Australian Commonwealth Coat of Arms


19 December 2008

Interview - Sky News Australia, Australian Agenda

Subjects: Afghanistan and Pakistan; asylum seekers and the use of Christmas Island; Japanese whaling

COMPERE:                  And joining us now on the final PM Agenda program for the year is the Foreign Minister Stephen Smith in Perth.

Mr Smith, thanks for your time.

We've seen another death in Afghanistan. This is the eighth Australian. Seven years on, is this war winnable?

STEPHEN SMITH:       Well, firstly, as the Prime Minister has done I relay my sympathies to his family. Any death is a tragedy. We've had less than 10 deaths in Afghanistan and the British have had over 100. He of course was a dual Australian-British national, fighting for the British army.

We continue to believe that Afghanistan - having a presence in Afghanistan, combating extremism and terrorism in Afghanistan is in our national interest and in the international community's interest. And that's why we've got a considerable combat contribution there, but also we're making a very considerable civilian reconstruction or capacity building contribution. And also we've made the point that there also has to be at some stage a political settlement, a political dialogue amongst the political leadership of Afghanistan.

So we continue to very strongly take the view that being in Afghanistan is in our national interest to be there to combat terrorism.

COMPERE:                  Pakistan remains central to this conflict amid ongoing suggestions that elements of the Pakistani intelligence service are providing support in those lawless tribal regions to insurgents, to the Taliban. Is Pakistan cooperating in all of this?

STEPHEN SMITH:       The government of Pakistan certainly is.  We've been saying, the Australian Government has been saying for some time that we need to regard the difficulties in Afghanistan as, if you like, in Afghanistan and Pakistan. For some time the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area has been effectively the hotbed of international terrorism.

It's now quite clear that Pakistan has much more substantial difficulties than that. And President Zardari and Foreign Minister Qureshi have made it clear that they'll do everything they can to stare down terrorism. And the international community and Australia have indicated that we're prepared to stand shoulder to shoulder with Pakistan as they do that. Australia is part of the Friends of Democratic Pakistan which was formed at the United Nations General Assembly when the General Assembly was meeting in September of this year.

So we're very strongly supportive of Pakistan. And, as everyone knows, they've had their difficulties in the course of this year, starting with former President Bhutto's assassination and some terrible bombings as well.

COMPERE:                  President-elect Obama is signalling that he wants more international support in Afghanistan. You and your colleagues in the Government have been suggesting that Australia won't be lifting its contingent in Afghanistan. Is that the best way to start relations with a new administration to be rejecting that sort of request?

STEPHEN SMITH:       Well, President Obama's Administration commences on 20 January. He's made it clear in the course of the election campaign that he believes that an enhanced contribution should be made in Afghanistan. But he's also made the point that that contribution has to be not just the military or a combat contribution but it also needs to be a capacity building or a civil reconstruction contribution as well.

We are the largest non-NATO contributor to the international forces in Afghanistan. And the point that we've been making is that the 1100 troops that we have in Afghanistan, we believe that's a very substantial contribution.

I've made it clear that we are open-minded about whether we increase the contribution that we're making on the civilian reconstruction side. Australia has contributed something in the order of $600 million over the last half-dozen years and we're certainly open-minded about making a further contribution to try and rebuild the Afghan nation and rebuild the institutions of state.

But our strong…

COMPERE:                  But not open-minded when it comes to more troops? Not open-minded when it comes to more troops?

STEPHEN SMITH:       Absolutely. We've made it clear, given that we've got 1000 to 1100 combat forces in Afghanistan, that's a considerable contribution, the largest non-NATO contribution, that is a substantial contribution in our own national interest but also a regional and international community contribution.

COMPERE:                  Okay. On to another matter, the detention centre on Christmas Island is going to be opened, given the recent influx of unauthorised boat arrivals. Are you comfortable with the use of that facility, Mr Smith, particularly given some refugee advocates are describing it as a prison-like facility?

STEPHEN SMITH:       Well, it was built by the previous government under the Howard Government's immigration detention centre regime. The Immigration Minister Chris Evans has made it clear that he doesn't regard that facility as being appropriate to detain women, families and children. But he has indicated that, subject to the demand and subject to the arrivals, that facility will be used effectively for adult males. And because of the most recent arrival, a boat load of some 37, he and the Department have indicated that the facility, the new facility will be used to take care of those new arrivals.

But for women, for families, for children, they will continue to be housed in the community style accommodation which already exists on Christmas Island. And this is consistent with our longstanding approach that we don't believe it's appropriate for children, for example, to be detained behind razor wire.

So that high security detention facility, the new facility will be used as demand requires for adult males but not for families or for women or for children.

COMPERE:                  You have said that it's - that this influx that we're seeing in recent months is part of a seasonal trend. But is it just a coincidence that it coincides with the Government decision to scrap temporary protection visas in August. And then we've seen this influx of illegal boat arrivals. Is it just a coincidence?

STEPHEN SMITH:       Well, I've said that it's much more than seasonal. I've said, yes, there are seasonal factors at play. But also what is really at play here is what we describe as push factors. We know that whether it's Iraq, whether it's Afghanistan in particular, or whether it's Sri Lanka, in countries where there are very grave difficulties people are pushed away from those countries and they try and get refuge in other parts of the world including Australia. So that is very much at the focus of what is occurring.

It's also the case in our analysis that the people smugglers are becoming more sophisticated, adopting new and different techniques to try and get people to our shores, to our borders.

But the abolition of the temporary protection visa system, in the Government's view, plays no role in the arrivals. When the previous government, the Howard Government introduced the temporary protection visa system that didn't play any part in stopping or stemming the flow of unlawful arrivals, asylum seekers who were coming at that point in time. Indeed, on the contrary, the numbers increased.

And we announced our decision about temporary protection visas in the first quarter of this year and there was no sudden influx. So we don't see those related.

But we do see the need, as we've made clear, to be very vigilant about our border protection and surveillance, and we're doing that, but also working very closely with our neighbours in the region, in particular Indonesia where very many of the people smugglers try and ferry or transport people through.

COMPERE:                  Foreign Minister, you've just arrived back from Japan. You're back in Perth now but you were over in Japan the last couple of days. You raised the whaling issue with your counterpart over there. But are the Japanese really listening? It looks like they're ignoring every request the Government is making. The whaling fleet has got off to the Southern Ocean again. They're going to not reduce their cull. It looks like they're playing us for mugs.

STEPHEN SMITH:       Well, I made two points to the Japanese. I was in Tokyo with Joel Fitzgibbon, the Defence Minister, for the meeting of Foreign and Defence Ministers, the so-called 2+2 meeting, which is a very important strategic and security meeting that we have with Japan. I met both with Prime Minister Aso and also with my Foreign Ministerial counterpart, Foreign Minister Nakasone.

I made two points essentially to them. The first one was that we continue to want through diplomatic measures to have Japan cease whaling in the Great Southern Ocean. I expressed my disappointment that the Japanese whaling fleet had sailed, and I'd also expressed my very strong disappointment that they'd indicated no reduction in this year or this season's cull.

I also made a second point which I think is very important, that we now see the prospect and the potential and the danger of a clash between the Japanese whaling vessels and the protest vessel of the Sea Shepherd, in the Great Southern Ocean where the risk of injury or fatality is high and the prospect of a rescue is very low.

So I've urged, as Peter Garrett, the Environment Minister has, restraint so far as both the Sea Shepherd and the Japanese whaling vessels are concerned because anything untoward occurs it's very, very difficult, if not nearly impossible, to render assistance in the very difficult circumstances we find in the Great Southern Ocean.

COMPERE:                  The diplomatic approach has failed for years. When do you say enough is enough and take legal action?

STEPHEN SMITH:       Well, in our case we've been pursuing these measures for 12 months, and it's a trite line but it's also true; we've done more, we believe, in 12 months than the previous Howard Government did in 12 years.

We've made it clear to the Japanese that we want to resolve this through diplomatic measures, both bilateral measures whether it's through the representations I make, whether it's through the representations our special envoy Sandy Holway makes, or whether it's through the multilateral discussions that I had in the International Whaling Commission.

But we've also indicated that if we don't believe we can solve the thing through diplomatic measures then legal action remains a possibility, and that legal action either through the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea or the International Court of Justice is there as a possibility which we continue to hold open as one of our options.

COMPERE:                  Back in 2005 Kevin Rudd issued a media release in which he said, we cannot afford another year of complacency. This is in 2005. And he says, the Howard Government must act immediately to take Japan to the International Court of Justice.

Now, that was immediately back in July of '05. When is action going to be taken?

STEPHEN SMITH:       And during a 12 year period effectively where the Howard Government did nothing.

We've done a range of things which we think are putting pressure on the Japanese. We sent the Oceanic Viking down there last season to get video and photographic evidence which will be available to us to use in an International Court action if we proceed down that path. We've made the strongest representations over the last 12 months from Prime Ministerial level down. We've appointed a special envoy, and we've also taken substantial measures to launch new programs before the International Whaling Commission to seek to encourage the Japanese to their so-called lethal scientific whaling to non-lethal scientific research.

We are putting all the pressure we can on the them and we continue to urge them to cease their program.

But, as I say, we continue to hold open other options if we don't, in our view, become successful in our efforts in those diplomatic respects.

COMPERE:                  Just finally, Minister, we've had many discussions throughout the year on our Agenda programs, the AM and PM Agenda. This is our final program for 2008. Hopefully we'll get to speak to you many times next year.

But I just want to get your assessment of what you think Australia's major strategic challenge will be in 2009 in the year ahead.

STEPHEN SMITH:       Well, there are many. I think in the first instance it will be establishing the personal contacts with the new Obama Administration. We've often made the point that Administrations and Governments in Australia and the United States come and go and the Alliance is enduring and continues.

But you do need to make and establish those personal contacts, in my case with Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton and the Prime Minister with President Obama. So we need to bed down the working relationships of the Alliance.

There are then a range of challenges. There's the ongoing difficulties in Afghanistan and Pakistan that we've referred to. We want to further enhance the work we've been doing in our region, in the Asia Pacific, particularly with our Pacific development issues. And I've also made it clear we need to do more so far as Africa is concerned, and we'll be doing that in the course of the first half of next year.

So the job's never done; there are plenty of challenges and I certainly look forward to speaking to you about those in the course of next year.

COMPERE:                  Well, enjoy the test match at the WACA in Perth. Merry Christmas to you and your family and thanks again.

STEPHEN SMITH:       Thanks very much to you, and all the best to you and your viewers for Christmas and the New Year. Thanks Kieran.

COMPERE:                  Thanks Stephen.


Media Inquiries: Foreign Minister's office (02) 6277 7500