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Defence Minister discusses his visit to Qatar; and ADF contribution to war against Iraq.



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TRANSCRIPT SENATOR THE HON ROBERT HILL Minister for Defence Leader of the Government in the Senate

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INTERVIEW WITH PHILIP CLARK

2GB Sydney

4.16 pm, Wednesday, 23 April 2003

Senator Robert Hill discusses his visit to the Middle East, and ADF’s contribution there.

PHILIP CLARK: Let's cross now to the Middle East and to Qatar where our own Defence Minister, Senator Robert Hill, joins me live on the line. Senator Hill, good afternoon from us.

ROBERT HILL: Hello, Philip.

PHILIP CLARK: Whereabouts are you? You're at Defence Central Command in Qatar now, are you?

ROBERT HILL: Yes, I'm at the Australian Headquarters using Maurie McNarn's phone. I've taken over his office for two days.

PHILIP CLARK: That's terrific. We can phone home and phone - that's right.

ROBERT HILL: It's even got a Canberra phone number.

PHILIP CLARK: Oh, dear. Have you had a chance to say hello to many of our Defence Force men and women at this stage?

ROBERT HILL: The last two days I saw the maritime surveillance people, those who've basically come from Edinburgh in South Australia, yesterday. They operate the P3 aircraft. I saw the Herc people in the afternoon, they are

principally out of Richmond, and then the fighter squadron which is based at Tindal although its support staff come from all over Australia and the headquarters staff, so yes, I've seen quite a few of the Australians already.

PHILIP CLARK: And how are they feeling? Are they looking forward to getting home?

ROBERT HILL: Oh, of course.

PHILIP CLARK: Obviously, I would imagine, proud of a job well done.

ROBERT HILL: Very. Morale is very high, they're very proud of what they've been able to achieve but not surprisingly they're also looking forward to getting home.

PHILIP CLARK: Yes. What were you able to say to them about that?

ROBERT HILL: We thanked them for what they've done and told them they've got every reason to be proud, told them they'll receive a very warm, positive welcome when they get back to Australia and we're getting them back as quickly as possible so most will be back next month.

PHILIP CLARK: You never know how these conflicts pan out, of course, and for military commanders in the field, equally so for them, despite all the training that goes into preparing for moments like these. It must be gratifying, I would think, on behalf of Maurie McNarn and the others, to have seen things develop in the way that they did.

ROBERT HILL: Yes, I can remember when our forces were leaving there was a considerable apprehension. It was really the uncertainty, not quite knowing what to expect, whether chemical weapons would be used, for example, but as much as you can say about a military operation, they're pleased, the goals have been achieved in a relatively short period of time, civilian casualties were kept to a minimum and I heard further stories yesterday about our forces avoiding the

dropping of bombs when there was any doubt at all about the targeting which, I think from an Australian perspective, is very good.

I also feel, as a matter of interest, there's a bit of a feeling that that

approach was a touch contagious and even the United States gained something from that Australian attitude in relation to rules of engagement so that was good too. That was good to hear as well.

PHILIP CLARK: Yes, it's important to underline that, I think.

ROBERT HILL: So the job was relatively short, a relatively small number of civilian casualties, successful in their mission and although all war is horrible and obviously people have lost their lives and people have suffered, in terms of a military operation it's been very successful.

PHILIP CLARK: Yes, I think I remarked at the time, it's not an occasion for delight or joy but it's certainly- -

ROBERT HILL: No.

PHILIP CLARK: I think when people can be satisfied that, inasmuch as this thing went well, it did go that way.

ROBERT HILL: Yes, I met with General Tommy Franks this morning and he said that - he gave an example back at home in the United States of somebody saying to him, you know, this is great, there were so few American casualties and he said, well, it depends on how you look at it. You can't say that to the mum or dad of one of the few that lost their lives.

PHILIP CLARK: No, exactly right.

This is Senator Robert Hill, Defence Minister, in Qatar at the moment. Some of our forces are going to remain, Senator Hill. Do we have an idea of, at this stage, of who will remain and for how long?

ROBERT HILL: We've said in the next phase in Iraq the stabilisation, reconstruction, move towards their own governance and so forth, that we will make a contribution but we will identify niche areas where we can add value.

For example we've announced that we're sending a group of air traffic controllers and all of their equipment to assist with Baghdad International Airport and they arrive here in a couple of days' time, about seven planeloads of equipment and they'll move on into Baghdad. Now, those sort of critical infrastructure needs are examples of where we can add value and continue to make a worthwhile contribution to winning the peace as well as winning the war. And that's our general approach.

PHILIP CLARK: What about the SAS? Are they going to stay for much longer or will they be coming home?

ROBERT HILL: No, we're bringing them home.

PHILIP CLARK: OK, so they're coming home?

ROBERT HILL: Yes.

PHILIP CLARK: All right, well, good to hear from you and good to hear that morale is high, as I expected it would. It sounds also as though the degree of cooperation between our forces and British and US forces was achieved without too much incident as well.

ROBERT HILL: No incident, really. All sides have been stressing to me how well it worked in terms of cooperation. Also because we're a small contribution to the force we tend to sometimes think that maybe it's a touch marginal. What's been stressed to me is that we contributed at every level right up to the senior command levels and that that contribution at every level has been greatly appreciated by coalition colleagues.

PHILIP CLARK: Yes. So, far from being a token contribution.

ROBERT HILL: No, it's far from being a token contribution. It's been a significant contribution. Small in number but a significant contribution at every level and that's really been recognised and appreciated.

PHILIP CLARK: Good to talk with you, Senator Hill.

ROBERT HILL: OK, thank you.

PHILIP CLARK: Thank you. Senator Robert Hill, speaking to us live on the line from Qatar, Central Command there, in Maurie McNarn's office. Brigadier McNarn, of course, is the Commander-in-chief of the Australian Defence effort there out of Central Command in Qatar.