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Transcript of interview with David Speers: Sky News: 20 August 2009: Australian troop withdrawal from Iraq; Afghanistan elections; China - Rebiya Kadeer.

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20 August 2009

Sky News Australia, Australian Agenda with David Speers

Subjects: Australian troop withdrawal from Iraq, Afghanistan elections; China - Rebiya Kadeer.

Still the Australian Government says the election does represent progress and on Iraq it's insisting that security gains have been made. There's a lot on the plate for Foreign Minister Stephen Smith. I spoke to him earlier.

Stephen Smith, thank you for your time. Firstly, on Iraq. Did Australian troops withdraw prematurely?

STEPHEN SMITH: No, I don't believe so. It was done in conjunction with the Iraqi Government and also done in cooperation with the United States and the United Kingdom. Essentially it was the Iraqi Government's wish. They want to take their country back for themselves and be responsible for security. It's a terrible incident. We condemn it and we expressed our condolences at the loss of life. But it has all the hallmarks of al-Qaeda Iraq. And, of course, it's also symbolic, because it occurs literally to the day of the attack upon the UN Headquarters in Iraq where so many people lost their lives six years ago.

DAVID SPEERS: If it is al-Qaeda in Iraq, which the Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki seems to think as well, why not have foreign troops there fighting al-Qaeda. That's what we're supposedly doing in Afghanistan?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, the Americans continue to have their deployment there and it's a matter for them and the Iraqis to make a judgement as to whether the United States deployment is required. That's the arrangement between the United States administration and the Iraqi Government. But there's no doubt that it has the hallmarks of al-Qaeda. Whether that's the concluded view, time will tell. But it's clearly aimed at undermining Prime Minister

Al-Maliki and his government. And they'll make a judgement in their own time as to whether, in response to this, or in the future, they need to see deployment of some of the United States troops who remain stationed behind the fence, as the phrase is used, in Iraq.

DAVID SPEERS: But if they were to seek a return of some coalition security presence there, is that something Australia would, at all, consider?

STEPHEN SMITH: I think the United States and the rest of the international community would proceed on the basis that the United States presence there is sufficient to assist if required.

DAVID SPEERS: Can I turn to Afghanistan. Voters are heading to the polls there, but it's amid reports of widespread rorting. There are some three million so-called ghost voters,

apparently, on the electoral roll and President Hamid Kharzai has allowed an exiled war lord back in to support his campaign back into Afghanistan, to support his campaign. Do you honestly think this will be a free and fair election?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well firstly, let's just understand the context in which it is taking place. It's the first Afghan led election for 30 years, under very difficult security circumstances. So I think we're best of making the assessments about its success. What went right, what went wrong, what improvements could be made, once it's all occurred. Obviously what Australia would want, and why we have...

DAVID SPEERS: But why not express concern, if you are concerned, about some of these problems with the election, before it takes place, so that they don't happen?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, literally as we speak, voters will be going to the polls. Together with the international community, we have provided additional security arrangements. We've provided about $9 million, $10 million to assist the establishment and training of their election complaints commission. We have trained - helped train people to be poll clerks and the like.

DAVID SPEERS: But voters are fleeing Kabul. They're scared of the attacks.

STEPHEN SMITH: Because the Taliban has said they want to disrupt this election, because it suits their purpose to disrupt it. So when an election occurs in Australia, we do the assessments of how well or badly the election was run after the event. That applies doubly here, because the election is taking place at a time of very difficult security arrangements, when the Taliban have said it is in our interest to seek to intimidate, to threaten, and disrupt this election for our own purposes. I mean what is - what is...

DAVID SPEERS: But what about the Government of Hamid Kharzai? Do you have concerns about rorting on the part of he and his supporters in this election?

STEPHEN SMITH: I've seen more than one allegation of inappropriate conduct in the run-up to the election. Let's wait and see the election, its analysis, its aftermath, including via the Afghan Electoral Complaints Commission which we have helped establish. But...

DAVID SPEERS: What about the ban that the Government there, the Foreign Minister, he's also put on media, reporting any violent acts around this election.

STEPHEN SMITH: Well I think...

DAVID SPEERS: Foreign journalists have been threatened. We're being booted out of the country, if that happens. How are we going to know, as an international community, whether this has been a fair election if there's no media coverage of it?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well firstly, I share the view, as expressed by United Nations officials that that is a mistake and it shouldn't occur. That is a mistake. Transparency, in difficult circumstances, in my view, always helps. There are, of course, observers and monitors which we have again helped support. We have a very small number of our own observers who will take part, subject to security arrangements. But there are, I think, we're looking at all these

things in isolation. Let's just stand back and look at strategically what's important here. We

know the Taliban want to disrupt this election, because it suits their purpose. What is their purpose? Their purpose is to continue to allow Afghanistan to be a hotbed and breeding ground for international terrorists who will damage international community, including against Australia and Australians. We're trying to put Afghanistan under a United Nations mandate, but Afghanistan in a position of managing their own affairs, both in terms of

security and running their own institutions. Now we know that's difficult. We also know it's dangerous. But having an election, the mere fact of having an election, shows that progress is being made, which is why the terrorists and the insurgents are so keen to seek to disrupt it.

DAVID SPEERS: Well, you talk about progress being made, but it looks like President Kharzai will be returned and we're talking about a president in a regime here who is turning a blind eye to drug trafficking, is restoring war lords to power and has passed laws allowing Shi'ite men to withhold food from their wives if they withhold sex. Is this the sort of regime Australian troops should be fighting to defend?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, two things. Firstly, let’s wait and see who the Afghan people elect. It maybe President Kharzai, it may not. There has clearly been a ebbing of confidence in the Kharzai administration in the last 12 months or so, from the international community, including...

DAVID SPEERS: Including by Australia.

STEPHEN SMITH: ...including by Australia. And that is because of the lack of progress we've seen on corruption, on governance, on anti-narcotics. And we have expressed our concern, as has the international community, the United Kingdom, the US, the UN, the EU, over the introduction of some aspects of Sharia law. We want, whoever is elected, we want to see substantial improvements made in all of those areas, whether it's President Kharzai or one of the candidates. There needs now to be substantial improvement so far as the Afghanistan Government's performance is concerned on anti-corruption, anti-narcotics, on treating women equally, on ensuring that there's appropriate governance arrangement, so far as its ministration is concerned. And if there's not, there will be a significant ebbing of support in the international community, and domestic constituencies, whether it's Australia or other countries, will also start raising that very question.

DAVID SPEERS: Okay. If we can turn finally to China. Why did Australia's Ambassador, Geoff Raby cancel engagements yesterday and rush back to Canberra?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, firstly, he didn't rush back. Secondly, he comes back to Canberra on a regular basis. You see...

DAVID SPEERS: But how long had this visit been planned?

STEPHEN SMITH: I don't know how long the visit had been planned, and it's really not the point. I mean ambassadors come back to Australia all the time.

DAVID SPEERS: But you know it wasn't rushed, so...

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, in our eyes it's not rushed. He's coming back. He's seeing departmental officials.

DAVID SPEERS: Even though he cancelled engagements in Beijing?

STEPHEN SMITH: We need to take a sensible, calm attitude to these things. I've seen a lot of excited and excitable reporting. On a regular basis, Ambassadors or High Commissioners come back to Australia, for very sensible reasons. They speak to departmental officials, as Ambassador Raby is doing. They speak to ministers. I've spoken to Ambassador Raby. The Minister for Trade will speak to him. Time permitting, the Prime Minister will speak with him as well. And this is actually a very good time to have a conversation with the ambassador.

DAVID SPEERS: Well it seems you're right on that, because the Communist Party's China Daily has run an editorial describing Australian politicians as sinophobic and accusing Australia of siding with the terrorist, in reference to the visit of exiled Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer here last week. Another Chinese Government run paper has called for boycotts on travel and study in Australia. It doesn't sound good. Can you concede that relations have worsened since the Rudd Government came to office?

STEPHEN SMITH: As I said to the parliament, and I've said repeatedly publicly, we have a very positive and constructive economic relationship with China. That's enhancing as we saw yesterday with the announcement of the Gorgon deal, the largest trade deal we've seen, not

just with China...

DAVID SPEERS: But on the diplomatic front?

STEPHEN SMITH: ...but in Australia's history. I've also made it clear there are a number of issues now, with China, where there are different views, application of different values, and where there are sensitivities that we need to manage carefully. And as I said...

DAVID SPEERS: You say...

STEPHEN SMITH: I said to...

DAVID SPEERS: ...sensitivities, but this is pretty serious isn't it? This is a worsening of diplomatic relations?

STEPHEN SMITH: As I said to the Parliament the other day, when I indicated to the Chinese authorities that I wasn't proposing to disturb our normal immigration procedures in respect of Rebiya Kadeer, they were most unhappy and we've seen adverse consequences flow as a result of that; the cancellation of Vice Minister He’s visit and the like. And I said to the house

there may well be further action that China takes. If they do, we regret that. But what we have to do...

DAVID SPEERS: No apologies.

STEPHEN SMITH: ...what we have to do is to make decisions that we think are right, that reflect Australian values and virtues and that are in our long-term national interest. It's in our long-term national interest to have a positive relationship with China. But it's not in our long-term national interest, when differences arise, to make a judgement, or make a decision which is not reflective of Australia's interest, or our values or virtues. It was absolutely, absolutely the correct thing for the Government to do, to allow Rebiya Kadeer to come here, even

though we don't agree with necessarily anything or everything that she says. We respect, absolutely, the territorial integrity and sovereignty of China, over the western provinces. But we also want to reflect Australia's values, which is we allow people to come here, and we allow people to articulate a view, whether we agree with that view or not.

DAVID SPEERS: Stephen Smith, thank you.



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