Interview with Jim Middleton, Newsline, Australia Network

JIM MIDDLETON: Australia’s Prime Min­is­ter Julia Gillard has just announced that the first par­lia­men­tary debate on the country’s involve­ment in the war in Afghanistan will take place next week.

The debate was one of the con­di­tions demand­ed by the Greens for sup­port­ing her minor­i­ty Government. 

It will take place in the shad­ow of a pro­tract­ed spat between Ms Gillard and Oppo­si­tion Leader Tony Abbott over recent vis­its to Aus­tralian forces in Afghanistan.

Australia’s Defence Min­is­ter is Stephen Smith, and he’s cur­rent­ly in Hanoi for the inau­gur­al meet­ing with coun­ter­parts from ASEAN, as well as the Unit­ed States, Chi­na, India, Japan and Russia.

Min­is­ter, wel­come to the program.

STEPHEN SMITH: My plea­sure, Jim.

JIM MIDDLETON: The par­lia­men­tary debate on Afghanistan is now set down by the Prime Min­is­ter for next week. Do you wor­ry it may have an impact on morale of Aus­tralian forces in Afghanistan, even though it will end up endors­ing Australia’s involvement?

STEPHEN SMITH: No, I think the debate is and will be a good thing. I think an exam­i­na­tion of what our objec­tives are in Afghanistan, what we’re doing there, how the Gov­ern­ment and the nation is sup­port­ing its troops there will be a very good thing. 

I think it will also be educa­tive. It’ll help peo­ple under­stand we’re not there by our­selves, we’re there with a 47 mem­ber Inter­na­tion­al Secu­ri­ty Assis­tance Force, and our mis­sion is to train the Afghan Nation­al Army and the Afghan police to enable them to do these things, to take care of their own secu­ri­ty arrangements. 

So I think it’ll be a good thing, not just for our troops, but for the pub­lic. And I think the over­whelm­ing sen­ti­ment will be of sup­port for our peo­ple in the field. JIM MIDDLETON: Just a point of fact, will Labor MPs be allowed a free vote or will they have to fol­low the Gov­ern­ment line?

STEPHEN SMITH: It’ll be a par­lia­men­tary debate. The con­tri­bu­tion that Mem­bers of Par­lia­ment make will be a mat­ter for them. But the Government’s posi­tion on Afghanistan is well known. We believe it’s in our nation­al inter­est to be there. We believe it’s in the inter­na­tion­al community’s inter­est to be there to stare down inter­na­tion­al ter­ror­ism. But nei­ther the Prime Min­is­ter nor I will be try­ing to pre­scribe what indi­vid­ual mem­bers say. And, of course, there’ll be con­tri­bu­tions from Inde­pen­dents and Greens, and mem­bers of the Coali­tion. But the con­tri­bu­tions that indi­vid­ual Mem­bers of Par­lia­ment make will be a mat­ter for them.

JIM MIDDLETON: The inau­gur­al ASEAN Defence Min­is­ters’ Meet­ing Plus you’ve been attend­ing in Hanoi with some very big pow­ers in atten­dance, does this go part way to Australia’s desire for a com­pre­hen­sive secu­ri­ty struc­ture to man­age strate­gic devel­op­ments in the Asia-Pacif­ic, notably, the rise of China?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I think it’s a very sig­nif­i­cant devel­op­ment. The ASEAN Defence Min­is­ters’ Meet­ing Plus, which we’ve just con­clud­ed in Hanoi, has the ASEAN 10 coun­tries, plus eight ASEAN dia­logue part­ners, obvi­ous­ly includ­ing Aus­tralia, but also includ­ing the Unit­ed States, Japan, Chi­na and the Repub­lic of Korea.

It essen­tial­ly mir­rors at the Defence Min­is­ters’ lev­el what the pro­posed expand­ed East Asia Sum­mit will do, adding the Unit­ed States and Rus­sia to the East Asia Summit.

It was a very pro­duc­tive and suc­cess­ful meet­ing. We’ve estab­lished a num­ber of expert work­ing groups includ­ing mar­itime secu­ri­ty, which Aus­tralia will co-chair with Malaysia. 

But it is, I think, very sig­nif­i­cant and it will enable, through the Defence Min­is­ters Plus Meet­ing, in addi­tion to the East Asia Sum­mit and the like, it will enable coop­er­a­tion and prac­ti­cal out­comes to occur on the peace, secu­ri­ty and sta­bil­i­ty front. So that’s a very good thing.

JIM MIDDLETON: Min­is­ter, thank you very much.

STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks Jim, thanks very much. 

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

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