TRANSCRIPT: PRESS CONFERENCE WITH NORTHERN TERRITORY CHIEF MINISTER, PAUL HENDERSON
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY AND E & EO
DATE: 20 OCTOBER 2011
TOPICS: US Force Posture Review; ADF Force Posture Review; Joint Strike Fighter, Super Hornets, Growler; Barack Obama; CHOGM.
PAUL HENDERSON: Good afternoon everyone. It's great to have Stephen Smith, our Defence Minister, here in Darwin today.
This is Stephen's first visit as Defence Minister. But of course he's been a regular visitor over many years, both as Foreign Minister, but also my first real formal dealings with Stephen was when he was Shadow Education Minister and I was Education Minister. So we've got a good relationship, we know each other really well. And certainly whenever I'm in Canberra as I get down three or four times a year doing the rounds of all the federal ministers, I very often drop in and see Stephen and talk about Defence issues in the Northern Territory, and certainly advocate for more Defence procurement for the Northern Territory to support businesses and jobs here. So Stephen, it's great to have you here today first time as Defence Minister.
We've been having some very good discussions this morning, first and foremost about the Australian Government's Defence Force Posture Review that Stephen announced some two or three months ago. I've had a couple of conversations with Stephen about that; about the future positioning of Australian Defence assets in northern Australia.
And obviously as the Territory and northern Australia becomes more and more strategically and economically important for this nation, especially given the hundreds of billions of dollars of investments going offshore in terms of oil and gas developments, obviously that is informing in part the Force Posture Review that Stephen has underway. And of course as the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory, not only do I need to be kept abreast of Australian Government thinking, but also looking ahead as to how we benefit in the Northern Territory in terms of economic and social benefit with the possibility of increased Defence assets being deployed to the Northern Territory. So we spoke about that today.
As well as the Australian Government Defence Force Posture Review, obviously we have the US Global Force Posture Review that is underway at the moment. Stephen is keeping me abreast as to conversations that have been happening at a bilateral level between Australia and the United States about the US Global Force Posture Review and what that may mean for Australia; what that may mean for the Northern Territory.
Now we're at early days in terms of those discussions, but once again as the Chief Minister, I'm very open to a conversation with the Australian Government, and also the United States in terms of what that may mean for increased US activity in and out of the Northern Territory. So we're at early days, but certainly as the Chief Minister, my door is very much open, I strongly support the US Australia defence alliance and of course we have good friendships with the United States here in the Northern Territory particularly, as a result of the Defence presence and the US presence here in World War Two. The fact that US sailors lost their lives in the USS Peary that is in our harbour and we are good friends with the United States.
We see on many occasions joint exercises by Australian troops, US troops, we've had many US naval visits over time. And the combination of the Australian Government's Force Posture Review, the US Government's Global Force Posture Review, some planets are coming into an alignment at the moment that may lead to increased military deployments here in the Northern Territory.
So Stephen, I welcome you here today and please address out local media. Thankyou.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well Paul, thankyou very much, and thankyou for your kinds and your warm welcome. As Paul has said, it's not the first time I've been to Darwin. It is my first visit to Darwin as Defence Minister but previously I've here as Foreign Minister and also, as Paul indicated, when we first came into close professional contact, as Shadow Minister for Education when Paul was Minister for Education.
Before detailing, as Paul has, some of our conversations today, earlier today I went to Robertson Barracks, primarily to thank the people at Robertson Barracks, our troops at Robertson Barracks for the great work that they do, particularly in Afghanistan. Very many of the members of our mentoring and task force team deploy out of Robertson Barracks. We're very grateful for the great work that they do in Afghanistan and generally, and of course from time to time that is very sad work because we've had some fatalities from the mentoring and training task force team in recent months.
I also went to Larrakeyah to speak to Northern Command, and to be briefed on the work that they do in terms of surveillance and protection of our northern entrances and northern borders. I turned the first sod of a very large building program which has benefits both for Robertson and for Larrakeyah, a building program which over the next three or four years will see some 900 to 1000 accommodation units built. This will be a project in the order of $200 to $240 million. And that will bring not just housing benefits to our Defence personnel in Darwin and the Northern Territory, but will also bring with it substantial economic benefits for Darwin and the Northern Territory.
And that reflects one of the good things about the very close relationship that Darwin and the Northern Territory has with Australia's Defence Force personnel. And we welcome that cooperation very much. As Paul has said, we've had a formal meeting this morning. We spoke firstly about the Force Posture Review for the Australian Defence Force which I initiated a couple of months ago. That's being headed by Allan Hawke and Ric Smith two former secretaries of the Department of Defence, to report to me so that we can feed into our next White Paper, the 2014 White Paper, a judgement about whether we've got the disposition of our forces right.
The last time we did work of this nature was when a Professor did - did some work for Kim Beazley who was Defence Minister back in the eighties and that saw, for example, Sherger, the RAAF Sherger base in north east Queensland, come of age. It also for example saw some of our Navy assets transferred to HMAS Stirling in the west for Indian Ocean purposes. It's quite clear that, and as Paul has indicated, it's quite clear that we're now living through a period where strategic, economic, and military and political influence is moving to our part of the world. The rise of China, the rise of India, the rise of the ASEAN economies combined.
These have strategic implications and we need to make sure that we are positioned correctly for those strategic outcomes. As well, as Paul has referred to, we're going through a period where our petroleum resources industry, particularly our offshore petroleum resources industry is expanding. That's not just in my own state of Western Australia but also in the Northern Territory and also potentially the north of Queensland. So down the track we could well have real energy security issues, not just installation by installation but an energy belt which is very important to Australia both for domestic energy and export purposes. And that's one of the reasons why I announced the Force Posture Review a couple of months ago.
We also spoke about the Global Force Posture Review which the United States has effected. You might recall that at the AUSMIN meeting in Melbourne in 2010 last year, in November last year, AUSMIN of course being the Australia United States Ministerial consultations, then US Secretary of Defense Gates, and I agreed to establish a joint working party to look at the implications for Australia of the United States' Global Force Posture Review. We've had a very good working party since that time. At San Francisco at this year's AUSMIN meetings last month in September we reviewed the work that had been done and we're very pleased with the progress and the quality of the work.
As I have indicated previously and has former Secretary Gates and current Secretary Panetta, we're looking at the potential for an enhancement and enlargement of some of the work that we currently do with our alliance partner. We currently have exercises and training which we see, we're looking at whether we can enhance or increase that. What I have colloquially described as more troops in, troops out, more planes in, planes out, more ships in, ships out.
I think it's fair to say that just as the Australian Force Posture Review is essentially focusing on things, to use an old fashioned phrase, north of the Brisbane line, United States officials and our joint working group have essentially looked at things to the north, the north west and to the western seaboard for Indian Ocean purposes.
So the Northern Territory and Darwin falls for consideration in that context.
I've also indicated that one of the things we're looking at is the prepositioning for example of stores and kit for disaster relief and humanitarian assistance, and I've made these remarks in the past.
So I've briefed Paul on where we are in terms of those discussions with our United States alliance partner.
We've come to no conclusion, whilst on the one hand if we go down this path it would be the single biggest operational addition to our alliance arrangements since the formalisation of the joint facilities back in the 1980s, it's a logical extension of the work that we do in terms of exercises and training. And so I'm keeping Paul briefed on both of these matters.
It reflects Darwin and reflects the Northern Territory's importance so far as Defence, Defence arrangements and Defence industry is concerned, so I'm very pleased to be here. It's always good to catch up with Paul, and I expect this won't be my last visit to Darwin as Defence Minister. Thank you.
PAUL HENDERSON: Thanks, Stephen. Questions.
JOURNALIST: If we do go down this path of the US presence will we eventually see a US base set up in Darwin?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well one thing that I've made clear and former US Secretary of Defence Gates and current Secretary Panetta has made clear is that we're not looking at US military bases. We don't have US bases in Australia, we have joint facilities, and Pine Gap in the Northern Territory is the classic or perhaps the best illustration of that. What we're looking at is whether we can extend in a sensible way the training and the exercises that we currently do with the United States.
It's not uncommon for us to do regular exercises with the United States in Australia at some of our training areas, so that is not unique or uncommon. So we're looking at the potential for doing more of that; for more training, for more exercises.
It's also the case that we have training exercises and other arrangements where US military flights disperse in and through Australia. We're also looking at the potential for that.
It's a sensible thing to consider. We have said to the United States we believe that the United States' ongoing presence in the Asia Pacific is essential to peace and stability in our area. Indeed as the world moves to the Asia Pacific it's even more important that there's a United States presence, indeed an enhanced presence. So it's a logical extension of some of the things that we currently do, we're just seeing whether it makes sense to do more of it.
So that would envisage, as I say, potentially more ship visits, potentially more dispersal of flights, and more training and exercises. So in the case of Darwin and the Northern Territory you have RAAF Darwin and RAAF Tindall, there's a potential for more flights in and out of RAAF Darwin and RAAF Tindal.
In the case of the Northern Territory we have a number of Army or Defence facilities where training and exercise takes place; Robertson Barracks, where I've been today, the Delamere training ground and weapons range, Bradshaw and the like, Mount Bundy. So there are a number of facilities there for potential for enhanced use.
Now, as I say, we've come to no final decisions but because of Paul's personal interest, not just as Chief Minister but previously as Minister for Defence Support, and the importance of Defence to Darwin and the Northern Territory it's very important that I, as Defence Minister, keep Paul and the Northern Territory Government appraised of the discussions we're having.
JOURNALIST: It doesn't sound as if you're planning to actually station more troops here. Are you talking more about movements of-
STEPHEN SMITH: Yes, as I say, we are not contemplating United States bases, so we're not contemplating a permanent presence. We are looking at more training, more exercises on a rotational basis. So that is what we're looking at.
And in addition to that I've previously put on the public record, as has Secretary Gates and Secretary Panetta, the possibility that the United States could pre-position stores in Australia for disaster relief and humanitarian purposes.
This really, in a practical operational sense, reflects the fact that in this century, what we describe as the Asia-Pacific century, the world is moving our way. In terms of, if you like Navy, whilst it is obviously much more relevant to my own state of Western Australia and HMAS Stirling, we are also looking at Indian Ocean implications, and that of course has more relevance for the west than it does for the north.
JOURNALIST: How many - how much discussions have you had with Indonesia about the joint - the Force Posture Review both for Australia and for the US?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, our officials have obviously briefed - and I've been very public about, firstly, our own Force Posture Review and, secondly, the work that we're doing jointly with the United States. So our officials in - just in the normal course of events have made officials in our region aware of the discussions that we are having.
We haven't come to any conclusions. When we come to conclusions and those conclusions are announced in the normal course of events, it is standard operating procedure for us to ensure that our friends and neighbours in the region are briefed as to the outcome. So that will occur in the normal course of events.
JOURNALIST: What about the energy security for the offshore gas plants and whatnot? Does that mean that you think Darwin is at greater risk of attack because of all these gas projects?
STEPHEN SMITH: No, there's been no change to our domestic threat assessment for some time. And I'm really talking here long term. What we have seen - when I first came to Darwin, for example, years ago there was no notion of a petroleum resources industry. Now Darwin is very much a genuine and real competitor so far as petroleum resources is concerned with my own state, Western Australia, particularly North West Shelf.
But we've seen massive expansion of investment and massive expansion of investment potential in offshore petroleum resources in recent times. Gorgon is one - is but one example, Wheatstone another, and the substantial development and development potential you see off the coast of the Northern Territory.
So I'm talking long-term here. But already we are conscious of the need for from time-to-time physical security of the installations themselves. And in that respect both state and the federal government and relevant agencies work cooperatively with the individual companies. But at some point in the future as that energy belt expands we'll have larger issues of energy security.
We'll have a belt there which potentially can spread from the north-west of Western Australia to the coast of the Northern Territory, potentially to north-east Queensland, which will be a very important part of Australia's domestic energy mix and a very important part of our export contributions.
And so that will raise more general issues of energy security and that will cause us, I think, to say, well, do we have enough of our forces deployed to the north to ensure that that could be protected as an energy belt if required.
Now, that's very much a long-term issue. It's not going to occur tomorrow.
JOURNALIST: What's happening with the Joint Strike Fighter? How many will be delivered next year and how many will be stationed in the Northern Territory?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we've committed ourselves to 14 Joint Strike Fighters. We expect to receive two of those in the United States over the course of the next couple of years. And when we receive in the United States we'll use them for training purposes.
Our White Paper and the Defence Capability Plan talks in terms of potentially up to 100 Joint Strike Fighters.
Other than the 14, which we have committed ourselves to, we haven't made any judgements or decisions about future Joint Strike Fighter numbers.
As I have made clear, both in Australia and in the United States, I am concerned about the potential for the schedule for production of the Joint Strike Fighters to slip. And, as a consequence, I'll be making a judgement after an exhaustive review in the course of next year as to whether we need to look to additional capability to ensure there's no capability gap in our air combat capability. I've made no decisions or judgements, but the obvious way to ensure there's no gap in our capability is more Super Hornets.
Coincidentally on Friday - tomorrow - the last of the 24 Super Hornets arrive at Amberley; 12 of those are wired up for Growler, and I've made some remarks yesterday about us now having a look at whether it's in our national security interest to contemplate the purchase of Growler as an electronic capability.
So far as the basing of the Joint Strike Fighters is concerned, we've made no judgements about those because we haven't made a decision beyond the 14. But in the normal course of events we would be looking to Amberley in Queensland and Newcastle in New South Wales.
JOURNALIST: Will the Super Hornets-
STEPHEN SMITH: I should add though, of course, those judgements will necessarily be impacted by the results and the conclusions we draw from the Force Posture Review. So we have plenty of time in that respect.
JOURNALIST: So what's going to happen or what will happen finally with the positioning of the Super Hornets in the north? Whereabouts will they-
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, the Super Hornets are currently based in Amberley in Ipswich. The disposition of our combat capability will fall for consideration in the Force Posture Review, and that will feed in to the 2014 White Paper.
But we have assets based primarily in Amberley, and in Newcastle. We also have aerial assets in Pearce in the west, and also in Tindal, and in Darwin here.
So the allocation of - or disposition of Hornets; we have 71 Classic Hornets, our 24 Super Hornets, Joint Strike Fighters, and any additional Super Hornets that we may acquire, that will also fall for consideration as part of our Force Posture Review to make sure that we've got the disposition right.
JOURNALIST: You're saying that you want more ships, more troops, more planes from the US to come here. How many more? And how many-
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, as I say, we've come to no final conclusions, and that's - if you like, that's a colloquial expression that I used to indicate the points of rotation and movement rather than a US base.
So it's - one of the things that we have under discussion is if we are going to have more training and more exercise, the numbers that that would envisage; if we are going to have more plane dispersal for training and exercise purpose, the numbers of that would [indistinct].
I think there's a story in one of the NT papers today that talks about navy and ships. I think in terms of the prime candidate for ships, I think it's really again Indian Ocean considerations and HMAS Stirling. I also think that's a bit further down the track as well.
JOURNALIST: Minister, you did discuss the facilities at Darwin port at the AUSMIN conference in San Francisco-
STEPHEN SMITH: In – well-
JOURNALIST: So that came up in discussions. So was there any talk about-
STEPHEN SMITH: Not in detail. We didn't-
JOURNALIST: No, no, no-
STEPHEN SMITH: To use the bureaucratic expression, we didn't get down into the weeds at that…
JOURNALIST: I know. We were a line at the bottom-
STEPHEN SMITH: But it is the case, and you would almost certainly be aware of this, that once we established the joint working group at the AUSMIN meeting in Melbourne in November 2010 that both Australian and US officials have gone to the relevant locations and visited to make judgements. And they have in the past come to Darwin. Admiral Willard, the Commander, Pacific Command, came to Darwin, also came to Western Australia. I visited HMAS Stirling with him.
JOURNALIST: And the lack of infrastructure to take large military-
STEPHEN SMITH: Yeah, one of the - well, one of the things that we are doing in our own case is in the course of the next half dozen years we will receive a number of very large ships.
In December of this year we will receive from the United Kingdom the HMAS Choules, which we'll use as a heavy amphibious lift ship. We will receive over the next four or five years two very large landing helicopter docks from Spain. This has caused us to review the facilities at a range of our ports, from Sydney to Stirling in the west, to Darwin and Cairns.
So that work goes on in the normal course of events but it also has fallen for consideration as part of our joint work with the United States.
JOURNALIST: Are there likely to be any economic or social spinoffs from increased movements as opposed to more assets or people coming here?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I think one of the good things for a Defence presence in Darwin and the Northern Territory is that that brings with it necessarily an economic benefit. So, for example, the project that I turned the sod on today builds 900 accommodation units. That's a construction project; $240-odd million, I'm told, on the site, potentially as many as 500 additional construction workers at the peak of demand. So that necessarily sends a direct and indirect economic benefit into the community. That's a good thing.
When more of our Defence Force personnel came to Robertson and RAAF Darwin, you see both indirect and direct economic benefits.
So the more traffic you have, the more movement you have, the more people you have, there is an economic benefit which flows from that.
One of the things you have to be careful of is making sure that you do that in a managed way so that logistically the people of Darwin, for example, and the services of Darwin can cater for that. And so housing is an obvious issue, and Paul has raised that with me, as have other people. So you've got to do it in a way in which the Defence organisation itself can manage, but you've also got to do it in a way in which the community can manage in terms of allocation and distribution of services.
But there is no doubt that there's a significant economic benefit that comes to the Territory as a result of a very close Defence relationship with the Commonwealth and a very important Defence presence.
JOURNALIST: We all know the benefits of the existing Defence Forces; it's clear to see in Darwin. But what I'm asking you is are there any - going to be any benefits from these increased movements and training exercises?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I don't want to get too far ahead. I think my best response to that is to say that once we've made judgements and decisions about that, and we're in a position to quantify it, then an obviously sensible thing to do is to say, well, what sort of economic benefit will flow as a result of that. Certainly the Chief Minister is going to be acutely interested in that, as the Chief Minister is acutely interested in making sure that whatever we do is done in a way in which Darwin and surrounds can sustain in terms of numbers of people and access to services, and the like.
So part of the conversation that Paul and I had was, well, we need to make sure that Darwin and surrounds can manage this. So - and that's part of the reason for the conversation. But this is a conversation which is built on a very good relationship and a very good understanding between the Defence Organisation and officials in the Northern Territory over a long period of time, and the Northern Territory community.
It's probably the case that the Northern Territory community, not just Darwin but the Northern Territory community, more than most in Australia appreciates the advantages which come from a Defence personnel presence, but also because of the joint facility that you have here also is more familiar and more used to dealing and engaging with US personnel who are here as part of the joint facilities.
JOURNALIST: Are you aware of-
JOURNALIST: -sorry, Chief Minister, in 2006 the Defence hub was announced, Thorngate Road, in Robbo Barracks. Do you know where that's at and would you consider leasing or selling it to the US so that they could store their stuff there?
PAUL HENDERSON: Well certainly I made the decision back in 2006 as Defence Support Minister that we had to be visionary, and that we had to pre-position a strategic piece of land for utilisation by Defence prime contractors to maintain Australian army assets at Robertson Barracks. So that land has now been provided, it's 53 hectares of land that's got all of the essential services connected up to it. So we are in continuing negotiation with the Defence Material Organisation and prime contractors about maintaining those assets here in the Northern Territory as opposed to putting the tanks and other equipment on the train and sort of sending them around to Victoria or down to South Australia.
I think in terms of the savings that the government is trying to make in terms of Defence, that doing a lot more of the deeper maintenance here in Darwin - as opposed to the costs of transporting equipment halfway around the continent and back make a lot of sense.
But this is about a vision, having a strategic piece of land, and obviously as these discussions evolve - as we see more equipment and facilities based in the territory over time, I think people will see that that was a very strategic decision taken by the government a few years ago.
We are in negotiations with some of the prime contractors. But these contractors have had contracts that last for 10, 15, 20 years. They can't sort of break those and move a lot of assets up to Darwin immediately. So I would say even though there's not activity there now today there certainly will be tomorrow, at some point in time.
It's a strategic piece of land. It's an important piece of land. And talking to senior army officers at Robertson Barracks over many years, they can certainly see the sense of it because not only is it going to save the army money over time in terms of transportation but maintaining those assets here means that they're ready for use at these training areas that Stephen was talking about as opposed to sitting in a shed in Adelaide waiting for the train to come back to Darwin.
JOURNALIST: So you wouldn't consider leasing it then, or selling it to others-
PAUL HENDERSON: Well no it's not about selling the assets. It'll be about a long-term relationship. So wherever this goes it just goes to show the forward thinking that we have within the Territory Government.
We understand, because of discussions with the Australian Government over time, that officials meet at a very senior level every year; that these decisions are all taken into the long-term, into the future.
And it seemed to make sense to me at the time back in 2006 that if you've got a whole heap of equipment there at Robertson Barracks, well, it should be maintained here in the Territory instead of carted halfway around the nation - and all the way back again.
It makes sense. The land's available. We'll continue to work with Defence on that.
JOURNALIST: Minister can I just ask the Defence Minister, what threats are you expecting to have to protect the energy belt from?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well we have an onshore threat assessment which has been at the same level for a long period of time, but that is continually monitored. Part of Australian infrastructure is now necessarily in our season submerged land area with north-west shelf respectively, Wheatstone, with Chevron and Gorgon and the like.
Physical protection of those installations, from time to time, is an issue. I never talk about intelligence publicly but we know in the past from time to time we've had some sensible precautions to ensure that some of those facilities are protected from threat.
This is just one of those regrettable features of the modern world that we live in.
JOURNALIST: Minister Smith - are you aware of any plans for Barack Obama to visit the Territory? Maybe he'll have a US Defence announcement [indistinct]-
STEPHEN SMITH: Well funnily enough I've been asked about this on every radio station I've been on this morning, but I make the same point - it's not for me to announce or indicate what the President's itinerary might be: the White House and the Prime Minister have announced that he of course will come to Australia, visit Canberra, and will address a joint sitting of both houses.
Any further detail about his itinerary is a matter for White House and US officials, and it's not for me to tilt the lever one way or the other or to make predictions or to comment upon. But obviously if he came that would be a terrific thing for the Territory and a terrific thing for Darwin.
But equally, if he came to Perth that would be a terrific thing for Perth and a terrific thing for Western Australia. Mind you, we do have CHOGM coming up.
PAUL HENDERSON: You've got the Queen.
STEPHEN SMITH: We have the Queen. And I'm looking very much forward to the barbecue in Perth with the Queen.
PAUL HENDERSON: Fantastic.
JOURNALIST: And when you looked at the facility today are you confident that it will be secure enough, Darwin in general to have Barack.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well let me just respond generally. As with CHOGM, as with the visit of the President, as with any of these key events, whether it's been APEC in Sydney in the past, or indeed CHOGM in Melbourne, we take all of the necessary security precautions.
And in the case for example of CHOGM in the first instance that's Western Australian Police, but with very close cooperation and assistance from Commonwealth agencies and authorities with the Defence Force in reserve, giving support.
In the case of a US Presidential visit, we cooperate at the highest levels with US officials to ensure that every necessary security precaution is taken irrespective of where the President personally goes.
JOURNALIST: When will we know the decisions about the repositioning of troops from the US and from Australia. When are those due to be completed and-
STEPHEN SMITH: We don't have a timetable on them. We will come to a conclusion and announce in due course. Okay.
PAUL HENDERSON: Okay, thank you.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks very much, thank you, thanks.
PAUL HENDERSON: Thanks Steve.