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Transcript of interview with Peter van Onselen: Australian Agenda: 5 May 2013: 2013 Defence White Paper; Federal elections

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Minister for Defence - Interview with Peter van Onselen, Australian Agenda

5 May 2013



DATE: 5 May 2013

TOPICS: 2013 Defence White Paper; Federal Elections.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: And as mentioned off the top we are joined now by the Defence

Minister who has just released the Defence White Paper to end the week.

Stephen Smith, thanks for your company.

DENNIS SHANAHAN: Pleasure Peter.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Can I just ask you about the Defence White Paper and I guess defence

issues more broadly. We’ve had the Prime Minister’s diplomatic trip to China. We’ve obviously

got an ongoing defence relationship, as well as diplomatic one, with the US. It looks like our

relationship with China is growing diplomatically.

Are there any concerns here that we should have from a Defence perspective about there

being a blurring of the lines between this emerging diplomatic relationship with China versus

the realities of Australia’s sense of its defence policy for the defence of the nation?

STEPHEN SMITH: No I don’t believe so. We have more than a diplomatic relationship with the

United States; we have a military alliance with the United States. That’s served us and our

region very well for over 60 years, and our military Alliance with the United States continues

to be the bedrock of our defence security arrangements.

At the same time we have a growing relationship with China, from our early recognition of

China back in the 70s by the Whitlam Government and the one China policy. But more

recently we’ve seen our Defence engagement with China grow. For the last 15 years we’ve

had a high level dialogue with them with the Secretary of our departments and the Chief of

our Defence Force with their equivalents, and that will continue. And the Prime Minister’s

most recent successful visit saw high level dialogues planned on an annual basis between the

leadership and between the Treasury Secretaries and the like.

So, it’s not a zero sum game. It’s a win-win. And the point of the White Paper, and the point

I’ve been making generally and the Government’s been making generally is that we can have

an ongoing relationship, military alliance included with the United States, a growing

relationship with China. The key to ongoing stability and peace and security and prosperity in

our part of the world and the world generally is a positive and constructive relationship

between China and the United States. And that’s the key.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: If we’ve got such good relations with both the US and China,

diplomatically as well as militarily, what are we spending all this money on? What’s the

Defence risk that requires us to have such a large spend on Defence?

STEPHEN SMITH: In the White Paper I outlined the four priorities of the Australian Defence

Force. We have to have a capable Australian Defence Force to protect our national security

interests, but there are four levels.

Firstly there is the Defence of Australia as the first priority. Now there is no immediate of

foreseeable threat upon Australia itself, but we need to prepare for that - manage that risk.

And that’s why you see more work being done on what we call our northern and western


Secondly there’s the area of our region where the world sees us as having primary or lead

responsibility. The South Pacific and Timor-Leste, we need to be able to operate there

whether it’s stabilisation, as we’ve seen historically in the Solomon Islands or East Timor, or

humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. And this week we held for the first time the first

meeting of South Pacific Defence Ministers, which reflects that priority.

Thirdly we’ve got the Indo-Pacific region generally. In particular, from our perspective, being

able to operate with our partners, including the United States, in Southeast Asia.

And finally we have the capacity to join into a global operation, and Afghanistan is the clear

and best current example of that. And the White Paper, and our work in defence and national

security continues to allow us to have an ADF which can do all of those things and do it

effectively and efficiently.

DENNIS SHANAHAN: Minister you make the point that there is no direct threat to Australia,

no immediate threat - we no longer see Indonesia as a threat to the north. But there is

obviously, and the paper makes this point clear, a more fraught tension within the area,

within the region. A greater chance of some regional conflict drawing us in or making us have

some sort of decision as far as China or the US is concerned.

But, if the area is more fraught, and if all of the other nations are spending more money on

defence, why is there a more benign outlook for Australia? Is that to justify the fact that we

are not increasing our spending, as are our regional allies?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well a range of issues there.

I wouldn’t use the word fraught. Certainly as you see a new power rise, in this case China,

the other global powers, in this case the United States, have to adjust to that, as our region

does, as the globe does. And so you’ve got the rise of China; the international community has

to manage that, and that’s part of our strong view that the China-United States relationship

is pivotal to that. Not just an economic relationship, which they now have at a very very high

level, but growing their political, strategic, military and defence relationship. And we welcome

the development of that.

At the same time we rely upon our regional architecture, whether it’s the ASEAN related

forums, or the Indian Ocean related forums. To have a regional architecture which does its

best to reduce miscalculation, misjudgement and the like. And so that’s why we strongly

argue that the maritime or territorial disputes which don’t involve the United States or

Australia but involved China, Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam and others, are managed

peacefully and in accordance with international law.

Now, it’s not the case that everyone else in our region is increasing their defence spending.

The classic example is the United States; going through the process of reducing billions of

dollars out of their defence arrangements.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: But they’re cutting money out of defence at the same time as putting

more focus on our region, nonetheless.

STEPHEN SMITH: Which is precisely what we’re doing. We had a tough fiscal time in the last

budget, we reduced expenditure but we protected our priorities. No reduction in our overseas

arrangements, particularly Afghanistan, no reduction in the money going to our growing

practical cooperation with the United States.

And in this White Paper, and in this Budget you’ll see a modest increase in our budget

arrangements. But this White Paper, and I’ve seen it described by some commentators, does

show, if you like, a re-balance to Australia and our region as we draw down, in particular

from Afghanistan.

The United States is going through a tough fiscal time, reducing expenditure in defence, as is

the United Kingdom. So we have to manage that, and we’re managing that by protected our

priorities which we did in the last budget, and which the white paper continues to do.

Whether it’s core capability, whether it’s our practical cooperation with the United States, or

whether it’s our intense engagement in our key areas of responsibility and interest; the South

Pacific or South East Asia.

Sorry Simon.

SIMON BENSON: You’ll probably repeat a bit of what you’ve just, but I wanted you to be

specific, if you could. You mentioned one of the reasons being your fiscal realignment, one of

the other reasons that has been quoted in the report as further reason to why it’s being

brought forward was a change in the strategic landscape.

Could you be specific about what has changed in the strategic landscape, not only more

recently to bring the paper forward, but since 2009, since we had the last White Paper?

STEPHEN SMITH: In 2009 we said that we would have White Papers at least once every five

years, we essentially set up a five year timetable. That was because the previous White Paper

was 2009, and so the Coalition Government under John Howard did a White Paper in 2000,

and then with the change of Government at the end of 2007 we had White Paper nearly two

years later, 2009.

That was too long a gap. And because it was too long a gap we said you’ve got to have it

every five years. About a year ago, almost to the day, the Prime Minister and I said there are

a range of reasons why we should bring forward the current White Paper from what would

have been April of next year, 2014, to April, May or June of this year, we said the second half

of this year.

And that was for a range of reasons. It was clear that the transitional draw-down from

Afghanistan was occurring, and so for the first time in a decade we would have the

opportunity to see what the implications were in the absence of a very high tempo 1,550

commitment to Afghanistan. We didn’t want to make the same mistake that we made after

Vietnam which was a draw-down from Indo-China which, just by way of digression, was

much less elegant than the draw-down we’re seeing now, the so-called embassy roof


We didn’t want to make the same mistake which was to not say well what do we do now,

what’s our strategic focus for the future. And we also didn’t want to reduce military numbers.

At the same time you had the rebalance of the United States, including our enhanced

practical cooperation in the Northern Territory, whether it’s Marines, or aerial access, and in

the future Naval operations out of HMAS Stirling. We had the ongoing deleterious and

adverse implications of the global financial crisis, which had impacted severely on our Budget


And you also had, for the first time in a quarter of a century, I affected what’s called a Force

Posture Review. Which is, how do we position our own Defence Force in Australia. That was

the first time we’d done that since the mid 1980s.

SIMON BENSON: But when you talk about a change in-

STEPHEN SMITH: You bring all of those elements together, plus - if you like the starting point

of your question - plus, the ongoing consolidation of strategic weight, economic weight,

political weight and military weight in our part of the world. Not just the rise of China, but

also the rise of India, which is why I’ve been describing the arc now of our interest as the

Indo-Pacific, or, as I’ve seen it described, from Hollywood to Bollywood.

So it was that consolidation which caused us to say it makes sense for us to do it now. There

was no further bring-forward of it. I always had in mind that we’d publish the White Paper

some time in the run-up to, or in, or shortly after, the Budget.

So whilst we were saying June, my view was always May.

SID MAHER: Minister that brings me to a question on the timing of the White Paper. Why

release the White Paper two weeks before the Budget, why not release the White Paper after

the Budget when it can have some numbers in it? And, you know, one of the big criticisms of

this White Paper has been the fact that it doesn’t have any numbers in it and it’s leading

people to question whether you can pay for what you’re saying you’re going to do.

STEPHEN SMITH: Well let me give you, if you like, a snapshot of history. The 2000 White

Paper published by the Coalition had about four or five pages on budget and finance, it’s not

a budget document it’s a White Paper, and said that its ambition, its pledge, was 1.9 per cent

of GDP spending over the 2000s.

The 2009 White Paper, our White Paper, had about two or three pages on budget and

finance, it’s not a budget document. But set out what I describe as the budget rules, or the

budget approach to defence; a guaranteed share of Defence spending into the future and

ambition for two per cent. And that wasn’t met because of the global financial crisis.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: But multiple wrongs don’t make a right on this, and fiscal prudence is

a huge issue at the moment.

STEPHEN SMITH: Fine, that’s fine. But I’ve seen people say that because we haven’t met two

per cent of GDP it’s the worst day for Australian Defence since the fall of Saigon.

The 2000 White Paper by the Coalition Government said 1.9 per cent of GDP. We didn’t see

1.9 per cent of GDP from all of the year 2000 until now, that’s the first point

We haven’t had-

PETER VAN ONSELEN: But I think the difference is people would have looked at that in the

context of their budgets and said the funding’s definitely coming. Whereas people look at this

in the context of an eroding Budget, and wonder whether or not the two per cent’s going to

get hit.

STEPHEN SMITH: Firstly, both political parties now say - the Government and the Coalition

say that they have an aspiration for two per cent of GDP. That’s not the only measure, but

just to ensure and placate you that Defence funding is not in crisis, the 2000 White Paper by

the Liberal Government said we’ll have 1.9 per cent of GDP; that wasn’t met.

The 2000 White Paper from us said two per cent of GDP, that wasn’t met. We haven’t seen

two per cent of GDP since 1999, right? And there’s not been a crisis in defence spending.

Currently, if you look at the budgets and if you open up the Budget papers in a week or so

time, you’ll see defence spending in the order of between 1.55 and 1.6.

Now, I’d prefer it was higher, but we’re still able to do the things that we need to do to keep

the ADF capable, efficient and effective, and to do the objectives that - those four objectives

I outlined earlier, that Government needs and wants it to do.

DENNIS SHANAHAN: Minister accepting your point that it’s a White Paper and not a budget

paper. Still, it remains that your Secretary of Defence, while Secretary of Foreign Affairs,

made the point that Australia could not sustain a strategic outlook on Defence while its

budget was less than two per cent.

Now, that was his position going into it, the Coalition has indicated it wants to aspire to two

per cent, the White Paper contains an aspiration to two per cent. So clearly this Budget issue

of two per cent for defence funding is a legitimate strategic issue as well as a Budget issue,

and when can we expect to see some return to that level of strategic spending?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I think you’ve over-egged Dennis Richardson’s speech quite frankly-


STEPHEN SMITH: No, I think you’ve over-egged his speech. I’ve read that speech, he

committed himself to giving that speech when he was Secretary for Foreign Affairs-

DENNIS SHANAHAN: I made that point-

STEPHEN SMITH: -and he announced it when he’d been announced as Secretary of Defence.

But Dennis is-

DENNIS SHANAHAN: No there was a previous speech Minister where he gave that while he

was still the Secretary of Foreign Affairs, and he made the point it was not sustainable in the

long term for Australia to have less than two per cent.

STEPHEN SMITH: You’ve over-egged his speech firstly. Secondly, everyone is out there

saying we’d prefer to be spending closer to two per cent of GDP than 1.5 or 1.6. Australia,

under two successive Governments, the Howard Government from 2000 to December 2007,

and the current Government from December 2007 until now, we have not seen two per cent

of GDP spent on defence by either of those two Governments.

That’s called an outbreak of bi-partisanship in defence spending. It’s 50 per cent of time

each. They’ve out there with an aspiration which can’t be met in the short-term, and so are


In the meantime, when you are under financial pressure you have to make sure that the

things you can spend on are your priority areas. Since 2009 we’ve been spending over $100

billion over the four year forward estimate period in defence.

Irrespective of our difficulty in terms of short or medium or long-term fiscal difficulties, we

are still in the top 15 defence spenders in the world. We are still regarded as one of the most

capable and effective defence forces.

And so when you’re under pressure you’ve got to pick your priorities, and we pick our

priorities. Our core capability will continue; whether it’s electronic warfare capability Growler,

whether it’s the Joint Strike Fighters down the track, whether it’s Super-Hornets, whether it’s

continuing with our submarine program, whether it’s replenishing Army with a new fleet of

nearly 3,000 trucks, whether it’s making sure that our air combat capability continues to be

superior in our immediate region, whether it’s the transformation of our Navy with Landing

Helicopter Docks, Air Warfare Destroyers and a new submarine fleet in the decades ahead-

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Well can I ask you about that submarine fleet-

STEPHEN SMITH: Our core capability continues to be developed, and our capability and

capacity continues to be efficient, effective, and more than enough to give us the ongoing

superiority in our immediate region that we’ve always wanted to have.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Minister can I ask you about the submarines? Now it strikes me that

this is more - as I understand it both sides are supportive of this, but why build-

STEPHEN SMITH: I’m not sure about that-

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Okay, well let me ask this question; why build submarines in South

Australia for defence reasons only. We know that the Collins-class submarines, to put it

lightly, have had their problems. We’ve now got a situation where we’re going to rely on

them until their 50 year used by date, or at least from when they were first produced, and

we’re building them in South Australia which strikes me as a sock to the manufacturing

industry in a state that’s struggling rather than best decision making around best submarine

warfare practice.

STEPHEN SMITH: Well let’s go right back to basics. You either say that it’s important

strategically for Australia to have a fleet of submarines or you say we don’t need them. We’re

a maritime country, we’re a maritime continent, and our sea lines of communication - our

northern and western approaches, the Indonesian archipelago, the Indian Ocean which will

grow in importance, these are all absolutely essential strategic sea lines of communication.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: But I’m not questioning having subs, I’m questioning having subs that


STEPHEN SMITH: Well that’s good, I’m glad you’re not because some people are.

SID MAHER: Minister-

STEPHEN SMITH: Well I’ve been asked a question, let’s give us a go.

Some people, including the Shadow Minister for Defence, are out there saying he wouldn’t

touch the Collins-class with a barge poll. So does that mean if he became the Minister the

Collins-class would shut down, we wouldn’t continue to do the work that we’ve been doing

over the last two years to get them back into the water?

I’ve been out there saying when you get the Collins-class in the water it’s a very effective

capability and will continue to be a very effective capability. Tony Abbott said that the other

day as well, but his Shadow Defence Minister is out there saying he won’t touch them with a

barge poll.

Adelaide happens to be our submarine building, designing and maintaining centre, with some

work done in Western Australia where the subs themselves are based.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: But why not just buy proven submarines from our allies like the United


STEPHEN SMITH: Well because the United States runs a nuclear submarine fleet and if we

were to buy nuclear submarine fleets that would essentially mean outsourcing the entire

submarine fleet to a different nation, irrespective of whether it was our military ally.

But we have, in this White Paper, narrowed the options from four, which we had out there

previously, and off the shelf submarine, a modified off the shelf submarine, and evolution of

the Collins submarine, or a brand new design.

We’ve done an exhaustive assessment of off the shelf, and the problem we have is this. You

can’t find an off the shelf submarine which gives you the reach and the operational and

strategic distance to meet our strategic requirements. It’s all well and good to have a

European submarine which traverses the Baltic Sea or the North Atlantic; we have to have a

submarine which traverses our northern and western approaches, particularly as the Indian

Ocean grows in importance, has the capability of dealing with the strategic maritime

demands of an island continent, not a small country in Europe.

That’s why we’ve had to say we either evolve the Collins-class submarine or we have a brand

new design. Or you accept, you either don’t have submarines, which may or may not be the

Shadow Minister for Defence’s position, or you have a submarine which is inadequate for the

strategic purposes that we need.

SID MAHER: Minister-


SID MAHER: No. The problem with the Collins-class though is there was significant problems

in building and operating the Collins-class. What is to say that going down this path again

won’t produce the same problems?

STEPHEN SMITH: When I came to office as Defence Minister, a number of people said to me

Minister you must go right now to National Security Committee and Cabinet and start the

future submarines project. To which I said no; we’ve got six submarines, at this stage my

advice is that at any given day we either have zero or one or on a good day two able to go

into the water. The first thing we’re going to do is to get the Collins-class submarine fleet

back into a reasonable shape.

So I got UK experts to go through it with a fine tooth comb. The problem with the Collins-class submarine was from the first moment there was never a proper maintenance and

sustainment program.

Now, despite the fact that the Liberal Party would have you believe that the Collins-class

submarine problems only started in 2007, the first Collins-class submarine went into the

water in 1996. The last one, the sixth, went into the water in 2003. And we’ve had difficulties

with them from that moment, including 11 years of the Howard Government.

The truth is we’ve done more over the last two years to get the Collins-class maintenance

sustainment back under control and in a better shape than has been the case for a long time.

Currently we’ve got three available for operations and one actually on operations. That’s a

good thing, and so that - getting the subs in the water is improving.

Meanwhile, there are very significant lessons that we learnt from that which we can put into

the planning of the Future Submarine program, and that’s what we’re doing.

SID MAHER: And what about manning the submarines? Because for a long time we’ve only

been able to get a couple of submarines into the water because of manpower shortages.

STEPHEN SMITH: Well it’s a very good point, and the Chief of Navy has been doing a very

good job of building and growing the crewing availability for the Collins-class submarine. We

know that as we move from the Collins-class submarine to the Future Submarine program,

and we’re not talking months or years here, we’re talking decades, the Collins-class

submarine when it went into the water has an on-paper life of 28 years.

As part of work we’ve done on the Collins-class submarine we’ve done a life evaluation

program which says there’s no reason why we can’t get seven more years out of the Collins.

That takes you to an on-paper span of 2031 to 2038. And as we go with the future submarine

program, it won’t be for some period of time before welders start to hit sheets of metal and

the like, but there is a long period of time to do the planning, the development, and make

sure that as the new submarines go into the water there’s no gap in capability with the


We have learnt a considerable number of valuable lessons with our difficulties with the

Collins, and they’re feeding into the Future Submarine program. And the reason I have been

so meticulous, so careful, so making sure that we get the Future Submarine program right in

its planning stage is that all of the experience of difficult defence projects is the mistakes you

make early in the piece magnify exponentially when you go down the track.

So that’s why - yes we want to have a submarine fleet which matches our strategic

requirements and matches the operational requirements of an island continent. And you can’t

do that if you simply buy off the shelf from a European model.

SIMON BENSON: Minister can I just take you back to the broader questions of the paper; why

has the language about China, in this White Paper, been toned down significantly compared

to the 2009 White Paper? Is that a recognition that that was unnecessarily provocative?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well I conceded when I sort of spoke after the launch of the White Paper -

I’m probably in a minority of one here, I accept that. But I’ve always been of the view that

the Government’s articulation of our relationship with China, China’s emergence as a super

power, has been the same from day one.

But for whatever reason, the 2009 White Paper was interpreted in a particular way,

essentially as aimed at China. I don’t believe it was.

But in the course of-

SIMON BENSON: Well the Chinese said that at the time, didn’t they?

STEPHEN SMITH: The Chinese did say that at the time, and it’s always a relevant material

factor as to how other nations interpret what you do-

SIMON BENSON: Exactly, I guess my point is have you taken on board the Chinese concerns?

STEPHEN SMITH: I’ve conceded that I’m in a minority of one in terms of the interpretation of


SIMON BENSON: My point is that, conceding that the Chinese were I guess upset by that,

was it a deliberate effort on the part of the Government this time, and the authors of the

Defence White Paper, to make sure that you did not repeat that mistake?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well in the end the Government’s the author of the White Paper-

SIMON BENSON: Well I did say that, I said the Government and the authors of the White


STEPHEN SMITH: Well it’s the same thing.

SIMON BENSON: Sure, okay, right well we-

STEPHEN SMITH: And I am taking a bit of either credit or responsibility for-

PETER VAN ONSELEN: But I guess the main point in that Minister is did you decide to tone

down the rhetoric?

STEPHEN SMITH: Look, just because another nation reacts adversely to something you do or

say is not of itself a reason to change policy. What is our position on China, which has been

reflected I think very well in the White Paper, but also reflected in the National Security

Strategy earlier this year and the Asian Century White Paper at the end of last year.

And indeed Peter Jennings, who is a former Deputy Secretary of Defence involved in the ’09

White Paper, now with ASPI, said publicly after the White Paper that he though that the

strategic settings and the strategic commentary in the White Paper was pretty much perfect.

And I think that’s right.

But you get to the substance; what is our view of the rise of China. We want China to emerge

in a peaceful way, we want China to be a responsible stakeholder, we want China to abide by

international norms. We want China, most importantly, to have a positive relationship with

the United States, not just economically, and their economies are now inextricably

interwoven, but to grow their political, military, defence and strategic relationship. And that is

occurring, that’s a very good thing.

In our own case, I’ve never been of the school, and some commentators are, where we have

to choose between one or the other. It’s not a zero sum game, it’s win-win. And so, as China

rises that’s our approach.

At the same time we will see, not necessarily in the course of the time that the five of us are

doing these shows, but in future decades, we’ll also see the rise of India. And the United

States and China, and our region and the globe will have to accommodate and adjust to a

rising third power.

SIMON BENSON: That brings me to another point, and particularly NATO and the UK. We’ve

recently signed partnerships with them - new Defence ties with them. They’re way down the

list in this White Paper, but the UK and NATO have both expressed a view that they want far

more interoperability with us and far closer ties with us for this region.

Was it deliberate to I guess downplay those roles in the White Paper so as not to offend our


STEPHEN SMITH: Well I don’t think they’re downplayed, it’s part of our global reach. We’ve

been involved in Afghanistan - Iraq and Afghanistan for more than a decade.

SIMON BENSON: But it suggests that we’re going to retreat from that sort of global setting?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well we’re certainly, and I don’t use the word you’ve used, we’re certainly

transitioning or withdrawing from Afghanistan. But what we’ve learnt as a member of an over

50-strong international security assistance force where NATO is the key element with a

United Nations mandate.

Our time in Afghanistan has seen that we have more in common with NATO and its

constituent countries than just an operation in Afghanistan. There’s a lot that we share in

common in terms of values and virtues and a view of the world.

Now they’re in one part of the world, we’re in another. But their interests are also now

starting to look to our part of the world, to the Indo-Pacific. But just because the world is

moving in our direction doesn’t mean there aren’t going to be security or strategic issues in

NATO’s area of operation or in the Northern Hemisphere or indeed in the Middle East.

So, it’s not downplayed, on the contrary we have made it clear that we’ve got a strategic

partnership with NATO. We’re growing our relationships with a number of NATO countries,

not some of our traditional friends like the United Kingdom and Italy and France and

Germany, but a growing relationship for example with Spain, which is not just strategic but

also in terms of development of a maritime fleet and the like.

SID MAHER: Minister just on the priorities in the White Paper; I mean we’ve been doing a lot

of peacekeeping - Afghanistan. Is there enough strategic force protection in the White Paper

- would we have been better to be buying more C-17s or more helicopters rather than the

big ticket Growlers and F35s and submarines?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well the 2009 White Paper talks about growing the C-130 fleet. What I’ve

actually done is to double our C-17 fleet, that’s much more important. So we’ve got a very

effective and long-reach C-17 fleet now, which has transformed our capacity for humanitarian

assistance and disaster relief and logistics.

We’ve also got now our refuelers, our KC-30s, which you can add to our C-17s.

We believe that we’ve got the right mix for the priorities that we face. It was very important

in our view for us to continue with the acquisition of Super Hornets, and then to move to the

electronic warfare capability Growler. Otherwise there was a risk with further delays in the

Joint Strike Fighter project of there being a gap as our Classic Hornet fleet aged.

But we’re confident that we’ve got the right mix for all of the priority obligations that we

might have visited upon us into the future. Both the ones that we can see, but also the ones

that are out there that you don’t know about. For example, two years ago we would not have

been talking about Mali or Syria. 15 years ago we would not have been talking about

Afghanistan or Iraq; so we have to prepare for the unknown as well as plan for what we can


PETER VAN ONSELEN: Minister we’ve obviously been focusing on the Defence White Paper,

but you’re also a West Australian-

STEPHEN SMITH: I’m pleased about that.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Not any more though, last question. You’re also a West Australian

Member of Parliament, the Federal Government only hold three of 15 seats in WA. During the

state election where Mark McGowan was a popular figure personally, yet his opposition did

pretty badly at the polls in terms of the seat allocation, including a seat that had overlap with

your seat, the state seat of Perth which fell.

Now, my question at the back of all this is, during your commentary on the night I think you

describes the Gillard Government as being a bit of a drag on Mark McGowan’s efforts at that

campaign. Presumably, if it was a drag on the efforts of a campaign of somebody that’s not

even involved in the Gillard Government but just bares the same Labor brand, it’s going to be

one hell of a drag on the chances of the three MPs that are trying to compete at the next

election as part of the Gillard Government.

My question is simple, are you bracing for impact?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well I’ve always been confident that at the next election Labor would at

least hold the three seats it has in the west. So, in order of current sort of - down the

pendulum if you like, Perth which is six per cent, Freo which is four to five per cent, and

Brand which is three to four per cent.

More generally, I wouldn’t be making judgements about this election. People made the same

judgements about the 1993 election and were surprised in the last week.

Let me give you a secret of history. On the Sunday night of the last week of the 1993

campaign, Labor Party research in my seat of Federal Perth had it at 55-45, so 55-45 two

party preferred. There was only one problem, it was 55 to the Liberal Party. Six days later on

the Saturday it was 56-44 my way, because the whole campaign changed in the last week

when the community saw the whites of John Hewson’s eyes.

And I’ve been of the view that when the community in the end see the whites over a four

week campaign of Tony Abbott’s eyes-

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Is your point that you think you’re behind now but you’ll be in front by

the end of the election?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well all of the polls in the course of this year have had the Government in a

difficult political position. I don’t think that’s the secret, I think you’ve commented upon that

yourself on a regular basis.

So, don’t count out the Government. The Keating Government was counted out and people

were surprised and embarrassed as in political commentators.

So this thing will go down to the wire, first point. Secondly, in the west we’ve had difficulties,

there’s no point denying that. But in the 2010 election we were three to four points below the

Labor vote in the rest of the country. So we’re coming off a low bus. And before the state

election and after the state election I’ve been confident that the least we’ll do is to hold our

three seats.

When you transpose the state figures on the federal seats it’s not a perfect guide. Freo comes

in at 56, Brand comes in at 57-58, Perth comes in at 50-50. So we hold three seats. In my

seat of Perth there are two state seats which are wholly within Federal Perth. Labor held both

of those seats, and I’ve got three seats where they’re half in and half out, State Perth is one

of them, and two other seats. We did badly in those three states for particular state reason,

my own judgement is that those reasons won’t apply for the federal election. So I’m

confident that Labor will hold Perth just as I’m confident we’ll hold Freo and Brand.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: With an answer like that anyone would think you’re a former party

director for the Labor Party in WA with that kind of intimate knowledge.

STEPHEN SMITH: I do plead I tend to take a close personal interest in the constituency that

I’ve represented for 20 years, as well as the interests of my colleagues.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Fair enough. You’ve been very generous with your time, Defence

Minister Stephen Smith thanks very much for joining us on Australian Agenda.

STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks Peter, thanks very much.