TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH DAVID SPEERS, SKY NEWS PM AGENDA
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 19 SEPTEMBER 2012
TOPICS: ISAF partnered operations directive; Secretary Appointments; Defence Budget.
DAVID SPEERS: I spoke just a short while ago to the Defence Minister Stephen Smith.
Minister, thanks for your time.
Australian soldiers will still be doing joint patrols with their Afghan counterparts but they now have to seek approval from higher up the command chain?
STEPHEN SMITH: In terms of NATO and ISAF military regimentation, Afghanistan is divided into various Regional Commands. We're in Regional Command South. That's headed by a United States General. So we will be able to do our local patrols provided we have the approval of the Regional Commander.
So we're of course following the ISAF instruction. We continue to work at the Kandak or Battalion, level. Monday and Tuesday we ceased our joint operations. Today we're discussing with the Afghan Kandak or Battalion Commanders their plans for this week in terms of their own patrols, and also starting the process of putting forward our representations, if you like, to Regional Command South to resume those. But-
DAVID SPEERS: So are you able to say what patrols will get the go ahead and what patrols won't?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, that will be a matter for the Regional Commander himself.
DAVID SPEERS: But is it going to mean fewer joint patrols?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, the joint patrols are, if you like, on a downward scale in any event because, as transition progresses, the Afghans become more capable of doing the patrols in their own right and we retreat or return to a advice role from Tarin Kot or from-
DAVID SPEERS: So could this speed up that transition?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we don't want to speed it up in any way which doesn't leave the Afghans fully prepared for that role, but we've said for some time we're making good progress-
DAVID SPEERS: Can you tell me how much contact there is between the Australians and their Afghan counterparts at the moment? This is the whole reason we're there, after all, to mentor and train them. But these sorts of incidents make it harder and harder.
STEPHEN SMITH: We've had terrible incidents, as you know, and one of the reasons we think we're better prepared than most on this front is that our first terrible fatality was over 12 months ago. We've been working very closely through General Hurley, the Chief of the Defence Force, with General Allen, the Commander of ISAF, looking at the improvements we can make, the force protection improvements, the guardian angels, some separation.
So we are taking those necessary precautions. All of the precautions that ISAF want us to take, we're taking.
But, again, you're dealing with a National Security Force of between 300,000 and 350,000. You're dealing with small numbers but the adverse consequences are so terrible, and the damage it does to trust so great, is that we want to minimise risk.
And why General Allen has done this across the board, leaving some decisions to his Regional Commanders, is that he wants to send a strategic signal that we have to get on top of this, we can't let this get out of control, and we have to absolutely minimise the risk.
DAVID SPEERS: Can I turn to the departure of Duncan Lewis, your departmental Secretary. He's going to become Australia's ambassador to NATO. Now, there have been suggestions his decision is, in part, because of Government spending cuts to Defence. Can you categorically rule that out?
STEPHEN SMITH: Absolutely. And it's not what Duncan has said publicly to Defence employees. When the Prime Minister-
DAVID SPEERS: But would he say that if that was his reason?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, the Prime Minister asked him if he would like to serve overseas at - effectively at NATO in Brussels. And it's only - you only need to look-
DAVID SPEERS: So this was the Government's offer to him, not-
STEPHEN SMITH: Not such an offer, he was asked. The Prime Minister and I sat down. Brendan Nelson was finishing up in Brussels. He wanted to become the director of the Australian War Memorial. We wanted someone in Brussels who was cognisant of security issues, entrenched in the Afghan issues because, as the last couple of days have shown, what occurs in Brussels is very important to transition, and we are at a very challenging stage.
DAVID SPEERS: And can I just finally ask you, are you able to rule out, given the pressure on the Budget, any more cuts to Defence?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, people shouldn't get ahead of themselves. I see people out there saying, we have to worry about what might be in MYEFO, what might be in next year's Budget. People should just calm day and wait until each of these matters-
DAVID SPEERS: But you're not ruling it out?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I'm a member of the ERC, I'm also a portfolio Minister, and I've been around long enough to never get into the rule in, rule out exercise.
If people want to know what's in the Budget, if people want to know what's in a mid-year financial estimate, I've got very strong advice for them: turn up on the day or turn up on the night.
DAVID SPEERS: Stephen Smith, thank you.
STEPHEN SMITH: Pleasure. Thanks very much.