TRANSCRIPT: MEET THE PRESS
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY AND E & OE
DATE: 19 August 2012
TOPICS: SAS; Asylum seekers; Prime Minister; Submarines; Defence budget; DLA Piper; WA pre-selections.
PAUL BONGIORNO: Welcome back to the program Stephen Smith. Good morning, minister.
STEPHEN SMITH: Good morning, Paul.
PAUL BONGIORNO: Well there’s no doubt that John Howard sent an early and uncompromising message on his intentions on asylum seekers by sending the SAS onto the Tampa. Why didn’t the Gillard Government do the same on Monday?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I’ve seen that suggestion from Tony Abbott’s front benchers, and such a suggestion, frankly, was fanciful.
The Parsifal, the relevant ship, was hundreds of nautical miles away from the coast of Western Australia, from Perth and Swanbourne, where the SAS is stationed, and the captain of the ship had to make a judgment about the safety of his ship in pretty short order. So the notion of getting the SAS up there frankly was fanciful, and just again reflects on the judgment and the capacity of Tony Abbott and his team to be making sensible judgments about our national security interests.
PAUL BONGIORNO: Do you rule out ever using the SAS in these circumstances, or similar circumstances?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, unlike Tony Abbott and Mr Morrison, his Immigration Minister, I'm not out there suggesting, as Mr Morrison is, that the SAS should be onboard our patrol boats on a regular basis, out there under operations.
The SAS has a highly specialised task, and from time to time, they are used in what we would regard essentially as domestic or off-shore matters. But you have to make sensible judgements about these things. And the sort of chest-beating that we saw Tony Abbott and Mr Morrison engage in the course of this week, again, as I say, just underlines their lack of ability to make sensible judgements about these matters. You have to understand the operational capability and you have to apply sensible approaches to these things. Some of the suggestions I saw from Mr Morrison would again have done nothing other than put our own personnel at risk.
The captain of the ship made a judgment, so far as the safety of his ship was concerned, took his ship to Christmas Island, and, as I understand it, on arrival at Christmas Island, both he and a number of asylum seekers were interviewed by the Australian Federal Police, as is appropriate.
PAUL BONGIORNO: Well, do you accept that tough rhetoric is probably as important as tough action, that the two go hand in hand, and the Opposition are saying that the Government is lacking on both fronts, that you don't really mean what you are doing?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, as I understand it, the Opposition, Mr Abbott is saying that they refuse to endorse the Malaysian solution because that is too tough for them. If they're talking about toughness, then let them support, not just Nauru, not just Manus Island and Papua New Guinea, but also Malaysia.
As the Houston committee made clear this week, you can have a tough approach, which sends a signal, but which also enables a sensible public policy position to be put in place. So the use of Nauru, the use of Manus Island is now very squarely within the context of a regional frame work and the Bali process, and founded very sensibly on what Angus Houston describes as the no-disadvantage test.
PAUL BONGIORNO: Well on Tuesday the Foreign Minister of Nauru told Ten News he expected most of the boat people to end up in Australia anyway. Here he is:
KIEREN KEKE: Nauru doesn't believe that we are currently in a position to really do justice to the welfare of refugees on the long-term in Nauru. It would be our expectation that Australia would play a large role in resettling persons that were found to be refugees.
PAUL BONGIORNO: He talked about the no-disadvantage test, that translates into asylum seekers not knowing how long they will be on Nauru before they do get to Australia. Have you got the stomach for that?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well firstly, the Foreign Minister of Nauru is no doubt reminding himself of the experience he had under John Howard, where John Howard said not one person who is an asylum seeker who went to Nauru would come to Australia. And what we do know is about 90 per cent of those came to Australia, or to New Zealand. But so far as our approach is concerned, what we have endorsed is the principle in the Houston committee report which says you don't get an advantage by getting on a boat. You are in the same queue.
PAUL BONGIORNO: But that means indefinite detention, doesn't it?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, as the Prime Minister and the Minister for Immigration have made clear, that can mean a lengthy period of detention at Nauru or Manus Island. But that will be the subject of oversight. But that sends the strongest possible signal to the people smugglers, and it is the strongest possible signal to break their business model.
Sending a signal to asylum seekers that you are best off sitting in the queue in off-shore countries, rather than taking the risk of dying on the open seas or spending a long period of time at Nauru or Manus Island.
PAUL BONGIORNO: Just briefly, before we go to the break, the Prime Minister faced a fairly tough interview today. Are you confident that nothing in Julia Gillard's past would prevent her carrying out her job as Prime Minister now?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, absolutely. As the Prime Minister made clear this morning, if people are asking questions about that, they should make an allegation about her conduct. And I see that under the so-called tough questioning that that none of those interviewers made an allegation or made any suggestion about her conduct. And the Prime Minister has quite rightly made the point, what does something that occurred 17 years ago, with respect to a law firm she was working with, that she has an ongoing good relationship, have to do with the big issues of running our national economy and national security interests.
PAUL BONGIORNO: OK, time for a break. When we return with the panel, counting the cost - will the Defence Budget be collateral damage?
PAUL BONGIORNO, PRESENTER: You're on Meet The Press, with Defence Minister Stephen Smith. And it’s welcome to the panel - Malcolm Farr, from news.com.au and Lauren Wilson, The Australian. Good morning to you both.
The Greens are the most strident against the return to Howard-like polices, and say what's on offer is going to bust the bank. That could be a big problem for a Government promising to restore the Budget to surplus.
CHRISTINE MILNE: It's going to be a hugely expensive thing to do. Australians are going to pay to send refugees to Nauru.
JASON CLARE: To implement the entire Houston package, it will cost something like $1 billion per annum.
LAUREN WILSON: Minister, we have seen the footage out of Nauru and Manus Island, the decay, the termite infestation. Isn’t it going to cost more money and take more time to open these facilities than was predicted by the expert panel?
STEPHEN SMITH: Ah, well, certainly, it will take more time than was predicted by Mr Morrison and Mr Abbott over the course of the last 12 months to two years. The Immigration Minister made it clear that these facilities could not be used in the first instance. So the reconnaissance teams have been there, the reconnaissance team has now left Nauru. We are expecting that tonight both reconnaissance teams will be back in Port Moresby, back in Australia tomorrow afternoon or evening, so we will be in a position very early this week to consider their reports, and then start establishing temporary and subsequently permanent facilities. It will be costly.
LAUREN WILSON: We have had more than 500 arrivals since the Monday announcement. Nauru and Manus, when they’re fully operational, are only expected to house 2100 refugees. What is your plan B if the boats keep coming?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well firstly, it will be costly. But the most costly thing to the budget and to Australia would be the ongoing flow of boats to our shores.
Secondly, the implementation of Nauru and Manus Island, and if the Opposition would agree, Malaysia, would break the people smugglers' models, and there would be no point people paying money to people smugglers to risk their lives on the high seas and not end up in Australia. So the quick and early establishment of Nauru and Manus with facilities there for processing, will break the people smugglers’ model and send that signal. And as the Immigration Minister said, he regards the capacity of Nauru and Manus Island at over 2000 - 1500 for Nauru and 600 for Manus.
MALCOLM FARR: Minister, there are some fears within the union movement and industry that the Government is going to cut the number of submarines that it has ordered, plus those that survive the cut will not be built in Australia. Are those concerns justified?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, certainly, so far as our commitment to 12 submarines are concerned, we continue to have that commitment. 12 submarines will form part of the 2013 white paper. I've made that clear to all concerned. The only risk to less than 12 submarines is from Tony Abbott and the Liberals, who refuse to give any commitment to 12 submarines. So far as where they are built, they will be assembled in Adelaide.
I have put out, together with the Defence Materiel Minister Jason Clare, the four options we are looking at - from military off-the-shelf to a wholly new design. And we’re working our way carefully through that. But irrespective of which option we go for, they will be assembled in Adelaide, so there will be a significant amount of work to be done on the manufacturing side in Adelaide.
MALCOLM FARR: All 12?
STEPHEN SMITH: All 12.
PAUL BONGIORNO: Well Minister, on Thursday you reported Australia is on track to quit Afghanistan. Retired General Peter Leahy on this program last week sounded this warning.
PETER LEAHY: I think we are in danger of – let’s call it a peace dividend after pulling out of Afghanistan and Iraq and now East Timor and the Solomon Islands. I think there’ll be a temptation to run down the army, and I think that would be the wrong thing to do.
MALCOLM FARR: So Minister, are you running down the army that protects Australia in order to protect the Budget bottom line and get a surplus going? Is General Leahy correct?
STEPHEN SMITH: No, he is absolutely wrong. And it is not just me who says that, it’s also the Chief of the Defence Force. General Leahy - Former General Leahy said that we are putting Australian soldiers' lives at risk.
None of our Budget has any adverse implication for people on operations in Afghanistan, in the Solomon Islands or in East Timor, or the kit and resources that are given for them. Indeed, we have spent nearly $2 billion more on force protection in Afghanistan since Mr Leahy ceased being chief of the army. So he is wrong, and so far as military numbers are concerned, we won't make the same mistake that the Liberal Party made in the aftermath of Vietnam.
We have committed ourselves to ensuring that these Budget cuts don't adversely impact on our military numbers on the Defence side. We have, of course, announced over the last two years reductions on the civilian side. But we are not making the mistakes that were made post-Vietnam. And one of the reasons for bringing forward the white paper to 2013 was to make sure that we get our strategic settings right in the aftermath of a drawdown from Afghanistan, from East Timor and from the Solomon Islands.
LAUREN WILSON: Minister, can I take you to another topic. You have had the DLA Piper report into allegations of sexual and physical abuse in the Defence Force. When is the Government going to respond to this?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I've had the final report since April of this year. I've been giving that very careful consideration and getting the help of the Attorney-General. In the very near future we expect to be able to publish the Human Rights Commissioner’s – the Sex Discrimination Commissioner’s report into women in the Australian Defence Force. And shortly after the publication of that, I'm expecting to be able to announce the Government's decision so far as DLA Piper is concerned.
LAUREN WILSON: Have you ruled out a Royal Commission?
STEPHEN SMITH: No, I have not ruled out a Royal Commission. All of those options remain on the table from a Royal Commission into all or parts of the allegations, together with compensation for the victims, together with notions of reconciliation, tribunals and the like, so all of those options remain on the table.
MALCOLM FARR: Minister, on Friday evening, the national executive of the ALP endorsed you and your fellow West Australian Minister Gary Gray. What sort of parlous circumstances are two senior Ministers in when the national executive has to intervene to protect them?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I don't think there was any difficulty so far as either Gary Gray's pre-selection or my pre-selection were concerned, but these days, a state branch has to get the approval of the national executive for its timetable. The Western Australian branch and the national executive were in discussion about the timetable for Western Australia. The national executive approved the timetable which will essentially see pre-selections done on a September/October timetable. The national executive took the opportunity of pre-selecting two sitting Ministers.
This is not unique or necessarily unusual: it is not the first time it has occurred, it won’t be the last time it has occurred. But from my personal point of view, I was happy to face pre-selection at whatever level, whether that was local level, state executive level here in Perth, or national executive. I'm very proud to have been pre-selected again.
PAUL BONGIORNO: Haven't party reformers though been urging to restore power to the rank and file?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well in my own case, Paul, I have not noticed any of my local rank and file here agitating for any other candidate. It is not unusual for the national executive to say, “We are in Government, we’ve got Ministers who are busy, and they are entitled to be endorsed by the national executive.”
PAUL BONGIORNO: OK. Thank you very much for being with us today, Stephen Smith.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks very much.