TRANSCRIPT: PRESS CONFERENCE – PERTH
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 15 JANUARY 2013
TOPICS: ADF contribution to disaster relief; AUKMIN; Afghanistan; 2013 White Paper; Force Posture Review; Newspoll; Defence Budget; Mali.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, thanks very much for turning up. It's my first press conference of the year, so can I take the opportunity of wishing you a Happy New Year. I look forward to again working with you in the course of 2013, which will be a big year in defence and a big year generally.
Can I start by thanking members of the Australian Defence Force and the Defence Organisation generally for their terrific work over the holiday season in applying humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, both offshore and onshore. Offshore, in Fiji and Samoa in the aftermath of Cyclone Evan, and onshore of course helping in the terrible bushfires, particularly in Tasmania and New South Wales. Part of the great work of the Australian Defence Force is in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. It complements the great work that the Defence Force does in peacekeeping and of course in combat and in military exercises and activity. So again, a very fine contribution by the ADF over the Christmas New Year period. And of course, our thoughts are with those people, particularly in New South Wales and Tasmania, who lost property in the face of bush fires and also the tragic death of the Victorian fire-fighter.
I wanted to announce today the arrangements for AUKMIN and then make some general remarks about some of the challenges for Defence this year. AUKMIN of course is the Australia United Kingdom Ministerial consultations. This will be the first occasion that the AUKMIN consultations have been conducted in Perth. This will be the fifth AUKMIN. Last year's AUKMIN was in London, and the 2011 AUKMIN was in Sydney. So I look forward to hosting my Foreign Ministerial colleague Bob Carr, but also Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom William Hague, and Defence Secretary of the United Kingdom Philip Hammond.
Mr Hague will arrive in Sydney on Wednesday, and he'll have some engagements with Bob Carr and some activity in Sydney on Wednesday, and arrive in Perth on Thursday. Defence Secretary Hammond will arrive in Perth on Wednesday night, and on Thursday we will engage in a tour of some relevant Defence and military facilities, including HMAS Stirling and Swanbourne Barracks with the SAS. The formal AUKMIN consultations, the two plus two, will take place on Friday, and that will take place at the State Reception Centre in Kings Park, and the detailed program arrangement will be published later this week. So I look very much forward to those very important discussions.
Perth, of course, is a very appropriate centre to conduct AUKMIN 2013. It follows on from CHOGM in 2011, and it again underlines the fact that Perth is Australia's Indian Ocean capital, with our Indian Ocean port, HMAS Stirling. The rise of India and the growing importance of the Indian Ocean and Indian Ocean Rim will be one of the topics of discussion at AUKMIN, and you may have noticed the UK Prime Minister Cameron's visit to India underlining the importance that both the United Kingdom and Australia place on India and the growing importance of the Indian Ocean region.
In addition to Indian Ocean matters, we will of course discuss transition in Afghanistan, also some of the threats to international peace and security, including and in particular Syria, Iran and also North Korea, the DPRK.
We will as well have further conversations on some of the modern challenges that we find to our national security environment, in particular cyber security, which was an issue we first touched upon formally at AUKMIN in Sydney in 2011. So we look forward to welcoming Foreign Secretary Hague and Defence Secretary Hammond. AUKMIN will conclude on Friday afternoon and Ministers Hague and Hammond will return to the United Kingdom at the conclusion of AUKMIN.
Can I just draw attention to some of the challenges that I see for Defence in the course of 2013, then I'm happy to respond to your questions on AUKMIN and other matters.
Firstly, transition in Afghanistan. Over the break we've seen some important developments, so far as transition in Afghanistan generally is concerned. In the run-up to Christmas Eve, President Karzai announced the fourth tranche of transition. This sees some 85 to 87 per cent of Afghanistan's population now under lead security responsibility by Afghan National Security Forces. You might recall that Uruzgan Province, where we have responsibility, was transitioned in the third tranche in the middle of last year to Afghan-lead responsibility. By the end of last year, by November-December of last year, all four of the Afghan National Security Force 4th Kandaks in Uruzgan were operating independently, and that saw the return of Australian forces from mentoring and training in forward operating bases and on patrol to our main multi-national base in Tarin Kot. Our status or our modus operandi in Uruzgan has now changed from mentoring and training to advising and our first advisory task force left Australia and arrived in Tarin Kot in the course of November-December.
As well, over the break, you would've seen the visit by President Karzai to Washington and the agreement by President Karzai and President Obama that the fifth tranche will be brought forward from the middle of 2013 to the Afghan or the northern spring. So we'll then see, a few months earlier than anticipated at the Chicago conference, the full transition of security responsibility to Afghan National Security Forces by the Afghanistan spring, March-April-May of next year. And so all of Afghanistan will then be in the same position as we are in Uruzgan Province.
For some time the Prime Minister and I have been saying that our advice and our expectation was a transition in Uruzgan Province itself would occur, either by the end of 2013 or by the first quarter of 2014. All of our advice and assessment and analysis and view is now that transition will be complete in Uruzgan Province by the end of this year, by 2013. So we are now proceeding on the basis that the formal transition in Uruzgan Province will occur by the end of 2013.
So the big challenge for Defence in the course of this year, so far as Afghanistan is concerned, is the transition arrangements, but also looking to what will the situation be on the ground in Uruzgan, so far as the Australian Defence Force personnel and assets are concerned, in the course of 2014, and what the post-2014 arrangements for contribution, international contribution, will be. Australia has made it clear for the last 12 months that we believe it's important that the international community make a long-term contribution to Afghanistan. We have made it clear that we are prepared to continue high-level training, including officer training, but also under an appropriate mandate and in appropriate circumstances, a Special Forces contribution, whether that's for training or counter-terrorism operations. And these discussions and these details will now become a priority for not just Australia, for the international community.
The second challenge for Defence this year, and for the Government, will be the publication of the 2013 Defence White Paper, which will occur in the first half of this year. We expect that to occur in the second quarter of this year. That will follow on from the 2009 White Paper. We brought the White Paper forward from a five-year timetable to a four-year timetable. The 2009 White Paper was the first Defence White Paper since 2000. That was far too long a period of time, and since 2009 we have seen substantial developments, the continuing growth of economic and strategic importance of our part of the world. But we've also seen the third challenge that Defence has. We've seen, in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, the difficulty of facing the new fiscal reality, so described by United States Defence Secretary Leon Panetta, and we saw on literally New Year's Eve the United States grappling with its own financial difficulties, the so-called fiscal cliff and the deferment of that issue. But all comparable countries, whether it's the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, are facing these challenges.
The final challenge for Defence will be the ongoing reform program, whether that is personal accountability, as reflected, for example, by the referral of the DLA Piper review to the Len Roberts-Smith Defence Abuse Taskforce, or general accountability, the ongoing implementation of the Black Review. But also, further enhancements of the procurement and making sense of statement reforms that the Government has put in place over the last 12 months.
So they are some of the issues which face Defence as we return to working capacity and effort in the course of the first half of January of 2013. Our first formal activity will, as I've said, be AUKMIN. That will be a most important strategic conversation. Australia has a Foreign Ministers and Defence Ministers dialogue with a small number of countries - the United States, we saw AUSMIN here at the end of last year, but also Japan, Indonesia, and the United Kingdom, and a proposed two plus two with the Republic of Korea in the course of this year.
After the United States, the United Kingdom is one of our most important partners when it comes to national security and strategic issues, so we look forward to welcoming Foreign Secretary Hague and Defence Secretary Hammond to Perth later this week.
I'm happy to respond to your questions on those matters and other issues.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I saw that media commentary rather than White House commentary over the break. The United States, NATO, Australia, India, a whole range of members of the international community have made a long term commitment to Afghanistan. It's very important that after the end of formal transition at the end of 2014 that the international community continues to give Afghanistan support, to ensure that in the long term Afghanistan does not return to being a breeding ground for international terrorism. And NATO, the US, Australia, in the run-up to the Chicago conference all made it clear that we would strike up a long-term partnership with Afghanistan. And that goes to a whole range on issues, whether it's development assistance, economic issues, trade generally.
So far as the international community's potential military contribution to Afghanistan after 2014, the current International Security Assistance Force mandate will end at the end of 2014, in December 2014. One of the things that we are currently discussing is what, if anything, will be the international community's contribution to Afghanistan in the military sense after that. Australia has made it clear that we see the need for an ongoing international community presence, both in high-level or niche training we have undertaken to join with United Kingdom and Canada for Afghanistan officer training. We've also made it clear that we propose, under an appropriate mandate, to continue to make a Special Forces contribution, whether that is training or whether that is counter-terrorism activity.
My own view is that the United States and the international community, through NATO, will continue to make some form of contribution. In discussions with Afghanistan and with NATO and the international community, we need to come to some decisions in the course of this year and 2014 about the nature and extent of that contribution. Part of that discussion we saw in Washington, the beginning of a discussion between Afghanistan and the United States, about a so-called Status of Forces Agreement. If the international community is to remain in Afghanistan after 2014, there needs to be a mandate. Currently there's a United Nations mandate, what people are looking at is a Status of Forces agreement where Afghanistan would authorise the United States and potentially other countries, or indeed organisations like NATO, to continue to have a presence. I'm proceeding on the basis that there will continue to be an agreed United States presence in Afghanistan after 2014, and Australia is prepared to play its part in that. I'm certainly not envisaging that Australia will be there by ourselves or on our lonesome.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, part of our conversation about the Indian Ocean Rim will include my briefing to Defence Secretary Hammond and Foreign Secretary Hague about our Force Posture Review, which looks in the longer term at the utility and the use of HMAS Stirling, but also the need to ensure that our northern and western approaches become more of a priority into the future. Obviously that includes the North West, but it also includes the energy belt and the need for energy security. We now find a growing energy belt, not just in the North West of Western Australia, but also to the north of Darwin. I commissioned former Defence Secretaries Allan Hawke and Rick Smith to prepare a Force Posture Review for the Government, which was published last year, and I've made it clear that the Government's decisions on the Force Posture Review will be made as part of the White Paper process.
So yes, briefing our United Kingdom colleagues on the Force Posture Review, as that relates to the growing importance of the Indian Ocean Rim and the need for Australia, after a decade effectively of being in Afghanistan and Iraq, nearly a decade of an East Timor stabilisation contribution which is now formally concluded, and a wind-down of our Solomon Islands peacekeeping and stabilisation mission, the opportunity is there through the White Paper to focus on matters closer to home, including our own force posture and the work we do in the Pacific and South East Asia.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, there's a range of issues there. Firstly, on the most recent national Newspoll, I've been making the point for more than 12 months, and I'm very happy to make it again, that I always believed that as we moved into 2013, that people would see the start of a political competition, and that Labor and the Prime Minister would be very competitive in that respect. So at the end of 2012 and the beginning of this year, you essentially see a range of polls which, whilst they have the Coalition in front, have the Government within striking distance. So whether that's on a two-party preferred basis, 48/52, 49/51 or 50/50, what you know is it will be a competition. So I've always believed that we would be competitive, and I've always thought that it would be a toughly fought competition.
I think the most significant feature of the national polls over the last few months has been the very clear indication through the polls that, when push comes to shove, when the Australian community go to the ballot box and vote in the second half of this year, I'm expecting September, October, November, a full three year term. I think what the polls are reflecting is a lack of confidence that the Australian community has in Tony Abbott as a potential Prime Minister.
I've made this point before, I make it again, I've always been of the view that when push comes to shove, the Australian community will form the view that Mr Abbott does not have the demeanour or the judgement to be Prime Minister of the country. That he doesn't have the demeanour to calmly handle national security and economic issues, and his whole trait and approach to date has been a very negative one, with a refusal to put out long-term policies for the future. And I think that has been central to the Government's improvement in the polls, which has been, despite all of our political difficulties, consistently putting out a long-term policy approach for the future. In the course of this year you'll see further work in education and in disability. But I think, at the start of this year, an election year, you'll see more and more of a focus on whether Mr Abbott has the judgement and the demeanour to be given the responsibility of running the country.
So far as the Western Australian election is concerned, we now have a fixed term for the Western Australian poll. I've always been of the view that Western Australians make a clear distinction between state matters and federal matters. The state poll will be run on state issues. I think Mark McGowan has been doing a very good job. It's quite clear that Colin Barnett starts as favourite, but I think Mr McGowan has been doing a very good job of unveiling a range of positive policy proposals, and making the point that he believes that Mr Barnett ahs become complacent and is now operating on the basis of wrong priorities.
I think as the state election campaign moves from its in informal stage to its formal stage, either at them end of this month or in February, the Western Australian community again will be forced to make a judgement between two political parties and what those parties are holding out for the future. And I think that election, that poll, will be conducted on State matters and I don't see any interference either way, either for the Federal election down the track or for the state poll in March.
STEPHEN SMITH: The Western Australian community knows that in the second half of this year, whether it's August, September, October or November, there'll be a federal poll, and they'll make their judgements accordingly. They're smart enough to work out that this is a state poll, do they want eight long years of Colin Barnett and the potential for Mr Buswell in the course of the eight year period, or do they want Mr McGowan, who from the first moment he became Leader of the Opposition, conducted himself as an alternate Premier, putting out a raft of positive policy proposals.
There's a very good contrast between the way in which Mr McGowan has conducted himself and the entirely negative way in which Mr Abbott has conducted himself as Leader of the Opposition.
STEPHEN SMITH: We'll do the next budget in the course of May this year. The Treasurer's made it clear that he wants to embark on another savings program. In the last Budget, there were savings from every agency, the last budget was not aimed at Defence and Defence made a substantial contribution. You might be aware that since the Budget, Defence has not been called upon for any further contribution and has been made expressly exempt from a range of efficiency measures, instituted by the Minister for Finance.
STEPHEN SMITH: We will conduct ourselves in the course of the run up to the 2013 Budget as we have in the past, sitting round the table having conversations with the Expenditure Review Committee. One thing though is absolutely crystal clear, this Government has taken its fiscal responsibilities very seriously. The Government that we succeeded, the Howard-Costello Government, it was accorded the status of international observers, as the biggest spending Government in Australia's history.
Our spending is now below 25 per cent of GDP, indeed it's at or below 24 per cent of GDP. So, that tight fiscal rein, in difficult circumstance, including the global financial crisis, has enabled us to, for example, see interest rates fall very substantially. If you're on a mortgage of $300,000, which is the average mortgage across Australia, then you're paying between two and three thousand dollars less per year, sorry paying between four and five thousand dollars less per year on your mortgage than you were when we came to office. So we will continue our tight fiscal regime, because, ultimately, that is of benefit to the Australian economy and the Australian people, both in terms of jobs, but also in terms of the important cost of living issues, in particular the payment of their mortgages.
STEPHEN SMITH: In the course of last years budget, where Defence made a substantial contribution to our fiscal arrangements, we made it clear that our overseas operations, not just Afghanistan, but also the Solomon Islands and East Timor, would be ring fenced, there would be no adverse implications for those overseas operations, and that will continue. Whether it's in terms of resources being made available to people on deployment in Afghanistan, or about to deploy.
So, just as there weren't any adverse implications for what we do with the United States in terms of our alliance arrangements, protecting core and key capability. There are no adverse implications for our effort in Afghanistan, Solomons and East Timor and that will continue for Afghanistan and for the Solomon Islands.
But we go into a different phase now in Afghanistan. It will still need to be fully funded but the phase we now go into are working through the detail of the transition and working through the detail of, as we wind down in Afghanistan, how we extract both personnel and equipment. That process has started, but that will be a big logistical exercise, and that will be, as I said earlier, very much a focus of our attention in the course of this year.
JOURNALIST: [Indistinct] Just wondering is Australia considering any assistance in equipment or troops or even [indistinct]?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we're certainly not considering any military contribution. We strongly support France's initiative. The Security Council, of which we are now a member, was receiving, this morning Australia time, a briefing from France on its intervention, which was, of course, made at the request of the Government of Mali.
There is an existing United Nations Security Council resolution which authorises an African Union Force to intervene in Mali. We strongly support the French intervention as being in international communities interest, but we also strongly support the bringing forward of the African Union contribution in Mali. And that'll be the view that we put at the Security Council.
Whether down the track a contribution, either humanitarian assistance or disaster relief, or some contribution to that commitment, time will tell, but certainly neither the Foreign Minister nor I are in any way envisaging any military contribution per se.
Ok, thanks very much. Thank you.