TRANSCRIPT: PRESS CONFERENCE, PERTH
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 2 July 2013
TOPICS: Visit to the Republic of Korea and Japan; RAMSI; Uruzgan Province; Border Protection; Army email scandal; 2013 election.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks very much for turning up, sorry I'm a bit late. Later today I will leave Perth to travel to the Republic of Korea, to Seoul, and on Wednesday I will conduct with the Republic of Korea's Defence Minister, or Minister for National Defence Security - Minister Kim, the second of the Australia/Republic of Korea Defence Minister's dialogue. And then on Thursday in Seoul, Foreign Minister Carr and I will conduct the first ever two-plus-two meeting of Australian and Republic of Korean Defence and Republic of Korean Defence and Foreign Ministers, with Foreign Minister Yung and Defence Minister Kim.
The visit to the Republic of Korea and the holding of the two-plus-two illustrates the way in which Australia and the Republic of Korea have enhanced their bilateral engagement over the last half dozen years. Not just on the general bilateral relationship, particularly economic and trade and investment, but also on the strategic and security and defence-to-defence, and military-to-military front. Australia conducts a small number of so-called two-plus-two meetings, the US, Indonesia, Japan and the UK, so we're very pleased that this new piece of architecture in the Australia-Republic of Korea relationship is taking place in the course of this week.
Australia and Korea have a very strong relationship. We've stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the Republic of Korea in the face of ongoing provocation by North Korea. And that has occurred whether it's been Australia's assistance to the United Nations in the aftermath of the sinking of the Cheonan, or the conduct of exercises we do on a regular basis with the Republic of Korea, and our strong support in the United Nations opposed to the DPRK's, to North Korea's nuclear program.
After Minister Carr and I have completed the two plus two on Friday I will be in Japan. It will be my eighth visit to Japan as a Minister in the Australian Government, my second visit as Defence Minister in the last 12 months. And there I'll conduct a formal bilateral meeting with Japan's Defence Minister Onodera. I'll be the first Cabinet Minister to Japan since the election of the Abe Government at the end of last year. And again this reflects the strength of the relationship and the partnership between Australia and Japan. I last met with Minister Onodera at the Shangri-La dialogue in Singapore in the last month or so, and this will continue to pursue the strong relationship that Australia and Japan has. We, in Singapore, conducted only the second of our trilateral ministerial level discussions with Japan and the US, and in recent times we've been very pleased to assist Japan as it has embarked for the first time on peacekeeping operations under the United Nations umbrella.
A couple of other announcements today. In the last couple of days we've seen our formal military contribution to the Solomon Islands come to an end. That is the so-called RAMSI mission, the regional assistance mission to the Solomon Islands. We've been in the Solomon Islands now for about a decade. We completed and concluded the defence, or military aspect of our contribution to the Solomon Islands at the end of June, in the last couple of days, and will now engage in the extraction process. And that will occur over the next couple of months, but by the end of September all of our RAMSI defence or military component will have returned to Australia. We'll have a small number of Defence Force personnel remaining in the Solomon Islands, and they will conduct the usual Defence engagement with the Solomon Islands. RAMSI will continue as a police or law enforcement mission and the AFP will have some 100-110 Australian Federal Police officers continuing to assist the Solomon Islands Government and the Royal Solomon Islands Police on law enforcement matters.
I’m also announcing today the completion of Singapore's mission to Afghanistan and Uruzgan province. We've been working very closely with Singapore in Uruzgan for the last three or four years. They've made a substantial contribution both on the training, but also on the military medicine front, and also taking the opportunity of thanking Singapore and Slovakia for their contribution in Uruzgan province. Both of these - the draw down from the Solomon Islands and the drawdown of Singapore and Slovakia from Uruzgan province, which will be followed by our own substantial drawdown and the closure of the main base in Uruzgan Province in Tarin Kot by the end of the year - reflects the fact that we're now going through a process of drawing down from the three key overseas peacekeeping, or stabilisation or counter-terrorism missions that we've had in place now for a decade.
This is reflected by the White Paper that we published recently and it gives us an opportunity from the end of this year to now look at our defence - the defence and military arrangements in our own region, our immediate backyard, the South Pacific and East Timor - but also our own force posture. So, they’re significant and substantial drawdowns so far as our Australian Defence Forces are concerned. In the Solomon Islands we've had somewhere between just over 7200 Australian Defence Force personnel make a contribution over that ten-year period and some 2200 reservists have also made a contribution. So our congratulations go to those that have taken part in the RAMSI mission.
Finally, before I take your questions, this is the first opportunity I've had in Perth to speak to members of the press. Can I take this opportunity of thanking the people of Perth for their support of me as their local Federal Member for the last 20 years. Can I thank the Western Australian branch of the Labor Party for providing me with the opportunity to represent the party in the seat of Perth in the Federal Parliament, and again, if you do 20 years from Perth including six years variously as Foreign Minister and Defence Minister then there comes a point in time where you feel disinclined to catch another plane to Canberra for another three years.
Over the weekend I spoke to people, the people whose names I had seen mentioned in despatches as possible candidates for pre-selection. I spoke to Tim Hammond, I spoke to Alannah MacTiernan, I spoke to Matt Keogh. I made the same point to all of them: if they nominate or if they emerge as the party's candidate they will have 110 per cent from me. I spoke to the National Secretary and the State Secretary before I announced my intention not to seek election to the seat of Perth again. I very happily volunteered to be the campaign director so whoever emerges as the party's candidate will get 110 per cent support from me. I see overnight that Tim Hammond has indicated he's not proposing to put his name forward. I'm disappointed in that but I understand entirely Tim's reason for doing that. He has a young family and I entirely - of all people I think - I entirely understand his decision to seek to wait some time before seeking to enter the Federal Parliament. He will be, in due course, a very good Labor Member of Parliament. So I understand his decision, I congratulate him on it and I wish him well. And whether it's Matt, whether it's Alannah or someone else, whoever emerges will have my complete support.
I finish in this subject matter where I started, I thank the people of Perth for putting their trust and confidence in me for a 20-year period. It's been a great opportunity for someone from Perth who was born in Narrogin, and grew up in Narrogin, and Southern Cross to represent the Labor Party in the national Parliament, but because of the portfolios I've held to also represent our country overseas which again, given that for me it's business as usual until the election, I will be doing over the next couple of days in the Republic of Korea and Japan.
I'm happy to respond to your questions.
JOURNALIST: [Indistinct] who is your favourite candidate [indistinct]?
STEPHEN SMITH: My favourite candidate? My favourite candidate for ALP preselection for the Federal seat of Perth will be the candidate who the party chooses. So I'm not - I've said to all three, to Tim who has now indicated he's not proposing to put his name forward, to Matt and to Alannah - I'm not proposing to involve myself in the preselection. The process has started, nominations close on Thursday midday, local and central ballots conclude on Monday 15 July.
STEPHEN SMITH: I've always been of the view that Labor can win all three of the seats that we have in the West, and given the response to Kevin Rudd's return as Prime Minister I think not only will we be competitive in Perth and Fremantle and Brand - I've always thought that whatever the circumstances where we would hold those three seats - I think we'll now also be competitive in Hasluck and in Swan. This is a real contest, and anyone who thought that the ultimate decisions in this election had already been made, including the Liberal Party, is wrong. I've always been of the view that as we got closer to the election the community will start to regard Tony Abbott as a real risk as Prime Minister. So this is a contest.
Just on Perth, there is a prospect, which you would have seen referred to, that the national executive may determine to do the pre-selections, not just in Perth but in the half dozen or so seats where people, colleagues like me have indicated an intention not to seek re-election. So there is a prospect that the local process may be overtaken by a decision by the national executive to do all of those half dozen or so seats together.
JOURNALIST: Do you acknowledge the time frame that somebody with a higher profile would probably be an advantage in winning the seat?
STEPHEN SMITH: People will always - people in the community, when they're looking to who they want to elect to the Federal Parliament, will make a judgement about a person's capability and capacity. All of those three that I've mentioned - Tim, Matt and Alannah - they're all very good, capable people, they'd all make first-class members of the Federal Parliament. I'm not proposing to give any or a running commentary, because some might perceive that as me tilting the lever one way or the other to a particular candidate. I said to all three of them if you emerge you will be a good candidate, you will be a good member and you will have my complete support and that's all I'm proposing to say on the matter.
JOURNALIST: Alannah MacTiernan has been touted as the frontrunner at this stage. Would she be a good replacement?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, she would be a good replacement for me as would Matt, as would Tim. That's - and I'm not aware yet that either Alannah or Matt have nominated. It's entirely a matter for them to make that judgment, but I will work with whichever one of those emerges or indeed whoever emerges because there may well be other people out there who have not yet been mentioned in despatches who wish to put their name forward.
JOURNALIST: The Prime Minister's off to Indonesia this week. Do you think he can return an asylum seeker solution?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, the meeting that the Prime Minister's having with the President of Indonesia is one of the now regular leadership summits between Australia and Indonesia. The first of these occurred in Darwin last year. So whilst the Prime Minister and the President will have a discussion about the array of issues that are of interest and mutual interest to both Australia and Indonesia, of course people smuggling issues will no doubt be discussed. But I've never been one to anticipate a prime ministerial meeting with the leader of another country, so we should simply allow that meeting to take its course.
I earlier saw some suggestions that somehow this was a meeting which was scrambled to seek a response to people smuggling issues. This has been a meeting which has been in the calendar for a long period of time and it reflects the strength of our relationship with Indonesia. Over the last couple of years we've now seen in terms of the formal architecture of the Indonesia relationship an annual summit between the leaders, between the President and Prime Minister. For the first time in 2011 Bob Carr and I did a two-plus-two meeting with the Indonesian Foreign and Defence Minister, Foreign Minister Natalegawa and Defence Minister Purnomo. We repeated that in Indonesia for the second meeting, and Minister Purnomo and I have now agreed the meetings between Australian and Indonesian Defence Ministers will occur on an annual basis. So this is part of the high-level contact between Australia and Indonesia. It's a very good thing. No doubt people smuggling will be one of the issues which will fall for consideration.
I note that when Tony Abbott meets with the President of Indonesia or any other Minister from Indonesia he refuses to put forward to Indonesia his simplistic approach to people smuggling issues, which is boats will be towed back. He has never had the courage to put that to the Indonesian President, and Indonesian ministers have made it clear over a long period of time that that is not a policy which they see is workable and nor is it a policy which they will accept, and we've seen both the current Chief of Navy and previous Chief of Navy make the point that all this will just put people at risk on the high seas, including and in particular our own Defence personnel, our Navy personnel.
JOURNALIST: Were the Prime Minister's comments last week inflammatory as the Opposition-
STEPHEN SMITH: No, I saw those comments and I just don't believe it. I regard that, frankly, as a beat up. He said if that matter was progressed then the danger was there for diplomatic tension between Australia and Indonesia. I've seen commentators, I've seen the Opposition try to beat that to a pulp and, that will disappear as newspapers tend to do.
JOURNALIST: The Australian Army has suspended a further five members. How senior were these members?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well there's five. That adds to the original three which General Morrison announced a couple of weeks ago. Can I again welcome the very strong action that General Morrison has happened - has taken, sorry. The five who were suspended in that announcement or that knowledge made available overnight varied in rank from Lance Corporal to Major. So again, one of the points that General Morrison and I have made, we're dealing here with both non-commissioned and commissioned officers. That adds to the gravity and the seriousness of the issues that are being dealt with, but it also reflects the strength of the response from General Morrison. His response on this issue and the Vice Chief of the Australian Defence Force, the Vice Chief Binskin, Air Marshall Binskin, when he was dealing with further issues at ADFA in the last week or so has reflected further zero tolerance to these matters.
I welcome General Morrison's ongoing, strong approach to these matters and his zero tolerance. We're dealing with commissioned and non-commissioned officers. We are not dealing with young cadets that have been in the Australian Defence Force for weeks. We're dealing with people who have been in senior roles for years, if not a decade or so.
JOURNALIST: How many more suspensions do you expect?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, that in the end will be a matter for General Morrison. The investigation is dealing with at least 90 members of the ADF. That investigation is ongoing. I've seen some commentary overnight that that has somehow run into difficulties or problems and that's not the case. The investigation is ongoing, as is always the case in these matters. The investigation is complex and that's why it is being done in a thorough and exhaustive way.
JOURNALIST: Have they been stood down with or without pay?
STEPHEN SMITH: Suspensions are suspensions with pay. Whether in the event General Morrison wishes to take further action will be in the end a matter for him, but those suspensions take place with pay.
JOURNALIST: You will be leaving the portfolio in September, do you feel like…
STEPHEN SMITH: Or August or October or November, depending upon when the election is. I did have 14 or 15 of September pencilled in my diary, but that's subject to movement one way or the other.
JOURNALIST: Do you feel that you're leaving or do you feel disappointed that you're leaving at such a delicate time for the Defence?
STEPHEN SMITH: No. I wanted to make sure that the 2013 White Paper was delivered. I wanted to make sure there was a good budget for Defence in the May Budget. In national security - I did think it was important, and this was a conversation that I had with Prime Minister Rudd. Both he and I thought it important that even though I wasn't seeking re-election that I continued in the Defence portfolio until the election and we agreed that and did that and wanted to do that for security and stability and continuity reasons.
It's important to have continuity in national security matters and so you have now Bob Carr as Foreign Minister and myself as Defence Minister and Mark Dreyfus as Attorney-General, so there's continuity so far as there's continuity so far as the National Security Committee members are concerned. But the job of a Defence Minister is never done, and what I will do between now and whenever the election is, is to put - to seek to leave a good shop for whoever is my successor as Minister, but in the national security area the job is never done. But also in the national security area none of us are indispensable. So I will be vigilant until my last day in the job, which will be when someone else is sworn in and I will leave a tidy and a good shop. But there will always be issues which Defence Ministers and Foreign Ministers have to deal with.
JOURNALIST: What is next for you? Or what are most looking forward to?
STEPHEN SMITH: Sorry, what was that?
JOURNALIST: What is next for you, and what are you looking forward to?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, what is next for me? I will do the Defence job diligently until I'm no longer Defence Minister. I will be the campaign director in Perth and I will do everything I can to help get Labor's candidate over the line in Perth. I'm then going to take a shortish holiday in Australia with my wife, with Jane, and then I will think about what I do next.
Now I may, if the election is in September- if the election is in September/October rather than the middle of September, then I may not really think about what I do until the new year. But like you, I will be a private citizen. Like most people I know, I've got a mortgage to pay so I will have to do something but I have nothing planned. I have had, through my son, a number of job offers. There's a job offer at a gelati shop, there's a job offer at a day a week at a landscape gardener. One of my local bottle shops in Mount Lawley did say that either front of house or back of house I was a potential prospect. But I'm not going to rush into anything. So I suspect after we've had a holiday here I might just bide my time for a bit and start to think about what I'd do after the Christmas/new year break.
A number of my former federal or state colleagues who have done the same thing as I, who have been ministers and then retired, say a couple of things. They say, firstly, don't rush into anything, and secondly, don't necessarily take the first thing that comes along. So you're best off - and also, I think it's - the transition for me, the hard transition will really occur after the election. I've still got serious work to do which I enjoy very much. I've got serious campaigning to do which I also enjoy very much. But I think when I wake up on Sunday, whenever that Sunday morning is, that's when I'll start to say well, what does life now hold for me? And everyone says that that is a difficult transition to make so I'm steeling myself for that but I'm sure there will be high times and low times.
But from the first moment I made the decision and announced it, I have not been in any doubt that for me, for my family that it was the right thing to do and the best thing to do. I've been blessed with 20 years in the Federal Parliament, I've been blessed with half a dozen years sitting around the National Security Committee. I've been blessed with representing the country as Foreign Minister and Defence Minister.
So we had a family dinner last night, my dad and Jane and Hugo and Maddie, in Cantina in Mount Lawley, the best restaurant in Mount Lawley, just by the by, and that was a really enjoyable moment for the family and for me. So who knows what life will hold as a private citizen. But I'm very pleased that I've made the decision. I was able to do it in my own terms. I've always thought that the best way to go out if you're a Minister is at the despatch box after question time with only about four or five people in the House knowing what you're about to do. And you do it on your own terms and you don't necessarily get that opportunity in public life and I had an opportunity and I'm very grateful for it. But what I end up doing as a private citizen I don't know. I've said too - I'm a hockey tragic, as some people may know. I've always been in the market to be an assistant manager of a hockey team but that requires the finding of a team first.
Alright, thanks very much. Thank you, cheers.