Minister for Defence – Transcript – Joint Press Conference with the Prime Minister, Minister for Defence and Chief Of The Defence Force, Parliament House, Canberra

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The Hon Tony Abbott MP

Prime Minister

The Hon Kevin Andrews MP

Minister for Defence

Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin AC

Chief of the Defence Force

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14 April 2015


Back in March, the Government announced that we were preparing a force for a Building Partner Capacity training mission in Iraq. I can inform you that today the Cabinet has decided to deploy that force. The deployment will start tomorrow and we expect that the force will be deployed and operational by the middle of May.

It is, as I stress, a Building Partner Capacity training mission, it’s not a combat mission, but Iraq is a dangerous place. It is a dangerous place and I can't tell you that this is risk-free.

Our force is about 330-strong. It will partner with over 100 New Zealand military personnel and we will jointly be doing the Building Partner Capacity mission at the Taji military complex north of Baghdad.

We are doing this at the express invitation of the Iraqi Government as Prime Minister al-Abadi has made clear on the several occasions that I've discussed this with him.

Our personnel will be largely drawn from the Army's 7th Brigade based in Brisbane. As I say, we won't have a combat role. It's a training mission, not a combat mission. What we'll be doing is comparable to what a number of other countries are doing. There is a German-led Building Partner Capacity mission in Erbil in the Kurdish areas, there is an American-led Building Partner Capacity mission at al-Asad in the West, there’s a Spanish-led Building Partner Capacity Mission at Besmaya south of Baghdad and the Australian-led mission will be at the Taji military complex about 30 miles to the north of Baghdad. There's also a European Building Partner Capacity mission at the Baghdad International Airport.

This deployment will be for two years. As currently planned, there'll be a formal review after 12 months, but obviously, we'll be carefully monitoring its work throughout the deployment.

As you know, we've had an air contingent in the Middle East for quite a few months now. The Air Task Group will continue its work as part of the coalition air campaign against the Daesh death cult. We've also had an advise and assist mission at Baghdad International Airport. This mission will start to draw down in the third quarter of the year.

I should point out that the work of the coalition against the death cult – the Islamist death cult – has been effective. We've seen the Iraqis retake Tikrit in the last week or so and there have been significant if incremental gains by the Iraqi Security Forces and by Kurdish forces in recent months.

Nevertheless, large swathes of Iraqi territory do remain under the control of the death cult. Our Building Partner Capacity mission is all about trying to ensure that the legitimate Government of Iraq has a trained and disciplined and capable force that understands the rules of armed conflict at its disposal to retake the territory which is currently under the control of the death cult.

While this is obviously a matter of international security, it's also a matter of national security for Australia, because as we saw on two occasions last year, this death cult is not just terrorising the people of northern Iraq, it is reaching out to Australia and if we can disrupt, degrade and ultimately destroy this death cult in the Middle East, that will obviously improve our national security here in Australia.

The fundamental point I want to make is that we are a good international citizen. We have a long history of shouldering our responsibilities to the wider world. This is about international security and national security. We will do what we can to keep our country safe, to play our part in the wider world and I'm pleased that we are once more, in the Centenary of Anzac, partnering with New Zealand on this important mission.



Thanks, Prime Minister. Earlier this year, you and I visited our forces deployed in the Middle East and I was deeply impressed by their professionalism in what is often a dangerous situation for them there. I say that because committing this further deployment to the Building Partner Capacity operation in the Middle East is not a decision that's been taken lightly, but it is a decision which is in our national interest in Australia because, as the Prime Minister said, the Daesh death cult must be degraded and destroyed.

We've seen the tentacles of it moving outside the Middle East. The incidents that have occurred in Australia more recently are examples of that. Unfortunately, there are about 90 Australians at the present time currently fighting in the Middle East with Islamic extremist groups and there's about another 140 people that we know of here in Australia who are supporting extremist groups in Iraq and Syria through recruiting, fundraising or seeking actively to travel to join them and despite our best efforts, there may well be other efforts in that situation in the future.

The first priority of a national government is the safety and security of its citizens and the announcement today reflects the Government's intent in relation to ensuring as best we can the safety and security of the citizens of Australia.




Thank you, Prime Minister. Since the Government's previous decision, our personnel have worked very closely with the New Zealand Defence Force. We've brought together Task Force Taji. They’ve done very intensive training evolutions over the last few weeks. It culminated with a very difficult mission rehearsal exercise last week that exercised all that they need. We’re now ready to deploy.


OK, we'll take questions on this, and if there are other questions – and I don't want to take too many other questions, because I need to go back into Cabinet – I'll ask the CDF to withdraw and we'll deal with them. So, the Building Partner Capacity mission first.



Could you outline what sort of benchmarks you see for success? You’ve said that this is a two year commitment. What would you expect to have achieved by the end of that two years?


What we hope to have achieved within two years in conjunction with our partners is to help train an effective Iraqi regular army that is at the disposal of the legitimate government of Iraq and is able to gain and hold ground and do so in accordance with the ordinary rules of combat.




We believe it can.


After he announced his deployment Prime Minister Key gave an interview in which he said it may well be the case that the Australians stayed longer than the New Zealanders and would seek another partner – is that possible or likely?


Let's focus on what's planned and announced and what's planned is that this will be a 2-year deployment with a formal review after 12 months, but as the minister has indicated, obviously we keep these things under constant review. The important thing is to make an effective and meaningful contribution to the security of the wider world, because as I say, this is not just about Iraq this is about our national security, too.


When you first announced troops would go in September you said this would be a case of months and not weeks. Given you're committing to years do you regret putting that timeframe on it originally and did you underestimate the task at hand?


Well, I think if you go back and look at the comments that I made in September I said that this would be longer rather than shorter – that's what I said. That we would be there for as long as was reasonably necessary to do a job and the job was to disrupt, degrade and ultimately to destroy the death cult, the Islamist death cult in Iraq. So, that's what we'll do.

Now, if we can do it in a shorter timeframe we'll do that, but we're planning on a two-year stay with a formal review after 12 months, but obviously commitments of this sort are constantly under review.


There were reports last week that the Iraqi Cabinet had voted to give the Shi'ite militias some form of sanction by bringing them under the purview of the Interior Ministry, is that a concern for you? Can you just give us your current level of concern I suppose about the role of the Iraqi Shi'ite militias?


The CDF might like to add to this, but our job, our mission is to work with the Iraqi regular army. We don't work with irregulars, we don't work with informal, armed groups. We work with the regular armed forces of the Iraqi Government. Now, how they're recruited is ultimately a matter for the Iraqi Government, but we will work with a disciplined armed force that is under the direction of the Iraqi Government which is directed by and responsible to the legitimate government of Iraq. That's our mission.

Now, obviously Shi'ite militia had a significant role along with it seems some Iranian Special Forces in the retaking of Tikrit. I think the stronger the Iraqi regular army is, the less likely it is that Shi'ite militia will play a continuing role in the ultimate retaking of the country.

So, by strengthening the Iraqi army, we are giving the Iraqi Government a whole lot of options that it may not currently have. The other point I probably should make is that the attack on Tikrit did pause for some time and it was only with the assistance of coalition air strikes that it was ultimately able to succeed.

So, I don't want anyone to underestimate the significance of the coalition of which we are part when it comes to the campaign to ensure that the Iraqi Government once more is sovereign over its own territory.


I'd like to add, I think that was a move from the Iraqi Government to understand that they needed to bring all the forces under some structure command and control. Any time they do that, that's a good move.


Speaking of the coalition involved here, Prime Minister, do you think Iran is helping in the fight against Daesh and do you think Turkey and other regional powers should be doing more?


Well, one of the very encouraging things about what has been a pretty dispiriting situation in the Middle East in recent months is in recent weeks the substantial advances against Daesh the Islamist death cult and the strong cooperation with the coalition of other Middle Eastern powers. Egypt obviously is doing what it can in its own way to combat Daesh. So, are the Saudis, so are the Jordanians, so are the Emiratis.

So, I don't think anyone should think that this is somehow the West versus an Islamic group. As far as I can work out, whether it be the Iranians, whether it be the Egyptians, the Saudis, the Emiratis, there is a united front against the Islamist death cult which is causing such havoc in Syria and northern Iraq.



A question on another subject?


Let's finish with the BPC and then we might deal with other subjects.


Sorry just a question on the Middle East, given that ISIL seems to be losing ground in Iraq and making perhaps net gains in Syria, doesn't it make sense at this stage for us to consider expanding our air campaign into Syria, as well?


Well, we've made no decision along those lines and we have no plans to extend our air campaign at this stage. Obviously we're conscious of the fact that the Canadians have indicated that they will extend air strikes into Syria if required. I should point out that our AWAC aircraft and our refuelers are supporting coalition air operations throughout the theatre. So, while we aren't launching air strikes ourselves inside Syria, we are supporting air strikes by other coalition partners inside Syria.


They are crossing into Syrian air space?


No, they're not crossing into Syrian air space, but the aircraft they are controlling and refuelling are in some cases crossing into Syrian air space to carry out strike missions.

CDF, thank you so much.


Thank you very much.


Prime Minister, you've been consistently saying over recent weeks that if there is to be a re-division of the GST, or a new arrangement, it has to be in agreement between the premiers. Now, it's quite clear that there's going to be no agreement between the premiers. Isn't Mathias Cormann absolutely correct when he says that this is going to have to be a political judgment, a political decision, when it comes to freezing, for example, the GST share and isn't that a political decision that you have to make along with your Treasurer?


I'm not sure that I entirely accept your characterisation of comments that have been made by the Finance Minister in an article and in an interview over the last few days, but let me say this. First of all I have considerable sympathy for the position of the West Australian government, because their share of GST revenue is about to drop below 30 per cent. That is to say they will get back less than 30 per cent in the coming financial year under the Commonwealth Grants Commission allocation of the GST revenue raised in Western Australia.

Previously, the smallest percentage return of revenue that was raised in one state to that particular state has been 81 per cent, and my understanding is that that was to New South Wales back in the '80s. So, what's happening is really quite unprecedented and I can understand Western Australia's concerns. That said, the GST is a tax which is raised for the states to be spent by the states. It can't and shouldn't be touched without the consent of all the states and territories.

So, I hate to say this to the states and territories, but the states and territories really should sort this out amongst themselves. It's money that belongs collectively to them and collectively they should make a decision and being the grown-up adult governments that they are, that's what I expect them to do.


Are you actually at odds with the Treasurer and the Finance Minister, a WA Senator? It's clear that he is favouring intervening in this system and taking it out of the hands of the Commonwealth Grants Commission? So, are you saying that he should not tamper with it?


I don't accept that characterisation. Obviously, there are a number of things that might be considered as ways forward, but the point is that this is a tax which is raised for the states, for the states to spend. It is a state responsibility to decide what should happen to the GST and that's why I say that this really is a matter for the states to work out amongst themselves. I say again, I have a lot of sympathy with the Western Australian position. It is absolutely unprecedented for the share of revenue returned to the state where it's raised to drop this low, but because the GST is a tax that's raised for the states and territories, that belongs to the states and territories, it really is a matter for the states and territories to sort out amongst themselves and being grown-up adult governments, I think it shouldn't be beyond them to sort this out amongst themselves.


Are you, therefore, saying Prime Minister if there is no consensus there will be no change?


Well, what I'm saying is that this is a tax which belongs to the states and territories and it really should be up to the states and territories to be grown-up adult governments and work this out amongst themselves.


Peter Costello has offered criticism today in the tabloids. Would you like to see him accept some responsibility for the current state of the budget given the enormous spending on middle class welfare when he was treasurer and the structural deficits that created in the budget?


Well, you know, Peter Costello famously said in 1996 of the then much smaller debt and deficit problem that had been inherited from the Hawke-Keating government, that ‘we didn't create the problem, but we take responsibility for fixing it.’ And I would echo his words today of the debt and deficit disaster that we inherited from the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd governments. We didn't create the problem, but we take responsibility for fixing it. Now, Peter and John Howard did a magnificent job putting our country in a really good fiscal position. The challenge for this Government, for Joe Hockey, Mathias Cormann and myself is to do likewise. It's to repair the budget disaster, the economic issues that were created by a Labor predecessor.

As for Peter's comments today well, as a distinguished former treasurer, he is perfectly, perfectly entitled to his view, but this is a tax-cutting Government as we've already demonstrated by abolishing the carbon tax, by abolishing the mining tax and preparing as we are for a small business tax cut in the upcoming budget.

Thank you.


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