TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH KATHRYN ROBINSON, MEET THE PRESS
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 24 MARCH 2013
TOPICS: Labor leadership; Defence Budget; Afghanistan.
KATHRYN ROBINSON: Our guest today is Defence Minister Stephen Smith, and he joins us now from Perth. Good morning to you, Minister, thank you for your time.
STEPHEN SMITH: Pleasure.
KATHRYN ROBINSON: Wouldn’t you say that today’s polls show that you made the wrong decision in sticking with Julia Gillard?
STEPHEN SMITH: I haven’t looked at the polls carefully, but you don’t need a poll to tell you that the community in the course of the week would have been surprised, disappointed, exasperated, frustrated at what had occurred. I got it yesterday in my community when I was out and about, I got it last night at the footy when I was supporting the Dockers. But what the true test will be now is how we conduct ourselves from now until September 14 when the election is on. This issue is now behind us. It is concluded. And what we now have to do is to make sure that we focus entirely on our relationship with the community, putting forward our record and our policies so far as the Australian community is concerned.
KATHRYN ROBINSON: It is a very big task to say that the issue is behind you, particularly when respondents in that Galaxy Poll were saying 52% wanted Kevin Rudd as new leader, and also today the Opposition Leader has spoken to The Bolt Report and he is fuelling this fire as well.
TONY ABBOTT: We are required, as an Opposition, to do what we can to give the people their say as soon as possible. It is not about us. It is about the Australian people, and about good Government as soon as we can humanly get it in this country.
PAUL BONGIORNO: Well, Minister, there is no doubt that if a no-confidence motion was successful, we would all probably have to go to the polls. I’m sure Tony Abbott wouldn’t want to hang around for too long as a minority Prime Minister. Is that something now for the Government to fear, given what’s happening this week, and given the first – the reality check of this first poll?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well Tony Abbott has been arguing there should be an early election since September/October of 2010. So that’s no surprise. The election date has been set – 14th September this year. That is when the electorate will get their chance to make a judgment. In the meantime, if Mr Abbott wants to move a motion of no-confidence, that is entirely open to him. But I remain confident that the Government will continue to have the support of the majority of the Independents and the minor party members – the Greens – and as a consequence, I am confident that the election will be held on the timetable the Prime Minister has outlined, which is the middle of September.
PAUL BONGIORNO: But isn’t there the prospect that the debate over no-confidence could even take some of the lustre off the Budget, maybe?
STEPHEN SMITH: Tony Abbott can move a vote of no-confidence in accordance with standing orders whenever he so chooses. He has done it before, he’s failed, he’s arguing since, as I say, September/October/November of 2010 that there should be an early election. That’s not been successful. The Government continues to have the support of the Parliament. And as a minority Government, we have got through between 450 and 500 pieces of legislation. Our task now is to take our message to the community, to put these internal issues behind us, and to outline not just the reform program that we have effected – 900,000 additional jobs created since we came to office, interest rates down – not just argue our record, but also what we are holding out for the future, whether that’s national disability reform, or education reform.
TORY MAGUIRE: Minister, I think everyone agrees that one of the reasons the Government has had so much trouble getting those messages out that you are talking about, is because of at least the perception – and certainly the reality – of disunity.
Anthony Albanese has indicated that he has no intention of going anywhere. We haven’t had any hints from Bob Carr or Mark Butler that they’re going anywhere. How is Julia Gillard supposed to run a unified cabinet, over which she has authority, when such senior members of it don’t actually think she should be the Prime Minister?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, there is no basis for any of those members to do anything other than to continue to serve. Anthony Albanese made it clear after the failed leadership challenge by Kevin Rudd, back in February of last year, that he, having voted for Kevin Rudd, offered his resignation to the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister didn’t take it. He made it clear that he would be absolutely loyal to the Government and to her from that moment on. And he was. People who have to think about their position are those people who say and do things which are inconsistent with their executive position. Richard Marles urged publicly a vote for Kevin Rudd – that is inconsistent with being a member of the executive. Same with Joel Fitzgibbon. So, whilst we are disappointed that we’ve lost some colleagues – Chris Bowen, Martin Ferguson, very effective and very capable Ministers – but none of us are indispensable. There will be good, competent people to take their places. The key thing now is – and it won’t just be the Prime Minister or the Cabinet, it will be the party generally, and members of the community who will take zero tolerance now – zero tolerance for disunity, zero tolerance for internal criticism. I remember-
TORY MAGUIRE: Minister, isn’t it the case, though, that despite Kevin Rudd’s strong statement that he won’t challenge again, as long as he is sitting on the backbench everyone is going to be wondering why he is still sitting there, and wondering if the people who have supported him could support him again?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, a couple of things. Firstly, I remember when Kevin became leader of the party in December of 2006. And he said, privately and publicly, that we had gone through a difficult period with visions of disunity and leadership challenges, and from the moment that he became leader, there had to then be, with 12 months to go before an election, zero tolerance – zero tolerance – for any disunity or adverse activity or commentary. And the same rules apply now with six months to go. But, Kevin has made absolutely crystal clear that he is not proposing to put his name forward for leader of the party under any circumstances. His supporters have essentially hoisted the white flag and laid down the project.
PAUL BONGIORNO: Well Minister, one of his supporters, Martin Ferguson, before he left, before he hoisted the flag, gave some advice – he said that the class warfare, which began with the mining tax, should end. He says it is harming Labor. Do you agree with him?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I don’t agree with all of Martin’s characterisation, but I certainly agree with the general point that a Government, a Labor Government, has to govern for all Australians. And I never make class warfare points. Some people have focused on, for example, the 457 visas. The point I make is what we are trying to do is to make sure that before we look overseas for the filling of skills that we desperately need in Australia, we exhaust every last opportunity for local, state, and national employees to fill those. That is not class warfare, that’s dealing with a skills shortage.
PAUL BONGIORNO: The Treasurer used the spreading the benefits of the boom as an excuse to get stuck into the big miners, and give the impression that very wealthy people are not necessarily to be encouraged in this country.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well we work very closely with the minerals and petroleum resources industry. It is a very important industry, an enormous investment boom, and that is continuing. From time to time there will be disagreements about policy, and from time to time, the industry – whether it is the minerals industry or other industries – are entitled to put robust views. But equally, they have to expect that a Government is also entitled to put a robust view, defending its position, and arguing its case. And that is what we do.
KATHRYN ROBINSON: So Minister, from now until September you want to draw a line in the sand. What are your biggest challenges and what are you going to do differently to win back the voters?
STEPHEN SMITH: What we have to do differently is to put these internal issues behind us, to give ourselves the opportunity of outlining to the community our economic record, our national security record, but also what we are holding out for the future. In very difficult economic circumstances, we have managed the economy well. People on an average mortgage of $300,000 are now paying about $5,000 less than what they did when we came to office. We have done everything we can to make sure that people who are facing tight financial circumstances can make ends meet – whether it is childcare rebate or education bonus. And on my front – national security front – we are continuing to make sure that our national security interests are protected. But we also have to pitch out for the future. And here, what we are doing on national disability, what we are doing on education – these are groundbreaking reforms, just as the vast bulk of the work we have done in our five and half years in office has also been groundbreaking reform in the finest traditions of reforming Labor governments.
KATHRYN ROBINSON: Minister, we need to take a quick break right now. But when we return – the biggest challenges facing your portfolio, Defence. And we will also ask the Minister if he fears a stock take of his own performance.
KATHRYN ROBINSON: You are watching Meet the Press. And remember, you can join the conversation any time via Facebook or Twitter. Returning now to our guest, Minister – Defence Minister – Stephen Smith. Minister, given the looming Cabinet reshuffle that’s set to take place sometime this week, are you confident that you’ll keep your portfolio?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, that is entirely a matter for the Prime Minister. I’ve always made that clear. I’m proposing to continue to focus on what I’m doing in Defence. But I expect very early next week we will know what the allocation of portfolios by the Prime Minister is.
KATHRYN ROBINSON: Your time in the portfolio has been characterised by budget cuts, you have been criticised for your handling over the abuse allegations in the Defence Force. Wouldn’t it be a good time to get out?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, my own view is that I very much want to stay in the portfolio. We’ve got a White Paper coming up, which we need to deliver by May/June of this year. We have another Budget in difficult circumstances. And the work we’ve done in Defence abuse – we have done more work in the last two years in Defence abuse than has been done in preceding decades. I’m very proud of that reform project, which is ongoing, under the leadership of Len Roberts-Smith, chairing the Abuse Task Force.
KATHRYN ROBINSON: So there’s no other portfolio you would like?
STEPHEN SMITH: I’m not sitting here studying commodity prices – I’m still sitting here working on my White Paper.
PAUL BONGIORNO: Well Minister, just going to how your portfolio has fared – we are now down at Defence spending, 1.49% of GDP. I think we were last there in 1937. Do you aspire to boost it back to 2% of GDP?
STEPHEN SMITH: I’ve made it clear that I would rather be close to 2% than 1.5%. But GDP percentage is not the only measure. We continue to be in the top dozen Defence spenders, we’re far and away the largest Defence spender in our immediate region, and whilst there has been a reduction in Defence spending, we still are, in terms of the forward estimate years, over the $100 million mark.
PAUL BONGIORNO: Well can you-
STEPHEN SMITH: But we are not the only country going through these issues.
PAUL BONGIORNO: No, will you be fighting in the run-up to the Budget to keep it where it’s at? I mean, will you be fighting to keep it at 1.49% of GDP, or do you fear that you may see further cuts?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well in addition to being Defence Minister and Deputy Leader of the House to Anthony Albanese, I’m also on the ERC. So I never speculate about the Budget, but I always-
PAUL BONGIORNO: Well you’re the Minister, will you be fighting to keep your share of the pie?
STEPHEN SMITH: I always fight and argue for the national interest, the national security interest and Defence’s interest. But we will see how the Budget unfolds on Budget night.
PAUL BONGIORNO: Will there be an excuse for the Defence budget to be further cut with the withdrawal from Afghanistan?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, no, because we deal with our overseas operations, whether it is Afghanistan, East Timor, from which we have now withdrawn, or the Solomon Islands, we deal with those on what’s described as a no-win, no-loss basis. But the transition from Afghanistan, the transition out of East Timor and the Solomon Islands, does cause us to have to think strategically about what the priorities for the Australian Defence Force will now be. And that’s why we have brought the White Paper forward to May or June this year. But in terms of general budget parameters, we are going through tight circumstances. We are not the only country that’s going through those tight circumstances. And I would just make a political point – the Opposition have said that they’re committed to no further reductions. Well what that means is they agree with our Forward Estimates.
PAUL BONGIORNO: Well are you committed-
STEPHEN SMITH: So there is bipartisanship on Defence spending.
PAUL BONGIORNO: That’s my question. Are you committed to no further reductions?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, you need to wait until Budget night. I’m not proposing to indicate what is in the Budget. But, currently you have bipartisanship on Defence spending, and unless and until Tony Abbott commits the Opposition to increasing Defence spending, that is the position. Our Forward Estimates are their Forward Estimates.
TORY MAGUIRE: Minister, on Afghanistan – the Afghan Foreign Minister was in the House of Reps on Thursday afternoon, watching high theatre Australian-style. He has described Afghanistan as 98% safe. But our own Federal Court has ruled that we cannot send Hazaras home, because they risk being killed by the Taliban. What state are we going to leave Afghanistan in when we withdraw?
STEPHEN SMITH: Afghanistan is currently in a conflict circumstance. There’s no denying that. We believe the security position is a better security position than we’ve had it for some time. And we are confident, in Uruzgan we will complete transition to Afghanistan security responsibility by the end of this year, and in Afghanistan generally by the end of 2014. It will then be a matter for Afghan security forces to take that responsibility. But, they are separate questions from our responsibilities under the Refugee Convention, and we have a memorandum of understanding with Afghanistan, where we return people to Afghanistan. We don’t return people when it’s not safe in their particular individual circumstances, and returns can either be volunteer or compulsorily. We would always prefer voluntary returns, and that is the point that Foreign Minister Rassoul made when we met on Thursday of last week.
TORY MAGUIRE: So, do you have any concerns about the situation, when we withdraw, rapidly deteriorating again?
STEPHEN SMITH: No, because for a couple of reasons: firstly, we will then have an Afghan National Security Force of some 300,000-strong; but secondly, one of the points that we have made is that the international community needs to continue to give some assistance to Afghanistan. Now, that will be by way of training, and back of- house assistance. And we’ve also – Australia and other countries – entered into a long-term strategic partnership with Afghanistan to send the signal that transition, whether it is from Uruzgan in the end of 2013, or Afghanistan at the end of 2014, doesn’t mean that the international community is not there to render assistance. The same is true of the US, of NATO, of the United Kingdom, Italy, and other European countries.
KATHRYN ROBINSON: Minister, we all know that war is an expensive exercise. Do you think that the Afghan National Security Forces will have the money behind them to do the job that is needed there?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, that is the other contribution that the international community is making – to commit to resourcing the Afghan National Security Forces. In our case, we have committed US$100 million for three years, every year, from 2015. And sustaining and resourcing the Afghan National Security Forces will be a very important feature of continuing to ensure there is security in Afghanistan. But I make the point that both Foreign Minister Rassoul and I made on Thursday of last week, which is, in the end, Afghanistan can’t just be a security solution – it also has to be a political solution, and that’s why we strongly support the efforts that are occurring, led by the Afghan government, for a reconciliation with the Taliban – for a peaceful reconciliation between differing views in Afghanistan. And those members of the Taliban who agree to lay down their arms and abide by the Afghan constitution can enter into a political agreement with the Government and other political institutions in Afghanistan.
KATHRYN ROBINSON: Defence Minister, Stephen Smith, we are going to have to leave it there, thank you very much for joining us on Meet the Press this morning.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thank you. Thanks very much.