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Transcript of interview with Kieran Gilbert, Sky PM Agenda: 13 November 2012: AUSMIN; Petraeus resignation; US election; Secretary Clinton

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Minister for Defence - Interview with Kieran Gilbert, Sky PM Agenda

13 November 2012



DATE: 13 November 2012

TOPICS: AUSMIN; Petraeus resignation; US election; Secretary Clinton

KIERAN GILBERT: Defence Minister Stephen Smith, thanks for your time. First of all, can I ask you in general terms, what do you hope comes out of these AUSMIN talks?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, it’ll be another reaffirmation of the very close Alliance that we have with the United States. This is the formal ministerial consultations that we do each year. We’ll cover the range of global and regional security issues, but from a selfish point of view as Member for Perth, as a Western Australian, it’s also a great opportunity to showcase Perth and Western Australia not just to Secretary Clinton, but also Defense Secretary Panetta. But that’ll also expose the modern Perth, the modern Western Australia to a range of people in the United States, and that’s a good thing.

KIERAN GILBERT: There are reports that the AUSMIN talks will agree to an even closer strategic partnership in the Indian Ocean. Will that see any change to that - to the announcements President Obama made last year in his pivot to Asia?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I’ve seen that reference in one of the newspaper reports today. People should not get ahead of themselves. We need to take this step by step. One of the reasons that we’re meeting in Perth is not just because I asked Secretary Clinton if she’d come to Perth, but because Perth has HMAS Stirling, our Indian Ocean port, and as India rises, as the importance of the Indian Ocean rises, as the importance of the Indian Ocean rim rises, then HMAS Stirling will become strategically more important, so one of the things we will discuss - and it’s the start of a discussion not the end of a discussion- is the extent to which down the track we may be able to see greater US naval access to our Indian Ocean port, HMAS Stirling, just south of Fremantle. But we’re taking that step by step, as we are all of the other aspects of the so-called United States

Global Force Posture Review with Marines rotating through Darwin, and also the prospect of greater US aviation or aerial access to our Northern Territory airfields.

KIERAN GILBERT: Minister, when you say we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves on that progression - access to HMAS Stirling, greater access to US warplanes, and so on, is that partly to try and not alienate China?

STEPHEN SMITH: No, what we’re doing with the United States is not aimed at China or any particular country. The United States’ presence in the Asia-Pacific has been a force for stability and investment and prosperity since the end of World War II, so what we’re doing is enhancing our practical cooperation. And already, that’s had good regional impacts, because with the rotation of a small number of Marines through Darwin, we’ve already agreed with the President of Indonesia that we’ll have a regional exercise, Australia, the United States, and Indonesia on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. So there are very good regional implications and impacts for what we’re doing. But when I say we’re taking it step by step, we are following absolutely precisely what I said and the Prime Minister said we would do when we announced these initiatives when President Obama was here in November.

Our first priority has been the rotation of Marines through Darwin. We’ve had the first year of 200-250 Marines. That will grow over a period of five or six years to 2500. And we’re going to have a conversation about enhanced aerial and naval access. But we haven’t come to any conclusions on those fronts. And that’s precisely consistent with what we said when President Obama was here.

KIERAN GILBERT: You’ve said that - well you’ve played down concerns, US concerns about Australia’s military budget. But there’ve been a number of reports now - Kurt Campbell, the senior representative of the US administration in this region, the US leadership dialogue mid-year, concerns out of that as well about the cuts. Would you look to try and at least placate Secretary of State Clinton and Secretary of Defense Panetta that any concerns are misplaced?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well if we have a conversation about defence funding and defence expenditure, I’m sure it would be precisely along the same lines that I’ve had conversations with Secretary Panetta both before our budget and after our budget, which is we’re all facing difficult

circumstances. The United States is taking half a trillion dollars out off its defence budget over the next 10 years. So we’re all facing these difficulties, and so far as our restraint and difficulties are concerned, we’re protecting our overseas operations, we’re making sure that there’s no adverse impact on what we do with the United States, and we’re protecting our core capabilities.

Indeed since the budget we’ve announced the acquisition of the air warfare capability Growler, which is the most significant Air Force force projection capability we’ve picked up since the F-111. And the Opposition, the Liberal Party, were critical of that. Ambassador Beazley tells me that when he got off the plane his conversation with Kurt Campbell [indistinct] was that Kurt Campbell was feeling very aggrieved that he had been very badly misrepresented and misconstrued in his comments. So the assertion that somehow there’s a conversation here about Australian defence cuts is, as I said on the weekend, is just a nonsense. We’re going through the same difficulties that the United States, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Canada and comparable countries are going through.

KIERAN GILBERT: Just on a couple of other related issues if I can, Minister. I want to ask you about the David Petraeus controversy in the US, that the CIA chief has had to resign from the post amid scandal. How much of a loss is that to the US national security establishment?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well we obviously worked very closely with General Petraeus both in his position as Commander ISAF in Afghanistan, we knew him well, and therefore we were working closely with him as Director of the CIA. The loss of any significant personality is a loss, but the Acting Director of the CIA is also well known to us, so we will continue to work very closely with the American agencies and the American administration irrespective of changes in personality. We have well developed extensive relations and knowledge of their senior officials, so whilst his loss is obviously regrettable, so far as we’re concerned our relationship with the CIA as one of the agencies we deal with will continue in a positive and productive manner.

KIERAN GILBERT: Did the US election result, with no change in the White House, does it make the ongoing strategic direction of the US alliance more certain? You don’t have to adapt or shift to accommodate a new presidency or a new administration?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well obviously any Australian Government deals with the administration which the United States electoral process delivers. So in our case, in my case we’ve dealt with Republic administrations and now the Obama administration, and so we deal with whichever administration emerges from that process. But if you like, from a selfish Australian point of view the fact that there’s continuity, continuity in the President, continuity in his administration does make life easier from our perspective because you don’t have to go through the quarter of a year or half a year where you’re meeting new officials, engaging and continuing to have the discussions that you do. So from that perspective continuity’s a good thing, but we deal with whoever the administration appoints to a particular position and we deal with whichever administration the US electoral process delivers.

KIERAN GILBERT: Minister, one final question. I know you’ve got to get going, but Secretary of State Clinton- this is her last AUSMIN, what do you make of the prospect of Hillary Clinton run for the Presidency in four years?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well that’s entirely a matter for her. I’ve seen the speculation, she’s obviously been a first class Secretary of State, her first trip was to our region; to Japan and China. She made it clear that engaging with the Asia Pacific, engaging in the Indian Ocean rim was very important, and she’s left a very significant mark. She’s a significant United States figure. What she does in the future is of course a matter for her, but I think all Australians would wish her well, she’s made a substantial and significant contribution and we wish her all the best for the future.

KIERAN GILBERT: Defence Minister Smith joining me from Perth. Thanks very much.

STPEHN SMITH: Thanks Kieran. Thanks very much.