Australian Commonwealth Coat of Arms


20 August 2009

Radio National interview with the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Stephen Smith, Sydney Morning Herald Journalist, Paul McGeogh and Fran Kelly

SUBJECTS: Afghan Elections; Australia-China relations.

FRAN KELLY: Earlier in the program we crossed to Afghanistan to speak with Brigadier Damien Cantwell, he's the Australian soldier coordinating security for today's presidential poll, he says that 85 to 90 per cent of the voting population, have registered, and will have access to polling centres, but he did concede that in some remote areas of the war-torn country, security simply can't be guaranteed.

Australia, along with other international forces, have invested heavily in today's presidential election, both in lives lost and aid given.

Foreign Minister, Stephen Smith, joins us from our Parliament House studio, minister, good morning.

STEPHEN SMITH: Good morning, Fran.

FRAN KELLY: Minister, there are all sorts of security concerns surrounding this poll, I wonder if you've had a briefing on the suggestion and reports that there's now 20 Taliban suicide bombers in position, in the capital, Kabul, for today's elections?

STEPHEN SMITH: I wouldn't propose to go into the detail of the advice that I've received, for the obvious reason. But I gave a Ministerial statement in the House the other day, and I made the point that Afghanistan of course, continues to be very difficult, and very dangerous. And my fear was that in the context of the election, which the Taliban are doing everything they can to disrupt, it would be even more dangerous.

And my fear was more attacks, and over the weekend of course, we saw a terrible attack in Kabul, so of course we're concerned. Making improvements in security in Afghanistan generally is very difficult, and making conditions for some broad participation in an election in Afghanistan, is also difficult. But it's important the election takes place, the first effectively Afghan-run election in 30 years. It's an important part of the process of restoring Afghanistan to a place where international terrorism can't flourish.

FRAN KELLY: Well what is the benchmark for success in these elections, will it be measured in the number of votes, or the number of lives lost?

STEPHEN SMITH: Obviously we don't want to see one life lost, but we know that in Afghanistan we've lost our own soldiers, some 11 now, other countries have had very many more casualties, and very many innocent Afghans have also been lost. We steel ourselves for that worse outcome.

But participation in the election, the holding, the conduct of the election, is a very important part of Afghanistan emerging as a nation state which can organise its own affairs, particularly on the security front which is why our focus has been not just security for security's sake but also significant nation-building, capacity-building efforts on the development systems and capacity building. So we have to put Afghanistan in the position where it can manage its own affairs in a way in which international terrorism can't flourish, where Afghanistan doesn't continue to be a hot bed or a training ground for international terrorism.

FRAN KELLY: Well all very well to have the goal of Afghanistan emerging as a secure state, but the question arising in some quarters, is what kind of state? President Hamid Karzai is the frontrunner in the elections, but his political horse trading has been extensive.

Sydney Morning Herald journalist, Paul McGeogh is in Kabul, and he said yesterday the legitimacy of Karzai and his government has been severely tarnished by reports of deal-making with former warlords. Let's have a listen.


PAUL MCGEOGH: The calibre of the deals that Karzai has done, border frankly, on the disgusting. He has freed drug traffickers from jail, pardoned rapists, gang rapists, he has signed off on a law that makes Shiite women obliged to have sex with their husbands, where their husbands are entitled to withhold food and shelter from them, he has brought back into his circle half a dozen of the worst warlords of the 1990s, these are people who, because of their place in Afghan history, they are feared, and they are loathed, by the bulk of the population. And he has promised more government offices than there are provinces to govern.

[Replay ends]

FRAN KELLY: Minister, what are Australian forces doing supporting a leader like President Karzai, dying for a leader like that?

STEPHEN SMITH: Firstly, we're not supporting President Karzai in his re-election. What we're supporting is an electoral process in Afghanistan, and we will deal with whoever emerges from that electoral process. It may be President Karzai, it may be another candidate.

Let me make a couple of comments about our view of the Karzai Government to date, and then some comments about the future. It's unquestionably the case that there has been an ebbing of confidence in the international community, so far as the Karzai Government has been concerned over the last 12 months. And the international community, including Australia, wants to see much greater progress on governance, on corruption, on anti-narcotics.

Australia has, as has the international community, expressed our very grave concerns about some of the suggestions so far as Shia law is concerned, and not meeting international human rights standards, so far as women are concerned.

Irrespective of who wins this election, the international community will require significant improvements, so far as the Government of Afghanistan is concerned in those areas. And that point's been made to Afghanistan, by Australia, by the international community.

The international community, and the domestic constituencies of the countries involved in the UN mandate in Afghanistan, will demand that. So whoever wins, they'll be judged on the progress they make on those fronts, irrespective of what suggestions there are currently floating around about deals that have been done, to curry up, or to seek electoral support.

FRAN KELLY: Okay, well whoever wins, the frontrunner at the moment is President Hamid Karzai, and as we've just heard, there are suggestions that he's been doing unholy deals to try and get re-elected. There's also widespread reports over vote-rigging, are you concerned about these allegations, and what percentage of the votes do you expect will be fraudulent votes?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well always in these matters, I think we're best off waiting until the event has occurred, and then doing our exhaustive analysis. I haven't, and don't propose to engage in speculation as to who might vote, and the fairness and the governance of the election itself. We have put a significant amount of effort into support for the Afghanistan Electoral Complaints Commission, to training officials, to in particular training women, so that they can be involved in the process, to seek to maximise the number of women who vote. But on issues like what the turn out might be, the sanctity or the rigour of the electoral process, all of these things will need to be exhaustively assessed.

But let's put it into this context, all of these things are occurring under very grave and difficult circumstances. Because the Taliban is trying to disrupt the election, by force of arms, threatening to kill and murder their own people. So part of the difficulty in organising an election is the Taliban's activities. And the Taliban are there because they are prepared to host, in their country, a breeding ground, a hot bed of international terrorism, which has adverse consequences for Australia, as we've seen in the last half dozen years, whether it's terrorist attacks in London, or New York or Bali, or in Jakarta, and that's why it continues to be in our national interest to be there under very difficult circumstances.

FRAN KELLY: Minister can we switch to China now and our relationship with China? Why has Australia's ambassador to Beijing been rushed back to Canberra?
STEPHEN SMITH: He hasn't been rushed back to Canberra. He comes back on a regular basis, he speaks to officials, and I'll be seeing him in the course of the day and I think my colleague Simon Crean will also see him.

So I've seen the flurry of reporting, excitable reporting today...

FRAN KELLY: That's because reporters in Beijing said events were cancelled at late notice.

STEPHEN SMITH: Well there may well have been events cancelled in Beijing because Ambassador Raby came back to here, but the long-term nature of our relationship with China is much more important than whether a media briefing was held or not held.

Let's not get all very excitable about what's occurring. We have a long-term, positive, constructive economic relationship with China. That relationship has grown and continues to grow over the years. In the last couple of years for the first occasion we've conducted with China a strategic dialogue at Foreign Ministerial level.

Now I have made it quite clear that at the moment there are a number of issues which are causing difficulty in the bilateral relationship. I've been very frank about that on Rebiya Kadeer and Stern Hu. I made it clear to the Parliament and to the public that when the Government did the right thing and allowed Rebiya Kadeer to come to Australia that that was in the face of very strong representations by the Chinese authorities not to let her in and that when I did not disturb the immigration arrangements and allow her to come, the Chinese were most unhappy about that.

And we've seen some adverse consequences flow as a result of that. But our approach is we take a long-term positive view of the relationship. These things need to be managed in a careful, cautious, sensible way. We're always best off avoiding getting excitable or excited, and we will continue to deal with these difficulties in the manner in which we have, which is methodically and carefully and sensibly.

FRAN KELLY: All very well, Minister but we'd better do something pretty quickly judging by the comments reported from the China Daily, which is the Communist Party's English language mouthpiece. It's quoted as saying yesterday 'Australia's Sino phobic politicians are leading an anti-China chorus and siding with the terrorists'. That's a reference to the exiled Uyghur leader. It also goes on in a poll to say that 87 per cent of respondents believe China should take reprisals through practical measures including boycotting tourism and study in Australia. This could have real costs.

STEPHEN SMITH: This all comes under the category of what I describe as Chinese authorities and China being most unhappy about Australia allowing Rebiya Kadeer to visit. Why did we allow her to visit? Because it was the right thing to do, because it reflected our values and our virtues.

We know that Australia and China have different systems and different values, and as a necessary consequence of that from time to time there will be differences and there will be difficulties. But yesterday we saw our economic relationship continuing. The fact that there are a whole range of economic and other matters which is in Australia's and China's mutual national interest to prosecute and pursue. And so yesterday for example we saw the largest trade deal Australia has ever effected with China or generally. And so that is ongoing.

In the meantime both in China through our Ambassador and in Australia through our officials and through our Ministerial contact we continue to manage in a calm, sensible, careful way these difficulties which emerge because from time to time on issues there are different values and we fully intend to continue to reflect Australian values and virtues in these matters.

But there's no simple, one line throwaway solution to these matters. Which is why in recent days I've been very critical of those people who have suggested or pretended to suggest that somehow in a complex, complicated, difficult, sophisticated, long-term relationship that there is an easy solution when these difficulties arise. They can only be dealt with calmly and by perseverance over the long term, and that's precisely what we're doing. The Ambassador for example comes back from time to time. This is frankly a very good time for him to come back because this is a good time to have a conversation with him.

FRAN KELLY: Okay. Foreign Minister thank you very much for your time on Breakfast. We appreciate it.

STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks, Fran. Thanks very much.


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