Stephen Smith MP
Minister for Defence
Stephen Smith, Minister for Defence, Transcript of Press Conference,
Perth on Sunday, 17 October 2010
STEPHEN SMITH: Can I firstly make some remarks about the Parliamentary debate on Afghanistan this week, to outline some of the processes. Firstly the debate will commence on Tuesday after Question Time. After Question Time on Tuesday the Prime Minister will present a Prime Ministerial statement on Afghanistan.
The Leader of the Opposition, in accordance with the usual House processes and practices will then respond for the same amount of time as the Prime Minister's statement. I will then move a procedural motion, which will enable the House to debate the Prime Minister's statement, and debate on that will take place on the Wednesday and on the Thursday.
The procedural motion will envisage that a small number of office bearers, whether it's the Minister for Defence, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Shadow Minister for Foreign Minister, a small number of officeholders, to speak for 20 minutes in the course of that debate and all other members who wish to speak to speak for the now usual period of 15 minutes.
And I will move that procedural motion at the conclusion of the Leader of the Opposition's response to the Prime Minister.
We expect that the debate will conclude on the Thursday and in the course of Wednesday or Thursday there may be a period where it's appropriate to refer the debate to the Main Committee. That is a matter for judgement next week.
My colleague, the Leader of the House, Mr Albanese has been in discussions and contact with interested parties, in the course of coming to these proposed arrangements. Of course it will be open for anyone in the House to move amendments to that procedural motion. But hopefully we think that we've set the scene for a good debate on Afghanistan.
The Senate of course next week is dealing with Estimates. So it is proposed that the Senate conduct its own debate on Afghanistan the following week, the second week of this current fortnight Parliamentary sittings.
Today I'm publicly releasing, to assist in that debate, a half a dozen fact sheets which detail Australia's involvement in Afghanistan. These fact sheets are intended to be precisely that, they are fact sheets. They have been prepared by the relevant departments; by the Department of Defence, by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, by the Australian Federal Police and by our development assistance agency, AusAID.
Very much, if not all, of what you find in the fact sheets is already publicly available information. But we have brought it all together into a series of half a dozen fact sheets to provide effectively an aide memoire for those people either taking part in the debate or who are observing the debate.
And those fact sheets range from the commitment of the International Security Assistance Force, the history of Australia's military involvement in Afghanistan, and our current contribution in Uruzgan province; whether that contribution is military or civilian, whether it's training or whether it is development assistance. And some of the material is taken directly from International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) materials.
The material is not proposed to be argumentative. That will be a matter for the debate and I'm sure the Prime Minister in her Ministerial Statement will set the scene for the rationale for Australia's involvement in Afghanistan.
As you know, the Government has continually made the point that we believe it is in our national interest to be in Afghanistan. We believe that it's not just in Australia's national interest but also in the international community's interest to be in Afghanistan, to help ensure that Afghanistan does not again become a breeding ground for international terrorism.
We are there as part of the United Nations mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and in Uruzgan we work very closely of course, not just with our ally the United States, but with a number of other countries.
Can I just make reference to the ASEAN Defence Ministers Plus meeting which took place in Hanoi last week. I spent Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday in Hanoi for the purposes of that meeting. That was a very important meeting because for the first time we saw Defence Ministers meet in the context of our region, the Asia Pacific, in the ASEAN Plus format, mirroring what we'll see in the near future with an expanded East Asia summit including the United States and Russia.
I make that point because in the course of that meeting I had a discussion with Defense Secretary Gates, with the United States Defense Secretary Gates. We of course discussed Afghanistan. Secretary Gates continues to be very complimentary of the effort that Australia makes and that our forces make. In particular he is very complimentary of the efforts and the quality of the work done by our embedded personnel. In the materials that have been distributed you'll find reference to the some 150 embedded personnel in our Afghanistan effort.
But most importantly Secretary Gates made the point to me that he sees the NATO ISAF summit in Lisbon in November this year as being a most important meeting, a most important summit for NATO, for ISAF and for the international community. Because he, as does the NATO Secretary General, sees that summit as very much paving the way for the detail of the transition to security authority and security lead responsibility to the Afghanistan National forces.
As you know, our mission in Uruzgan is part of that overall transition effort to train the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police, so that they are in a position to effect lead responsibility for security matters. And the advice we continue to receive from the Chief of the Defence Force is that we believe that we can effect that effort in Uruzgan in the next two to four years, meeting the transition, timetable set by the international community and ISAF, at the Kabul conference in Afghanistan itself in July August of this year.
Can I finally make some remarks, and then I'm happy to respond to your questions on these and other matters, about the Director of Military Prosecutions and the charging by the Military Prosecutions of three Australian defence personnel, arising from an incident in Afghanistan where we saw tragically a number of civilians killed.
I see Mr Abbott has again this morning made some remarks about that matter. I think it is very, very important in the area of military justice that we very calmly understand the independent process that is in train and we very carefully understand the ramifications that this has for the three individuals concerned. But also the wider ramifications it has for the integrity of Australia's military justice system.
In this case, effectively the only substantive matter that has changed over the history of Australia's military justice system has been the appointment of an independent Director of Military Prosecutions who has made an independent judgement about whether or not defence personnel should be charged. The establishment of the Director of Military Prosecutions was effected by legislation, introduced by the Howard Government, of which Mr Abbott was a Cabinet member.
It was supported by both of the major political parties in both the House and the Senate and indeed the Shadow Minister for Defence, Senator Johnston, supported the legislation when it passed through the Senate.
So what is occurring is as a direct result of legislation enacted by the Howard Government, of which Mr Abbott was a Cabinet member. And the Labor Party in Opposition and now continues to support the notion of an independent Director of Military Prosecutions. That is a change from historically when service Chiefs, or service officers, were involved in the determination as to whether charges should be brought or not.
Mr Abbott has made remarks in the past about the capacity under the legislation, that was presented to the Parliament by the Howard Government, for the service Chiefs, for the Chief of the Defence Force, or his representative, to make representations or submissions to the military prosecutor, to the Director of Military Prosecutions.
It's very important to understand that those representations do not go to whether charges should be preferred or not. They do not go to the guilt or the innocence of the three individuals concerned. It's also very important to make the point that those representations are made by the Chief of the Defence Force or his representative. They are not made by the Government of the day, and nor should they.
Just as it is appropriate to have an independent Director of Military Prosecutions to make these judgements independent from the service Chiefs, so it would be inappropriate for the Government of the day, the Minister of the day or anyone else, to be making representations to her about these matters. And the legislation which Mr Abbott supported, the legislation which Senator Johnston supported, only envisages that service Chiefs make representations about general defence implications.
This is not the opportunity for mounting a defence in the case of the three personnel concerned. That opportunity now arises and as the Chief of the Defence Force has made clear, as the Chief of Army has made clear and as I have made clear and again make clear today, no resource will be spared. Every effort will be affected to ensure that the three individuals concerned have whatever legal representation they want to effect their legal defence. The Chief of Army has made that clear to the individual families concerned.
In addition to that other support and assistance will be provided to the families concerned. This is of course a very difficult time for the three personnel concerned and a very difficult time for their families, and we understand that.
It is also the case that the integrity of our military justice system is very important to us. We have a well deserved and well earned international reputation for dealing with these matters in an objective and a clear and a sensible way. Our Defence Force personnel also have a very well deserved reputation for conducting themselves in accordance with the rules of law and conducting themselves in accordance with the various Vienna and Geneva conventions. That is an important aspect of both the military and the peacekeeping contributions that we make.
So thanks for that and I'm happy to respond to your questions on the matters I've raised or other matters.
QUESTION: Do you expect to have many Labor politicians to depart from the party line generally late next week and how would that be greeted?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well as the Prime Minister and I have made clear, we welcome whatever interventions Members of Parliament want to make. Of course the Government has a view about the rationale for our involvement in Afghanistan. But as I've made clear, as the Prime Minister has made clear, we regard it effectively as entirely a matter for individual Members of the Parliament concerned to make their own contributions.
I believe that it's a very good thing that we're having the Parliamentary debate. I believe it will be both informative and educative. Informative because I think there is an under-appreciation of precisely what we're doing in Uruzgan province. Our mission is to train and mentor the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police, to put them in a position to manage their own security affairs.
I also think there is an under-appreciation of the fact that we are not there by ourselves. We are there as part of a 47 member International Security Assistance Force. Sometimes I think people either assume we're there by ourselves or there only with the United States. We are there with a 47 member coalition.
So it'll be entirely a matter for Members, and subsequently Senators, to make their own contribution.
QUESTION: Brigadier Mark Smethurst has said that reviewing the Government's priorities that the Middle East is no longer a principal task and so therefore is it a priority of the Government to continue our commitment in the region?
STEPHEN SMITH: I haven't had the opportunity of reading the Smethurst paper but I think it's very important to understand precisely what the Smethurst paper is and when it was written. Firstly it was an academic contribution that he made as part of a Defence Force studies academic exercise. So the views are entirely his and it's entirely appropriate that Defence personnel engage in this academic exchange. That's the first point.
Secondly, his paper was penned in April and May of 2009. It does not take into account the materials put into the public domain by the Riedel review. It does not take into account the materials put into the domain by the McChrystal and subsequent Obama review.
So we've seen as a result of the Riedel review, and as a result of the McChrystal review, a much more focussed approach to the International Security Assistance Force strategy in Afghanistan. The Smethurst paper was a general paper, not about Australia's contribution but a general paper about a counter insurgency strategy in Afghanistan.
We've come a long way since he penned his paper and that has been as a direct result of a very clear focus, in the first instance by Mr Riedel, secondly by General McChrystal and thirdly by President Obama himself, with the decisions in December 2009 to focus much more squarely the mission on training, and to focus the mission much more squarely on transition. But at the same time to effect, rule of thumb, a 40 per cent surge increase to enable security matters to be dealt with more effectively, to provide the environment for that training and mentoring.
QUESTION: What about his point that the key reason we're there is primarily the alliance with the United States? How does the Government feel about that?
STEPHEN SMITH: The Government's response is the same as our response since we came to Office. We are there for a range of reasons. We have never hidden that. We are there because we are very strongly of the view that we can't allow Afghanistan to become a breeding ground for international terrorism again. We have been regrettably on the receiving end of such international terrorist acts. But we're also there as part of a United Nations mandated International Security Assistance Force. That point is very important and often forgotten.
There is a United Nations Security Council resolution which mandates the international effort, including Australia's effort in Afghanistan. Indeed this was unanimously renewed by the Security Council in the last few days.
Thirdly, of course we are there working very closely with our ally the United States. We work very closely with them. That is understandable, both generally in terms of Afghanistan but also in Uruzgan province. In recent times, with the withdrawal of the Dutch, we've of course seen changed arrangements in Uruzgan province with what we now describe as combined Team Uruzgan. Which is effectively led in partnership by the United States on the military side and by Australia on the civilian side.
So of course we work closely with our ally and indeed, as the fact sheets make clear, we have about 150 officers and personnel embedded in the International Security Assistance Force headquarters. That has seen over a long period of time Australians come in very close contact with senior United States military officers, including General Petraeus now, including General McChrystal and including General McKinnon before him. And that has held us in very good stead.
So I don't respond to that question in the simplistic way that some others do. We are there for a variety of very important reasons but if you said please give me the reason, the only reason why we are there, we are there because it is in our national interest to be there.
QUESTION: Have any Labor people indicated that they would depart from the party line during the debate next week?
STEPHEN SMITH: None of my colleagues have indicated that to me. But as I say I haven't been searching the corridors trying to determine what people's contributions will be. That's entirely a matter for them.
QUESTION: How much weight will the Greens have on future government policies in Afghanistan?
STEPHEN SMITH: The Greens have a policy, which is entirely different from the Government's and historically entirely different from the Liberal Party's.
As I understand it, the Greens' policy approach is that we should withdraw our presence from Afghanistan immediately. That is not our view. As I understand the Greens' position, their view is that we should never have committed troops or forces to the effort in Afghanistan. That is not the Government's view.
So the Greens have an entirely different approach to this matter, that's known and understood. But it does not get in the way of the Government's very strong view that it's in our national interest to be in Afghanistan. It's in our national interest to make an appropriate contribution which is what we are doing.
QUESTION: With regard to the proposal to accommodate asylum seekers within the community, does the Government anticipate that that will result in any kind of squeeze on the rental market or will these people be accommodated in public housing? How is it going to work?
STEPHEN SMITH: Firstly I think you should wait until Minister Bowen, the Minister for Immigration, makes comments about these matters. I'm happy to make some general remarks and those general remarks are of course this Government has made it very clear when we came to office, that we do not want to see children detained behind barbed wire or detained in high security arrangements.
When he became Immigration Minister recently Minister Bowen made two things very clear. One was that he wanted to, as soon as he could, get a handle on the long term accommodation needs, which he's made clear that he's doing but secondly that he was from a personal and Ministerial point of view very concerned about accommodation arrangements for children and also for vulnerable families.
I think we should not assume things and wait until Minister Bowen is in a position to make remarks about these matters.
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