Minister for Defence Stephen Smith — Interview with Fran Kelly, Breakfast, Radio National
2. June 2011
FRAN KELLY: Right now though, the Defence Minister Stephen Smith joins us in the Breakfast studio, Minister, welcome.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thank you, Fran, good morning.
FRAN KELLY: Yesterday’s hotel attack shows the Taliban is still capable of striking anywhere, at any time, how does this attack sit with your message that progress is being made against the insurgents?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well we think we are making progress in terms of security improvements, not just in Uruzgan, but generally in Afghanistan, and I’ve been saying for some time, in this northern summer fighting season, we have to expect two things, that the Taliban will try and fight back to recover ground, but also we would see these high profile propaganda-type attacks, this is a deliberate tactic, or strategy, by the Taliban, it’s not so much aimed at a military effective strategy, but at the TV sets in the United States, Europe and countries like Australia, it’s just-
FRAN KELLY: And maybe the hearts and minds of the Afghanistan people?
STEPHEN SMITH: It’s to sap political will. In terms of the hearts and minds of the Afghan people, again I’ve been saying for some time, this is not a conflict that can be won by military force alone, there does have to be a political solution, a political settlement that requires getting the support of the Afghan people.
But it also requires putting the Taliban in a position where they come to the conclusion they can’t win by military force, and they do have to sue for peace, and we’ve seen very, very early signs of that.
FRAN KELLY: Well, you say that we see early signs of that, but at the same time, if they can strike at the heart of the Afghan capital as they have, it demonstrates to all concerned that they remain a potent force, rather than being on the back foot, as we’re told, doesn’t it?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, it demonstrates to people that in Afghanistan, as in other places, there’s an ever-present risk of terrorism, and that people can strike. People have struck-
FRAN KELLY: But this is not a one-off, there’s been increasing catastrophes-
STEPHEN SMITH: Precisely the point I’m making, but we’ve seen terrorist attacks in the United States, in Europe, in capitals in Europe, and in Jakarta in Indonesia, so firstly there is a general ever-present need to be wary of terrorist or extremist attacks, that’s the first point.
Secondly, we know that we are making ground over the last 18 months against the Taliban in a security sense, they’re not going to lay down easily, but the only way in which they will come to the table, will be when they come to the conclusion they are under combat or military pressure, and they can’t win militarily, and we believe we’re getting — we are making progress towards that position, that’s certainly the view of outgoing Secretary of State for Defense Gates, and we share that view.
FRAN KELLY: Well that’s true, Robert Gates told the world that the Americans are holding talks with the Taliban, why on earth are they talking to the Taliban, when the Taliban is blowing up people, Afghanistan people, and western people, willy-nilly in Kabul?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, firstly, we have a very strong view that this requires a military strategy, and a political strategy, that’s the first point.
It won’t be a conflict that’s won by military means alone, in the end there has to be a political settlement. There’ll be some people running with the Taliban, who will never lay down their arms, in terms of reconciliation, or reproach from a political settlement, you do have to deal with people who are prepared to say yes, we accept the Afghan Constitution, we’ll lay down our arms and we will seek to resolve matters peacefully.
There’ll be some people who won’t do that, and that’s not necessarily limited to Afghanistan, we’ve seen that in other conflicts, in different places.
But in the end, we believe that there are sufficient — that we are making progress, that we continue to need to keep the security pressure on, that’s why for example, the United States, after the drawdown of their surge, will have 68,000 troops there, we’ll continue to have 1550, but in the meantime, we’re growing the Afghan security forces, army and police, to somewhere in the order of 300,000.
FRAN KELLY: We just heard Candace Rondeaux, from the ICG, she’s just finished a report on the security situation, in Afghanistan, which is not all that positive, she was saying quite clearly that the Taliban talks should stop, because the Karzai Government can’t deliver a deal, it’s too corrupt, it’s too inept, it’s too dependent on the war economy. What-
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, at the same time as making progress on the security front, we need to make progress on the governance front, and both before President Karzai’s re-election and after, I have said, and Australia has said quite strongly, we have to see improvements in governments, in corruption, in the handling of narcotics, in the treatment of women and girls; that is also required.
And on the ground for example, in Uruzgan, we believe that we’re making progress in terms of the delivery of services, and trying to provide an environment where the people of Afghanistan can get on with their ordinary, every-day lives.
So yes, progress does have to be made on the security front, but I strongly disagree with the notion that there should not be efforts to bring about a political settlement. Yes- FRAN KELLY: So you, the Australian Defence Minister, feel comfortable with the notion of peace talks between the Taliban-
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, not just comfortable, we have been saying for some considerable period, there’ve been a range of international conferences on Afghanistan, the Lisbon Summit the most noteworthy in recent times that the Prime Minister and I attended, where the international community committed itself to transition by 2014.
But a couple of years ago there was an international conference in London, where the international community also committed itself to notions of reintegration, reconciliation and reproach, in the end they have to be led by the Afghan Government, rather than other countries, but we strongly support efforts to bring about a political settlement.
FRAN KELLY: ‑It’s 11 minutes to eight, on Radio National Breakfast. Our guest this morning in the Breakfast studio is Defence Minister, Stephen Smith.
Minister, back home, the problems piling up in your department, we have the Skype sex scandal at ADFA, the sexual harassment on board HMAS Success, significant delays in major hardware acquisitions, the complete inoperability of the Navy’s amphibious fleet during Cyclone Yasi, which you clearly weren’t happy about.
Defence analyst, Mark Thomson, from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said in a report this week that if Australia’s defence matters at all, if armed forces — if armed force has any role in protecting our interests in this century, the present situation is beyond tolerable.
You’re the Minister of Defence, can you tolerate it?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I’ve made it crystal clear from the first moment I became Minister for Defence, that there has to be reform and I repeated that yesterday at a Defence and Industry Conference in Adelaide, and we are rolling out our reform program.
There has to be improvement in acquisition and capability, there has to be improvement in cultural issues and matters.
There’s also very much a lag effect. We are now finding that in projects that we’re dealing with in terms of capability development, that projects that have been subject to the reforms that we have instituted, for example, the Mortimer Reforms, we’re finding a 20 to 25 per cent improvement on slippage of time in particular, but also cost.
So we are making inroads and improvements, but there is a long way to go, and in the near future, I’ll be rolling out further reforms off the back of the Rizzo Report into our amphibious fleet, and also the so-called Black Review into Accountability.
FRAN KELLY: What reforms, because the Department’s Secretary, Ian Watt, said yesterday at that same conference, I think, that the average program where equipment is made for the Department, for the ADF, for the Defence Department, is on average 60 per cent behind schedule? What are you offering or threatening to try and change that?
STEPHEN SMITH: The point that Ian was making yesterday, is that if you buy something off-the-shelf, it’s lowest risk, if you produce it yourself, it’s highest risk, and so where you buy something off-the-shelf-
FRAN KELLY: High risk is one thing, 60 per cent behind schedule?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, it’s not acceptable but the point I’m making, you buy something off-the-shelf, like a C17, or you buy something which is a proven capability, like a Bushmaster, then you have less risk, and you can get the thing into the field, with less delays than high risk matters which you produce yourself.
And so we’ve made it crystal clear that every time we have a capability, we need to have that assessed, as against an off-the-shelf item.
FRAN KELLY: You announced yesterday a measure you said Defence companies could be frozen out of future tenders if they fail to meet guidelines and requirements on existing projects. How many chances will a company get, before they’re off the list altogether?
STEPHEN SMITH: We introduced in 2008 a so-called Projects of Concern list, to mediate projects of concern. Now the public policy objective here is not to get projects on a Projects of Concern list, it’s to have a successful project, so I announced, with Jason Clare, our Defence Materiel Minister yesterday, a range of further improvements to the Projects of Concern process.
But what we’re saying is, if you’re a company, and you have a project on the Projects of Concern list, if you are not working closely with Defence to remediate that program and bring it to a successful conclusion, that will mark you down, if you’ve got tenders or bids in for other projects, and it may well, in extreme circumstances, mean you are excluded from further tendering until you fix that project.
There’s an obligation here, not just on the part of Defence to get it right, but on the part of industry to get it right as well.
FRAN KELLY: And very briefly, Minister, Labor’s woes in the polls, in a terrible state, leadership is always being talked about, your name is bobbing up, do you have ambition to become PM?
STEPHEN SMITH: This is a long haul race, we’ve got our Prime Minister, she’s doing in my view a very good job, but she’s also got the right approach, which is the next election will be September, October, November of 2013, a lot of water to go under the bridge between now and then, we’re working our way through a range of tough reforms, in the end she’ll be the Prime Minister who’ll take us to the next poll, and I wouldn’t be making judgements about our political fate quite just yet.
FRAN KELLY: Do you have your own ambitions?
STEPHEN SMITH: I have my ambition to be a member of the Cabinet, Defence Minister, member of the ERC, and helping Anthony Albanese run the House as Deputy Leader, I’m very happy doing what I’m doing.
FRAN KELLY: Stephen Smith, thank you very much for joining us on Breakfast.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks Fran, thanks very much.
FRAN KELLY: Defence Minister Stephen Smith.
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