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Transcript of interview with Peter van Onselen: Showdown, Sky News: 15 May 2012: Defence budget matters



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Interview with Peter van Onselen, Showdown, Sky News - Defence budget matters May 15, 2012

SUBJECT: Budget cuts in Defence, Afghanistan

VAN ONSELEN: David Johnston thanks very much for joining us on Showdown.

JOHNSTON: Good evening Peter

VAN ONSELEN: I was just talking to Stephen Smith and obviously the Budget has had massive cuts to Defence -$5.5 billion over the forward estimates, what is the Opposition’s response to that?

JOHNSTON: Well we think that given we had a White Paper that set out a detailed and proper plan for Defence

funding and Defence acquisitions, this Minister and this Government have simply trashed the Defence portfolio -

treated it like an ATM, so that Wayne Swan can have a Budget surplus.

VAN ONSELEN: The argument though coming from the Government that in the scheme of a large budget of the size

of the Defence force, that while the numbers appear large, in isolation, in the context of the overall budget, it’s not

nearly as big a cut as some commentators are saying, how do you respond to that?

JOHNSTON: Well what else could they say? They have taken $17 billion out of Defence in little over four years, I

mean this government has got no idea about defence, the plan was 3 per cent per annum, indexed to 2.5 per cent, a

Strategic Reform Program delivering $20 billion over ten years, with savings to be reinvested into capability, and a

Defence Capability Plan.

All of this has just gone because these guys can’t get their numbers right. It is an absolute disgrace that Defence has

to carry the burden that they do. Stephen Smith, who is a Minister that cannot be believed, has stumped up all of this

money from the Defence portfolio because it is a big portfolio - it doesn’t wash with me.

VAN ONSELEN: So does that mean that the Opposition is committed in Government to increased Defence spending?

JOHNSTON: We committed in Government to increasing defence spending, and our record was crystal clear. In the

White Paper, on a bipartisan basis, we committed to what the Government itself proposed, now they have just quite

fraudulently walked away from the plan. We want to stick to it, but the point is this, three consecutive massive deficit

budgets mean that by the time we get there we will have no idea how badly and deeply we will be in debt.

I want to get the Defence portfolio back on the rails properly, with a detailed, funded, costed White Paper that is

affordable and feasible; these guys are simply not interested.

VAN ONSELEN: But where does that leave us though, if I can ask you, is that a commitment that we are going to

see an Opposition pumping at least a few billion extra into the forward estimates if you get into Government say this

time next year, or is that an answer that is implying the budget bottom line is so bad we are going to be stuck with

status quo funding for the foreseeable future why you try to work out where you can get the funds?

JOHNSTON: Obviously we have to work out where we get the funds, the funds are simply not going to be there. Ask

Stephen Smith why, with four days to go before the Budget, go to Defence and say give me $5 billion? I mean no

portfolio can tolerate that. Now we will rebuild Defence, that’s our policy perspective, we will rebuild the defence

capability plan, we will have costed, feasible plans according to the way the economy is functioning and running in

terms of growth, in terms of inflation, all of those important factors, but we will not promise things that we will

deliberately not deliver.

We won’t treat service men and women with contempt, which is what this Minister has done.

VAN ONSELEN: So I understand you have to get your heads around the figures when in Government, that said,

what are the priorities in terms of the aspects of defence spending in your view, are we talking about speeding up the

submarines for example, or are we talking about the strike force jets (sic) what are the areas specifically are you

going to make your first priority to, as you say, get defence back on track?

JOHNSTON: The first priority is always force protection. Given that we are in combat and will be in combat for

sometime in Afghanistan, the number one priority is always force protection. So ISR platforms, combat uniforms,

armoured vehicles, Bushmaster, things that protect our men and women who are in harms way is the number one

priority.

The second thing is submarines. Currently the Collins Class is running at just under $1 billion a year. That’s the cost

of ownership. Now what we are getting back for that $1 billion is something less than one. It’s a massive problem, we

need to do more than talk about it. We need to do more than have phoney launches of 12 submarines, for the second

time around. We need to put some money on the table and actually get this show on the road. That’s what this

Government has not done.

With respect to the Joint Strike Fighter, for the Minister to say that because the Americans have deferred it for two

years, we can afford to do the same, is the most laughable and dangerous thing I’ve ever heard. The Americans have

over 2,000 air combat capable aircraft including 190 F-22’s, to compare us with them is nothing short of a dangerous

joke. Now we would do things sensibly, properly and affordably.

VAN ONSELEN: But that said though Mr Johnston there’s not a lot of meat on the bones there, I mean for example,

in the submarine space, what are we talking about there exactly, are you going to proceed with the idea of building

the 12 new subs and if so do it at a faster pace that what the Government is proposing now under a new budget

framework, or are you going to look at an entirely new approach?

JOHNSTON: Peter it wouldn’t be hard to do things faster than the Government, they announced it in 2009 and then

just walked away from it and they have done nothing. So now we have $200 million on the table to ‘have a plan’ and

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When we release a plan to have submarines, as we will, it will be costed down to the dollar, there will be time

thresholds for the acquisition of the capability, the capability will be set out in clear terms, with an operational concept

document at the beginning. Were now saying anything between now and the election because we have no idea how

big this deficit is going to be and can I tell you this surplus budget is going to deliver a deficit something north of $20

billion. No risk.

VAN ONSELEN: Well I hope you are right on that one because I’ve promised to shave my head if they get to surplus

this time next year.

JOHNSTON: You and I both know that it is an absolute laughable prediction for these guys to run a surplus. They

never have and never will.

VAN ONSELEN: Just finally Mr Johnston can I ask you a question about Afghanistan, the same question I put to

Stephen Smith, are you comfortable with the drawdown in troops that is proceeding now, that the Afghan forces are

going to be in a position that they can really take up the slack that is being left by the foreign departure of troops?

JOHNSTON: I have enormous faith in General David Hurley, and enormous faith in the Secretary, and I believe if

they say that the time is right to draw down our troops, and that the Afghan National Army can pick up the slack, and

be reliable and functional and capable, then I am prepared to go with that. Now I trust those men, I think we’ve spent

far too much in lives, wounded men, commitment, blood and treasure, for them to get it wrong. When they say the

time is right, that’s when the time will be right.

VAN ONSELEN: Alright, we’ll let you go, David Johnston, thanks very much for joining us on Showdown.

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