TRANSCRIPT: Press conference with Canada’s Minister of National Defence Peter Mackay and Minister for Defence Stephen Smith
TRANSCRIPTION: Proof Copy E & OE
DATE: 12 September 2011
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks very much for turning up. Firstly, can I officially and formally welcome Canada’s Minister of National Defence, Peter MacKay. Peter, can I say how pleased I am to see you in Australia.
This is not the first occasion that Peter and I have met formally but it’s the first occasion that we’ve met either in Australia or in Canada and we’re very pleased to see Peter having an extensive program in Australia and then subsequently he’ll leave Australia and visit New Zealand.
We started the day with a wreath-laying at the War Memorial. It signified two things, firstly it was Australia and Canada paying our respects and our condolences to the Canadian and Australian citizens lost at September 11, the 10th anniversary, of course, yesterday. Canada lost 24 citizens. Australia lost 10. But as well it also reflected the longstanding and shared experience that Australia and Canada have, shoulder to shoulder in military and defence endeavours.
The Director of the War Memorial reminded Peter and I this morning that it was Australian and Canadian forces that broke the line at Amiens. He also reminded us, of course, we served together in Korea following our service in the First and Second World Wars, and we were together at Kapyong, the 60th anniversary of which we celebrated recently.
And, of course, we also have shared experience both in East Timor and also in Afghanistan where Canada has, over the period of its time in Afghanistan, contributed some 38,000 troops, now some hundreds of troops in Kandahar, transitioning to a training program in Kabul of nearly 1000 training personnel. So we have a significant and deeply shared military and defence experience.
Most importantly what we share is a great friendship and shared values and virtues and Peter and I have, on more than one occasion, had the conversation which is if you took the United States away from Canada’s southern border, if you took away the French influence, then Australia and Canada are very, very comparable: large land mass countries, federated states with a lot of geographic, social and economic diversity from the west coast to the east coast.
So we share a lot in common and that, in very many respects reflected by the fact that Prime Minister Harper is one of the few international leaders who has formally addressed our Parliament.
But we’re very pleased to see you here, Peter.
We’ve just come from a formal bilateral meeting and I’ll go through some of the issues that we discussed.
Firstly, we have agreed that from here on in we will have formal Australia-Canada Ministerial Bilateral Meetings on an annual basis. We will also have meetings of our Chiefs of Defence Forces on an annual basis and meetings of our defence officials at Deputy Secretary level also on an annual basis.
These won’t necessarily take place in Canada or Australia but may well take place in the margins of regional or multilateral forums which we attend.
We’ve also agreed that we will have a strategic dialogue on some of the key procurement, acquisition, capability and budget reform issues that both of us share.
Whether it’s Australia, Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, other countries, we all live now in a world where budget restraint, where capability procurement and acquisition are very much live challenges and live issues and you’ve seen a substantial reform program from the Australian Government in the course of this year. We think there are very many shared experiences and we will have a formal strategic dialogue on that front.
We’re also, very pleased to announce, that Australia will obtain from Canada some anti-IED capability; protected vehicles with sensor capability in the vehicles. We will take use of these from early next year as Canada winds down its effort in Kandahar and so on a very practical front we are enhancing the anti-IED capability through being able to loan from Canada some very important equipment and there’s a formal statement to that effect to be released shortly.
In addition to Afghanistan, we also discussed Australia’s relationship with NATO and Australia’s keenness to develop our relationship with NATO to a strategic partnership with Canada as one of the very important Members of NATO.
We also discussed issues specific to NATO, in particular Libya – and Peter may well make some remarks in that respect – and more generally and closer to home discussed significant Asia-Pacific issues.
We also touched upon some capability issues that we share: Submarines and Joint Strike Fighters.
So, Peter, I’m very pleased to formally welcome you here. In the course of his visit today and tomorrow, Peter will also formally meet with the Foreign Minister, with the Minister for Defence Materiel, the Minister for Home Affairs and the Minister for Veteran’s Affairs. He will also, together with his High Commissioner and officials, have a formal roundtable with Defence officials.
So, Peter, if I could call upon you to make some opening remarks and we’ll then respond to your questions.
PETER MACKAY: I’d be delighted. Stephen. Thank you firstly for your very kind hosting of myself and our delegation here and yesterday was a very poignant day, certainly for all, and I began the day by going first to your War Memorial and museum and then attending the 9/11 commemorative services here with your Prime Minister and some of your colleagues.
North Americans, of course, reflected, as did the world, on those events and looking back 10 years at lessons learned at what we try to do collectively in making the world a safer place leads me inevitably to the conclusion that Australia’s contributions, as our own, are making a huge difference in the world.
I couldn’t help but feel very sombre looking at the names at your memorial, as I have seen at similar memorials in our own country, in places around the world where Canada and Australia, as you’ve mentioned, Minister, have spent time contributing in an enormous way, in a substantial way, and the names that are etched in stone found on those memorials are a very firm reminder of the resilience that we share, of the resolve that we have demonstrated as nations, and our military, first and foremost, the sacrifice that they have made.
And let me say very clearly that our experience through NATO as a founding nation, what we have as common experience now in Afghanistan is truly a remarkable one, a relationship that is so unique and so significant in today’s world.
And there is a great deal that we, as Canadians, can learn from Australia and that’s why I’m so grateful to be here on your home turf, having these very substantive discussions on a whole range of topics which you have touched on.
Australia is a go-to nation, is a top-tier nation when it comes to the contributions that you’ve made not only in Afghanistan but throughout your history.
It’s instructive that we are able to not only build on that history but look to one another for lessons learned and that’s why I so value this opportunity to be here. We’ve had exchanges at a very high – the highest military level. Our Chief of Defence Staff has met with your Chief within the last year and formalising these discussions so that we can have annual exchanges, annual lessons learned, I think we will not only bring our own relationship but our capabilities, our interoperability, if you will, and our contributions to the world to new heights.
Afghanistan in particular is an example of where Australia has punched above its weight and I’m speaking in particular of the role that Australia has played in Regional Command South in Uruzgan Province, but throughout the country and, if I could highlight in particular the respect that our Canadian Forces have for yours and in the Special Forces community, Australia is a country that the world needs more of.
And that has been true in the mission, in Afghanistan, but it has been true on so many occasions throughout our history, going back, as you so rightly outlined, to the First World War. I think in particular of the history of Gallipoli.
And the shared history that we have, the Royal Newfoundland Regiment who landed on the shores near Gallipoli as well, is part of our shared history, as tragic and as sombre as that history is. It was really around the same time that our nations were making their mark in the world and coming into their own.
I’m very, very grateful for the fact that you have been so forthcoming in sharing information today at a military-to-military level.
Your history, Stephen, as Foreign Minister is again a shared history that I have in my own country. And I know at a personal level, we’ve been able to have very formidable discussions that matter to our countries.
We as Canada, like Australia, are going through challenges with respect to the world economic recession, and the impact that that has on all of our Departments. The Department of National Defence traditionally has been an area in which Finance Ministers have always looked to find savings. And for our part we will do what we have to do in order to contribute to that process and to see that the bottom line financially is achieved.
So to be able to have these discussions today and hear from some of the decision making and the transformation that you’re going through is extremely helpful when it comes to our own contemplation of how to prioritise things such as procurement, how to deal with some of the very challenging times that we face as far as our own operations and priorities within our Department.
And because we are like minded – because of those values that you mentioned are so prominent in our countries, I truly believe that if we were able to shrink the distance, we would be spending so much time within our own countries. I’m hopeful that by formalising some of these exchanges today as we discussed, one of which that I personally feel will be of benefit to our militaries is the exchanges that take place – the operations that we share, the exercises that we share, having perhaps a more formalised cadet exchange program. All of this will take us to new heights.
And I would simply conclude by saying I want to congratulate you on the opening win at the World Cup. Australia certainly showed up, particularly in the second half, but that is – and I make too many sports analogies – the world wants Australia on the field at all times. And we are always very proud to be there, to be conducting operations, and to look for new ways in which we can have a very, very productive, first rate relationship. And I’m confident that that will happen.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well Peter, thank you very much; Thank you for those very generous remarks. Peter has mentioned one thing which I’ll just touch upon before inviting questions. We’ve also agreed, as Peter indicated, to look at the possible formal exchange of some of our cadets from some of our institutions; Duntroon, ADFA and the like, and that’s a very good thing.
Finally, I should have mentioned in my opening remarks, Australia and Canada are of course members of the so called Five Eyes intelligence community: United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.
And so we work very closely on the intelligence front. And a point that Peter and I have both made publicly in recent days in the aftermath of 11 September, intelligence gathering, intelligence sharing, intelligence assessment is very much a high priority because that leads to prevention rather than to post-mortems and that’s an issue that we discussed this morning as well. We do have some time constraints, but I’m happy to invite questions.
JOURNALIST: Mr McKay, in terms of Afghanistan, there’s a lot of commentary that’s steady contradictory – different organisations; even in the United States have different views on progress in the war and the likelihood of success in Afghanistan.
What’s the Canadian Government’s view at the moment? And your role is obviously transitioning from a combat role to a training role. Do you feel that the time’s right for that, and what’s your prognosis on how it’s going?
PETER MACKAY: Well there’s no question that by any assessment, it has been a tough slog. We have come to the conclusion that our own contribution will now transition to this training posture in and around Kabul the capital. And our history there, like Australia’s, has been predominantly in the south in the Kandahar region – although we’ve had a presence in Kabul as well since the mission began back in 2001.
Much of the responsibility now has to be assumed by the Afghanistan Government and Afghanistan Security Forces. This is why we’ve made the informed decision that putting our emphasis now on training the Afghans, elevating their professional Army and their policing to a greater proficiency – a greater level of professionalism is where our focus will now be centred.
Having said that, in Kandahar province, Canadian forces have bled and have given significantly to the effort there. And is there a difference? Yes. I’ve seen it over the course of visits that I’ve made. We still of course receive extensive briefings that tell us that the climate is changing; that the culture of optimism now exists where it didn’t before.
And you can see the physical signs of change. The schools that are opened, the roads, the economy, the presence of their own Government in institutions that matter to the people of the south and that matter throughout the country. And now, a systematic turning over of responsibility at a province by province level tells me that much progress has been made, but not to be naïve, it’s volatile, it’s fragile, and that primary responsibility to maintain peace and order must be assumed by the Afghan Government.
Their security forces – and the last thing I would say, have come a long way when one considers where they were just a few short years ago – both in numbers and in capability. And Stephen and I both hear regular updates through NATO and through other lines from Minister Wardak, our counterpart, and through the military chain of command in Afghanistan. They’re able to now independently conduct operations. They’ve put great emphasis around their borders which has of course been an ongoing problem. And they are much more proactive in going out and engaging and protecting their own population, which is their responsibility.
And so, we are turning it over to them at a rate which we think is commensurate with their capability and we have nothing but admiration for the role that Australia has made in that progress.
We’ve seen first hand the courage, the commitment, and the tremendous capability that Australia has brought to this conflict.
STEPHEN SMITH: Can I just add Peter’s been very generous in his remarks about Australia’s contribution. We should all, I think, bear in mind, the Canadian contribution, some 38,000 over the period since the start of Afghanistan in the aftermath of September 11.
Secondly, Canada, at one of the toughest and hardest fighting spots, Kandahar. And thirdly, in the face of 157 fatalities, has really put in a tremendous effort. And any nation of Canada’s size and population which suffers 157 fatalities sends a shudder through the community. And it’s great to Canada’s credit that it made such a substantial contribution in the face of such terrible losses.
As Peter has said, we strongly support the transition strategy and Canada’s contribution on the training front will be invaluable as we proceed towards the 2014 timetable for transition in Afghanistan.
JOURNALIST: Minister, one of things that enable both our countries’ forces to do the work they do in Afghanistan is the work of locally based interpreters there. I’m wondering, can you tell me how you see Australia’s obligation to those people, both in a model sense, and financial sense and in an immigration sense to them and their families while they are working for our Government and after they are working for our Government after the transition? And maybe Minister MacKay has a view as well.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well in the first instance we have an obligation to their safety and security, and that is the basis up on which we proceed – that is the obvious starting point. Anything else which follows from that, particularly on the immigration front is something that can only be judged down the track. But in the first instance, we have an obligation – both a moral and a legal obligation to their safety and security. Often that is difficult because we continue to deal in difficult and dangerous circumstances. But that remains our primary obligation and the starting point.
JOURNALIST: What about financial support?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well financial support, I think is important. But you’ve got to deal with that on a case by case basis. Just as you have to deal with any potential immigration matters down the track on a case by case basis.
PETER MACKAY: Our own experience, for what it’s worth, is similar in so far as we recognise the tremendous value added that interpreters have provided to the mission. They are at the sharp end with our soldiers. In many cases, they are out in the field and exposed.
And plus, their families of course, their huge stress and potential threat of blackmail repercussions for what they’re doing. It was with that in mind that we did set up a special program within our Immigration Department to allow for expedited process to have them come to Canada.
Now, our experience, quite frankly has not been as positive as we would have liked; it has taken greater time to work through the detail of that program that was set up. And so I’m not suggesting for a minute that we’ve perfected this ability to try to have those Afghan interpreters come to Canada, should they choose to – and their families. But we felt a necessity to recognise the special contribution that they’ve made.
And if I could, without sounding too maudlin, one of the other indicators, to come back to the earlier question, of the change, is the education of women in particular and girls that are now able to go to school. If somebody asked me what is the one difference in that country that you can point to, I would say it is the fact that young girls are now being educated, still a big challenge, still at considerable risk.
But our – I think one of our lasting legacies – and that of Australia as well – will be the setting up of schools, the support for teachers in the education system that is more inclusive, and that has to be preserved, in my view. That is one of the pillars of that country that will allow them to have a future and to have hope.
And when you see those children now out playing, going to school, having access to both education and immunisation programs against health problems that can only point to a brighter future for Afghanistan.
JOURNALIST: Minister, last week we had the funeral of Private Matthew Lambert which wasn’t attended by either the Prime Minister or the Opposition Leader. Is that the way it’s going to be from now on, or is that just the wish of the family on that particular occasion?
STEPHEN SMITH: It was the wish of the family on that occasion. And when there is a terrible tragedy, as Matthew Lambert’s death was, as were the previous 28, the starting point in terms of any attendance or contact is what is the wish of the family, and that is absolutely respected. And as you know yourself, from time to time there is a request by the family to absolutely respect privacy, and that’s respected as well. So the funeral last Monday was conducted in accordance with the family’s wishes, as it should be.
JOURNALIST: Minister MacKay, Rob Taylor from Reuters. I just wanted to ask you: as I understand it, your Government is looking at a review of military spending and reorganisation in the military. Minister Smith mentioned you discussed the Joint Strike Fighter. Australia has raised some concerns about the mounting cost and delays with that project.
Is that something that your Government is also reconsidering, that capability? Could it be changed as part of that review? Have you discussed anything along those lines?
PETER MACKAY: Well, Rob, I’ll be very frank with you. We’re not looking at backing away from our commitment to purchase and procure the Joint Strike Fighter. Having said that, we share all of the concerns that have been expressed by Minister Smith, and others; including our predecessor Minister in the United States, Bob Gates.
I’ve been to the plant in Texas and spoken directly with Lockheed Martin officials. The good news from our perspective – and I believe it’s echoed here in Australia – is that the model of Joint Strike Fighter that we are actually purchasing is moving forward on time and on target in terms of its costs, we’re told. And we base, we base our information on what we’re receiving from their officials.
There have been difficulties with the vertical takeoff, or the marine version as they call it, and the aircraft carrier. So to that extent, we have been given some degree of comfort that it’s moving forward. We’re purchasing 65 Joint Strike Fighters. We are purchasing them at a time when they will be in peak production around 2014/15.
Our fleet of F18s, Hornets, will have to be taken out of use around 2017. So there is a degree of urgency for us when it comes to this procurement being on time and being on cost.
To your point the discussion around transformation with our own military; the budgetary constraints. It’s very helpful and instructive to look at how Australia has put together their White Paper, looked at various things such as amphibiosity, having those Amphibious Ships. We have challenges, to say the least – not to open a kettle of fish here around Submarines – and we have also recognised that there is a need for greater efficiencies and effectiveness when it comes to how a department of our size and your own is operating.
So Stephen Smith’s speech on their transformation, which I read some time ago, has been extremely helpful in the Canadian context of how we’re moving forward and dealing with some of the same set issues.
STEPHEN SMITH: Just on Joint Strike Fighter. Joint Strike Fighters and Submarines were two of the capability issues that we referred to. Our position on Joint Strike Fighters I’ll restate. We’ve committed ourselves to 14. The White Paper or the Defence Capability Plan talks in terms of ultimately a number up to or around 100, but we’ve committed to 14. Any further over and that we’ll make on a deliberative basis.
I’ve made the point before we are very concerned about rubbing up against our schedule. So we’ll do an exhaustive risk assessment in the course of next year and make a judgment next year about whether we need any transition capability and the obvious – whilst we’ve made no decision on this, the obvious possibility for us is more Super Hornets.
But Peter’s made the same point I’ve made in the past, which is we have the advantage of ordering and being involved and interested in the conventional variant of the Joint Strike Fighter, or the so-called CTOL version, that’s had far less difficulties in terms of trialing and testing.
So our primary concerns are schedule – we’ll make a judgment about that in the course of next year. On Submarines we’ve agreed to exchange our experiences on Submarines, which has been a challenge for both of us, and we’ll put both of those essentially under the context of doing a formal strategic dialogue on all of these strategic reform capability acquisition budget matters.
JOURNALIST: Sharing of sort of Submarine designs or ideas?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I think that’s getting a bit ahead of ourselves.
JOURNALIST: Couldn’t you say we’re looking at a transitional capability? Are you saying that there may never be more than 14 individual Joint Strike Fighters?
STEPHEN SMITH: No, no, no. The point I made in the United States and the point I’d made here, we’re now starting to rub up against our capability schedule. The last thing I will allow to occur with our procurement of the Joint Strike Fighter is a gap in capability. We have Hornets, which is an ageing fleet; they have some years to go. We have Super Hornets.
The last thing I will allow will be a gap in our capability for our air combat capability. And if I am concerned or worried or not persuaded there won’t be a gap in terms of delivery of the Joint Strike Fighters, then an obvious option for us is more Super Hornets. We’ve made no decision to that effect.
But the start and end, so far as I’m concerned and the Government is concerned, is that we won’t allow a gap in capability. I’ve made the point publicly on a number of occasions. I’ve always been of the view that this project would get up because the United States is absolutely committed to the capability. The risk for Australia and other partners like Canada is on the delivery side, on the schedule side and also on the cost side.
One of the points we have to bear very carefully in mind is the extent to which, if at all, there will be a reduction in the number of orders from US Navy and US Air Force as a result of the budget constraints that they are currently facing.
JOURNALIST: On the capability issues, what’s the gear we’re getting from in Canada. How many are there? Are we buying them outright or-
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we’re loaning them. Essentially, it is three protected vehicles which have either an inbuilt radar or detection capability, and so detection of IEDs can be done from within the vehicle itself. And secondly, an arm, a metallic arm which can be used to defuse the IEDs rather than having Sappers physically go out and deal with them.
And as Canada winds down its troops, troop numbers in Kandahar, the capability is available, and it’s a very good cooperative venture that we have struck upon. We will utilise what is, in anecdotal terms, a road clearance capability and capacity to add to our anti-IED measures, and we’re very grateful that Peter and the Canadian Army have agreed to that loan arrangement.
In the meantime, we are looking at whether it’s appropriate for us to acquire a permanent capability. But the precise detail will be released in a statement later today.
PETER MACKAY: If I could just add this. This type of equipment is lifesaving. It’s that simple. I can’t put it any other way. In our experience in Afghanistan around IEDs, which are the scourge of this war, that have taken so many lives – and I should take the opportunity to express my condolences to the family of all 29 of the brave Australians who’ve given their lives in this conflict and those that have been injured.
This type of warfare is not going away. And with that in mind, the advances that have been made on the technical side of equipment and the efforts to pre-empt and prevent IED strikes is something that all countries have to work in very close proximity in the sharing both of technology advances and equipment in this case. And the Americans have been very forthcoming in sharing some of the same equipment, MRAPS in particular, and the up-armoured vehicles that are able to withstand these type of blasts. As the equipment becomes more sophisticated and more protective, sadly the terrorists have made the bombs bigger and more destructive.
And so working in this particular area, I feel, is extremely important because wherever we find ourselves next – and the chances are Canada and Australia will be there in unison – sharing this type of equipment and making these types of contributions to one another is a high point, in my view, of our military operability and interoperability and capability.
STEPHEN SMITH: Two of the vehicles are Huskies-
PETER MACKAY: That’s right.
STEPHEN SMITH: -a very rough equivalent of our Bushmaster. But the two that we’re picking up essentially have a ground radar detection capacity.
The second vehicle has what is technically described as an interrogation arm so that a robotic part of the vehicle can deal with the IEDs in advance of Sappers on the ground. And as Peter has said, it’s a very helpful additional capability for us to have in addition to the other capability that we use against the IEDs.
But to speak in very rough terms, the Husky has been as successful for Canada as the Bushmaster has been for Australia in terms of providing a protected vehicle on the ground for our troops in Afghanistan.
We’re starting to run up against time constraints. So unless there’s something really pressing, I think we’ll thank Peter for his visit and his contribution today, and thank you for attending. Thank you.
PETER MACKAY: Thank you.