.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: So the Government's feeling like you're starting to turn this around?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we will see, I think, the pollution tax, the carbon tax legislation passed by the Senate today. We've got too much carbon in our atmosphere and in our economy, so we've got to put a price on the pollution. So we're effecting that and when that comes into effect next year, together with the compensation payments I think people will see that the world won't end as Tony Abbott has been suggesting.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: But it does mean though that despite what the commentariat has to say, you won't become Prime Minister in the next couple of weeks so are you disappointed about that?
STEPHEN SMITH: That will come as no surprise to me! I strongly support the Prime Minister. I keep on making the point to all concerned there's no vacancy and people should proceed on the basis that there'll be a contest in 2013: the Prime Minister will be leading the Government and it will either be Tony Abbott or Malcolm Turnbull leading the Liberal Party.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Minister, always good to see you, thanks so much.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thank you, thanks very much.