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Transcript of interview with Leigh Sales: ABC Lateline: 19 October 2010: Afghanistan; Military justice; water reform; NBN; OH&S harmonisation



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The Hon Julia Gillard, MP

19 October 2010 Transcript of interview with Leigh Sales Lateline Subject(s):

Afghanistan; Military justice; Water reform; NBN; OH&S harmonisation

SALES: A short time ago I was joined here in Canberra by the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard.

Prime Minister, welcome to the program once again.

PM: Thank you.

SALES: Let's begin with Afghanistan. You said today that Australia's engagement in Afghanistan would continue through this decade at least. In what capacity?

PM: What I outlined in the Parliament today is we are obviously in Afghanistan. We're there for our national interests.

We're there to make sure that Afghanistan doesn't become a safe haven for terrorists in the future, and we're obviously there because of our reliance with the United States.

What we are doing is we are training and mentoring the Afghan National Army. We're also involved in civilian works - aid and reconstruction. We're training police.

Now, that means in the province in which we work, we are moving to leadership of security over to the Afghan security forces. It will happen place by place, it will be conditions-based. Transition will be a process, not a day.

Beyond that - and our estimate for the time frame for that is two to four years - beyond that, we anticipate having a supporting role for security and aid.

SALES: So does that mean that after the two to four years we would expect that those 1,500 troops we have there in front line operations would not be there any longer or will be there for the best part of this decade?

PM: What you should expect to see is as we transition place by place that we are able to have troops come out because the Afghan national security forces are taking the lead, but that is going to be on the basis that we are absolutely confident that when we have handed security leadership for a particular area over to the Afghan National Army that they will be able to do that security, that the process is irreversible in that sense - that they can take the security load, so you will see that happening progressively.

We anticipate on the best advice to us, that's two to four years. The president of Afghanistan has said that he wants to see Afghans in the lead in security for their own nation by the end of 2014, so you would be looking at less involvement over that time as we transition, then beyond that transition of security we would be there in a supporting role.

SALES: So we would expect then that for the next, say, two to four years we should be expecting regular loss of life among Australian soldiers?

PM: I said in the Parliament today that there are hard days ahead. We are involved, obviously, with a focus on counterinsurgency. We are involved with the forces there in Afghanistan as is well known and I spoke about it in the Parliament today.

The Americans have been surging, putting in more troops. That means that there's more intensity in the work that we do to counter the insurgency, more fighting.

Now, it does mean, of course, that as that intensity of work is done that we are able to provide more stability and security to enable transition to happen.

SALES: You talk about allowing that transition to happen. What specific benchmarks will demonstrate that that has happened?

PM: Well, I think the benchmark that would demonstrate it is that the Afghan national forces, Afghan National Army, Afghan police are providing security for their own people.

SALES: And so how would they actually measure that? Would it mean that there wouldn't be suicide bombings, that there wouldn't be people feeling that they can't leave their homes?

What specifically would you be looking for that would demonstrate that?

PM: What we would look for is that security is being provided by local forces, so they are able to cater for the security needs of the community with standing on their own two feet with Afghan people providing that security to the people of Afghanistan.

SALES: Living a regular-style life, that you would expect to be living in any country of the world - you can leave your house, you can get your groceries, you can go to school, you can go about your normal business?

PM: We obviously want to see Afghanistan stabilised in the way that you've described but we've got to be clear about the objectives here.

Our mission, of course, is to make sure Afghanistan doesn't become a safe haven for terrorists. We are training the Afghan National Army and the police to provide security. That will enable transition. They will be providing security, obviously - doing the police work, the defence force work that you would expect people in their own country to be doing.

Beyond the provision of security there is obviously a great deal to do in terms of provision of education and health, of government services.

I said in the Parliament today that we will be engaged, we'll be there providing civilian support. We'll be there providing some form of assistance for the- to the end of this decade at least.

I also said I think it will be the work of a generation of Afghan people to get democracy and a functioning government to take hold.

SALES: What would be the benchmarks then of a functioning government?

PM: I think we're all can identify what those benchmarks are. We've seen elections in Afghanistan and yes, I understand the reports about those elections. They've not been trouble free but elections have happened.

We want to see government obviously able to provide the kind of services that a population needs - education services and health services.

SALES: But to what standard, I guess I'm wanting to know, because in looking to benchmarks you need things that can be measured and there's a big difference between the sort of elections we have here, for example, and the sort of elections you have in Afghanistan, so I'm wondering where in that continuum you would think that that's a functional government?

PM: Leigh, in part this is for the Afghan national people to determine.

We are not there nation building in that sense. The Afghan people have to do that nation building themselves.

What we are there to do is to train the Afghan national army to enable the Afghan people to provide for their own security and we are there - and to therefore deny terrorists a safe haven in Afghanistan - so the security of the Afghan people and denying Afghanistan as a safe haven for terrorists, and we are obviously there supporting civilian reconstruction works, aid works, education, health.

We are there with capacity building and assisting with the development of governance, but our mission, our mission for our forces that are there is the training of the Afghan national army, the training of police, enabling the transition, place by place, over time, in Uruzgan province where we work so that that security and stability is provided by local forces.

SALES: You've said it's in Australia's national interests to be there because of this point about not having the country as a safe haven for terrorists and supporting our ally, the United States. Are those two considerations of equal weight?

PM: Well I'm not sure I would rank them but they are both there and both-

SALES: -The reason I ask is because some critics believe we're only there because of the alliance with the United States.

PM: Well, I didn't say that today, Leigh, because I don't believe it. I believe we're there for the two reasons and both reasons are in our national interest.

SALES: Is the safe haven argument hollow given that there are other countries, including Yemen and Somalia and Pakistan, that are safe havens for terrorists and we're not planning to sends troop there?

PM: As I said in the Parliament today, Al-Qaeda has proved to be a resilient terrorist network.

What we do know, of course is that Afghanistan is connected to not just 9/11, where we did lose Australian lives and of course America lost thousands of their citizens, but-

SALES: -But so were other countries. Saudi Arabia was.

PM: Then let's look at the Bali bombing, where we lost Australian lives - the second Bali bombing, the bombing of our embassy in Jakarta, these terrorist events that have threatened Australians, taken Australian lives, had connections in Afghanistan.

Consequently we are there because Afghanistan was a place where terrorists who then wreaked violence against Australians, amongst others, got their training. That's why we're there denying it returning to being a safe haven for terrorists.

Is it the only place in the world where Al-Qaeda operates? No, it's not, and as I said in the Parliament today we also work with the governments of other nations to do what we can to address Al-Qaeda in other places like Somalia and Yemen.

SALES: Was there anything that you heard in Tony Abbott's speech today that you thought was a point of difference to the Government on Afghanistan?

PM: Not in a considerable measure. I mean, obviously, two people giving lengthy speeches, you're going to take some different takes on things and use your own words and your own framework, and I think people who watch the speeches today would have seen that involving me and Mr Abbott, but what I took from the two speeches today is that there is deep bipartisanship around our mission in Afghanistan.

SALES: One of the things that Mr Abbott said is that there's a risk that the PR will be lost when the ground war is finally starting to show progress. Do you accept that you have a job to do to convince Australians of the merits of our continuing involvement in Afghanistan?

PM: Yes, I do. I think I do, I think the Government does, and obviously with the bipartisan support I think Mr Abbott has a role in that as do members of the Opposition, and I think this Parliamentary debate has a role in it, and because this Parliamentary debate in my view is a good process, a good way of ventilating the arguments and the issues, having it out there in the public domain - and I certainly today myself took the perspective that I wanted to be as frank as possible with the Australian people - because I think it has been good and a good way of discussing through the issues. I am committed as Prime

Minister to making sure I make a statement of this nature every year that we continue to be in Afghanistan.

SALES: The US President Barack Obama is going to be travelling to a NATO summit in Portugal next month to be discussing future strategy in Afghanistan. Are you considering attending yourself?

PM: Yes, I am considering it. I haven't made a final determination about that yet but I did obviously, in the speech today, outline a number of things that Australia will be saying when we sit at the table at the summit in Lisbon.

SALES: And you think it could be best if you were there in person to actually deliver that?

PM: Well, Leigh, I'm still working through that question, so I'm considering it and we'll make a decision and make an announcement at the appropriate time.

SALES: On military justice, I know you won't comment specifically on the recent charging of three soldiers, but do you concede that the matter has caused a great deal of concern among frontline soldiers?

PM: I can understand that people are concerned but I'm not going to comment on the individual matter.

The point I made in the Parliament today, and I think it is a key one: We do have rules of engagement. We fight under rules of engagement.

Our ADF, that is what we do - we send our defence force to acquit missions for the nation under rules of engagement, and it's a key difference between us and the enemy we fight that we have rules and we do everything we can to avoid the loss of innocent civilian life, whereas of course the enemy we fight in the form of Al-Qaeda makes it their purpose to wreak terror by taking civilian life.

SALES: Do you think, though, that given the unrest that has come about as a result of this case that there is a role for the Government to offer some reassurance to soldiers?

PM: The best reassurance we can offer is that there are the rules of engagement and that there is a proper process and that proper process is being undergone now.

SALES: Is there anything that soldiers told you on your recent trip to Afghanistan that you've come home and thought 'OK, I'm going to take action on that, I'm going to look into that?'

PM: I came back with a deeper knowledge of the sense of the nation, of what it looks like, of the conditions there, of this sense of place; that different districts, even though they are very close to each other, can be very different in terms of their security situation, which is why we talk about and I talk about transition being a process, not a day, because two parts of the province in which we work could transition at very different times to Afghan leadership.

I had raised with me issues on the way to Afghanistan, issues about the attack helicopter capability, and I was able to pursue them when I was in Afghanistan and then subsequently in Brussels and we've had some resolution of that matter, so that was the kind of feedback I was getting. I could obviously see in my discussions the stress, the intensity of the work.

It's a difficult place. It's a harsh country, difficult environment. Our troops that have been there in this period have lost a lot of their mates and that's tolled.

I don't underestimate any of that, it's really hard, and so in speaking to the Parliament today I wanted to catch that sense of what I'd learned but I also want to be really frank that there are some hard days to come, but I believe we are making progress and I'm cautiously optimistic about that.

SALES: Let's move to other issues. Water reform, let's start with that.

Isn't it the case that regardless of what various inquiries show, environmental flows are going to be prioritised over socioeconomic concerns?

PM: This is a question of balance and getting it right. The Minister here, Tony Burke, has consistently said that we want to get the balance right between healthy river, water for food production and the circumstance of regional communities, and I know that in the public domain this can play out as either/or but really it's in everybody's interest that we have a healthy river.

It is not in the long term interests of farmers, of irrigators for the river to be degraded, so we all do need to work together for this key national goal.

SALES: On that point that it's in everybody's interests to have a healthy river, that goes to what I'm saying that the priority has to be the healthy river and everything else flows from that.

PM: It's about getting the balance right so that we've got health in the river, we are supporting food production, we can see viable regional communities. We've got to work through to get the balance right. This is not-

SALES: -But regardless, regardless, sorry to interrupt, but regardless of the social and economic effects cuts are still going to be going ahead to the water allocations aren't they? It doesn't matter how painful it's going to be, it has to happen.

PM: Let's remember we're talking about purchasing water from willing sellers. Let's also remember that this is not a zero-sum game in the sense that we can get more efficient with our water usage and we can make a difference to infrastructure that adds to efficiency.

So, all of those things are in the discussion about the future of the Murray Darling, but what isn't an option is to just say 'Let's go on the way that we have gone on to this point where water entitlements are over allocated, everybody knows it, there's a huge problem in the basin and it's not being addressed'.

That can't be the future. It's a difficult issue but we've got to work through it.

SALES: It's a difficult issue. Given that the Labor Government has in the past shown a willingness to back down on difficult issues such as the mining tax, how can we be assured that you will have the stomach for this reform given the angry reaction we've already seen?

PM: We'll keep working through it. You've heard me speak about it in recent days, and our Minister Tony Burke.

The Murray Darling Basin Authority is involved in its consultations and yes, I understand that there's, you know, community passion about this. The Murray Darling Basin Authority will have its consultations directly through the Parliament, through a committee led by Tony Windsor.

We will have consultations and we'll work to get the balance right here.

SALES: But that doesn't address my question that in the past you've backed down on controversial issues. What's to say you won't do it this time around?

PM: Well Leigh, I'm sitting here saying we're going to work through.

SALES: On the national broadband network, the shadow communications minister Malcolm Turnbull says he wants to see the plan referred to the Productivity Commission for a cost analysis. Is that fair enough?

PM: This is more delay from the Opposition.

I've actually seen that Malcolm Turnbull's made a statement. He was directly asked a question if the cost benefit analysis he says he seeks came in positively and said 'build the National Broadband Network', would he then agree and say it should be built?

And he couldn't manage to stutter out a yes in answer to that question, which I think really shows you the underlying motivations here. It's about delay and wrecking and opposition.

We have published a major implementation study here which goes through the questions about developing the national broadband network. We're going to get on with the job of doing it and not allow ourselves to be diverted by the wrecking tactics of the Opposition.

Leigh, I'm not going to sit here and watch this nation ends up in a circumstance where it exports jobs to Singapore and Korea, other countries in our region that end up with better infrastructure and better broadband than us.

SALES: What is the bill that you are introducing in the Parliament tomorrow to do with the NBN?

PM: The bill that we will be introducing tomorrow is to do with the structural separation of Telstra. This is a long-term policy goal. It's a key microeconomic reform where we separate the backbone, the infrastructure, from the retail sales.

SALES: But that didn't get through the Senate last time you put it up. This is the second time it's gone through. What makes you think it's going to get through this time?

PM: We will be pursuing it and it becomes a question, really, for Mr Abbott and for Mr Turnbull as to whether they will stand in the way of this key microeconomic reform, which of course will be better for businesses, better for customers and enable the further development of the National Broadband Network.

And, of course, since the legislation was last in the Parliament, we have entered an agreement with Telstra, and that is very significant - an agreement with Telstra which is about the delivery of the National Broadband Network and Telstra's customer base using the National Broadband Network.

SALES: Given that the Senate make up is going to be changing fairly soon, why is the timing to introduce this now? Why would you not wait until the new Senate comes into play?

PM: Well, we're determined to get on with the job of delivering the National Broadband Network. If Mr Abbott is determined to wreck that, well, I think we should have that made clear through how votes are excercised in the Parliament.

SALES: Have you had discussions though with the Greens and the other independents in the Senate to see if they will be backing you this time?

PM: Well, what we will do obviously is we'll introduce the legislation. Then we will go through our processes where we will discuss with the Greens and the independents the legislation and seek views, but I think it's very, very well known that the independents and the Greens have been strong supporters of the National Broadband Network. Mr Oakeshott and Mr Windsor - both from regional communities - have been strong supporters because they understand the power of this technology to get services to their communities that the tyranny of distance has prevented them having great access to to date - health services, education services, that will be transformed by the National Broadband Network, as well as enabling their local businesses to literally be connected with the markets of the world.

SALES: A final question, Prime Minister, on the row with the New South Wales Premier Kristina Keneally over the deal to create uniform occupational health and safety laws. Is your best strategy here to just wait four months, given the expectation that Barry O'Farrell will soon be the New South Wales Premier?

PM: I think my best strategy is to pursue day after day the delivery of a deal. A deal's been signed. A deal needs to be honoured. It's no more complicated than that.

SALES: Prime Minister, good to have you with me. Thank you very much.

PM: Thank you.