Australian Commonwealth Coat of Arms


25 November 2008

Interview with Kieran Gilbert, Sky News AM Agenda

Subjects: Zimbabwe; Russia; Doha Round; Fiji; Hilary Clinton

GILBERT: Good morning and welcome to AM Agenda.

Foreign Minister Stephen Smith - Mr Smith, thanks for your time.

SMITH: Pleasure.

GILBERT: Kofi Annan, the former UN chief has reportedly said that Zimbabwe is on the brink of collapse.

I understand you've got an announcement about Australian aid to make in relation to Zimbabwe.

SMITH: Well we share the concern that he's expressed; together with the other elders - former President Carter, and Graça Machel.

We think Zimbabwe is in a terrible state, a terrible situation.

The UN have recently requested further assistance and I'm announcing today further immediate humanitarian assistance from Australia of $8 million. Six million dollars for immediate food assistance, and that'll go to the World Food Program, and $2 million to non-government organisations - to NGOs - for water and sanitation, because we've seen in recent days a serious cholera outbreak.

GILBERT: Okay. Well how - two questions relating to that - how quickly can this have an effect? Because we're hearing about food running out by before Christmas. And secondly, are you confident that Mugabe won't get his hands on this money?

SMITH: Well, this will make about $20 million of humanitarian assistance, largely food, that we've announced in the course of this year.

Whilst we've got sanctions against Zimbabwe, whilst we've been very critical, quite rightly critical, of the brutal Mugabe regime - and we're very concerned there still hasn't been a political settlement - we have continued to provide humanitarian assistance to the Zimbabwe people.

The World Food Program is the best agency to get food delivered on the ground and the non-government organisations to whom the $2 million will go, have also got a presence on the ground. So we're as confident as we can be that we'll deliver that food.

But, our attitude frankly is, circumstances are so desperate, so terrible, that we've got to do something.

And so, the announcement that we make today adds to previous contributions, but it just adds to the terrible news that we continue to get out of Zimbabwe.

We want a political compact. We want Mugabe and Tsvangirai to agree upon a government so they can start acting to improve the economy and to improve the terrible social circumstances.

GILBERT: Is that likely? What sort of timeline are you looking at for that?

SMITH: We've been waiting over a month. There was a political compact agreed between Mr Tsvangirai and Mugabe, brokered by former President Mbeki. We've now been waiting a month as they continue to fight over portfolios.

We continue to urge the neighbouring African states - the Southern African Development Community - to continue to put pressure to bear.

Our ideal solution has always been, or our ideal position has always been for Mr Mugabe to walk off the stage. If he won't do that, then something which goes some way to reflecting the political will, but at least has a functioning government, to stop the terrible calamity that continues to occur.

GILBERT: Okay. Well we've got a lot of issues to get across today. The second one I want to ask you about is the prospect of an Australian uranium deal with Russia.

Alexander Downer signed an agreement last September. There have been doubts as to whether the Labor Government will honour that. But, your Foreign Minister counterpart Lavrov has said that Australia has assured us that measures would be taken for a successful ratification. That follows talks between Mr Rudd and Medvedev in Peru. Are we going to ratify it or not?

SMITH: Well it also follows talks that I had with Mr Lavrov myself in Lima in the last few days.

And the point I made to Foreign Minister Lavrov is precisely the same point that the Prime Minister made to President Medvedev, which is, we have the report of the Parliamentary Committee on the proposed Australia-Russia nuclear agreement. We're currently considering that. And we will make a parliamentary response to that in due course.

The other point of course we've made to Russia is that we continue to consider generally Russia's conduct so far as Georgia is concerned. And I made that point at the time of the publication of the Parliamentary Report.

So, we're having a close look at the Parliamentary Report, but we're also considering our general bilateral relation with Russia, but also Russia's conduct generally.

GILBERT: But, the tone of this comment is, Australia assured us that measures would be taken for a successful ratification. Is he over . . . is he too optimistic in that statement then?

SMITH: Well, what I assured him of, and what the Prime Minister assured President Medvedev of is that we're going through a parliamentary process. We'll respond to the Parliamentary Committee's report in due course, and we'll bear, not just our bilateral relationship with Russia in mind, but also their recent conduct.

GILBERT: But the committee says to abstain from that ratification. So, if you're going to bear that in mind, does that mean you're not going to ratify this?

SMITH: No, we we've made it clear that we will give serious consideration to ratification.

There is of a course a parliamentary process. The Treaty Committee considers these agreements, which it did a couple of months ago. And at the time I made clear then - which I repeat again today - which I also made clear to Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov when I met him in Peru recently, we'll consider the report, we'll give it very serious consideration. We want to consider the report in the context of making sure that we've got the best possible safeguards; but we will also take into account Russia's recent international activity and the state of our bilateral relations with them.

GILBERT: It seems that he's got a different impression though, after the talks between Mr Rudd and Medvedev.  He's very very optimistic here?

SMITH: Well, I think he is optimistic. It was quite clear to me from my conversations with Russian officials early in the piece, but also with Foreign Minister Lavrov, that Russia is very keen to pursue or proceed with the agreement.

But we have a parliamentary process that we will go through very carefully. We will consider the highest standard so far as safeguards are concerned - which is Australia's usual approach in this area - but we'll also consider the state of our bilateral relations with Russia and Russia's recent conduct in Georgia and Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

GILBERT: Okay. On the global financial crisis, the Chancellor Alistair Darling in the United Kingdom has announced a $47 billion stimulus package.

You've got the APEC ministers, prime ministers agreeing to a ministerial level set of talks now in Geneva next month on the Doha Round of free trade.

It seems there's a lot of international will, but is it all going to come together? Is it going to work? And will Doha finally get up next month do you think?

SMITH: Well, what the United Kingdom Government has done overnight is consistent with the G20 resolution in Washington, which was for fiscal stimulus packages - which Australia did some time ago with our $10 billion package, which comes into effect in early December - also consistent with what the Chinese did recently. So we welcome that effort at fiscal stimulus.

The other key point of both the G20 and APEC ministerial meeting - which both Simon Crean and I attended - and also the leaders meeting which the Prime Minister is now returning from, was to try and bring the Doha round to a successful conclusion. And, in that respect, Australia very strongly made the point that that's unambiguously in the world's interest.

Officials have been instructed to go to Geneva, and they're there now trying to work on that arrangement. And Simon Crean will go to Geneva himself, with other trade ministers, before the end of this month.

GILBERT: So there might be a positive out of the turmoil?

SMITH: Well certainly we're putting our shoulder to the wheel. Certainly, Simon Crean has been making the point for some time that we've got to try and bring it to a successful conclusion. And the urgency, the need to do that is now so much more profound, given the global financial crisis we're going through.

GILBERT: Okay. A couple of other issues - Fiji has promised to hold elections early next year, and yet recently we've seen, in the last couple of days, they've slashed their funding for the Electoral Commission there.

They're not really serious about this are they?

SMITH: We're very concerned, as we've made clear, about their lack of political will. The interim Prime Minister Bainimarama promised the Pacific Island Forum a couple of years ago that he would hold an election by the end of March next year.

If they have the political will, that's still open to them. But in recent days they have cut the funding in their budget for election purposes. And, we're very disappointed by that. We think that's a backward step.

Of course, Australia, as the other Pacific Island Forum nations do, stand ready, willing and able to render assistance in the conduct of an election, whether it's expertise, personnel or money.

GILBERT: But it doesn't look good does it?

SMITH: It doesn't look good. And, at the moment as we speak, there's a UN delegation in Fiji.

One very small positive we saw in recent weeks was a political dialogue for the first time in a long time. Interim Prime Minister Bainimarama had a political conversation with other political leaders in Fiji - a Prime Ministerial dialogue. We welcomed that, and we encouraged that.

And, the UN delegation is there at the moment, seeing whether it can add pressure to return Fiji to democracy. And there's a real prospect that, in the course of next month, before the end of the year, that the Pacific Island Forum Ministerial Contact Group - of which I am a member - will also return to Fiji seeking to put more pressure on them to hold an election.

GILBERT: Okay. Well, just finally, one other issue I want to get your thoughts on, the transition at the White House is obviously in full swing at the moment, talk that Hilary Clinton will be the next Secretary of State. Would you welcome working with a Secretary of State Clinton?

SMITH: Well we would welcome, obviously whoever the President-elect nominates and who the Congress approves. And so we'll leave that to him and to the Congress.

Of course, Senator Clinton is very well regarded in the United States, very well regarded in Australia. So obviously we would work with her if she's the choice of the President-elect.

But, we'll wait for that to occur through their processes.

It's been no surprise that Senator Obama has announced his Treasury transitional team, in some respects a bit early, but given the global financial crisis, that's no surprise. We certainly welcomed that.

His new Treasury Secretary is held in very high regard. The Prime Minister met him in New York, when he was there, together with me, for the General Assembly. He's very well regarded, so that's obviously a good appointment, and we welcome that.

GILBERT: Is it the fact that Bill Clinton's got those interests abroad, various funding questions relating to his foundation, that's holding back the Clinton announcement do you think?

SMITH: Well, it's not for me to sort of, you know, do a running commentary on their processes. But, they do a very exhaustive, effectively a due diligence to make sure that there are no potential difficulties. And they do that as a matter of course. Because, these senior appointments - Treasury Secretary, Secretary of State, Defence Secretary, are all subject to congressional approval.

So, they proceed in an exhaustive way, and that's obviously been part of the public commentary about the possibility of Senator Clinton being appointed as Secretary of State.

But, we will work positively with whoever the President nominates - just as we look very much forward to working with the new US Administration on a whole range of very difficult international issues - climate change, global financial crisis, and some very serious non-proliferation issues, particularly Iran and North Korea.

GILBERT: Foreign Minister Stephen Smith, as always, appreciate your time.

SMITH: Thanks very much.


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