TOPICS: Australia-New Zealand Defence Ministers’ Meeting; Afghanistan; the Royal Australian Navy; HMNZS Canterbury; Queensland floods; Rapid Response Team
WAYNE MAPP: Ladies and gentlemen, Minister Stephen Smith and myself have had our annual Defence Ministers' Meeting. It was slightly delayed this year because, of course, the Australian elections. We will be compensating for that by having a further meeting later this year and then one relatively early in 2012 for reasons that are a bit obvious, there will be a new Minister at that point in time.
The objective today was very much to look at the discussions with a more strategic approach. Both our countries have recently completed White Papers. Those White Papers looked at our broad strategic setting but also they've been undertaken in a climate of fiscal constraint and that has certainly formed part of the discussion today: how the modern Defence forces, with the range of deployments we have, operate under a time of a careful focus on budget.
You may well recall that 18 months ago there was a plan put together to establish a Ready Response Force. Our two Departments have been working on that now for some little while and that's come together and will be stood up in March of this year.
Initially there will be essentially a planning group and two New Zealand officers will be going to Brisbane to be part of that. And then a little later this year there'll be the first training that will come out of that, very much focused on our region.
The Ready Response Force is primarily focused around humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and the like and I think we all know that there's plenty of practical examples of why that should be within our region.
We quite clearly have an extremely close relationship extending back really more than a century now. And within our region our two countries really have a leadership role and we invariably do that together and this was very evident in both of our White Papers. And our Pacific neighbours do look to us to be reliable partners in times of need, be it around civil assistance or be it around supporting Governments as in the case particularly with the Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste.
Of course further afield we're involved in joint endeavours including in Afghanistan. And of course I should note at this point that the Australian people suffered a further loss with Corporal Atkinson and that demonstrates the challenges I think of bringing stability to that part of the world. And both of us do that because it's in our national interests to do so. We need to ensure that Afghanistan can never become again a safe haven for terrorists. Both of our peoples have suffered in the various terrorist incidents over the last decade and so those deployments do serve our national interests.
In Brussels this year there will be a further NATO-ISAF Meeting of Defence Ministers and obviously one of the key issues there for discussion will be transition.
Can I say the discussions were, as you would expect between two nations so close, very candid. We were able to sort of drill down and deal with the important issues that affect our Defence forces going forward and actually learn from each other to get more effectiveness out of that. And both Mr Smith and myself do want to lift the quality of and depth of that discussion to a new level.
And we've charged our Deputy Secretaries to do precisely that and they'll be reporting back to us in July of this year about an improved or strategic dialogue and looking for the opportunities for a more joint approach around a whole range of things.
STEPHEN SMITH: Wayne, thank you very much firstly to you as Defence Minister. Thank you very much for your warm welcome and your hospitality and also for our very productive meeting this morning.
It's my fourth visit to New Zealand as a Minister in the Australian Government; my first as Defence Minister.
In general terms, Australia has a comprehensive and close relationship with New Zealand. Indeed it is our most comprehensive relationship and our closest relationship. That's reflected by the fact that we have so many shared values and virtues and the distance between us is quite small, separated only by the Tasman Sea.
Our defence relationship helps make up that comprehensive and close relationship and the defence, military, strategic and security cooperation between Australia and New Zealand is very, very firm. But both the Minister and I believe that we can take that to a new level in two respects: in terms of our strategic conversations, but secondly in terms of the practical things that we do.
Australia and New Zealand, of course, are very important nations in the Pacific. And one of our longstanding priorities has been to ensure that together we have the capability and the capacity to maintain stability and security in the Pacific and to deliver humanitarian assistance and disaster relief when required. And there are very many examples of our shared efforts and our shared experiences in that respect. And the Minister has referred to our joint contributions in East Timor, our contribution in the Solomon Islands and the disaster relief and humanitarian assistance which we have delivered jointly throughout our region. But we believe we can do more.
We, of course, and it's not just Australia and New Zealand, it's the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, these comparable countries, comparable Defence and military forces. We live in the modern era where there are fiscal constraints, where domestic constituencies, quite rightly, require and demand value for money and where we have to ensure that we maximise the economic efficiency of defence capability.
And that's one of the reasons we believe that we can work even more closely together on capability and, as Wayne has indicated, we have charged our Departmental Secretaries with the job of ensuring that into the future, not just on day to day operational matters but looking even further afield, we are discussing and thinking about interoperability, about joint procurement, about joint capability, and the like.
In that context, can I say that I'm very pleased that we have made substantial progress on our so-called Rapid Response Force. This is a very important planning tool. I'm also very pleased, as the detail of our joint media statement indicates, that one of the early priorities we are giving to the Rapid Response Team is the use of the Canterbury for potential training and exercises on the delivery of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
This is very important for Australia in the long term because it continues to meet our joint obligation to play a leading role. That is, I've made clear in Australia in recent times we have challenges on the amphibious front, and being able to work very closely with New Zealand in terms of potential joint exercises, joint use, joint planning of the Canterbury is a very significant achievement and benefit so far as Australia is concerned. So that's been a most important development so far as the day's meeting has been concerned. But more generally we are looking at what we can do in terms of cooperation on airlift capability, capacity, and the like.
In addition to our own region we, of course, work closely together further afield. And Wayne has referred to the fact that we are both in Afghanistan to help stare down international terrorism. Can I thank you for the condolences that you have expressed on the loss of our twenty-second soldier in the course of the Afghanistan contributions last week. And today we will see, in Darwin, the ramp ceremony for the return of Corporal Atkinson to Australia. I thank Wayne for the messages of condolences. They'll be much appreciated by the family, meeting as we do in the context of ANZAC Defence Ministers Meeting.
More generally, can I say that I regard our meeting on defence matters as important in its own right, but also an important precursor to the Prime Minister's visit next week. Everyone appreciates the comprehensive nature of the people-to-people exchanges between Australia and New Zealand, the economic and trade exchanges, the fact that we have the most successful Free Trade Agreement that the world has seen for a substantial period of time, over a quarter of a century, and the trade and commerce and people movement integration continues. Everyone sees that and that is an unambiguously good thing to continue.
Not enough people see the strength of what we do in the security, strategic, defence cooperation space. We have an obligation as nations in our region to perform that role in our region, and I'm very pleased that next week we'll see the Prime Minister's first visit to New Zealand but also see the historic address by an Australian Prime Minister in and to your Parliament. I know the Prime Minister is very much looking forward both to her visit and to that great honour. Thank you.
QUESTION: Ministers, what do you make of Hamid Karzai's comments overnight about troops’ role of PRTs?
WAYNE MAPP: I think that sits within the context, really, of all the discussion around transition. And that is going to be a key part of the discussion. So I think he was reflecting the desire by Afghanistan to progressively take responsibility for its own security. Obviously it's in the interest, actually, of the NATO-ISAF partners, of which there are 52, to see that process occur.
I guess it's fundamentally a question about timing and pace and the actual conditions on the ground. But certainly, whenever I've been to Afghanistan and to the NATO ISAF Meetings, invariably the Minister of Defence of Afghanistan is of high praise of the rolling out of Provincial Reconstruction Teams. But both Afghanistan and indeed we are looking forward to a progressive transfer of responsibility in the Bamiyan Province.
QUESTION: But do they undermine the role of local authorities, as he is saying?
WAYNE MAPP: Well, no, I don't believe they do. They actually provide capacity building. If we didn't have the Provincial Reconstruction Team in the Bamiyan Province, it would be very difficult to build the level of governmental authority that the Afghanistan Government has in Bamiyan Province.
And as I say, whenever I've been there, Governor Sarabi is full of praise and they're always looking at improving the relationship. Since I became Minister and working closely with Minister McCully, we are shifting focus of our total effort to working more in partnership with the Government of Afghanistan.
So the statements made, I think, can be seen really in the context of being a precursor to the discussions that are going to take place in Brussels.
QUESTION: Do you think he's just saying it because he's got a domestic audience or constituency over there, and he says something different, of course, to all the other partners that are over there working alongside Afghan forces?
WAYNE MAPP: As I say, everyone knows that there's discussion about transition. You can obviously talk about that in different ways and different contexts. But I think the overall direction is actually commonly held.
QUESTION: The Prime Minister indicated late last year that you were going to start reviewing the phase out of the PRT. What's your best guess now of when you will [indistinct] Bamiyan?
WAYNE MAPP: I've always said it's a 2013, maybe 2014 process. The overall mission in Afghanistan really does fit within that timeframe and we would [indistinct] in a situation where we're going to fully transfer the security responsibility because that's the key role actually of the PRT within Bamiyan, within that timeframe.
Now you have to progressively achieve that. You can't be at one level on one day and drop to zero the next. You have to progressively step down. It was always going to be based on conditions on the ground.
But we are certainly looking forward to the discussion around transition because most of Bamiyan, though not all of it, most of it has been reasonably stable. But of course we do know, and the death of Lieutenant Tim O'Donnell certainly underscores the point, that there's parts of it that have still got risks, which we need to address.
QUESTION: Do you think President Karzai's going to ask you to withdraw earlier than 2013?
WAYNE MAPP: Well, it will be a joint discussion that we have in Brussels, and [indistinct] around the transition.
QUESTION: Minister Smith, would you like to see more New Zealand personnel at Uruzgan?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, let me make some remarks about PRTs and transition and then I'll respond to that.
Firstly, neither Australia nor New Zealand want to be in Afghanistan forever. And neither does the Afghan Government, the Afghan people or the Afghan nation want the international community to be in Afghanistan forever, which is why we've all committed ourselves to a transition process predicated on giving the Afghan Security Forces and the Afghan nation the capacity to manage and lead its own security arrangements. That is why, for example, in Uruzgan Province, our key focus and our key mission is to train the 4th Brigade of the Afghan National Army and put them in a position to manage security affairs in Uruzgan.
So I read President Karzai's statement as reflecting the desire of the President and his Government to effect that transition process. That transition process can only be conditions-based.
In our case, we believe we are on track to effect our training role in Uruzgan Province over the next one to three years; in other words, to meet the timetable established as the ambition by the international community, by the Kabul Conference and also at the NATO Summit in Lisbon, which Prime Minister Gillard and I attended. So the focus on transition is very important and we believe we're making progress on that front.
But also we have said that once that training role has finished, we do envisage in the longer term the capacity for Australia to be there in a different manner or form, potentially an over-watch role or possibly special forces, but also most importantly, the notion of capacity building, civilian capacity building and long term development assistance.
In terms of New Zealand and its contribution to the Afghanistan effort, like Australia, New Zealand believes that it's in New Zealand's national interest and in the international community's interest to make a contribution to staring down international terrorism. The substantial New Zealand contribution of course is either in Bamiyan Province or in Kabul. There is a presence of nine or 10 New Zealanders in Uruzgan and we work very closely with them and we appreciate that very much.
The allocation of New Zealand forces is, of course, entirely a matter for New Zealand. But we are very pleased with the effort that New Zealand puts in, not just through its officers, its high quality officers in Uruzgan, but also generally. And it is yet another example of the ANZAC forces jointly making a contribution to a difficult international mission.
QUESTION: You've lost 22 soldiers. We have lost one. Is it fair to say that we are doing an equal amount as Australia?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, any loss of any soldier is a blow to a nation and a tragedy to the family concerned, so this is not something that can be judged in quantitative terms. We're deeply remorseful when you lost your soldier in Bamiyan Province, just as you've seen the Minister express publicly what he expressed to me privately at the time and today about New Zealand's remorse at the loss to Australia.
Australia, of course, is a larger country than New Zealand. We make a contribution which we believe is appropriate to the role that Australia plays in the world. We are in the top dozen economies; we are in the top 12 countries in terms of prosperity, income per capita; we're in the top dozen in terms of defence and peacekeeping spend. And we regard ourselves as having an obligation not just to our region but to be a good international citizen. And we believe our contribution in Afghanistan reflects the size and the nature of our country. Our population is considerably larger than New Zealand's.
It is not for us to make a comment about New Zealand's contribution other than to say we regard New Zealand's contribution as important, as appropriate, and we would be the sadder and the poorer if it were not there. And that contribution has been at some cost to New Zealand.
QUESTION: Minister Smith, just on the sharing of the Canterbury, does that mean that Australia is now not going to be looking to lease amphibious vessels to tide it over while the decommissioning…
STEPHEN SMITH: It's a very good question. It enables me to make some more general remarks about the Navy and the use of Australian ships because there's some commentary back in Australia that I'll refer to.
People need to understand when it comes to a modern Navy, whether it be Australia's Navy or anyone else's Navy, that your starting point cannot be that every ship you have is in the water at the same time. So it is starting from a fundamentally false premise if you proceed on the basis that every ship in your fleet has to be in the water at the same time. Some ships are on operation, some ships are undergoing maintenance, some ships are being used for training purposes and some ships are undergoing necessary upgrades of combat systems, and the like. That's the first point.
Secondly, in terms of the Australian Navy, the Chief of the Navy advises me that over the last 12 months, all of the assigned tasking that the Australian Navy has been asked to do, it has done, at the same time, it has carried out all of its international and domestic training exercises and obligations. So I make that point to put the challenges that the Navy has into a proper context.
So far as our amphibious lift fleet is concerned, I've made it clear in recent times that we have a considerable challenge in that area. And it's not the only area where Navy and the Defence Force has a challenge. We have a considerable challenge in terms of maintaining operability of our submarines. That issue is well-known and of longstanding.
We have considerable challenges where I believe we are making, under the Chief of Navy, real progress in training and manning.
In terms of our amphibious fleet, we are moving, transitioning to Landing Helicopter Docks which are being effectively built in Spain and assembled in Australia.
And we expect to have that capacity, two of those up and running, essentially on a timetable 2014 to 2016. So we have to transition to that. And we've known in recent times, with advice to me in January of this year to decommission the Manoora, advice to me that the Kanimbla would be out of operation until the middle of next year, and Tobruk being on 48 hour operational notice and subsequently going into maintenance to enable it to be fully prepared for North Queensland cyclone work if it was required, which in the event it wasn't.
We've known for some time that there were challenges in our capability capacity in the amphibious fleet area. That's why we're doing three things. Firstly, I've asked Defence to give me comprehensive advice as to what more we need to do to ensure that we meet that transition. Secondly, I've raised with Defence Secretary Fox the question or the issue of leasing a Bay Class, which we are pursuing with vigour. And, thirdly, which stands independently from our joint proposal or our joint understanding on the Canterbury, being able to utilise the Canterbury jointly, if I can use that expression, for regional disaster relief and humanitarian assistance is a very good thing for Australia and New Zealand to do. It makes sense strategically for the long term, just as cooperation on airlift makes sense. But in the short term, that also provides the potential for a substantial fillip to Australia's capacity where I have made clear we have challenges and we need to be very careful to make sure we meet the necessary capability into the future.
So the proposal in respect to the rapid response force and the Canterbury stands alone. It's a sensible thing to do as an example of enhanced interoperability and cooperation, but in the shorter term it provides a very significant contribution to Australia's amphibious lift potential, particularly in the context of joint disaster relief in our region.
QUESTION: And just on the issue then of capability of boats, obviously, Dr Mapp, there have been problems with the offshore patrol vessels. I'm wondering - you've asked for a review into the problems faced by the Otago and the Wellington. Have you received any response from that and, similarly, how confident are you of getting any boats built by Tenix in Williamstown ever again?
WAYNE MAPP: Well, let's deal with the Wellington and Otago situation. That issue's essentially been resolved now and those vessels are, well, about to go down to the Southern Antarctic area for a full testing of its systems. The Navy is very confident that the issues, which were actually relatively minor as it turned out, have in fact been satisfactorily resolved.
I think the broader issue around the Canterbury, as you know, had some issues itself, and the effectiveness of it as between New Zealand and Australia demonstrates that in some areas we're often down, sort of, you know, one, two, three platforms and that things are not quite right. Even jointly these issues represent some challenges.
It's one of the reasons why we've asked our Secretaries to look more carefully at this contingent sort of capability management issue, because in many cases, even the combined effort of the two countries still means you're down sort two, three, four ships in that regard.
So it makes sense to sort of step back a bit and think, so what is actually required in our region. And you only have to look over the last 12 months or so, that there is a sort of increased tempo of natural disasters in the region. And we can't assume that will decline and so there's a real focus on doing this sort of thing more effectively. The Ready Response Force started off with a bit of thinking around the security dimension, shifted pretty quickly on to more around humanitarian assistance, disaster relief dimension as being sort of a practical focus. Our White Paper and indeed the Australian White Paper puts it in this sort of context.
Within our region, New Zealand and Australia together, basically have to lead on every foreseeable contingency. And because the rest of the world expects us to do so and our Pacific Island partners also expect it, they want to be able to see us as reliable partners able to provide the support that they themselves cannot.
And so we have a responsibility both to ourselves and to the wider region to be able to do that. And we need to take a more strategic look at the capabilities and certainly look at our own Defence Force. And I can certainly see this evolving also in Australia as well and through the White Paper, a sense that you have a range of capabilities that might lean more towards the humanitarian assistance, disaster relief logistics, and that that is a core task of any Defence force in the modern era. And then sort of another capability level beyond that, but often probably more focused outside of the region, although having said that Timor Leste and the Solomons both have significant security dimensions as well.
So, the Canterbury issues I think are sort of a little bit of a microcosm of thinking forward on how best to provide essential capabilities within the region and the need to actually work more closely to be able to do that.
QUESTION: Aside from the [indistinct] that are going to Brisbane in March, will a group of New Zealand troops be based in Brisbane as part of that Ready Response Force?
WAYNE MAPP: It's not the current intention. It's more of a planning capacity and the ability to ensure that people are [indistinct] training is an inherent part of that. It's not difficult to shift people both ways across the Tasman for that purpose and to actually live in each other's countries. But certainly you've got to have a force working closely together on a whole-time basis.
QUESTION: Mr Mapp, how many New Zealand personnel eventually went to Queensland to help out with the flood and cyclone?
WAYNE MAPP: Well, it wasn't actually ultimately required. But what it illustrates is that both of our countries actually expect each other when times are tough to make the offer. Now circumstances will dictate whether the offer needs to be accepted, but the offer is expected. We would expect it of Australia and we were extremely grateful for their assistance over the Pike River and transportation of the GAG machine and so forth.
And Australia would anticipate that we would provide that assistance and of course we would mutually do it as neighbours. As I say, how it actually plays out might be different. The key thing actually is being in a position to make the offer when it's necessary.
STEPHEN SMITH: Can I just add to that. Firstly, when Wayne rang me in the very early days offering whatever assistance New Zealand could provide in terms of Defence force personnel, I was very grateful for that.
We were able to make that judgement quite quickly that we had sufficient resources in terms of personnel and also assets to manage what effectively has been the largest Defence force personnel deployment for a natural or civil disaster since Cyclone Tracy back in the 1970s. But it would be wrong of me to allow the impression to be created that New Zealand has not or did not make a contribution to our natural disasters.
We were very appreciative of the fact that first cab off the rank in terms of international assistance was 13 or 15 Emergency Management Authority workers from New Zealand who went to Queensland, not to Brisbane nor to Ipswich but to Condamine, one of the smaller towns, which had been very severely hit by the flood and by the flash storms, and performed a very significant task and role in terms of helping that community. And New Zealand, of course, has also made a substantial monetary contribution to the Premier's Appeal.
But we are both prosperous and well-developed countries. And when these natural disasters occur, generally we are in a position to manage these things by ourselves. We very much appreciate the offer, we very much appreciate the assistance and often the assistance is specialised or niche tasks.
Because we are also a great minerals and petroleum producing country, the entire Australian community was deeply saddened to see the recent mine disaster that you had. We were also very pleased, and I was personally very pleased to be able to use a Royal Australian Air Force C-130 to transport a robot that was believed to provide some useful effort so far as the rescue was concerned.
So it is not as if we don't do things to help each other. But as Wayne has said, we're such good friends that the important thing is the offer. Invariably it's the case that we have sufficient resources of our own to manage. But what that cooperation and friendship does, as Wayne has correctly drawn attention to, is that when a disaster occurs in our region we work hand in glove. We're both practical nations and practical people, so when a tsunami or a cyclone occurs in our region, to date historically there's been very quick and close cooperation which is: here's the problem, we can deliver this, you can deliver that, let's get together and do it. And that's a very good thing.
What we need to do is just to put a bit more longer term planning into that and put some better longer term structures in place. And that is, if you like, the essence of the Rapid Response Team. They will form the basis for the plan, but as Wayne has said, it won't necessarily mean that personnel are spending long periods of time either in Australia or New Zealand as the case may be.
QUESTION: How large do you see that force being?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, it would depend again, the force which is deployed, the rapid response will depend upon what's required at the time. It will be a different composition for different disasters or different humanitarian assistance.
QUESTION: Will there be a core though? How big will that core of that force be?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, as Wayne has said, generally it's the case that we have sufficient either amphibious lift or airlift to do the immediate disaster relief and humanitarian assistance. What we add to that invariably requires an inspection of the damage and then to look at what specialist or niche or skilled areas are required.
So it will vary from time to time. But the key thing is we think this puts us in a position to respond better and more quickly on a better long term plan basis.
QUESTION: Just go back to that question on Hamid Karzai, are his comments unhelpful?
WAYNE MAPP: Well, I mean, he is representing the concerns the Afghan people naturally have. They ultimately want to be able to be in charge of our country. That's their country. That of course is also the intent of the NATO-ISAF partners. I wasn't surprised because it puts into a context of actually discussions on transition. That is actually going to be the lead topic in the Defence Ministers' Meeting in Brussels.
QUESTION: But you reject that claim that we're not making progress.
WAYNE MAPP: I believe we are making progress. In fact every report that I get shows that progress has been made and I see it when I go there. There's a tangible difference in the place, each visit that I make you can see real progress. You can see a greater level of infrastructure capacity, you see people - more kids at school, more health [indistinct]. And you actually also see - and this is probably the critical part - an increased capability within the Afghan Government's arrangements. You can see obvious improvements over time.
Now you can sort of project that out forward and that's why people say 2013, 2014 looks like you've essentially [indistinct] task and the capacity of Afghanistan Government has got to a point where they essentially take prime responsibility.
STEPHEN SMITH: The transition also will vary from province to province, indeed from district to district. So in Uruzgan, for example, we are not expecting or proceeding on the basis that Uruzgan will be in a position to effect a transition in the short term, which is why we're still working on what we describe as essentially a one to three year timetable, meeting the international community's aspiration of 2014.
But we believe that progress has been. For example, at the most recent parliamentary election in Uruzgan Province, the Afghan National Security Forces had lead responsibility for security of the election on the day, planned the security arrangements and led them on the day. There was no need for Australian or any of the other International Security Assistance Force partners in Uruzgan to move in to render any assistance. And that was, we believe, if you like, an anecdotal expression of making progress in terms of security capacity, because we know the Taliban sought to actively disrupt the election process. So that was, in our view, a good sign.
We also believe that progress is being made. The key thing is having made progress, to consolidate the ground, which is why a mistake we don't want to make is to transition too early.
But the expressions that we've seen from President Karzai, and we've seen any number of expressions from President Karzai since his re-election last year, have all had the same fundamental starting point, which is he wants his Government, his people, his nation, to manage the affairs of his nation. That seems to me to be a quite reasonable aspiration.
The International Security Assistance Force is in Afghanistan at the invitation of the Afghan Government are also importantly has been supported by a unanimous United Nations mandate from day one.
But we don't want to be there forever, we can't be there forever. But we think we're on track to transition in accordance with the timetable that the Lisbon Conference has set out. But it will vary from province to province. The transition in Bamiyan Province will occur at a different time to the transition in Uruzgan Province.