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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