STEPHEN SMITH: Firstly this morning I just wanted to make some remarks about the parliamentary elections held in Afghanistan over the weekend, on Saturday, in particular the security arrangements for those elections. And secondly, some brief remarks about AUSMIN, and then I'm happy to respond to your questions.
Firstly, Australia welcomes very much the fact that over the weekend, on Saturday 18 September, we witnessed parliamentary elections in Afghanistan . The voter turnout at this stage is estimated to be about 40 per cent, which is comparable to the presidential election in 2009.
It'll take a bit of time before we can come to some final conclusions about the turnout and about any complaints or alleged violations so far as electoral conduct is concerned.
But I think there's a very significant and important point to make, and that is the parliamentary elections saw for the first occasion the Afghan National Security Forces taking lead responsibility for security arrangements for the conduct of an election.
The planning and the management was led by Afghan security services, in particular, the Afghan Police and the Afghan National Army. And so, in addition to complimenting the Afghan people who took part in a poll in very difficult circumstances, we welcome very much the fact that whilst the election was not incident free, the Afghan National Security Forces took lead responsibility for security arrangements for the conduct of the election.
In Uruzgan Province, in particular, where of course Australia has its presence, Australian forces, either direct Australian forces or other ISAF forces were not required, nor called upon, to assist in the security arrangements for the conduct of the election. So we welcomed that very much.
The voter turnout in Uruzgan Province, we expect to be lower than across Afghanistangenerally. But again, it'll take some time for that final analysis to unfold.
But we congratulate the Afghan people who took part. We congratulate the fact that over 250 candidates took part, sorry, over 2500 candidates took part, about 85,000 officials helped to conduct the election, and about 40 per cent on current estimates of the Afghan people took part in actual voting.
Secondly, on AUSMIN, the Australia-US Ministerial Consultations, can I welcome very much the fact that over the weekend the Foreign Minister meeting with Secretary of State Clinton, announced that the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Secretary of Defense, Bob Gates, would come to Australia in November for the holding of the 25th annual AUSMIN Meetings. It's not the 25th AUSMIN Meeting that we've had, but this year is the 25th anniversary of the start of AUSMIN, which is the premier ministerial institution that we use for ongoing arrangements so far as the Australia-US Alliance is concerned.
The first AUSMIN Meeting held was held with Western Australian Kim Beazley as Defence Minster so I'm looking forward to making that local Western Australian connection when we hold the 25th annual AUSMIN Meetings later this year in November.
I'm happy to respond to questions about Afghanistan or AUSMIN, or other matters that you may have.
QUESTION: That 40 per cent, that - from all reports, that's one of the lowest voter turnouts since 2001, since the overthrow of the Taliban. What does that say about the progress in the overall situation Afghanistan at the moment?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, as we both say, a current estimate is about 40 per cent. It might be a bit above, it might be below. That's roughly comparable to the voter turnout for the presidential election in August of last year, 2009.
What it reflects, of course, is that in Afghanistan we have a very difficult and dangerous circumstance. It is obviously a very difficult country within which to hold and conduct a national poll, which is why we welcomed very much the fact that the parliamentary elections took place, firstly.
Secondly, we welcomed the fact that a considerable proportion of the Afghan population took part in that election. It is another important step along the way to turning Afghanistan into a country where it is able to take care of and manage its own security arrangements, which is why the key point that I have made as Defence Minister is that we welcome that on this occasion, unlike previous occasions, the Afghan National Security Forces themselves have been responsible for the planning and the management of security arrangements so far as the conduct of the election is concerned.
Now the election was not incident free, there were a number of security incidents. But we welcomed very much that the Afghan National Security Forces were able to play that role.
In our view, it's a significant step in the transition of security arrangements from the International Security Assistance Forces to the Afghan national security arrangements and our analysis is shared by other ISAF partners, including General Petraeus who's made remarks overnight and also the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, who's also welcomed the election on the weekend.
I think it is always important to bear in mind that we are in Afghanistan as a result of the United Nations-mandated exercise.
QUESTION: So you do still consider 40 per cent a good result?
STEPHEN SMITH: The fact that the election was able to be held in what is essentially a theatre of war climate is of itself encouraging. That's the first point.
Secondly, we congratulate the very many candidates who took part and we congratulate those members of the Afghan public who took part in the poll.
In an ideal world, of course, there would be a considerably larger turnout, but we know that circumstances in Afghanistan are not ideal.
But the key and central point that I draw as Minister for Defence, that Australia draws, is that for the first occasion we saw effective planning and management of the security arrangements by the Afghan National Security Forces. And that's a very good thing because our objective, as you know, both in Uruzgan and our objective generally in Afghanistan is to put Afghanistan in a position where it can tend to its security arrangements, so that within the Afghan National Army, the Afghan Police and the Afghan Security Forces, Afghanistan can take care of its own security arrangements.
QUESTION: So it's quite a positive thing for the democratic processes in Afghanistan to have that sort of voter turnout? I mean - where do you see things, sort of, going for future elections?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well we certainly view security in that light. That's not to say, of course, that the election itself was not without incident, there were some security incidents. There have also been suggestions or allegations of voter fraud and they, of course, need to be exhaustively examined by the Afghan Election Commission and the Afghan Election Complaints Commission. And we would, in the normal course of events, expect that to take place.
Of course, equally, we would much prefer to see a much larger voter turnout, but we acknowledge and accept the very difficult circumstances in Afghanistan , and the very difficult security arrangements which needed to be put in place to see an election being conducted in the first instance.
QUESTION: Compared to all elections held since 2001, how does this 40 per cent stack up? Are we seeing a drop in voter turnout?
STEPHEN SMITH: It's comparable to the presidential election in August of last year.
In the presidential election, which I think is the best and obviously most recent comparison to make, the early analysis is that's it's comparable - either just below or just above 40 per cent, which is where the presidential election turnout was in August of 2009.
QUESTION: What do you expect to come out of a parliamentary debate on Afghanistan ?
STEPHEN SMITH: We've committed to holding a parliamentary debate. I think that's a good thing. I think whenever Australians are committed overseas, in what's essentially a climate or a theatre of war, the public are entitled to an exhaustive parliamentary analysis and debate.
My predecessor, John Faulkner, as Defence Minister, made a number of Ministerial Statements in the Senate. As Foreign Minister, in the last Parliament, I also made a number of Ministerial Statements about Afghanistan in the House of Representatives.
I'm proceeding on the basis that the parliamentary debate on Afghanistan will occur in the course of the parliamentary sessions this year, but I think the having of the debate will be a good thing.
There will, of course, be different views, but the Government's strong view continues to be that it is in our national interest to be in Afghanistan because we can't afford to allow Afghanistan to again become a breeding ground, or a base, for international terrorism.
QUESTION: What details do you have on those instances we appear to be hearing, that bridges were blown up and that voters were intimidated?
STEPHEN SMITH: As I say, the election itself was not incident-free, both in terms of security, and also in terms of suggestions or allegations of voter fraud.
On the allegations of voter fraud, they obviously need to be exhaustively examined by the Afghan Election Commission and the Afghan Election Complaints Commission, and we expect that to occur.
So far as security incidences are concerned, they will obviously be considered and investigated in an appropriate way. But the key point I make, particularly about the role of Australian Defence personnel in Uruzgan is that Australians were not called upon to assist in any incident in Uruzgan Province. But they should be examined in the usual way, as they should be.
QUESTION: Stephen, can I ask you about the Commonwealth Games and all the conjecture this morning that Australians, whether it be athletes or fans, at the upcoming games in Delhi they might, you know, need to think about exit strategies, should there be any security incident. What's your view?
STEPHEN SMITH: In the first instance, of course, in terms of the safety of Australians overseas, the Australian travelling public, it is a matter for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and for my colleague, the Minister for Foreign Affairs.
But on the Commonwealth Games, I can say that this is the subject of across the board, or across Government, considerations. The Government is very conscious of the need to ensure the best possible advice to those people thinking of going to India for the Commonwealth Games.
In terms of the general travelling public, that, of course, is best found in the travel advisory, and so far as athletes who are contemplating going to New Delhi for the Commonwealth Games, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has a very well-established process of ensuring that that advice is also made available to, not just the Commonwealth Games Association, but to the relevant individual sporting bodies and athletes.
So in the end it's a matter for the individual athletes, and the individual Australian members of the Australian travelling public to make a judgment. But there is a very conscientious and vigilant across-Government effort to do everything we can to ensure that the best possible advice is made available to the Australian public, and also to the sporting bodies and sporting individuals concerned.
QUESTION: I'd like to go back to Afghanistan , what do you expect to happen in the short term, in terms of Australian troop numbers?
STEPHEN SMITH: We increased, some time ago, now nearly two years ago, our contribution in Afghanistan from eleven hundred to fifteen hundred and fifty. And we've being saying consistently since that time that we regard that as about right. We are not contemplating any increase in our contribution. We remain the largest non-NATO contributor and last time I looked we were in the top dozen contributors overall.
QUESTION: And just on Afghanistan , as well, troops were being tested for drugs seven months ago, when was the result to be made clear?
STEPHEN SMITH: There is regular testing of that nature. I don't have those precise details at hand, but I'm sure that in the usual way those matters will be made public as appropriate by the Chief of the Defence Force and the Department in due course.
QUESTION: With the election it was suggested the Taliban would be more disruptive than they have been [indistinct]?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, it was quite clear that the Taliban were seeking to intimidate and to disrupt, and that is why we very warmly congratulate the parliamentary candidates who took part. We warmly congratulate those members of the Afghan public who took part, because there were clearly efforts at intimidation and disruption. The fact that there were a number of incidents indicate the Taliban were conscious of seeking to disrupt the election.
There will be an exhaustive assessment of the scale and the measure of that in due course, and that will be done not just in Uruzgan, but will be done Afghanistan-wide by ISAF.
Alright, happy? Good. Thanks very much. Thanks.
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