Australian Defence Minister on Afghanistan; RFA Largs Bay; Australian Labor Party

INTERVIEW WITH KIERAN GILBERT, SKY NEWS

KIERAN GILBERT:    Defence Min­is­ter, thanks for your time. 

You’ve just held your talks, your first talks with Leon Panet­ta since he took the role of Defense Sec­re­tary. Have you received reas­sur­ances that the Unit­ed States draw­down of its surge troops will not adverse­ly affect our troops in Uruz­gan province?

STEPHEN SMITH:     Yes, good morn­ing Kier­an. I’ve just fin­ished with my first face to face for­mal meet­ing with Defense Sec­re­tary Panetta. 

Afghanistan and the draw­down was one of the issues we’ve dis­cussed and we’re pro­ceed­ing on the basis that the draw­down won’t have any adverse impli­ca­tions for us in Uruz­gan province. 

And that’s essen­tial­ly the same con­ver­sa­tions that we’ve had with US offi­cials in the past. The detail of the draw­down will be affect­ed by the new com­man­der of ISAF, the Inter­na­tion­al Secu­ri­ty Assis­tance Force, Gen­er­al Allen. He’s the replace­ment for Gen­er­al Petraeus. 

But our Defence and mil­i­tary offi­cials will be in con­tact with him and his offi­cials but we’re pro­ceed­ing on the basis of no adverse impli­ca­tions for us in Uruz­gan province. 

KIERAN GILBERT:    You’ve also held talks with Sec­re­tary of State Clin­ton today.  Are you sat­is­fied with the broad­er strat­e­gy the Unit­ed States and the NATO allies have in Afghanistan?  Have you been reas­sured again on that dur­ing your trip to Washington? 

STEPHEN SMITH:     Well I spoke as well today with Sec­re­tary Clin­ton but both the con­ver­sa­tion on Afghanistan that I had with her and also with Sec­re­tary of Defense Panet­ta, we reaf­firmed our view that the mil­i­tary and the polit­i­cal strat­e­gy that we have in Afghanistan is right, that we have been mak­ing progress against the Taliban. 

They are a tough foe and we are expect­ing them to con­tin­ue to fight back. But we also know that we have made progress and that’s been reflect­ed by those very ear­ly signs of approach­es for poten­tial polit­i­cal set­tle­ment, polit­i­cal reproach, there’s a long way to go. We reaf­firmed our com­mit­ment to the tran­si­tion strategy. 

We’ve got to train and men­tor the Afghan secu­ri­ty forces, the police and the  army so that they can take respon­si­bil­i­ty for secu­ri­ty arrange­ments and that we both believe we’re on track to effect that by 2014. 

KIERAN GILBERT:    The Gov­er­nor of Uruz­gan province has been quot­ed in The Aus­tralian news­pa­per today, urg­ing Aus­tralia to stay the course and indeed con­sid­er extend­ing the pres­ence beyond Decem­ber 2014. 

If the secu­ri­ty sit­u­a­tion is not suf­fi­cient, is that some­thing that you and this gov­ern­ment will consider? 

STEPHEN SMITH:     Well I haven’t seen that report, but I have spo­ken when I was last in Afghanistan with Gov­er­nor Shirzad. He’s a very good gov­er­nor, we’re very pleased with the work that he’s doing; we work close­ly with him. 

One of the con­ver­sa­tions I had both with Sec­re­tary of State Clin­ton and Sec­re­tary for Defense Panet­ta was the very ear­ly stages of what might be Australia’s post-2014 contribution. 

When I was last in Brus­sels with the NATO and Inter­na­tion­al Secu­ri­ty Assis­tance Force Defence Min­is­ters’ Meet­ing, Defence Min­is­ters agreed the time had come to start think­ing about what the post-tran­si­tion con­tri­bu­tion might be. 

And so far as Aus­tralia is con­cerned it’s very ear­ly days but it might be fur­ther train­ing of Afghan forces, spe­cialised or insti­tu­tion­al train­ing. It might be a secu­ri­ty over­watch con­tri­bu­tion or Spe­cial Forces. 

It will cer­tain­ly be fur­ther devel­op­ment assis­tance in capac­i­ty build­ing and insti­tu­tion build­ing and that’s one of the points that Gov­er­nor Shirzad makes. So we believe that we’re on-track for a tran­si­tion in Uruz­gan province by 2014, but as the Prime Min­is­ter and the For­eign Min­is­ter and I have made clear con­sis­tent­ly, we do see an ongo­ing role for Australia. 

Quite what that form of that con­tri­bu­tion will be, we haven’t yet con­clud­ed.  Indeed we’re at the very ear­ly stages of that. But that process the Unit­ed States is also going through. 

One of the good things about what the Unit­ed States has done in recent times is entered into a long-term agree­ment with Afghanistan for long-term coop­er­a­tion between the Unit­ed States and Afghanistan and NATO itself has done the same thing. 

So there are sig­nals from the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty that 2014 does­n’t mean no fur­ther con­tact with Afghanistan on the contrary. 

KIERAN GILBERT:    A cou­ple of oth­er quick issues.  The Largs Bay, the amphibi­ous ves­sel that Aus­tralia has bought, it’s a sec­ond-hand British Roy­al Navy ves­sel, $100 mil­lion vessel. 

A raft of seri­ous tech­ni­cal faults appar­ent­ly that has been found by the chief engi­neer offi­cer Cap­tain Wardell, includ­ing six crit­i­cal issues, a sus­pect car­go lift sys­tem, steer­ing pump fragili­ty and oth­ers–  are you wor­ried that this might be a lemon? 

STEPHEN SMITH:   Absolute­ly not.  That report- obvi­ous­ly Defence and the Defence Materiel Organ­i­sa­tion and Navy had access to. There are also oth­er reports and tri­als and tests that were done. And the very strong advice I have is that this is a good ship, it’s five or six years old. 

With any ship that’s seen ser­vice at all there are main­te­nance and repairs that need to be done. But this is going to be on my advice and on my instinct a very good pick up for Australia. 

This is a ship which com­pares very favourably with the ships that it is intend­ed to replace. The his­tor­i­cal prob­lem we had with the Manoo­ra and the Kan­im­bla, well they were 20 to 30 years old when we picked them up, there was no doc­u­men­ta­tion and that made life very dif­fi­cult from the outset. 

We’ve got a com­plete doc­u­men­tary record of this ship and the expert tri­al­ing and test­ing and inspec­tion of it led me to the very strong con­clu­sion that this will be a very sub­stan­tial con­tri­bu­tion to Australia’s heavy Amphibi­ous Lift. 

Any ship that’s been used will have main­te­nance or repair issues but we’re very con­fi­dent about this ship and to sug­gest that it won’t do the job, in my view, is com­plete­ly erroneous. 

KIERAN GILBERT:    Okay, one last ques­tion, it’s one relat­ed to domes­tic pol­i­tics. Kevin Rudd, your min­is­te­r­i­al col­league, is about to go on leave for surgery. Before he did, he gave an inter­view with The Aus­tralian news­pa­per in which he says the ALP’s at its best when it’s at the cen­tre tar­get­ing the polit­i­cal mainstream. 

Do you agree with that and do you think some of your col­leagues might be ner­vous about him pro­vid­ing this commentary? 

STEPHEN SMITH:     Well, Kevin’s a senior Min­is­ter.  I haven’t seen — again it’s the after­noon here, ear­ly morn­ing over there, I haven’t seen the news­pa­per or the report.  But Kevin’s a senior Min­is­ter.  He’s enti­tled from time to time to put a view about pol­i­tics; indeed you often ask me ques­tions about politics. 

I’ll use my own form of words or my own expres­sion. For any Labor Gov­ern­ment it’s absolute­ly essen­tial that we focus on the two fun­da­men­tal respon­si­bil­i­ties that a gov­ern­ment has to the peo­ple of Australia. 

First­ly is the eco­nom­ic cir­cum­stances of the Aus­tralian peo­ple and we have a respon­si­bil­i­ty to man­age the econ­o­my well. And in very dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances in the face of a glob­al eco­nom­ic cri­sis, we’ve done that. 

Yes, we know that a lot of fam­i­lies are under finan­cial pres­sure, we’re very con­scious of that.  But impor­tant­ly we’ve con­duct­ed our­selves in a way in which we’ve kept employ­ment and employ­ment grows strong and unem­ploy­ment low. 

Sec­ond­ly, we have a fun­da­men­tal respon­si­bil­i­ty to pro­tect and defend the nation­al secu­ri­ty inter­est of Aus­tralia and the Aus­tralian peo­ple and that’s been front and cen­tre of the work that I’ve been doing here in Wash­ing­ton, under­lin­ing the absolute impor­tance of the alliance we have with the Unit­ed States. 

So I think the Aus­tralian com­mu­ni­ty best respond to a gov­ern­ment that is very firm­ly focused on pro­tect­ing and defend­ing their nation­al secu­ri­ty inter­est and pro­tect­ing and enhanc­ing their eco­nom­ic inter­est- and in those two fun­da­men­tals my own view is that the Gov­ern­ment has done a good job in dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances. But ulti­mate­ly, the test with these things will always be the next elec­tion which is more than two years away. 

KIERAN GILBERT:    Defence Min­is­ter Stephen Smith, appre­ci­ate it, thanks. 

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

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