TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH JULIE DOYLE, ABC24
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 4 JULY 2012
TOPICS: Border Protection; Australia-Indonesia relations; Pakistan ground lines of communication; fatality in Afghanistan; special forces rotations.
JULIE DOYLE: Stephen Smith, firstly, is there anything more you can tell us about this latest suspected asylum seeker boat that has issued this distress call?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, the only thing I can add to that which the Minister for Home Affairs, Jason Clare, has already put on the public record, is that I'm advised in the last half an hour that HMAS Wollongong, which was travelling south from Singapore is now in the vicinity of where the distress call came from but my most recent advice is it has not yet been able to locate the boat. So, other than that, I'm not in a position to add to that which Jason Clare has already put on the record extensively this morning.
JULIE DOYLE: Now, you're heading to Indonesia in the next couple of months with Jason Clare. You'll be talking with authorities there. What will you be raising?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, firstly, I think it's important just to make the point that my trip to Jakarta, my trip to Indonesia which will take place in August/September is pre-arranged. Defence Minister Purnomo and I have agreed that Australia and Indonesia's Defence Ministers should meet on an annual basis, as our leaders now do. So this will be the first of our Ministerial dialogues.
But Minister Purnomo and I met in Darwin for the third time this year. Jason Clare was with me. We discussed some Defence Materiel issues, including the C-130s that were gifted to Indonesia. And it became clear during the course of that meeting that it would be sensible and useful for Jason to join me on my prearranged trip to Indonesia. So we'll do that in August/September, and we'll take up the range of defence issues, defence materiel issues, but also the issues which SBY and the Prime Minister, the President of Indonesia and the Prime Minister spoke about yesterday. And that will be a good thing to engage with our Indonesian colleagues.
JULIE DOYLE: Now, they spoke yesterday about greater maritime cooperation with search and rescue authorities from the two countries working more closely together. Do you believe that there have been failings in the current system of cooperation between Australia and Indonesia?
STEPHEN SMITH: No, I think Australia and Indonesian authorities have worked very closely together at every level, whether it's on counterterrorism, whether it's on people smuggling and human trafficking or whether it's search and rescue. But given the tragedies that we've seen in recent times, we wanted to make sure yesterday in the course of our meetings that everything that we could do was being done. And we've come to the conclusion that we think we can do more in terms of - to use a technical phrase, interoperability. In other words, making sure that AMSA, our search and rescue system and Basarnas, the Indonesia search and rescue organisation, can work in an interoperable way, make sure they've got shared information, shared computer access, and the like. And it's those sorts of issues, those types of issues which Jason Clare and I will be pursuing together with officials, when we go to Indonesia in August/September.
JULIE DOYLE: So you'll be talking then about working even more closely together, building on what's already been announced?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, in terms of the Defence-to-Defence relationship, we've been very pleased with the way in which in recent years we have enhanced that. That's being done pursuant to the Lombok Treaty which came into effect in 2009. We're looking to the prospect of signing with Indonesia a Defence cooperation arrangement, to put all of our Defence-to-Defence and military-to-military arrangements under the umbrella of a cooperation arrangement. We'll also be pursuing further talks with Indonesia about the possibility of Indonesia acquiring more C-130s and whether we can work more closely with them on general capability issues. So there are a range of issues that Minister Clare and I will take up with them. But pursuing the issues that President Yudhoyono and the Prime Minister detailed yesterday, so far as search and rescue is concerned, will also be a focus of our visit.
JULIE DOYLE: Now, just moving on to the breakthrough overnight between the US and Pakistan. Now, Pakistan has agreed to reopen NATO supply routes into Afghanistan. How important is this development?
STEPHEN SMITH: This is a very significant and very important development. Those ground lines of communications being opened up by Pakistan enable the transit of goods and equipment in to and out of Afghanistan through Pakistan. It's a significant development. It will be of assistance not just to the United States, but also to all of the International Security Assistance Force countries including Australia. And that is the case whether it's for bringing in supplies to the conclusion of the transition process at the end of 2014 or whether it is to extract goods and equipment when the transition period is upon us. So it's a significant development. It also, I think, is a good sign in terms of improving relationships between the United States and Pakistan. They have been tested severely in recent times and this is very much a development to be welcomed, which I do.
JULIE DOYLE: Now, just on that. This standoff had been going on for months, around seven months, because these routes were closed after some Pakistani soldiers were killed in a NATO airstrike. Do you think that this could have been resolved sooner?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, it was always a matter for Pakistan and the United States and the International Security Assistance Force to resolve, but in particular, Pakistan and the United States. Both those countries have been working very hard at seeking to resolve this issue over a period of time. And we're very pleased to see this breakthrough arise as a result of ultimately a telephone conversation between the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Pakistan Foreign Minister Khar. So it's a welcome and positive development. But both Pakistan and the United States have been engaged in this process for a considerable period of time but it's very much welcome outcome.
JULIE DOYLE: So the US has apologised now. But, as I just mentioned - I just asked you - do you think though they could have done this sooner, and we could have seen this resolved, because I imagine this delay has had a big impact?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well it's always been a matter between Pakistan and the United States. We welcome the fact that it's been resolved in this positive way. We welcome the opening up of the ground lines of communications and that will be of significance, both in the run-up to transition and in the extraction after the transition period.
JULIE DOYLE: Now, still on Afghanistan, the Australian soldier killed yesterday was the first in many months. Do you think that has shaken public confidence in the mission, in Australia's ongoing role in Afghanistan?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, a fatality in Afghanistan always sends a shudder through the Australian community. It was our first fatality since the end of October last year, our first this year. And, as I said yesterday, while we always say to ourselves and steal ourselves for further fatalities, you can lull yourself into a false sense of security. So, it has sent a shudder through the Special Forces community, through the SAS community in Swanbourne in Perth generally. It's a terrible tragedy for the Special Forces and a terrible tragedy for one family. So - and the Australian community shares that as they always do.
JULIE DOYLE: Now, this soldier was on his seventh tour of duty to Afghanistan. There's been some concerns raised about that. The Australian Defence Association has called for a debate about the frequency of tours. Do you have any concern about what we're asking of our troops, the number of times they're being sent back to Afghanistan?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, this SAS soldier was in his early 40s, 40 years of age, on his seventh tour over a decade. So the Chief of the Defence Force, General Hurley- when General Hurley became the Chief, one of the points he made publicly and also to me was that he was going to take a very careful look at the number of rotations. And, as the Chief said yesterday, he remains of the view that the rotations are taking place in an appropriate way. There's a very close monitoring of both individuals and the SAS and our Commandos from Holsworthy.
But the reality is also that our Special Forces play a deeply significant role. We are engaged in both counterinsurgency and counterterrorism work in Afghanistan, particularly near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area. And they are specialists, absolute specialists, but they are also willing volunteers. Whenever, for example, I go to Swanbourne to meet with the SAS, whenever I go to Holsworthy to meet with Commandos, they are always telling me how keen they are to get back doing the work that they have trained so hard and so long to do. So they are enthusiastic volunteers. But in terms of the rotations, that continues to be very carefully monitored and very carefully watched by the Special Operations Task Group and their relevant commanders.
JULIE DOYLE: Stephen Smith, we'll have to leave it there. Thank you very much for your time.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thank you. Thanks very much.