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Transcript of interview with Greg Jennett: ABC 24 Capital Hill: 3 September 2015: Government's possible announcement on Syria; Defence spending; Australian shipyards; ChAFTA

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SUBJECT/S: Government’s possible announcement on Syria; Defence spending; Australian shipyards; ChAFTA   HOST, GREG JENNETT: David Feeney lets pick up with the rebalance or pivot as David Petreaus has explained, and he is saying that both the Middle East and the Asia Pacific will occupy Defence attention for quite some time. How long do you think the implications of that sort of strategic outlook are for Australia’s military engagement in the Middle East?

SHADOW ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR DEFENCE, DAVID FEENEY: I think the point that General Petreaus was trying to make was that while the Asia Pacific is obviously going to become the centre of economic gravity in a global sense - and it is a proper focus of the United States - that focus should not detract from other areas of the US activity, and the point he was particularly making was that poor messaging at the time of the rebalance meant that long standing US allies in the Middle East and indeed in Europe became anxious that the US attention was going elsewhere to their detriment.

JENNETT: If this became the strategic outlook of the US as a settled position for the next few decades are implications for other allies too, including Australia, does it not imply that we’d perhaps be asked a long, longer haul commitment in the Middle East too?

FEENEY: Yes, but I don’t see that as being a dramatic change from our present course. Our present course is that the modernisation of the Australian Defence

Force is as happening with a view to those forces being positioned to undertake operations in our region. That by definition then means you create capabilities that can be sent on international missions further afield without costing or changing the posture of Australian forces in our own region. The US focus in the Asia Pacific - its focus on its alliances with long standing allies like Japan and South Korea and indeed newer relationships with countries like Vietnam and Indonesia - those things don’t detract from the US posture right around the world.

JENNETT: Australia’s on the brink of making another decision about another expanded mission role which is bombing in Syria - as you contemplate a Labor Party position on this - do you have a time estimate of what success might look like and how long it might take for that to be achieved in Iraq or Syria, or both?

FEENEY: Those are the critical questions the Prime Minister needs to address, and as far as I comprehend it the proposal is that the area of activities that Australian force be engaged in be expanded from Iraq to Syria, but the number of forces Australia has deployed to the region won’t change. If that is the case than I think what we would be looking for is; for the Prime Minister to come into the Parliament and explain to the Parliament and indeed the people of Australia what is exactly the mission and how is it conforming to international law because you don’t need me to tell you that Syria is an infinitely more complex equation than Iraq; both in terms of international law, but also in terms of the fighting that is happening on the ground. What we would find ourselves in in Syria is a multi-sided civil war, and a multi-sided civil war where we were striking against ISIS but we weren’t working in conjunction with any of the parties on the ground.

JENNETT: So you want to put some limit around this, where it is not seen to support the Assad Regime - is that the idea?

FEENEY: That is the question the Prime Minister needs to address himself to - do our operations benefit any of the other parties on the ground; and that could be Al-Qaeda, it could be the Kurds in the northern part of Syria, it could be any number of militias, it could be President Assad. The Prime Minister needs to explain to Australians how it is that Australian forces being involved in those Syrian operations shape that conflict for the better because we know that the United States, Iran, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar - there are a range of actors involved in that fight.

JENNETT: As you say these are decisions for an incumbent Government and the Prime Minister to make but it is the nature of these things isn’t it if Labor’s in power in 12 months - and the polls suggest it could be - this needs to be something you would be prepared to persist with; would you own it too?

FEENEY: We are getting ahead of ourselves, I mean ideally what we would find ourselves in is a position where our national strategy, conforming to a coalition strategy, was adopted and both sides of politics understood what was being

undertaken, why, how and for how long. My point is we don’t have clear answers to any of those questions right now and I am saying it is perfectly reasonable - indeed it is almost a requirement - that the Prime Minister has to come forward and answer those questions. If Australian’s are going to be committed to a new conflict, if the operations in that region are to be expanded than all of us are entitled to say why and for how long, and to what effect.

JENNETT: Alright, that is probably a conversation we will be having again next week. Now moving to other matters. Defence and Government spending proved to be fairly important in the underpinning of what was weak growth in the national accounts yesterday, what is Labor’s timeline for driving Defence spending up, is it a target of two per cent of GDP?

FEENEY: Yes, in fact Bill shorten gave a national security speech very recently at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute where he reaffirmed that Labor’s position is to build Defence spending towards two per cent of GDP -

JENNETT: By when?

FEENEY: When financially responsible to do so.

JENNETT: When might that be?

FEENEY: And he also said that he would be very keen to see the Abbott Government in its Defence White Paper which is due- well the most recent timetable is October - that his challenge to Tony Abbott was to offer a plausible pathway to two per cent in that document that both sides of politics could get behind. What the Abbott Government has talked about, at least in its rhetoric, is that it will try and achieve that two per cent by 2023-24.

JENNETT: Are you comfortable with that?

FEENEY: Bill Shorten has said as long as that is plausible, as long as it is real, as long as it is financially responsible then it is the appropriate thing for it to be a bipartisan commitment. I also make the point that that target of two per cent was in fact originally nominated by Labor.

JENNETT: Yes. Now one practical side effect of this would be funding the continuous shipbuilding strategy that has been announced. Isn’t Labor’s view that all of that has to be in or around Adelaide, how practically might it be to see it expanded to Western Australia and to Williamstown as well?

FEENEY: There are a number of intrinsic capabilities in some of these shipyards, some of them can do particular jobs and some of them can’t. Our position would be that there is a significant shipbuilding task in this country. Both sides of politics say that the Royal Australian Navy needs be modernised and there are other ships the country needs as well - CSIRO, Antarctic division, Coast guard - there are other ship

requirements as well. We and the Government part company on this question, as we think that task is of a size and of a scale that if it is rationally organised in Australian shipyards it can build an industry in this country that can attain world class standards in terms of price and quality, as we have previously achieved with the ANZAC frigate program for instance. That means from our perspective that submarines need to be built in Australia too, not just for strategic and capability reasons but also because that means the shipbuilding task in this country would have critical mass. Now where that happens - Adelaide is the obvious place for the submarine task to take place, there are shipyards right across Australia at Forgacs, Williamstown, Austal in Western Australian and as well as Adelaide - all of these places have the capacity to make a contribution to the shipbuilding task and it’s really then about making sure that they step up to the plate with a proposition that offers us best value.

JENNETT: Alright and just finally on another sort of news of the day matter, China Free Trade Agreement- is there any scenario you could imagine that would see Labor blocking that deal by the end of this year?

FEENEY: The onus is really on the Abbott Government to come clean here about what some of the labour provisions in this CHAFTA really mean. As you know the point that Labor is questioning in this agreement is the end of there being a mandatory requirement for labour market testing. We saw in recent days with the 7-Eleven story and previous to that, the story of the exploitation of Taiwanese workers in this country. Labor’s question to the Government is how is the ending of that mandatory labour testing mean that Australian’s are able to enjoy the full fruit of this free market agreement.

JENNETT: Sure those questions are being asked but I guess is there political risk and is this a risk that Labor is prepared to take around its economic credibility by blocking?

FEENEY: That is not a decision for me to make and certainly not a decision for me to announce today. I am saying that in the case of Japan and in the case of South Korea we saw Labor’s support for free trade agreements because they meet the standards we require, but we are very, very anxious that the Government explain to the Parliament and the people of Australia how it is that this agreement doesn’t undermine jobs in Australia.

JENNETT: Alright David Feeney, thank you.

FEENEY: Cheers, thank you.