Minister for Defence – Interview with Ali Moore, ABC Lateline
ALI MOORE, PRESENTER: Joining us from our Parliament House studio is the Defence Minister Stephen Smith.
Stephen Smith; thanks for taking the time to talk to Lateline tonight.
STEPHEN SMITH, DEFENCE MINISTER: Pleasure, Ali.
ALI MOORE: In the three weeks since the death of Lance Corporal Andrew Jones and with the investigation so far, how much do you know about the motivation for this killing, why Shafied Ullah did what he did?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well we – from that perspective obviously have preferred to have captured him to enable us to question him about his motivation and so, in very many respects, whilst this will bring some solace or some closure to the family that the person responsible for the death of Lance Corporal Jones has met his own demise, it does substantially make more difficult bringing to a conclusion the investigation that has been commenced. So, we may well never know.
In the same operation, Ullah’s brother was also captured. He is being questioned. He may be able to throw some light on it, but our best witness in that respect is now gone. My instinct has always been a rogue ANA soldier rather than a Taliban plant, but as I’ve said before: instinct is not a good basis; conclusive evidence is, and we still have that investigation ongoing.
ALI MOORE: But has nothing come up in the past three weeks in terms of the investigation about this man’s background, about how he had operated previously in the field?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, he had been undergoing training with us for about a month, he’d been in the ANA and training in the ANA for three or four months. Suffice to say that we don’t have anything which would indicate infiltration by the Taliban. We had all of the usual checking and vetting, the biometrics and the like, which is why he’s been able to be identified in the course of yesterday and today.
The Taliban, a few days after his terrible killing of Lance Corporal Jones, claimed it, but I put that very much in the category of: they would do that, wouldn’t they? For propaganda purposes. So, it may well be the rogue actions of an individual disgruntled soldier. But we continue to, in a sense, pursue the inquiry that the chief of the Defence Force formally started at the end of May on his tragic death.
ALI MOORE: Well more broadly, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates has now confirmed there have been contacts between the US and the Taliban in recent weeks with an eye to a political solution. How much does Australia know about the details of these contacts, however preliminary they are?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we weren’t consulted or advised in advance and I wouldn’t expect to be. But you may recall that a couple of weeks ago, I was in Brussels, not just with Secretary Gates, but with other NATO and International Security Assistance Force Defence Ministers and I said an a number of occasions in Brussels, including in my formal intervention, but also when I returned, that one of the things that we were hopeful might emerge as a result of pressure, military pressure, enforcement pressure on the Taliban, was that we might see the early signs of reintegration and reconciliation.
It’s only been as a result of the gains that we’ve made militarily in the last 18 months or so that these very first early signs, what Secretary Gates has described as very preliminary outreach, have occurred. I very much agree with the analysis that unless there is military and combat and enforcement pressure on the Taliban, they won’t come to the table.
ALI MOORE: But does it not seem at this point all the indications are that in fact it’s not them coming to the table; it’s the allied forces or the US reaching out?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, you can’t have a one-way dialogue and so there has been confirmed by Secretary Gates some very preliminary outreach, a number of conversations. The United States is not the only country or nation involved, but I’m not proposing to nominate those. They can self-nominate if they want to.
ALI MOORE: Are we one of them?
STEPHEN SMITH: No. We have been associated or observing some very localised reintegration efforts in Uruzgan Province, but we regard the reconciliation process or the political settlement process as very much a matter essentially to by Afghan Government-led, and of course you would expect that the main NATO power, the United States, Afghanistan’s main partner, the United States, would be intricately involved in that process.
But I’ve been saying for a number of years: we won’t achieve our mission in Afghanistan of transitioning to Afghan-led security responsibility by military means alone. It will require at some stage a political settlement, but I think we are a long way from that, but the early signs to me reflect the fact that we have made, in our view, some substantial military progress over the last 18 months or so.
ALI MOORE: Of course though, the Taliban doesn’t speak with one voice. This must be an extremely difficult process to even I guess know who you’re talking to.
STEPHEN SMITH: And Secretary Gates has made this very point himself that one needs to be very careful about whom one is talking to and whom they are representing. And so he’s been at pains – and I make no bones about the fact that I share his analysis – he’s been at pains to make that point. But also at pains to make the point that it’s very early days, but the only way that one might get the appropriate people to the table or keep the appropriate people at the table is by keeping the enforcement pressure on, by continuing to show the Taliban that as a result of the surge both of US and NATO and Afghan National Security Force numbers, and as a result of the success of the Special Forces operations, that they can’t win militarily, and as a consequence it’s best to sue for peace.
ALI MOORE: Does that mean though that it makes it even more important that the American drawdown that president Obama is due to announce in the next couple of weeks – how many troops will come out – that it’s very important that’s a minimal number to keep the pressure on?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I’ve made a number of points about that in the past. Firstly, we should wait and see that drawdown, firstly. Secondly, I’ve never seen any inconsistency with the transition to Afghan-led security responsibility by the end of 2014 with a drawdown of some of the United States‘ forces after we’ve seen a surge of some 30 to 40 US and NATO troops. But also over that same period, we’ve also seen – this is very much underappreciated – a surge of some 70,000 to 80,000 Afghan-trained Army and police officers.
But what is essential is to continue to keep the pressure on the Taliban. I’ve made the point in the past that Australia is the largest non-NATO contributor, the 10th largest contributor overall, but most importantly in the current context; we’re also the third largest Special Forces contributor. And it’s been a combination of the surge and the success of the Special Forces operations which has started to degrade and denude the Taliban effectiveness in Afghanistan.
ALI MOORE: So in your view, what would be the benchmark for a political solution? What would be the minimum? Because it would appear that any final peace negotiation, for example, would have to involve the Taliban leader Mullah Omar, but is that not difficult? He’s currently on the most wanted list of terrorists.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, Mullah Omar is difficult per se, but what are some of the essential pre-conditions, and Australia has made these points clear over the last couple of years. We strongly support the London conference on Afghanistan where the centre piece of that conference a couple of years ago was to give and bring support to the notion that we had to have a political strategy not just a military strategy; that in the end it would not be won by military means alone.
But some of the preconditions are fundamental – that an individual has to renounce violence that an individual has to agree to abide by the Afghan constitution. And hardcore international ideologues and terrorists won’t give that undertaking and won’t proceed down that path, because their view is that decisions can only be made through the force of a barrel of a gun. But there will be people who want to take part in Afghan society, either at the low level – and we’re seeing as I say some early signs of reintegration where people who have ran with the Taliban – run with the Taliban are now seeing that there is a better alternative for them, a better economic and social life for them and they are disavowing the Taliban.
But equally, at the higher level, at the senior levels, there has to be an appreciation that there may well be a role for them to play in Afghan society, but they have to abide by the Afghan constitution, disavow terrorism as an act of public policy and lay down their arms.
ALI MOORE: Just a question on the timing of this, because of course America has consistently refused to confirm or deny any contact with the Taliban and the reason that Gates had to make the admission was because president Karzai in fact confirmed the talks. Why do you think he did that now and is there a risk that it undermines the attempts to build trust?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well there’ve been a number of speculative pieces in a range of international newspapers, not just in the United States, but also in Europe.
ALI MOORE: But was it up to Karzai to confirm them?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well firstly, I don’t think that, if you like, the story came as a surprise. Indeed, if you have a look at my general remarks in Brussels a couple of weeks ago, I made this point on a number of occasions that the change in what Australia regards as the change in circumstances so far as Taliban effectiveness was concerned might well have the end result of reconciliation, reintegration and political rapprochement talks begin to emerge. So I don’t think it’s come as a surprise. Whether – and I haven’t obviously had the conversation with Secretary Gates. Whether he was responding to President Karzai or whether he was just putting it out there as one of his final acts of Secretary of State for Defence, you’d have to ask them.
In the end, I frankly don’t think it much matters. I think there are some significant fundamental points to be made about the fact that the story has emerged. One fundamental point is we can’t achieve our objectives in Afghanistan by military means alone, so we have to get into a political conversation at some stage; and secondly, the only basis on which the Taliban, any of their representatives, would come to the table is if they are starting to believe they’re under military or combat pressure.
ALI MOORE: Minister, if we can turn to events closer to home. This week of course marks the anniversary of the knifing of Kevin Rudd. You’ve just come from a Cabinet meeting tonight. What was the mood inside that meeting?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I never talk about Cabinet meetings. In fact technically I’m not even supposed to confirm I’ve been at one, but yes, I have been at one. We were getting on with the business of government. We’re getting on with the hard slog of governing.
ALI MOORE: And the hard slog – how do you explain why the Government is so on the nose right now?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we are dealing with a range of difficult and complex issues that we are trying to – and in the face of those difficult and complex issues we’re trying to effect reform that we very strongly believe is in our national interest. We very strongly believe that there is too much carbon in our economy and in our atmosphere, and as a consequence of that we have to effect a large reform.
ALI MOORE: Do you think that as a government you’ve handled that process the right way – announcing a carbon tax, but then no detail, allowing the Opposition to come in and fill in the blanks?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, it’s a long-haul race; it’s a long-haul race. And whether it’s emissions trading and too much carbon or pollution in our atmosphere, whether it’s a mineral resources tax, in the end, once these reforms are effected by the Parliament and once they start to become part of Australian life and Australian society, then the Australian community will make its own judgment about whether the scare campaigns that Tony Abbott is running are real or illusory.
We have more than two years to go in this current term of Parliament. The next election will be the third quarter of 2013 – September, October and November. There’s a lot of water to go under the bridge between now and then, and we will just do the tough job of working through these issues in a calm way, and in the end the community will make its own judgment about the performance of the Government.
ALI MOORE: Two things to put to you from two senior members of the party. Do you agree with Peter Beattie, who wrote this morning that, ‘…what is killing the Government electorally is continuing division over the leadership change.’ He says, ‘Kevin Rudd should spend some time on the backbench before making a dignified exit.’
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I think Kevin Rudd’s a very hardworking Foreign Minister and he’s doing that job very well. Kevin himself over the last two or three days has made the point very strongly that we’re all fully supportive of the Prime Minister. There’s no vacancy for the position and we’re all proposing just to get on with it. So, there’s plenty of what I’d describe as – what I would describe as idle speculation. My attitude, the Prime Minister’s attitude, the Government’s attitude is that we’re getting on with the hard and tough work of reform and we’re very happy in a couple of years‘ time for the community to make their judgment about that.
ALI MOORE: Interesting; you call it idle speculation, but I guess the point about what Kevin Rudd was saying in various weekend media appearances was that he has learnt from his mistakes. Many were seeing that as putting his hand up because why else would you need to say that you’ve learnt from your mistakes as Prime Minister?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, you only put your hand up when there’s a vacancy and there’s no vacancy, firstly. Secondly-
ALI MOORE: That’s not what happened last time round; there was no vacancy.
STEPHEN SMITH: In any walk of life, after a period of reflection, you’re entitled to put on the public record if you want to the mistakes that you’ve made. Kevin has indicated that in the course of his time as Prime Minister, he made a range or a series or a number of mistakes. It’s entirely a matter for him how he reflects upon that. But Prime Ministers in the past have done that in their own way. In my view, he’s entitled to do that. In recent times he said that as prime minister, he made what he regarded were a range of mistakes, from minor to serious. That’s a matter for his own reflection.
ALI MOORE: What about Senator Faulkner, who says that the party’s become too reliant on focus groups and it’s lost a generation of activists and risks losing a generation of voters as well if it doesn’t become more inclusive and brook dissent?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, a range of issues there. Firstly, if we were focus research exclusively-driven then I would be on your show tonight saying that we weren’t on proposing to stick the course in Afghanistan. And in a different context, we wouldn’t be out there saying that we were making representations to Indonesia about capital punishment. We would be saying that we weren’t proposing to continue our longstanding objection to capital punishment. So I make no apology for a political party using modern campaigning tools to try and win elections.
And Tony Abbott did that very well last time and nearly won. There’s a fundamental difference between having a clear-sighted view of public policy and the course that you need to chart for a nation’s future and trying to win a poll. Tony Abbott is out there-
ALI MOORE: Is Senator Faulkner out of line?
STEPHEN SMITH: Absolutely not. I’ve said in the past: I very strongly believe that the great challenge for the party in the modern era is: how do we turn a party that continues essentially to be based on an industrialised society as we knew it in the last couple of centuries, how do we change that party into a party which is relevant to the modern world, to modern communications?
In the old days, people who supported Labor or voted Labor or who looked to the Labor Party as their institution in society would go to a town hall meeting, a branch meeting or a trade union meeting to get their information and in some respects to get their advice. Now if it’s a choice between watching ABC24 or going online at 7.30 on a Monday night or going to a branch meeting, then I know what people do.
They vote with modern communications and modern means of information. So my view is that to try and tap into the vast numbers of people in Australian society who continue to look to Labor as their political party, we need to engage them. I would move to a system of registered party supporters so that we could have an online communication with them-
ALI MOORE: A system of primaries in essence?
STEPHEN SMITH: Yep, absolutely. And I’d give them a role in pre-selection. I think you’ve got to roll the dice in a lateral and a creative way. Because John’s central point is right: if the party does not adapt and adopt to modern circumstances, then we will fall by the wayside.
ALI MOORE: Well, thank you very much, Stephen Smith, for your time. All issues will be discussed at the national conference no doubt later in the year. Many thanks for joining us.
STEPHEN SMITH: Absolutely. Wouldn’t miss it for the world.
ALI MOORE: Thanks for joining us.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks very much.
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