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Transcript of interview with David Speers: PM Agenda: 16 August 2012: Julian Assange; Nauru and PNG; Afghanistan transition

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Minister for Defence - Interview with David Speers, PM Agenda

16 August 2012



DATE: 16 August 2012

TOPICS: Julian Assange; Nauru and PNG; Afghanistan transition.

DAVID SPEERS: Also in Parliament the Defence Minister Stephen Smith has issued an update on

the situation in Afghanistan, as he does from time-to-time.

The Minister Stephen Smith joins me now.

Thank you for your time.

I’m going to get to Afghanistan in a moment. Can I just ask you though, firstly, on Julian

Assange. You’re a former Foreign Minister, a Cabinet Minister, you’re a lawyer, let me ask you this

simple question. Does Britain, in your view, have the authority to raid the embassy, the

Ecuadorian embassy, and take him?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I’m a former Foreign Minister and Bob Carr, the Foreign Minister, has told

the Senate today that this is a matter that, from Australia’s perspective, has to be left between

the United Kingdom and Ecuador.

And I’m sure the United Kingdom will abide by its obligations under the Vienna Convention and-

DAVID SPEERS: And what are those obligations? It is a pretty simple case of sovereign territory,

diplomatic ground, what can happen to an embassy.

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, whether it’s as a former Foreign Minister or as Defence Minister, it’s

generally unwise for Ministers of the Crown to give legal opinions about things which are occurring

thousands of miles away in a different country. But as a general proposition, the Ecuadorian

embassy in London is part of Ecuadorian territory, and so it has its status in that respect.

But these are matters which are now between Ecuador and the United Kingdom.

Julian Assange is an Australian citizen. And, as the Foreign Minister has made clear on a number

of occasions, he’s been provided and offered extensive consular advice. But this is now a matter

between those two Governments and ultimately a matter for the British courts and potentially the

courts of Sweden.

DAVID SPEERS: Let’s move on to asylum seekers. A C-130 is now on its way to Papua New

Guinea and Nauru carrying the reconnaissance team that will start the work on setting up some

temporary processing facilities.

Give us an idea of how many Defence personnel are initially involved in this.

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, the C-130 left Australia this morning. There are just over 30 Defence

personnel on board, and about 20 from other agencies. So that will mean that it will land in Port

Moresby this evening some time between six and seven. And then tomorrow we’ll see the

separate reconnaissance teams go to Manus Island and to Nauru.

There will be 15 Defence officials in each of those reconnaissance teams and they’ll be

complemented by up to 10 other officials because these reconnaissance teams are not just

Defence, they’re whole of Government, with Foreign Affairs and Trade officials and the like.

So they’ll start their work tomorrow. We expect it will take three or four days to complete that

reconnaissance to then put us in a good position to make judgements about, in the first instance,

establishing a temporary facility but then moving to more permanent arrangements down the


DAVID SPEERS: You’ve said that Navy won’t have a role, except in exceptional circumstances,

transporting asylum seekers to Nauru and Manus Island. What happens though if they are on a

Navy patrol boat and they refuse to disembark because they don’t want to go to Nauru or Manus

Island? What happens then? Are they forced off?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, just as a general proposition, in terms of transporting people to Nauru or

Manus Island once those processing facilities are established, the basis on which those matters

will proceed and this has been obviously the subject of discussion between me and the

Immigration Minister - is that people will be transported to Nauru or Manus Island by the

Department of Immigration and not by Defence. We don’t regard it as appropriate for Defence to

engage in that exercise, whether it’s by sea or by air.

As a general proposition we know of course that from time-to-time Navy is called upon to do work

in this area and that often arises in a search and rescue exercise where Navy personnel put

themselves at risk. But refugee or asylum seekers are, like everyone else, required to conduct

themselves in a lawful manner and obey lawful-

DAVID SPEERS: But we’ve seen overnight-

STEPHEN SMITH: -and obey lawful instructions.

DAVID SPEERS: That doesn’t always happen. We’ve seen a case overnight of these asylum

seekers who behaved aggressively and the ship had to - this is a merchant ship, had to turn to

Christmas Island.

So what will Defence do in this situation? Do you force them off the patrol boat if they don’t want

to get off?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, there’s no point dealing with hypothetical situations. Firstly, it won’t be

Defence officials who will be transporting asylum seekers or refugee applicants to Nauru or Manus.

It will be-

DAVID SPEERS: No, but transporting them to Christmas Island, potentially. What happens if they

don’t get off the vessel?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, refugee applicants or asylum seekers are regularly transported by Navy

personnel to Christmas Island on a regular basis.

DAVID SPEERS: But the game has changed now. They now face being flown or sailed off to Nauru

and Manus Island.

STEPHEN SMITH: Yeah, but not by Defence officials. I’ve made that point about three or four


DAVID SPEERS: No, no, exactly, but by someone, by Immigration as you pointed out. So if they

don’t get off the Navy patrol boat because they’re worried about going to Nauru to Manus Island,

what happens?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, they’ll be required, like anyone else, to conduct themselves in a lawful

manner. And Australian officials from whichever part or government agency they come from, will

also conduct themselves in a lawful manner.

DAVID SPEERS: All right, let me ask you about Afghanistan. The update you gave today indicated

things are on track for the handover to local security control.

Can you give us a sense, Minister, of what the capacity is now of the Afghan National Army? Are

they carrying out patrols, organising their patrols on their own?

STEPHEN SMITH: They are doing patrols by themselves and the percentage of patrols that they do

by themselves and the percentage of partnered patrols where they do that with us has increased,

steadily increased over a period.

So the formal start to transition occurred in the middle of July, on 17 July, and that reflects the

fact that we’ve done well in terms of giving the Fourth Brigade of the Afghan National Army the

capacity to take responsibility.

So whether it is partnered patrols, whether it is ANA - Afghan National Army - or Afghan National

Security Forces independently patrolling, or whether it is the responsibility that the Afghan

National Security Services, whether it’s Army or Police, take for manning in a partnered way or in

an individual way the forward patrol bases, that has been steadily improving and increasing over

the recent period and that’s why we came to the conclusion that Uruzgan was ready for transition.

And we expect that process to be complete over the next 12 to 18 months.

DAVID SPEERS: Defence Minister Stephen Smith I know you’ve got to go and grab a plane and

get out of Canberra. Thanks very much for joining us this afternoon.

STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks David. Thanks very much.