Australian Commonwealth Coat of Arms


8 August 2008

Interview with David Reyne and Kim Watkins, 9am with David and Kim

DAVID REYNE: Good morning, Stephen.

STEPHEN SMITH: Good morning, good to be here.

KIM WATKINS: Now we know ‘difficult diplomatic dance’ because any man who can get Condoleezza Rice to have coffee with him in Perth has got to be a pretty good diplomat.

SMITH: Well, not just with him but with his mum and dad and his wife and his son.

REYNE: Oh, and your son - the whole family.

WATKINS: How great is that?

SMITH: Well, she met our daughter at school because she went to our daughter's school, which was a triumph as well.

WATKINS: Absolutely.

SMITH: But, we turned up and had coffee. It was classic Australian experience because I picked up mum and dad and we're driving down to the coffee shop which is about three minutes drive from where they live, it's - we've been living in the same suburb for 40-odd years. And I am driving down and I say, "Got any cash, dad?" And he says "Oh, yes," he hands over $50. I use the $50 to pay for the coffees, pocketed the change and spent the rest on the weekend, so...


But the best bit was...

REYNE: What a con.

WATKINS: Yes, I like it.

SMITH: The best bit was, I said to Hugo, "Look, Maddie will see..."

REYNE: Your son...

SMITH: ... Hugo, my son, "Maddie will see the Secretary of State, you know, at her school but your only chance will be coffee. Do you want to come for coffee?" So, there's a bit of mumbling and grumbling. Then on the morning he says, "Yes, I'll come." That makes him late for school so Jane writes him out a late note and anyway we're about to finish coffee and he leans over and he says, "Madam Secretary, mum signed me a late night - a late note because I'll be a bit late for school but no-one's going to believe me, would you counter-sign it."

WATKINS: Oh, I love it.

SMITH: So Condoleezza Rice counter signs the late note and I say to him "Show don't give."


WATKINS: I was about to say, don't hand it over.

SMITH: Yes, so he's got it.

REYNE: How - that's - what a marvellous story.

WATKINS: That is so cool, isn't it?

REYNE: How significant is it?

SMITH: It's particularly interesting because nine months into the job and we know that the Howard Government had a very close allegiance to the US...

WATKINS: Well, Alexander Downer's told us about his close relationship with Condi...

REYNE: Yes, and some people were wondering whether your government, the Rudd Government would have the same kind of allegiance. It's very significant that you managed to sit in a café in Perth and have coffee with the Secretary of State.

SMITH: Well, I asked her to come and visit Perth the first time I met her to show off, you know, my home town. And in the end she said she was happy to come but she wanted to do what she called a home town visit. For example she invited David Miliband who's the British Foreign Secretary to California and they'd done a similar thing. So I wanted to show her off Perth, you know, which I am very proud of and Perth is becoming one of the great cities of the world.

WATKINS: Oh, Perth is a beautiful city.

SMITH: Absolutely, with lots of economic and social, intellectual horsepower. So we showed her Perth as well. But it did reflect the strength of the relationship between Australia and the United States. And every election you have this will the alliance continue with the change of government. And it endures, Liberal, Labor, Democrat, Republican. The other reason I wanted to take her to Perth because Perth is effectively the home town of the alliance because we forged the alliance with the United States...

WATKINS: That's right.

SMITH: the darkest days of World War II with John Curtin and of course he was a prime minister whose seat was in Fremantle.

WATKINS: It's very significant.

REYNE: I am keen to - I wonder what it's like, I mean, how important it is for Foreign Ministers to make personal relationships.

SMITH: Well, it's very important and you know I've been, sort of doing a lot of travelling and seeing and meeting a lot of my counterparts and so the second time you meet them the third time you meet them, you do build up a personal rapport which means that if there's a problem then you can get on the phone and have a conversation. You can ring them, you don't have to worry about doing the formal bilateral conversation...

WATKINS: Well, how does...

SMITH: …so it is important.

WATKINS: Well, I guess further to that, how does it then change with the American political landscape, of course we've got an election coming up...

SMITH: Well, go through the same sort of process. People will say, oh, there's a change of administration. It might be, you know, the McCain administration it might be an Obama administration, and what impact will this have on the relationship between Australia and United States. And after sort of a settling down period where the President meets the Prime Minister, the Secretary of Defence meets Joel Fitzgibbon and the new Secretary of State meets me...

WATKINS: You all shake and nod.

SMITH: ...[indistinct] it all settles down...


SMITH: ..and life goes on. Because that alliance continues to be very fundamental to our sort of, strategic and security and defence arrangements.

WATKINS: Well, you mentioned McCain and Obama of course. There is a late entry into the political race, just have a look.

[Beginning of excerpt file footage]

HILTON: Hey, America, I am Paris Hilton and I'm a celebrity, too. Only I'm not from the olden days and I'm not promising change like that other guy. I'm just hot. I am Paris Hilton and I approve this message because I think it's totally hot.

[End of file footage]

WATKINS: [Laughs]

REYNE: So would you be keen to take Paris to coffee?

SMITH: There are some things you should never touch.

REYNE: It's a further...

SMITH: I went to Hanoi, and one of the things they got me to do was to go to a restaurant which had some Australians contacts and to stand in the hot kitchen and sweat and cook some noodles. So I end up on Vietnamese TV with a silly hat. So first rule, never get caught in silly hats...

WATKINS: It's starting.

SMITH: ..but the golden rule, never get caught going anywhere near Paris Hilton.

REYNE: Just further, the logical other question to ask, in this conversation is that how difficult is it when you have to - you don't strike a relationship, you don't strike a good relationship. I am not suggesting that this is the case but recently you were in Fiji and we saw the pictures and it looked like difficult meetings when you were trying to get the issue of democracy up and running in Fiji.

SMITH: Obviously it doesn't help if you don't - if there's a bit of, sort of, personal disharmony between a President and a Prime Minister or a couple of Foreign Ministers doesn't help.

With Fiji it wasn't so much that, because I'd never met Commodore Bainimarama before, I'd met the interim Foreign Minister before. It's the tenseness of the very strong differing views. We actually had quite professional and civilised and pleasant conversations but they were strong views firmly held in different directions. We want them to have an election and return to democracy and respect human rights and they're dragging their feet.

And I was there with my colleagues from Papua New Guinea and Samoa, Tonga and New Zealand and we came to the conclusion if the political will was here, if they wanted to have an election, there's nothing stopping them. So they gave a promise to have an election by the end of March and the Prime Minister, Mr Rudd's going to the Pacific Island Forum in Niue in a couple of weeks time and that will really bring that issue to a head.

So sometimes you have a tenseness of a disagreement and sometimes there's just, you know, the scratchiness of not quite getting on.

WATKINS: Yes. Well, it's great to see that we are making some inroads in the Pacific but of course China is a completely different topic there. I mean, we're talking about serious human rights abuses and breaches and of course, an Olympic games is only highlighting those. But Australia quite differently, and Mr Rudd, differently to Mr Howard is very outspoken about his views.

SMITH: Well we have a very strong view about protection of human rights and every time we meet Chinese officials whether it's the Prime Minister and he's meeting the Chinese Premier and President today, or when I meet Foreign Minister Yang, we raise human rights issues. I most recently saw Foreign Minister Yang in Singapore for some ASEAN related meetings and I raised the Dalai Lama, raised Tibet, raised human rights, which we always do. I think it really crystallised when the Prime Minister went to Beijing University and in Mandarin on home turf said we want you to respect human rights, have a positive dialogue with the Dalai Lama. So we've been very strong about it, both publicly and privately.

WATKINS: That's got to be a fantastic secret weapon, the Prime Minister speaking Mandarin. It's got to help, doesn't it?

SMITH: Some people were saying, look, we should boycott the opening of the Olympics, and the Prime Minister and I said, no, that's not right.

China's engagement with the international community through something like the Olympics is a terrific thing, because it brings them out into the international community more. Some people think that's an old-fashioned view, but it does.

So you see earlier in the week, attempted restrictions on the internet, but they have now been forced in a sense to relax those because of the focus on the Olympics.

REYNE: How do you...

WATKINS: Relax; not completely though.

SMITH: No. No. Well, I mean, look, the reality is...

WATKINS: Small steps.

SMITH: ...China has made a lot of progress in this area and other areas for the last 30 odd years, but, we continue to have very serious concerns. There are very serious issues - Falun Gong, Tibet, the Dalai Lama, the Muslim Uighurs Group - you know, and not allowing sort of full freedom of expression or association. And we continue to press China on these issues.

REYNE: How is it done in a diplomatic sense? I mean, how do you...


REYNE: do you actually approach the President, the Prime Minister, and say, we have a problem with your human rights record...

WATKINS: And you know the meeting's going to be tense from the start.

SMITH: Well, with China, we have a, what we call formal bilaterals, which is just I sit down with the Chinese Foreign Minister, there are officials there, there are note takers and record keepers; it's a formal meeting. He speaks in Chinese. I speak in, I speak in Australian. If it's...

REYNE: Perth-ese.

SMITH: ...Perth-ese. If it's our Prime Minister, he speaks in Mandarin as well, so they don't need translators or interpreters.

And so that's a formal process, and we always raise it.

But, you also do it informally. I had a formal meeting with Foreign Minister Yung in Singapore with the ASEAN meetings, but I saw him in Paris - which was a meeting about Afghanistan, and what we call a donors conference; giving more money to try and build Afghanistan's capacity to health, education, to run their own affairs, in addition to their difficult security situation. So we're lining up for the photo queue, you know, for the big photo. So you turn up on the podium and there's Australia here and China there. You find out where your spot is and stand. And we were next to each other.

We then had a conversation about me saying, I'm going back to Perth, I'm going to see the Dalai Lama. I know you don't like that, but, you know, we are going to see him.

And, we had a conversation at the photo shoot about opening up and having a constructive dialogue with the Dalai Lama.

WATKINS: So you don't think to yourself, oh, I won't bring that up, that'll cause a stink?

SMITH: I think, the phrase that China always uses in terms of relationship is, it's important to have a relationship of mutual trust and respect. I think that's right. If you don't raise these difficult issues, then how can you really have, you know, that relationship?

It's the same, for example, with Indonesia. We have a first-class relationship with Indonesia. Very important country, you know, next to us.

WATKINS: And tense at times.

SMITH: And sometimes there are difficult issues, but, Foreign Minister Wirajuda, I'll be seeing him next week, I'm going to Jakarta on Monday, Tuesday - he and I have the same attitude - if we have a difficult issue, talk about it.

There's a good saying, which I got from the Indonesian President. We went to Bali for the climate change conference, and Kevin's having...

WATKINS: Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

SMITH: Yes, President Yudhoyono and Prime Minister Rudd's having a formal bilateral with him, and he says, he says, ‘Prime Minister, Indonesia has a perfect relationship with Iceland. A perfect relationship. We're so far away that we have nothing in common, so therefore the relationship's perfect.’ The closer you get, it's like families or neighbours, or communities, you know, the closer you are, there will always be issues.


SMITH: The question is making sure you deal with those issues in a way that doesn't disturb the fundamental fabric of the relationship.

REYNE: It's interesting isn't it? It brings up the whole question of the significance of the Asian Pacific region, and, there must be, the world must see it as a growing significance now, given...

SMITH: Oh, absolutely.

REYNE: ...given India and China.

SMITH: India. China. And also, the ASEAN countries - so, Singapore, Indonesia, you know, Thailand, that group of countries - their economy has significantly expanded in the last decade as well.

The economic, political, strategic influence is shifting to our region; shifting to the Asia Pacific, away from Europe and the Atlantic, to our area, which is why we want to be more active in the Asia Pacific, more engaged. It's very very important to our future prosperity and to our security and strategic arrangements.

REYNE: Because there must be, there must also be many - I'm thinking specifically about the smaller Pacific nations, who are enormously disadvantaged...

SMITH: Absolutely.

REYNE: ...because of their location.

SMITH: Because...

REYNE: And their dependence on...

SMITH: Well, their location. They're a long way away, so they're disproportionately adversely affected by fuel price increases or food price increases.

And so, with the Pacific, our attitude is, we want Australia to be a good international citizen. We're a significant, prosperous, developed country. So we've got a responsibility, in our view, in our own backyard in particular to give those countries who need a helping hand a helping hand.

Which is why we've, we're developing a thing called Pacific Partnerships for Development, where we enter into a partnership with the Pacific island nations - whether it's PNG, Samoa, Tonga - and we say, okay, how can we now help you provide the sorts of benefits and services and prosperous lifestyle that Australians get? How can we help with education, with health?

So we're looking at, you know, education programs, education, health programs, infrastructure, but also building their capacity to run their own affairs. How can we help their civil servants develop? How can we help their judges etcetera?

WATKINS: So there's clearly a lot of emphasis that the government is putting on itself in terms of being a good international leader and a good member of the community, because we're seeing...

SMITH: Absolutely.

WATKINS: ...more money than ever before...

SMITH: Absolutely.

WATKINS: ...spent on aid...

SMITH: Absolutely. I mean, we spend a lot of money on overseas development assistance.

We came to office with a, with a commitment to increase it to 0.5 per cent of our Gross National...

WATKINS: Well we were amongst the...

SMITH: ...Income.

WATKINS: ...lowest countries in the world. I mean, individually...

SMITH: Well I don't...

WATKINS: ...we're generous, but as a country...

SMITH: We, we...

WATKINS: ...we were stingy.

SMITH: I don't want to be politically pejorative, but over, over...

WATKINS: Oh go on.

SMITH: ...over the preceding decade, we had slipped, you know, we can do a lot better.

But, it's also important - we came to office...

REYNE: ...the most decent way of putting I've ever heard.

SMITH: ...we had three, three sort of fundamental pillars to our foreign policy approach. One is our alliance with the United States. We've spoken about that.

Second is our engagement in the Asia Pacific. And being a good international citizen and helping out in that area is also important. But it also gives us street cred. If we, if we are a good neighbour, a good partner, a good, you know, regional player in our area, it gives us street cred when we go to the United Nations and argue on other issues, which is our third pillar, which is, engagement in the United Nations in the multilateral forum.

Which we, and we think that, you know, the previous government didn't pay enough attention to the Asia Pacific, didn't pay enough attention to the United Nations and the other what we call multilateral forums where we all get together as nations.

That's important, because a lot of the problems we have now, you can't address by yourself - food security, climate change, transnational...

WATKINS: We need those relationships don't we?

SMITH: Exactly. Exactly.

REYNE: And given our role, or the government's to expand its role in the region, should we therefore have a seat on the UN Security Council?

SMITH: Well we, we say yes, and we've indicated we're going to campaign for a position for 2013/14.

We haven't been on the Security Council since 1986. It's too long a gap, you know.

You've often heard this phrase, you know, Australia punches above its weight. I hate it. You know, because it's not true.

Yes, it's true that in population terms we're about country number 50 - you know, 21 million people. But in economic terms, in terms of prosperity, income per capita, we're in the top 15. Size of our economy, top 15. Spending on defence and peacekeeping, we're in the top dozen.

We're a significant and considerable nation, and we've got great values and virtues; you know, attachment to democracy, respect for human rights, the notion of, you know, a helping hand, of a fair go. We should take those values and virtues to the world in a proud, you know, and active way. And that's what we want to do.

WATKINS: Yes. Look we, we are just about out of time, but I just wanted to know before we go, who you, who you find to be the greatest, or to have the greatest intellect - George Bush or Paris Hilton?


SMITH: Well...

REYNE: [Laughs] Careful now.

SMITH: said, you said when we started I had to be, I had to be a diplomat...

WATKINS: [Laughs].

SMITH:, so I'll have to go for the President of the United States. But, but also I do, I do...

WATKINS: [Laughs] that was backhanded compliment though.

SMITH: ...I do warn everyone, there are certain things you shouldn't touch.


SMITH: Paris one of them. But, just, I'll very quickly finish - you know, Australians are great for sort of nicknames etcetera.


SMITH: My young bloke plays cricket. He's a serious cricket player. And so he plays club and district. One of the guys who plays for another club - he's under 16s, under 17s, his name is Hilton, I won't give you his surname...


SMITH: ...but his first name is Hilton. All the guys call him Paris.

WATKINS: Of course. Of course.

SMITH: You know. So, when, you know, when Paris goes out to bat, they say, Paris is going out to bat, you know. So it's a classic.

REYNE: The poor bloke.

WATKINS: The poor kid, I know, he's got no chance has he?

SMITH: Well, he's actually quite a good bat, so he has a bit of a chance.


WATKINS: Lovely to talk to you.

SMITH: Great to see you.

REYNE: Thanks for your time Stephen.

WATKINS: Thank you so much. We really appreciate it.


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