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Transcript of interview with Karina Carvalho, ABC 24 News Breakfast: 10 October 2012: Peter Slipper; Afghanistan; NATO-ISAF meetings

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Minister for Defence - Interview with Karina Carvalho, ABC 24 News Breakfast

10 October 2012




TOPICS: Peter Slipper; Afghanistan; NATO-ISAF Meetings.

KARINA CARVALHO: Stephen Smith, thank you very much for your time. We’ll start with the Peter Slipper saga which is dominating coverage of the newspapers and all of the news last night. Was it a mistake for the Prime Minister and the Government to back Peter Slipper in yesterday’s vote?

STEPHEN SMITH: Obviously, as I think was said in the introduction, I’ve missed all of the Parliamentary events. I left Australia on Sunday, Afghanistan, seeing our troops on Monday and this morning and today, Tuesday, in Brussels.

Mr Slipper came to a conclusion that he wanted to put the office of Speaker on the Parliament ahead of the controversy that had surrounded the court case that he was involved in and the various text messages. The way these things unfold, I thought that was both a good and a sensible decision on his part. The Parliament will now rule a line under that and move on. People will make their own judgments. What people make of the Parliament yesterday will, again, be a matter for them. I missed it so I can’t give you a first hand, blow-by-blow description.

KARINA CARVALHO: That’s understandable, and we appreciate you answering these questions, but why did the Government continue to back Peter Slipper? And did it show poor judgment- given the sexist and vulgar remarks- when it was clear that his position had become untenable, with just a short time after that vote taking place he himself deciding to resign?

STEPHEN SMITH: I think there’s a range of things there. Firstly, I don’t think anyone was under any illusions that what Mr Slipper had transmitted via text message were, what I’ve seen from newspaper reports, were offensive and vulgar and any number of people from the Prime Minister

down have made that point clear. The strong point that the Leader of the House made in the course of parliamentary debate yesterday was twofold.

Firstly, a judge had these matters before him last week on Friday and had reserved decision on them so it was appropriate in those circumstances to give the court some opportunity of dealing with those matters but then the parliamentary motion- unprecedented- was moved without notice on the spot at the beginning of Question Time and any government would respond by supporting the Speaker against such a peremptory motion.

In the event, the Speaker came to his own conclusions so one has to respect parliamentary processes. What we saw with the motion at Question Time was unprecedented. One also has to respect court processes while at the same time making it clear that what Mr Slipper had done, and I’m very happy to be corrected on the facts of this, but I think some of the timelines for what Mr Slipper did by way of text messages occurred before he became Speaker and after he’d been endorsed by the Liberal or the Country Party or both on about eight or nine occasions. So one needs to keep all of these things, I think, in their context but the remarks were offensive and were widely condemned, as is appropriate.

KARINA CARVALHO: Okay, Minister, we’ll move on to your portfolio now. You’ve just made a visit to Afghanistan. You spoke to Australian troops there and they’ve resumed their partnering of Afghan forces after that spate of insider attacks which saw their partnering role suspended. What did the soldiers tell you about whether trust had been restored in that relationship with their Afghan counterparts?

STEPHEN SMITH: The Chief of the Defence Force and the Secretary of the Department and I found morale pretty high. We do believe we’re continuing to make progress on transitioning in Uruzgan to Afghan-led security responsibility.

We have gone through all of the ISAF, International Security Assistance Force requirements and we’ve now got authority to resume the partnering patrols and that commenced at the beginning of this week.

We’ve got four kandaks or battalions, infantry battalions, of the Afghan National Army 4th Brigade. We currently rate, or we’ve been until most recently, rating those as competent or ready with advisors but the first kandak this week we declared as being capable and ready for independent operation. So we’re seeing progress on the mentoring and training front and we’re seeing a steady path to transition where, both in Uruzgan and in

Afghanistan generally the Afghan National Army taking responsibility for security matters.

But the so-called insider attacks, or the green on blue, are very devastating, terrible and tragic circumstances, but our people have bounced back pretty quickly, and resuming those patrols and then seeing the first of the Afghan National Army kandaks or battalions in Uruzgan being able to conduct operations in their own right continues to see the progress being made.

KARINA CARVALHO: You’ve had a series of meetings in Brussels, NATO meetings. The International Crisis Group, the think tank that’s headquartered in Brussels, has just released a report, and it has some quite damning revelations in there, that seven per cent of the Afghan army and nine per cent of the national police force are considered incapable of independent action even with advisors. Will the Afghan army be ready to take control in 2014?

STEPHEN SMITH: That’s the advice we continue to get from our military advisors on the ground, both Australian advisors in Uruzgan, International Security Assistance Force advisors but also the Afghans themselves. So we’re confident that in Uruzgan we’re on track to effect that transition, and in Afghanistan generally, we think that Uruzgan broadly reflects that which is occurring in the rest of the country.

The focus of the International Crisis Group study, and I’ve seen a summary of it- I’ve not had the chance to read the whole report- deals more substantially with the other important transition that we see in 2014, which is an election for the next Afghan president. So part of the argument I’ve seen other people make about that report is to say as a consequence of that report that we should get out immediately. Well, if we were to get out immediately, we would fail in that transition process and make it more likely, increase the risks that international terrorist group - groups would return and get a foothold in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area, and we would see international terrorist strikes as a result of that. And bear in mind that this week we see the 10th anniversary of the Bali bombing, and that is the focus of our mission in Afghanistan, to prevent it again becoming a safe haven or a breeding ground for international terrorism.

KARINA CARVALHO: The report also talks about, on the military side, that the Afghan forces, most of them are illiterate at a higher rate than that in the general population, and that that can then in fact breed distrust- and

that they can’t actually follow orders and do simple things like fly helicopters so, as I go back to that point, by 2014, is the international community concerned that the Afghan army won’t be ready?

STEPHEN SMITH: Not every member of any armed forces, whether it’s Australia’s or the United Kingdom’s or United States’ is trained to fly a helicopter so I wouldn’t overstate that. I think there’s also, frankly, a lag effect here. The Afghan National Security Force is now between 300,000 and 350,000 members - Afghan National Army, Afghan national and local police - and part of the work that’s been done in the aftermath of the terrible so-called green on blue attacks has been to re-vet a whole range of entrants into the army, into the Afghan National Army, to take a much more forensic or testing view of those people who apply, to do re-vetting and the like. So we’re dealing here with a large national security force and we’ve had, terribly, a small number of so-called green on blue or insider incidences over the last two or three years, over the last year and a half some 50.

It’s a small number, a very small number, but the adverse consequences are great and that’s why we’ve taken a whole range of force protection and other measures to minimise the risk and minimise the damage but in Uruzgan, where I came from, I won’t put it so high as to say we were back to business as usual but substantial work was continuing to be done all through that very difficult period and, as you indicated earlier in the interview, we have resumed our partnering patrols with them and that’s obviously a very good thing.

KARINA CARVALHO: Stephen Smith, we appreciate you taking the time to speak to us from Brussels. Thank you.

STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks, Karina.