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Australian Defence Minister

Minister for Defence

Stephen Smith, Mp

Transcript: Press Conference, Perth

Transcription: Proof Copy E & Oe

DATE: 17 September 2010


STEPHEN SMITH: Well, thanks very much for attending the Declaration of the Poll, and also attending these media remarks.

Having been officially declared as the Member for Perth, can I say how much I appreciate the good work done by Chris and his officers at the Australian Electoral Commission in the Division of Perth.

And, as I've indicated, I'm also very proud to have been given the opportunity by Prime Minister Gillard to serve the nation as Defence Minister.

Later this morning I will make my first visit as Minister for Defence to a Western Australian Defence asset. I will visit Campbell Barracks in Swanbourne to speak with the Commanding Officer of the SAS, to be briefed on SAS operations and to speak to personnel there. The SAS, of course, makes a substantial, unique and specialised contribution to our defence efforts, including in Afghanistan. And, regrettably of course, four of the 21 casualties in the course of our effort in Afghanistan have come from the SAS.

On Afghanistan, I have of course indicated the Government's ongoing commitment to Afghanistan, to ensure that Afghanistan does not again become a breeding ground or refuge for international terrorism.

Tomorrow, 18 September, we see the start of the Afghan parliamentary elections. We, of course, want those elections to be free and fair elections, but they, of course, take place in very, very difficult security circumstances.

The Afghan Security Forces, principally the Afghan Police Force, with assistance from the Afghan National Army, will provide security arrangements for that election. But Australian personnel will provide support as and when required.

Can I just make one final remark. You would have seen overnight the announcement that, tragically, we've seen the death of a young seaman, Able Seaman Wilkie. I take this opportunity - my first opportunity - to extend my condolences and sympathy to his family. There will, of course, in accordance with all the usual requirements, be a coronial inquiry in respect of his death. But this will be a tragic time for his family and we extend our sympathy to them.

I'm happy to respond to your questions.

QUESTION: Minister, are you planning a visit to Afghanistan any time soon?

STEPHEN SMITH: I made it clear on Saturday, last weekend, when the Prime Minister announced the allocation of portfolios that an early visit to Afghanistan was, of course, a high priority for me. I propose to do that in the near future. But in terms of timing and details, that will be announced and dealt with in accordance with the usual procedures.

QUESTION: Your Government has promised a parliamentary debate on the Afghan war. How much room does that leave for, I guess, a genuine change in Government position on that war?

STEPHEN SMITH: The Government, whether it's the Prime Minister, whether it's the Foreign Minister, whether it's me as Defence Minister, has made it clear that we are very strongly committed to our commitment in Afghanistan. I made the point in my formal remarks in the course of the Declaration, as I do again, that Afghanistan is, of course, a United Nations-mandated International Security Assistance Force. And Australia's mission, as part of that United Nations-mandated force, Australia's mission is to train in Oruzgan Province the Afghan Security Forces, in particular the Afghan National Army, to put Afghan authorities in the position to deal with security matters themselves.

As the Chief of the Australian Defence Force has made clear in recent times, the current timetable we're looking at is a two to four year timetable to effect that training arrangement.

So far as a parliamentary debate on Afghanistan is concerned, just as my predecessor, John Faulkner, very strongly supported that, so do I. I think that is a very important thing to do. When Australian troops are committed overseas, particularly in a theatre of war, I think it is important that we have parliamentary discussion and debate about that.

So I think that's very important and I'm looking forward to that occurring.

QUESTION: Are you concerned about the high risk of danger that Australian troops face this weekend in Afghanistan with those elections?

STEPHEN SMITH: There's always a high risk in Afghanistan. It is essentially a theatre of war so there are risks for the Australian Defence Force personnel who are there, and tragically in recent times we have seen too many casualties.

There are also risks for our diplomats and civilian personnel who are there, and at all times the security of all our personnel is uppermost in our minds.

We are proceeding on the basis that the Taliban will try to disrupt the election, and we are essentially in a support position to provide assistance for the security arrangements for the conduct of the elections, if required.

It is in the first instance primarily a responsibility for the Afghan Security Forces, in particular the Police and the Afghan National Army. But if required to assist by way of support, we will. We would, of course, want the election to be a full, free and fair election, but the circumstances in which it takes place are very difficult.

QUESTION: Mr Smith, the Defence portfolio has been referred to as a political graveyard in the past, with seven ministers in the last 10 years. We've had recently three retire from politics altogether, two resign from the portfolio. Are you prepared to stay in the Defence portfolio for the long haul?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, when I had my conversation with the Prime Minister, and she indicated that she wanted me to do a different portfolio, she said what would I like to do, and I said instantly that I would like to do Defence. So in that respect, it's a portfolio that I've chosen and I've done so because I regard the national security aspects of the portfolio as being very important to the Government, but very important to the nation.

It is indeed the first and primary responsibility of any Government to provide for the national security interests of the Commonwealth and its people. So I'm looking very much forward to being Defence Minister.

I had a 15 minute conversation with Ambassador Beazley the other day for an hour and a half, as one does with Ambassador Beazley. He did make the point to me that he was the last Defence Minister who went on to serve in a different portfolio.

I'm very pleased to be Defence Minister for this parliamentary term. I'm looking very much forward to it. What happens after this parliamentary term is, of course, a matter in the first instance for the Australian people and then a matter for the Prime Minister to allocate portfolios.

QUESTION: It is seen as one of the most difficult portfolios where there's been criticism in the past; the Department actually dictates to the Minister, that there's an ingrained culture of self-serving obfuscation. No doubt, as a politician who's been in the game for a long time, you'd be aware of those criticisms. Are you prepared to stand up to the Department and be bold and…

STEPHEN SMITH: Firstly, the Defence arrangements have both a military side and a civilian side. And the formal authority for Defence matters in a military and bureaucratic sense, of course, falls to the Chief of the Defence Force and to the Secretary of the Department. And in my conversations with the Chief of the Defence Force, and with the Secretary of the Department, phrases and words such as dictate do not arise. We treat - the three of us - very seriously our national security obligations, and we have to date, and we will continue in the future, to work as a team.

Rather than the military or the Department dictating, there is, of course, in existence, and there has been for a long period of time and they adorn the walls of Russell, the Defence headquarters, ministerial directives which lay out those objectives which are required by the Minister or the Government of the day.

So I don't see this as anyone being in competition for any part of political or other authority. This is working together as a team to absolutely ensure that Australia's national security and national interests are protected and enhanced. And I have worked in recent years very closely with the Chief of the Defence Force and the Secretary of the Department around the National Security Committee Cabinet table, and I'm looking very much forward to working very closely with them as Minister for Defence.

QUESTION: When Joel Fitzgibbon came to the portfolio, he said there was a huge black hole in funding. greatly underfunded. I know it's only early days but have you had a chance to look at a budget and are your going to continue that in ending the…

STEPHEN SMITH: Joel Fitzgibbon, as Minister, and John Faulkner as his successor and my predecessor, took to respective Cabinets and took through respective budgets long-term plans for Defence spending.

We have committed ourselves, as a Government and in the course of the election campaign, to certainty so far as Defence funding is concerned. But there are always Defence funding issues because the world is never static, Defence procurement is never static.

So these issues are always challenging, but we will deal with these issues seriously, methodically. And in that respect I'm, of course, looking very much forward to working closely with Jason Clare, the Minister for Defence Materiel, and also with Warren Snowdon, the Minister for Defence Science and Personnel.

QUESTION: Mr Smith, moving on to business of governance, Rob Oakeshott said this morning that he was, that Tony Abbott isn't [indistinct] promises, those commitments he made about parliamentary reform. Is the new era of Australian politics, the era of the group hug, over already before it got started?

STEPHEN SMITH: I'll obviously keep my remarks general because the detail of these issues are matters in the first instance for the Prime Minister and also for Anthony Albanese, the Leader of the House. And I think in some respects the Leader of the House, Mr Albanese, holds himself or regards himself as being responsible for the group hug. He's proud of that, I think.

Look, we are a minority Government and we have 76 votes on the floor of the Parliament committed to us by the Independents and The Greens. So we have to earn our parliamentary authority. We have to earn our parliamentary majority.

We are certainly committed to the agreements we entered into, and of course of the transitional period - both with the Greens and with the Independents - and the Prime Minister made it clear yesterday, Minister Albanese has made it clear in recent days, that we are committed to properly discharging those obligations.

So there's no backwards step so far as we're concerned. What Mr Abbott is doing, of course, is a matter for him.

QUESTION: Last year in an interview Joel Fitzgibbon said, have I seen incompetence? Absolutely, yes. Have I seen attempts to nuance information to cover for mistakes? Yes.

Have you spoken to Joel Fitzgibbon and do you agree that attempts within the Defence Department are made to nuance information to cover for mistakes?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well firstly, yes, I have had a conversation with Joel, a very quick conversation where he congratulated me on becoming the Defence Minister. That's the first point.

Secondly, in my experience to date as Defence Minister I have received frank and fearless advice from the Chief of the Defence Force, and frank and fearless advice from the Secretary of the Department. That is as it should be. And that is what I expect.

QUESTION: On Pakistan, Mr Smith, there's talk today that there’s extending your commitment on the defence military hospital over there. Would you support that motion? And if so, how long…

STEPHEN SMITH: We're making a substantial contribution in the aftermath of the floods in Pakistan. Even before Foreign Minister Rudd's announcement overnight of an additional $40 million contribution to assist, we were in the top four nations and the top six contributors overall. And that's very important.

And, of course, as you indicate, we also have a substantial presence with our medical facility there which is, in terms of the security arrangements, have been struck on the advice of the Australian Defence Force, but in conjunction with Pakistan security agencies. And that will be ongoing.

I do have to indicate to you that when the commitment was made for the medical facility to go to Pakistan that uppermost in the minds of then Defence Minister Faulkner and I when we dealt with this matter was to ensure that we had absolute rigour on the advice we received about the protection of any Australian personnel who would be put on the ground in Pakistan.

What I very much want to do is, when the Foreign Minister returns from his visit to Pakistan and from the United Nations General Assembly, which will occur the week the Parliament comes back, to sit down and have a conversation with him about what more, if anything we can do. We are open-minded about a further contribution in terms of additional support on the ground. But there are security implications which follow from that.

And just as we didn't on the first occasion, we would not be rushing into it. But I do want to have a conversation with Foreign Minister Rudd when he returns to see whether there's more that we can do.

QUESTION: So at this stage 90 days and you'll assess it when he gets back?

STEPHEN SMITH: I'll have a conversation with the Foreign Minister when he returns from his trip to Pakistan and to the United Nations. We are very pleased with the effort that we are making in terms of the medical facility in Pakistan. Last time I looked - and I don’t think this is the most up to date figure - I think we had provided medical services to over 2000 Pakistani nationals.

And so obviously we're making substantial contributions. It's a very good thing to do. But it is in difficult circumstances. And we do have to be very conscious of the security arrangements which we have been to date, and will be in the future.

QUESTION: Mr Smith, just one quick question. Is that your decision though to extend that military hospital or is that actually…

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, that will be a Government decision. When the original decision was made it was made jointly by the then Minister for Defence John Faulkner, by me as Foreign Minister with, of course, the necessary agreement of the Prime Minister. So we'll follow that same process.

But I'll just make this point clear, I am very open minded about our further contribution to assist because these are the worst floods we've seen since Pakistan became a nation state at partition, firstly. And secondly, we are very conscious of Pakistan's importance as a country in south Asia, its strategic importance. Pakistan has been under considerable pressure in terms of extremist and terrorist activity. We've been working closely with Pakistan because obviously that has implications for our effort in Afghanistan, on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

So anything more that we can do is in principle a good thing to do. But we do need to ensure that that is something which is appropriate in terms of our development assistance contribution, which are matters for the Foreign Minister, but also in terms of the security that we put in place in conjunction with Pakistan security agencies and authorities for any Australians who are on the ground there.

QUESTION: Sorry, just wondering if you are planning to go to the Defence Minister's ASEAN meeting?

STEPHEN SMITH: In accordance with my own personal habits, I'll make my announcements about overseas travel when we get closer to those events. But I'm very pleased that Australia has been asked to attend the ASEAN Defence Ministers' Meeting in Hanoi in October. That's a very good development. We're very pleased about that. And in terms of my attendance or otherwise, I'll let that be known in the usual way closer to the time

ENDS

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