Australia – Discussion on Osama bin Laden and the federal budget

Parliamentary Secretary for Defence – Interview with Lyndal Curtis, ABC News 24 LYNDAL CURTIS: And it’s the day after the night before, and Australian authorities are assessing whether there are any security implications after US troops killed Osama bin Laden. The Attorney-General says there is no imminent threat of retaliation in Australia, but there are questions being asked about how Osama bin Laden could live in Pakistan so close to the Pakistani capital, and whether that went unnoticed by officials.
Behind those headlines, the Treasurer, Wayne Swan, is putting the fine details on the budget, which he’ll bring down next week.

I’ve been joined in Melbourne by Labor MP – Labor Senator David Feeney, and here in Canberra by Liberal MP Tony Smith. Welcome to you both.

TONY SMITH: Thanks Lyndal.

DAVID FEENEY: Hi Lyndal, thanks for having me on the program.

LYNDAL CURTIS: David, you’re parliamentary secretary for Defence. In Defence terms, in military terms, this operation was a long time in the planning to get Osama bin Laden. Could it have gone any better?

DAVID FEENEY: Well I guess it’s obviously been a dramatic and very successful operation. And it was concluded without any loss of life amongst the US forces that carried out the mission. And that’s obviously something we can all be very pleased about. As you say it’s a long time in the coming – but it’s an important step forward in our war on terror. And I think it’s an important step forward at a very interesting time for the Arabs, Arab Nations of North Africa and the Middle East. And obviously what’s happening across the whole Middle Eastern region.

LYNDAL CURTIS: The Prime Minister and the Foreign Affairs Minister and the Defence Minister say it doesn’t have any implications for an earlier withdrawal of troops for Afghanistan. The Prime Minister has pointed out that we’re coming into what’s generally called the fighting season. Is there a chance it could make the situation for Australian troops more difficult?

DAVID FEENEY: I think the understanding across the sort of strategic intelligence community is that now is the time for us to keep the pressure on in Afghanistan. Obviously the struggle against the Taliban and Al Qaeda has had a very strong year if you will.

This has obviously been a period when the coalition forces in Afghanistan have made progress. The death of bin Laden obviously reinforces that. And I think increasingly the message is that change and prosperity is attained through people power and the construction of democracies and civil societies, not through Jihadist extremism. It’s good that it’s making strong progress in that endeavour, an endeavour against a terrorist organisation that of course kills far more Muslims than anyone else, a terrorist organisation that has killed Australians.

It’s great to see progress, but we cannot imagine that now is a time for us to relent. Nor is now a time for us to imagine the struggle is over.

LYNDAL CURTIS: Tony is there any reason to consider a earlier withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan?

TONY SMITH: No look this has been a great step forward, it has been a long time, that’s to be expected. I mean we are coming up to the 10th anniversary of September 11 and the ninth anniversary later in the year of Bali as well. It’s been a very difficult task. I agree with what David has had to say. It is a great step forward but it’s the end of Bin Laden but of course not the end of Al Qaeda. And I think we look back 10 years ago the Government at the time, of which I was part, and the Opposition said that this was going to be a long haul, and it will be, the war on terror will take a long time. But it’s a great step forward, I agree with what David said about now’s the time to keep the pressure on in Afghanistan.

And it’s great that there’s some sense of justice for the families as well, those who lost loved ones on September 11 and in Bali, here in Australia and around the world, and I think the US forces, the US administration deserve congratulations. But what it does show is that we’re making progress, we can make progress and now’s the time to stick with the mission in Afghanistan and not for us to construct, I think, barriers around accomplishing that very difficult job.

LYNDAL CURTIS: David the Attorney General was on News 24 earlier today saying that there are still threats, although not imminent ones to Australia, from terrorism in the region and from home grown terrorism. Is there a risk that after the death of Osama Bin Laden that the public may become a little complacent and think the regional terrorism threats have been resolved or are on their way to being resolved?

DAVID FEENEY: Well I guess we’re very keen to make sure that doesn’t happen, Lyndal and, as you say, the threat level remains at medium and that means that terrorist attacks in Australia are feasible, they’re not probable but they are feasible. We have to remember that now some 35 persons have been arrested in Australia on terrorism charges, so the domestic threat does exist, and we need Australians to understand that the signalled success of yesterday in terms of the death of Bin Laden does not mean that the threat here in Australia has disappeared, it hasn’t.

But, as I say, the threat level has remained the same, a level which is really about vigilance.

LYNDAL CURTIS: Tony are people right to be asking questions of Pakistan of how much any of its officials might have known about Bin Laden’s whereabouts? He was living relatively close to the capital, while there have been suggestions in some media that it was Pakistan officials who first spotted the courier who led to Bin Laden there are other questions about whether Pakistani officials knew of his whereabouts.

Is it right to be asking those questions?

TONY SMITH: Well I think David would agree, most people would agree we’re finding out lots of information very quickly, it’s only just over 24 hours since the news broke, but of course it’s inconceivable that Bin Laden was existing there without a massive support structure. As to who was involved in that I’m sure we’ll hear a lot more from the international community over the coming days. But literally I think as we’re on air there’s developing news out of the Pakistan Government itself, and I mean I think we just need to assess these things. I think David would agree that whilst there are no surprises I suppose in this business with the war on terror that the compound and the location and the structure that was there meant that there was a significant support structure in place, and had been for a period of time.

LYNDAL CURTIS: David do you think that that’s the reality, the likelihood that Bin Laden did have a support structure in place in Pakistan?

DAVID FEENEY: Well we can be certain that he had a support structure in Pakistan, we’ve known that for a long time. The question is not whether there is a support structure for Islamic extremism in Pakistan, the question is what is the relationship between that structure and the state of Pakistan, and that is a question that has existed for a long time and will continue to exist. But I guess for our part we obviously need to comprehend that the challenge in Afghanistan and Pakistan is a very significant one. The situation in Pakistan has been fragile from time to time, it’s an ally and its democratic government is a partner in the struggle against terrorism.

It isn’t easy and it isn’t always simple, but I think Tony and I are really singing from the same song sheet there in terms of the fact that notwithstanding the challenge of Jihadist extremists in Pakistan we need to continue to support the democratic government there in Pakistan and its efforts to combat a force which of course kills many thousands of Pakistanis every year.

LYNDAL CURTIS: David, if we can turn to a challenge of a different sort. The Treasurer will hand down his fourth budget next Tuesday. He says he’s up to the task of selling what will be a complex economic story. Do you think he is?

DAVID FEENEY: Well I certainly think he is. This is Wayne Swan’s fourth budget. He’s actually said that this is his fourth budget and in many ways it’s the most complex and challenging budget, but in this pre-budget period I think he’s set out some markers. Today we of course discover that interest rates have remained stable at 4.75 per cent – that’s good news for the economy. Wayne Swan’s been talking about jobs and the importance of creating jobs and getting Australians into work. And I think the budget is obviously going to be a very challenging one for the government because as we did with the GFC we are managing a complex economy – and a complex budget – and Wayne Swan is determined to manage it back into surplus.

That won’t be easy.

That will mean there are hard decisions – difficult choices. But in this pre-budget period I think that sort of landscape is being laid out for us by Wayne Swan. And he’ll continue to do it.

LYNDAL CURTIS: Tony Smith, do you accept that the economic circumstances are more complex than the Opposition may be painting them?

TONY SMITH: Oh look, I think the main point here is not how Wayne Swan says he can sell the budget, I mean his difficulty in selling each of his budgets has been that he’s produced a bad product every time.

Now let’s cut to the chase here. I mean David knows as a Senator for [indistinct] as he travels around, he knows what voters are thinking, and he knows what his colleagues are thinking, which is that in three short years, and as he said, this is Wayne Swan’s fourth budget, he delivered his first back in 2008 – the public have had a good look at him.

And what they’ve seen is someone who they don’t trust to deliver on his word. They see someone who they don’t think is competent to administer programs. His budget policy has been littered with waste and ceiling batts and we could go through all those programs. We’d run right up to 5 o’clock.

And importantly they also see someone as Treasurer who they think isn’t competent – and doesn’t understand the day to day concerns they have. And that is a big…

LYNDAL CURTIS: But is there also an impetus on the Opposition too which you’ve been calling for the government to get back into surplus to pass any spending cuts the government may choose to use to get back into surplus?

TONY SMITH: We’ve identified [indistinct] cuts they should make. We identified programs along the way that they’ve wasted. Now look, the critical point is this. David knows – I mean, all right, he’s got to do the job here on television and say he’s, you know, he’s very confident about Wayne Swan, you know, that he’ll sell him … he didn’t sound very confident.

DAVID FEENEY: Sounds like you’re speaking there for both of us Tony.

TONY SMITH: He didn’t sound… well I am, I’m trying to help you out mate…

DAVID FEENEY: Yeah, tremendous, thank you.

TONY SMITH: … I mean, he didn’t sound very confident, and what he knows is the public have just about given up on Wayne Swan. They know that when an opportunity comes along he wastes it, when a difficult situation comes along he makes it worse.

And really I mean what voters are telling me is they are concerned – when he breaks promises. They’re concerned when he seeks to implement them. Whichever way. Because when he does he mucks them up.

And that’s what this budget’s going to do again you can see.

DAVID FEENEY: Yeah, listen, I think what Tony’s missing in all of that is that it’s really just a pile of rhetoric which goes to the Liberal Party’s only p… only contribution to debate in this country, and that’s N-O, no. And of course what Wayne Swan’s doing, what the government is doing, is embarking on a serious policy conversation. There are choices to be made.

This is a strong economy. But it’s got the challenges.

The dollar is now at 110 cents US. That obviously brings challenges and opportunities. This is a government that’s talking about jobs. It’s talking about a two speed economy.

These are all big conversations we need to have and we need to get on with having them. And if the Liberal Party’s only real message here is character assassination on Wayne – and saying he’s not up to it and all of that nonsense, then they’re, ultimately, they must fail.

This is an economic team that got this country through the global financial crisis. This is a proven and experienced group of ministers. And Wayne Swan of course being principle amongst them.

And I don’t think there is a doubt about Wayne Swan’s capabilities, he’s proven himself again and again. I think there’s a doubt about the quality of the political discourse in this country – and the Liberal Party are making no contribution to either that or to any substantive policy ideas, they don’t have any ideas Lyndal.

LYNDAL CURTIS: And just quickly – a final response Tony?

TONY SMITH: Well look, I mean, what David knows, what the public know, I mean you can say all of that.

Last year in fact almost a year ago today, just before the budget, Wayne Swan released part of the Hen… we released all of the Henry review and a small response, and brought forward the mining tax.

This was a tax that was his idea that shredded a Prime Minister. He paid no price for it as Treasurer. Now look, very clearly when there’s cost of living pressures he’ll add to them.

DAVID FEENEY: But we believe that economic booms build the country as well as build individual company profits.

LYNDAL CURTIS: And I’m sorry, that’s where we’ll have to leave it. We’ve run out of time. Tony Smith and David Feeney thanks very much for joining us.

TONY SMITH: I might give David a call and we’ll keep talking.

DAVID FEENEY: Thank you very much, cheers Tony.

Press release
Ministerial Support and Public Affairs,
Department of Defence,
Canberra, Australia

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