TRANSCRIPT: PRESS CONFERENCE - PERTH
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 1 February 2012
TOPICS: NATO-ISAF Defence Ministers’ meeting; Afghanistan transition; Detainee management; new CH-47Ds; ASPI appointments; Defence committee structure; Chicago summit; JSF schedule; Crean comments; Media ownership
STEPHEN SMITH: Later this afternoon I'll be leaving Perth to travel to Brussels for a meeting with my NATO and International Security Assistance Force defence ministerial colleagues. This of course will be a meeting on Afghanistan.
This year - the first six months of this year will be very important for Afghanistan and Afghanistan transition, leading up to the NATO leaders' summit in Chicago in May.
We'll be discussing in Afghanistan progress on transition; transition to Afghan-led security responsibility and also, importantly, what we envisage as the post-2014 presence so far as international community is concerned in Afghanistan.
Australia continues to believe that we are on track in Uruzgan Province to transfer responsibility for security to the Afghan National Security Forces by 2014, perhaps earlier. And I'll discuss with my colleagues the progress that we're making in Uruzgan and the progress we're making generally in Afghanistan.
As I say, we'll also consider the post-2014 transition arrangements. And, as the Prime Minister and I have previously made clear, Australia is in a position to contemplate a continuing presence in Afghanistan after the transition, whether that is a continuation of trainers, the potential for advisers, certainly development assistance and capacity-building, and the possibility of special forces. And all of these issues will fall for consideration in the course of the first six months of this year, and they'll be important for Australia but also important internationally.
Secondly, today I'm announcing that an Australian Defence Force interrogation capability has deployed to Afghanistan and will commence operations shortly. In November last year I announced the Government's decision to make available an interrogation capability to Australian Defence Force personnel in Afghanistan, and planning has been underway since then. And in January of this year, in the course of last month, that capability has deployed to Afghanistan and will commence operations shortly.
I'm making this public because the Government has made a point of endeavouring to be transparent about detainee management matters in Afghanistan.You may recall that when the Dutch left Uruzgan Province we took responsibility for detainee management matters and we have made regular public reports, including parliamentary reports, about these matters since that time.
The interrogation capability will be subject to strict guidelines, will be absolutely consistent with Australian domestic and international legal obligations, and consistent with the relevant international conventions, the Geneva Conventions.
Whilst interrogation will be subject to those strict guidelines it will also be subject to close circuit television supervision. In other words, when detainees are interrogated, that will be the subject of CCTV monitoring and observation so as to ensure that the strict guidelines are adhered to.
It's very important that Australia continues to adhere to international standards, continues to adhere to our domestic and international legal obligations. And we have a very good reputation throughout the world of dealing with detainees in a humane and dignified manner, and we want that to continue. And that's certainly the very strong view of not just the Government but also of the Australian Defence Force.
I also indicated at that time that we would extend the number of days in which detainees could be detained at our holding facility in Tarin Kot from 96 hours, or four days, to the potential for two successive three-day extensions. This is consistent with the timetable of our other International Security Assistance Force partners so far as interrogation is concerned.
But the system we've put in place will ensure that interrogation is conducted in an appropriate manner, consistent with our domestic and international legal obligations, consistent with the relevant international conventions, and also consistent with treating people in a humane and humanitarian way.
I'm also announcing today that we have received two Chinook helicopters. These are Chinook helicopters that we picked up from the United States. You may recall that in May of last year we lost a Chinook in Afghanistan, reducing our fleet by one to six. We have decided to add an additional two to our fleet, having a fleet of seven. This will enable better maintenance and sustainment. It will also ensure that we have continual availability for a Chinook in Afghanistan which is part of our contribution there.
A couple of non-Afghanistan related announcements. I'm very pleased to announce today that the new executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute will be Peter Jennings. Mr Jennings is currently a Deputy Secretary in the Department of Defence, the Deputy Secretary Strategy. He's a very experienced Defence officer. He will make a very substantial contribution as the new executive director of ASPI.
I'm also announcing that Mr Stephen Loosley, who is the chair of ASPI, will have his term extended for a three year period. ASPI, of course, is one of Australia's defence and national security think-tanks. It plays a very valuable role. It's supported by the Government in terms of funding and it plays a very good role in making a contribution to defence, security and strategic thinking in Australia.
So, my congratulations to Mr Jennings and to Mr Loosley. Finally, I'm also indicating today that the Secretary of the department, Duncan Lewis, and the Chief of the Defence Force are announcing today changes to the Defence committee structure; substantially streamlining the committee structure. That detail is provided to you and that advice has gone to Defence employees in the course of the day.
This is consistent with the recommendations of the Black Review, which is aimed at making Defence run more effectively and efficiently, but also ensuring greater personal and institutional accountability. The Black Review, which I released last year, made it clear that Defence had too many committees, there was too much diffuse committee work, not enough personal and individual responsibility. And we see today's steps by the Defence leadership - the Secretary and the Chief of the Defence Force - to commence implementation of some of those recommendations that were found in the Black Review.
I'm happy to take your questions on those or other issues that you wish to raise.
JOURNALIST: Minister, the security handover in 2014 [indistinct] that's going to be an interim step to our next ongoing phase of engagement in Afghanistan. Do you have your mind an end state in Afghanistan that will allow us to leave for good?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, firstly, we've made it clear that we are committed to the international community's objective of transition to Afghan-led security responsibility by 2014. The Prime Minister and I have also made it clear in recent months that we're on track to effect that in Uruzgan Province, where we are, and we may get there earlier.
That of course will be conditions-based or subject to the ongoing training and mentoring of the Afghan National Army 4th Brigade. But, as my written statements make clear today, we believe we're on track and we believe we're making good progress. We are slowly but surely handing over responsibility on the ground to the Afghan National Army in Uruzgan.
So we believe that in Uruzgan we'll make that transition. The conversations that I have with my NATO and ISAF defence colleagues, they also believe that they're on track to make that transition. But what is also clear is that there will need to be ongoing international community support for Afghanistan into the future.
And so, for example in recent times, we've seen the United Kingdom and Afghanistan enter into a long-term strategic partnership. We've seen NATO enter into a long-term strategic partnership with Afghanistan. We've seen India do likewise. This sends a message that the international community is not proposing to abandon Afghanistan.
So there are two essential points here. We can't be there forever, we don't want to be there forever. And, in addition to a security element, there also needs to be a political resolution. But it's quite clear there will need to be some contribution from the international community after transition to Afghan-led security responsibility. And we, in the course of the first half of this year, have to have that conversation internationally and have to come to judgments about what our contribution might be.
In Australia's case, from really the first half of last year, I've been saying that the potential contribution for Australia can continue to be, in my view, training. It may well be army or military advisers. It will certainly be a development assistance and capacity building contribution in terms of development assistance, but it also may be an ongoing special forces contribution.
All of these matters we've made no conclusions about, and they need not just to be subject to our own deliberations but also deliberations with our colleagues. And that will be the focus, in our view, of the Chicago summit of NATO leaders in May of this year.
JOURNALIST: [Indistinct] progress is moving along quite well at present, do you see an earlier transfer to be likely?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, as I say, we are certainly on track to effect a transfer to - or a transition to Afghan-led responsibility in Uruzgan by 2014. But we may well get there earlier. I made that point in the second half of last year, as the Prime Minister did. And we both made it formally in our most recent parliamentary contributions as part of our undertaking to report regularly to the Parliament.
Time will tell whether that occurs. And so we will continue to take the advice of the Chief of the Defence Force about progress. We continue to make good progress; slow and steady progress but nonetheless good progress so far as the transfer to Afghan National Army responsibility in Uruzgan is concerned. And we'll continue to keep both the public and the Parliament updated about the progress that we're making. So time will tell whether we get there earlier.
JOURNALIST: Minister, you say that the- you're confident that the interrogators will adhere to strict guidelines. Does that include - will you make their behaviour, their actions and any breaches of those guidelines transparent?
STEPHEN SMITH: Absolutely. You may, if you've seen in the course of the last 12 months, either my public or parliamentary reports so far as detainee management is concerned, on a regular basis we indicate the number of complaints or allegations of abuse or mistreatment that have been made so far as detainees are concerned. All of those are investigated and I provide the parliament with details of that.
We are, and the Chief of the Defence Force, and the Australian Defence Force and the Army, are absolutely conscious of the need to ensure that in this area we conduct ourselves absolutely strictly in accordance with our domestic and international legal obligations, with international conventions, but also with the very strong Australian view that we have an obligation to treat people with dignity, we have an obligation to treat people consistent with a humanitarian approach. And we have very carefully gone through all of these aspects.
We've also made sure that we have upgraded the close circuit TV system to ensure that interrogation will be recorded, and that will be available for inspection. And I will make a point of regular reports, both publicly and to the parliament, in respect of these matters, including whether any allegations of breaching those strict guidelines have been made.
We believe that the interrogation facility will add to the information that we can use, not just to protect our own troops but also to protect Afghan and International Security Assistance Force members, and also the local Afghan and Uruzgan people.
But we are doing this in a strictly managed way, and it's very important that that is done. There's a longstanding history so far as the Australian Defence Force is concerned of conducting itself appropriately, and we want to continue in that path.
JOURNALIST: Minister, what kind of interrogation practices are available [indistinct]?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I think it's more pertinent and easier to come from the perspective of what is not allowed. Certainly what is not allowed is any physical abuse; any intimidation; any threatening behaviour or conduct; the making, for example, of threats or false promises; basic things like deprivation of food or water or sleep.
We believe that it's appropriate and important to introduce an interrogation facility. That will essentially be the questioning on an ongoing basis within the timetable that I have outlined of people whom our interrogation team believes may be able to provide us with helpful or useful information. It won't be - that won't be the case with every detainee.
But certainly there will be no physical abuse, certainly there will be no threatening behaviour. And that is consistent with what you find in the Geneva Conventions and consistent with what you find in our domestic and legal obligations.
For example, Australia has been one of the countries at the forefront of adhering to international conventions on torture and the ill-treatment of detainees. It will be a series of asking questions but none of the conduct that I have referred to will be allowed. That is strictly prohibited.
And the ultimate - if you like, the ultimate failsafe against this is not just the professionalism and the ongoing adherence to these principles of Australian Defence Force members, but the fact that we have deliberately gone out of our way to ensure the close circuit television equipment has been upgraded to cater for the ongoing maintenance of - to cater for the ongoing occurrence of interrogation and to record that.
JOURNALIST: Would it be accurate to characterise these as extreme interrogations where they're basically, I guess, interrogating and then-
STEPHEN SMITH: Well-
JOURNALIST: [indistinct]. They're not going to be long-term interrogation of high value targets or anything like that?
STEPHEN SMITH: What currently occurs, prior to the introduction of this interrogation capability, what currently occurs and what has occurred since we took responsibility for detainee management matters in Uruzgan from the Dutch nearly 18 months ago, is that they – the detainees who are detained by Australian Defence Force personnel are taken to our holding facility in Tarin Kot. There they are assessed and one of three things occurs. They are assessed as low value detainees and transferred to the national security directorate facility in Uruzgan in Tarin Kot and dealt with by Afghan officials. If they are regarded as high value detainees, they are transferred to the United States' facility in Parwan.
We have a monitoring team which regularly visits detainees who have been detained by Australian Forces and subsequently transferred to one of those two facilities, and they're monitored by our monitoring team.
In the case of our own facility, our own facility is open and we provide access to humanitarian groups and non-government organisations including, for example, the Red Cross. And we also make that available to visiting Australian journalists when they are there, and on a number of occasions I have accompanied journalists to the facility. And that has also been the subject of close circuit television monitoring to ensure that there is a recording of what occurs.
With the introduction of the interrogation capability, we are doing two things. Firstly, we have upgraded the CCTV to ensure that it's appropriate for monitoring interrogation. But, secondly, we have extended the time for which detainees can be held. Currently that time is 96 hours. For those detainees whom we believe may be the holders or the recipients of information which would be valuable to us, they will be able to be held for two, potentially, successive three day extensions; so a maximum of 10 days for interrogation purposes.
It won't occur with everyone. Obviously the most likely to fall into that category will be people who we have currently classified as high value detainees, who are transferred to Parwan. So, not everyone will be interrogated. And, indeed, it is the case that a number of detainees on their initial examination or initial questioning are released because there's no evidence to warrant their continued detention.
JOURNALIST: Mr Abbott has said that the withdrawal or eventual withdrawal from Afghanistan should not be done on a [indistinct], but when objectives have been achieved. I guess you share that view. But do you see a clear set of objectives emerging from the summit in May?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I think you're referring to the comments that Mr Abbott made yesterday where he said, as I myself have said in the past, that any transition has to be conditions-based. And that's certainly the approach that we are adopting in Uruzgan; that we make the transition dependent upon the growing capacity of the Afghan National Army, the Afghan National Security Forces. And that is the same objective which NATO shares, the same objective which our International Security Assistance partners also share. So it needs to be conditions-based.
But it's also the case that once transition occurs, whether that's in 2014 or earlier in our case in Uruzgan, that there will be a continuing need for some form of assistance to both the Afghan institutions generally and to the Afghan National Security Forces. And, as I say, in the course of the first six months leading up to the Chicago summit these would be the key issues for deliberation.
My expectation is that the Chicago summit will deal very much with the post-transition arrangements, just as the NATO summit held in Lisbon in November or December of 2010 essentially set the international community's view of transition being conditions-based with an aspiration to effect that by the end of 2014.
JOURNALIST: Does that mean that there could likely be occupational forces in Afghanistan for many more years to come after the transition?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, certainly Australia would not want that and there can only be the presence of foreign forces in Afghanistan either as a result of United Nations security authority or at the invitation of the Afghan Government.
Currently, we are in Afghanistan as a result of successive United Nations Security Council resolutions over a decade, and that is the legal authority for our presence in Afghanistan.
One of the things that we have to consider in the course of this year is if we are to remain - and by we I mean the international community - if the international community is to remain in Afghanistan helping out, there needs to be some lawful basis for that, either an ongoing Security Council resolution or agreement with the Afghan Government.
Now, President Karzai has made it clear that he wants to see a transition to Afghan-led responsibility as well and he wants to see that on the timetable that Afghanistan has agreed with the international community. Again, whether we get there earlier, time will tell, but the only basis on which there can be an ongoing presence of international forces in Afghanistan is either with the agreement of the Afghan Government or by a Security Council resolution.
And the lawful authority for any ongoing presence is one of the matters that we need to consider in the course of this year. But certainly in Australia's case as transition is effected, that will enable us to drawdown the number of forces that we have in Afghanistan. Currently we've got about 1550 in Uruzgan and elsewhere in Afghanistan, including Kandahar and Kabul. But as the training - and the bulk of those are trainers and mentors from a training and mentoring task force.
As the training and mentoring job completes, then that opens up the capacity for us to drawdown those forces and that's what we will do in due course in an orderly time. So, yes, there is a prospect of a continuing Australian presence in Afghanistan post-transition, but it will be much fewer in numbers and the details of those, as I say, we haven't yet to come to any conclusions. We need to have our own deliberations in the course of this year, but also have that general conversation with the international community.
JOURNALIST: You mentioned earlier about the possibility of [indistinct] special forces in Afghanistan.
STEPHEN SMITH: Yes, one of - we're the largest - we're the tenth largest contributor in Afghanistan, we're the largest non-NATO contributor, but we're also the third largest contributor to special forces. Our objective in Afghanistan is to make sure that Afghanistan does not again become a breeding ground for international terrorists which puts Australians at risk whether they're in Asia, whether they're in Europe or whether they're in the United States, and that remains our objective.
One of the suggestions that has been made is that post-transition there may well be a need to continue with a special forces presence to assist the Afghan security forces in building their own expertise and capacity, but also as a counter-terrorism force.
Because we have been such a large and successful contributor and because our special forces are so highly regarded, then one of the possibilities that I have spoken about publicly- an ongoing presence of some of our special forces. And, again, that could potentially be in a training role but also in an operational sense. But, again, we're a long way from making conclusions or judgments in that respect.
JOURNALIST: Minister, have you decided on a new timeline for the new Joint Strike Fighter aircraft unit?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, as I indicated, I think on Monday of this week, as a result of the announcements that my United States counterpart, Secretary Panetta, has made in recent days, I've said a number of things.
Firstly, I have reaffirmed the point that I made on a regular basis last year, which is in the course of this year we will make a judgement about the scheduling and proposed availability of the Joint Strike Fighters and make a judgement about whether that puts at risk any gap in our capability. And if I believe in any way there is a potential for a capability gap then we will make judgements about filling that gap with other options. We've come to no conclusions about that, but we'll do that in an orderly way in the course of this year. If we believe there is a risk of a capability gap then, again, whilst we haven't made any decisions about this, more Super Hornets is an obvious option to consider.
I also made the point earlier this week, as a result of Secretary Panetta's most recent public announcement, that we have made it clear publicly that in the first instance we will purchase 14 Joint Strike Fighters. We are contractually obligated to take two of those in the United States for training purposes. So our formal, legal, contractual obligation is two.
We continue to expect that we will receive those in the course of 2014. And that will then open up the prospect of training and using those two Joint Strike Fighters in the United States.
The point I made earlier this week, that so far as the other 12 is concerned, the original timetable for receipt of those was 2015, 2016, 2017. We are now also giving consideration to the scheduling of the receipt of those 12 Joint Strike Fighters. What is my rationale for doing that? Secretary Panetta made the point in the last few days - and he essentially is the manager of the project but also the purchaser of the largest number of Joint Strike Fighters - he has said publicly that he is giving consideration to changing the scheduling of the planes that he is receiving, and I'm doing likewise.
So at this stage, we're contractually obliged to two. We'll get those two on current judgments in 2014. We'll make a judgement in the course of this year about the timetable for receiving the further 12 that we have said that we wish to acquire. Any judgements about any Joint Strike Fighters over and above that initial 14, we will make in an orderly way as we continue to examine the project. And we'll also in the course of this year make a judgement about whether any different options are required, so as to ensure we don't have a gap in our air combat capability.
JOURNALIST: What did you make of Simon Crean's comments yesterday, specifically his direct criticism of Kevin Rudd?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I'm not going to be drawn on what Simon had to say yesterday. I make a couple of points. Simon is a very good Cabinet minister and I work closely with him and he's a very experienced member of the Cabinet. He was a Cabinet minister in an earlier Labor Government and he's a former leader and he makes a very positive contribution.
Kevin is a very effective Foreign Minister. He also makes a positive contribution. I work closely with him, indeed the first formal obligation I had overseas this year was with him for the Australia-United Kingdom Ministerial consultations. The only other point I make in this context is the same point that I have made in the past. I'm a strong supporter of the Prime Minister and it's very important that all of us do our jobs in a positive and constructive way, and that's what I'm doing.
JOURNALIST: Do you think his comments yesterday were positive and constructive? You must have a view about [indistinct]. This is incredibly-
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I see a lot of speculation in the media. What is my own judgement? My own judgement is there is very strong support for the Prime Minister. Kevin has made it clear on successive and multiple occasions that he is a supporter of the Prime Minister and he's very happy doing his job as Foreign Minister.
I've always thought that Simon was very happy doing his job as the Regional Affairs Minister and I'm happy doing my job. And the most important contribution that any of us can make is to make our own individual contributions and to do that positively. Simon is a very capable and experienced and longstanding member of our team and I think he makes a very positive contribution.
JOURNALIST: Gina Rinehart's decision to buy into Fairfax; do you have a view about that?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I - there was a time when I was Shadow Minister for communications so I'll leave any detailed response to my colleague, Stephen Conroy. But any person or company in Australia is entitled to seek a share of a media company provided they conduct themselves in accordance with the law of the land. And it's a matter for the experts but I'm not aware that there is any law of the Commonwealth which prevents her from seeking to acquire a share in Fairfax.
JOURNALIST: Are you curious or troubled about what her motive might be; the suggestion today being [indistinct] commentary around it that she's trying to buy influence in the national paper-
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, as I say, any individual or company is entitled to seek to acquire a whole or a part of an asset, provided they conduct themselves lawfully. The obvious exception to that of course is to the great national public broadcaster, which we're proposing to stay as a national public broadcaster.
JOURNALIST: Are you concerned that an extremely vocal [indistinct] of the Government [indistinct] significant media position?
STEPHEN SMITH: It's entirely a matter for individuals if they wish either individually or on a corporate basis to take a share in the current media of Australia, or to create new media outlets; entirely a matter for the individuals concerned.
JOURNALIST: It's not just a matter of legality, is it? I mean it could have an impact - sure it can be entirely legal but very troublesome to the Government.
STEPHEN SMITH: We have a diverse media in Australia and I've always taken the view that the best approach with media is to front up, let the media know what decisions you've made, explain your rationale for it and then media will report that in the way in which they want to and the community will make a view. One of the things that we have in Australia is a diversity in our media. That diversity is growing as a result of what we describe as social or online media.
Journalists will report as they want, proprietors will publish as they want. And I think the most important thing for governments to do is to make decisions, govern well, articulate and explain the reasons for their decisions and let the community ultimately make a judgement. And that tends to occur once every three or four years.
Thanks very much.