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Transcript of interview with Lyndal Curtis : ABC News 24: 25 September 2012: The Coalition's plan for Defence

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Transcript - ABC News 24 with Lyndal Curtis September 25, 2012

RE: The Coalition’s plan for Defence.

Lyndal Curtis: David Johnston welcome to ABC News 24

David Johnston: Thank you Lyndal.

Lyndal Curtis: Tony Abbott said this morning “it is what the spending delivers rather than the spending itself that really

counts”. If that is the case then why are you prepared to guarantee real spending growth in the defence budget of 3%

if you don’t know what that spending will be for.

David Johnston: Well you see Lyndal we did know what it was for because we agreed in 2009 to one of the most

comprehensive white papers ever produced by an Australian government. It had 3% real growth indexed at 2.5%, it

had a strategic reform program and it had a defence capability plan that was mapped out. The only problem was its

author never supported it. We want to go back to that because we believe that that document with all of the tens of

millions of dollars that was spent on it was right and was a natural continuation of what the Howard Government was

doing in defence.

Lyndal Curtis: But this is a commitment that doesn’t have a time frame yet does it? Tony Abbott says it is an

aspiration, is it something you would deliver in the first term?

David Johnston: Well Lyndal the reason for that is very, very simple. One of the best commentators in this area, the

Australian Strategic Policy Institute - which is utterly objective - has said that defence finances are an unsustainable

mess. Now for us to be inheriting an unsustainable mess with funding as a share of GDP taking us back in 2013/14 to

1937 levels we really don’t want to be doing what the Labor party is doing and that is looking down the barrel of a

camera and telling lies.

Lyndal Curtis: So it may be something that will wait for a second coalition term?

David Johnston: Look we stand on our record. I think we can restructure defence very quickly. We are about under-promising and over-delivering, that is the perspective we bring to the game. With good governance and a plan that

will be costed; when was the last time Labor put a fully costed plan on the table? The 2009 White Paper appeared to

be costed; they never supported it for one minute. This is just an insult to your intelligence.

Lyndal Curtis: You are also prepared to wait to make decisions on building new submarines in Adelaide and also on

acquiring the Joint Strike Fighters. You won’t make those decisions until half-way through your first term if you are

elected at the next election. Are they aspirations too?

David Johnston: We think the Joint Strike Fighter is a really fine aircraft and regionally dominant. Just like the F-111

in the ‘60s and ‘70s everybody said it was no good and yet when it came to retiring it everybody said ‘please keep it

going until 2020’.

Lyndal Curtis: So why wait 18 months to make that decision?

David Johnston: The Joint Strike Fighter is a very complex platform - we have bought two of them. We need to buy

the other 12 of the first tranche of 14, we need to make sure the money is available for that and we are dedicated to

that aircraft - indeed it was our idea to get on board back in about 2003 - we think it is just exactly what air combat

capability for Australia’s defence needs. There is a whole host of other important platforms but we really have to see

how black the black hole is before we can really get on with the job of doing things in a transparent, funded and

disciplined way.

Lyndal Curtis: You are also going to have a defence white paper if you win. The next white paper is due next year,

then presumably if you are elected you will have one in 2015. Does it risk making it a political document, because

presumably in two years not that much would have changed in the strategic space and Defence’s priorities won’t

have changed.

David Johnston: Well Lyndal these guys have disclosed disdain for defence and defence personnel. They promised

the sun and the moon in 2009 then did not deliver.

Lyndal Curtis: But they promised what defence wanted and advice from strategic experts - presumably that will inform

the base of the next defence white paper - so why do a whole new defence white paper two years later?

David Johnston: For the simple reason Lyndal that they are not believable in anything they do. They will never put the

funding on the table. I mean this is a government that promised a deficit of 22 billion dollars and then delivers a 42

billion deficit and says “look at what a good job we have done”.

Lyndal Curtis: Then why not look at the defence white paper to be released next year and say you can properly fund


David Johnston: Because they are not believable; they are not credible. Nobody in defence, no commentator in

defence, is saying that this government has the capacity and the discipline to commit to a proper plan. We are not

going to risk Australia’s defence on a failed group of politicians - I mean last year they handed back $1.5 billion - this

is just a running joke of public policy. They treat defence like an ATM. Every time the numbers don’t add up they

simply reach in - and MYEFO is going to take a billion dollars off defence mark my words - that is what they are

going to do.

Lyndal Curtis: One of the commitments your leader actually made - the same as in the 2010 election - is acquiring a

number of unmanned aerial aircraft (the Global Hawk). In the election you said you would acquire three, how many

are you considering now?

David Johnston: The capability plan sets out seven, to the best of my recollection. Now Guam is going to (in 2015)

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platform. We want to carry our share of responsibility in our region to put that air craft in the air for our maritime

environment. So Christmas Island, Cocos Island, Macquarie and Herd Island, we should be able to have some real

time surveillance to the mainland using that platform in late 2015.

Lyndal Curtis: So how many and at what cost?

David Johnston: Seven. I think the cost is somewhere around $1.5 billion, those costs are very difficult to work out as

the government wasted $100 million and pulled us out of the program in 2009. We have to work out and negotiate

and have a process whereby we look at the cost but if we really need the platform - and I believe we do given what

has happen with the crisis and fiasco of border protection at the moment - we want to go ahead as soon as we

possibly can and bolt onto the American Global Hawk structure that they are establishing in Guam.

Lyndal Curtis: Finally is it your position that Defence should be able to get everything it asks for?

David Johnston: Definitely not. Force protection is our first priority, broad area surveillance of our environment is a

second priority and there are a whole host of other important priorities. Defence isn’t going to get everything it wants,

it is not a bottomless pit and it is not a magic pudding. We are going to run it in a way that firstly gives our men and

women in uniform some confidence that we actually support them, we actually admire them and we want to stand by

them and give them a fair go.

Lyndal Curtis: And does Defence have to step up to the plate - there has been some work done in tackling problems

in defence acquisitions in the past including things under the Howard government like the Sea Sprite program - does

Defence have to step up to the mark and make sure that in acquiring major platforms it does that responsibly and

within budget?

David Johnston: Well I think you start by having a minister that shows a bit of interest in these things and can I tell

you that Defence is going to have to step up to the plate and carry some responsibility and most importantly carry

some accountability. I think we can do that but I think it starts at the top; the minister has to show some interest.

Lyndal Curtis: David Johnston thank you very much for your time.

David Johnston: Thank you Lyndal.

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