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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