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Transcript of interview with Kieran Gilbert: PM Agenda, Sky News: 23 October 2012: Afghanistan; US Presidential Election; Tony Abbott

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

23 October 2012




TOPICS: Afghanistan; US Presidential Election; Tony Abbott.

KIERAN GILBERT: With me now, the Defence Minister, Stephen Smith. Minister, thanks for your time. Defence has confirmed the name of the 39th Australian killed in Afghanistan, it was Corporal Scott James Smith.

STEPHEN SMITH: It was a terrible tragedy for his partner, his parents and his sister, and the loss will reverberate, so our condolences of course go to the family who’ve now made the decision to allow these details to be made public. So he was a Corporal with the Special Forces Combat Engineers. Grew up in the Barossa Valley, but more recently based in Holsworthy, just outside of Sydney.

KIERAN GILBERT: And should we be bracing for more casualties during this transition period?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well the Prime Minister and I have always that despite the fact we believe we’re making progress in terms of transitioning to Afghan-led security responsibility, it continues to be difficult, it continues to be dangerous. The threat from roadside bombs - IEDs are ever present, so yes we have to continue to steel ourselves in the knowledge that there are ongoing risks for fatalities and casualties.

KIERAN GILBERT: There are some suggestions and reports that all four Kandaks of the Afghan Army could transition to - well away from these partnered patrols by the end of the year. Is that possible?

STEPHEN SMITH: Yes, well when the Chief of the Defence Force and I were recently in Tarin Kot in Uruzgan Province, it coincided with the first of the four infantry Kandaks or battalions being accorded the status of independent operations, so they’re know doing precisely that. And there’s a chance that by the end of the year, the other three will also go from being able to operate with assistance to operate independently, and that will see them take responsibility for the patrols.

We will of course continue to provide assistance, back-of-house advice and support, but also importantly, continue to be combat-ready. So if there is a need, we will engage in combat. But they will take that load and we will essentially return to the multi-national base we have in Tarin Kot, our main base.

KIERAN GILBERT: Okay, onto the Presidential debate - the foreign policy debate, not much mention of the Asia Pacific at all. Are you concerned that if there is a change of Administration that the Obama pivot to Asia might not stick under a Republican Administration?

STEPHEN SMITH: No. We of course deal with whichever Administration the American people elect to office.

In our time we’ve dealt professionally and well with both a Republican and a Democrat Administrations so everyone appreciates that the world is moving in our direction; the rise of China, the rise of India, the rise of the ASEAN economies combined, the strength of Japan, the Republic of Korea - so a change of Administration doesn’t change that. So we will work in the same practical way with whoever wins the election and whichever administration is formed.

KIERAN GILBERT: And Leon Panetta, the Defence Secretary, you spoke to him today, what was the nature of that conversation?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well he rang me earlier today just out of courtesy to express his condolences to me and to the Australian people about our most recent loss, our loss of Corporal Smith.

Leon Panetta knows we’ve gone through a tough time. He just wanted to relay to me and to the Australian people his thoughts and his prayers, as he put it to me. So it’s a nice gesture, because he knows with - particularly with the green on blue incidents have been through a tough time.

KIERAN GILBERT: Okay. Only a couple of minutes left on the program. I do want to turn away from your portfolio and look at some politics at home.

Tony Abbott, well, he makes some comments today suggesting that the Government, if it had more experience in having children, that it wouldn’t make glib remarks like Wayne Swan has said that after the first child you don’t need to buy the cot, and so on. That was what he was referring to.

He went on to say later in the day that he thinks a lot of people are very ready to read far too much into entirely innocent comments, and this was as innocent as a comment can be, Mr Abbott said.

STEPHEN SMITH: Well I’ve always said that as we get closer to the next election in about 12 months time, the community will focus on the comparison between the two parties and the two leaders. And Mr Abbott’s judgment will be in my view called into question. Given all of the events of recent times I would have thought frankly that blind Freddy could have told you the way in which that comment would have been interpreted.

We’ve seen a sort of a half begrudging apology from Mr Abbott. In the end the Australian community will just make a view about his judgment, not just in terms of dealing with sensitive issues, but also his capacity for the big economic and national security judgements.

KIERAN GILBERT: Do you think though that people think that all of this stuff was just too much navel gazing, as Barnaby Joyce said earlier on this program in fact?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well there’s a lot of - as some people say - there’s a lot of noise that goes around, a lot of colour and movement. In the end the Australian public don’t miss much; In the end they don’t miss much. They get, long after you and I have dealt with the issues of the day, after a period of time they get the substance of it. They get the way in which it’s fallen. And they make judgements about that. And they’ll make, in due course, their own judgement about Mr Abbott, and I’ve always been of the view that in that respect he will be found wanting.

KIERAN GILBERT: Okay. Defence Minister Stephen Smith, I appreciate your time today, thanks very much.