Interview: Robert Hill
September 29, 2002
Reporter : Laurie Oakes
Intro:With the Prime Minister just back from talks with Britain about the Blair dossier on Saddam Hussein's weapons of destruction, and the U.S. continuing to push for a new tough resolution from the United Nations, Laurie Oakes talks to Defence Minister, Robert Hill, who warned this week that Australia faces a regional arc of militant Islamic influence ...
REPORTER: Good morning, Jim. Senator Hill, welcome to the program.
SENATOR ROBERT HILL - DEFENCE MINISTER: Thank you, Laurie.
REPORTER: Could I put to you the specific question raised by Ross Coulthart in his report on people smugglers and Australia's policy of disruption. Ross said, what no one in the government tried to deny this week was the possibility that someone in Indonesia did sink boats in an overzealous pursuit of Australia's disruption policy. Can you deny that?
HILL: I've heard no suggestion of that through any formal source at all and it's principally come from your program and from Senator Faulkner.
REPORTER: So, you ... the Federal Police answered that question for you, did they? Did they investigate that?
HILL: Well, the Federal Police have been appearing before the Senate Committee. They are subject to public scrutiny in that regard. I hear that you say there are further unanswered questions, there'll obviously be the occasion for them to have those questions asked again. But I'm confident that no Australian instrumentality would take action that would put lives at risk.
REPORTER: But if that happened, if someone in Indonesia did this because they thought it's what we wanted. Would you want to know or is it more comfortable for the government not to know?
HILL: Well, if I'm confident that no law authority, no Australian institutional body would act in this way. It's inappropriate to therefore speculate and hypothetically ask me the next question.
REPORTER: All right. Well, the issue of Iraq - which also contains some hypotheticals (laughs) - Saddam Hussein has rejected the American and British proposal for a tough new UN Security Council resolution on weapons inspection. If he sticks to that, does that mean war?
HILL: Well, armed conflict war should be the absolute last resort. Our objective ... the objective is the end of the weapons of mass destruction program, and I think there's quite a way to go before we can say that all diplomatic efforts and other efforts that are designed to achieve that outcome have failed.
And I think we've good signs in recent times of the Arab nations, other surrounding nations, joining together and seeking to influence him to accept that really nothing short of the end of that weapons program will be acceptable. As I said, I think it's got a way to go yet.
REPORTER: The New York Times says if the latest statement stands as Iraq's last word, quote, this refusal could mark the beginning of the transition from diplomacy to war. Do you see it that way?
HILL: Well, Saddam Hussein's first position is always to say no. Generally, in the past, he's only accommodated the international community when he's believed there is absolutely no other alternative. So, no, I think it that ... I think it should be taken step by step. The resolution hasn't even been put to the Security Council yet, there's obviously going to be debate on that.
But I think the important thing is that the pressure be maintained, because it's only pressure that will bring us the chance of an end to this threat without the use of armed force.
REPORTER: Well, despite the efforts of persuasion of America's special envoy who's been to Paris and to Moscow, Russia and France are standing firm against the proposed resolution. How serious a setback is that?
HILL: Well, I think it's a bit disappointing because it, in some ways, weakens that international pressure and international resolve. If all the big players were absolutely resolved in the form of their demand from the outset, it seems to me that puts more pressure on Saddam Hussein.
I don't think it's fatal, because what they are arguing for is not that he shouldn't end the weapons of mass destruction program, but of the form of resolution that should be put and passed by the Security Council. But every hint at differences within the broader international community and particularly the large players, the permanent reps on the Security Council and so forth, is, I think, (laughs) actually unhelpful in terms of applying that pressure to end this matter short of armed conflict.
REPORTER: Is Australia playing any role in all this diplomatic toing and froing? Are we trying to put pressure on France and Russia?
HILL: I ... well, I'm not the person to ask that question. I know that we have been offering support for a strong resolution and a strong resolution to be passed promptly.
REPORTER: Well, one of today's newspapers, the Sunday Herald Sun, says Australia's defence chiefs are preparing for the possible deployment of hundreds of regular ground troops in a war against Iraq. Is that true?
HILL: Well, I think the way you've put it to me is not fair, is not true. What we've ... what we're doing is contingency planning. All defence forces do that and all defence departments do that so that if we get to the situation where government asks defence the question, defence will be able to give appropriate answers in terms of our capabilities, our preparedness and matters of that like.
But there have been no specific preparations dedicated to a campaign in Iraq.
REPORTER: Now, you say you're doing contingency planning.
REPORTER: Does that contingency planning extend to how we pay for any war effort?
HILL: What we've done in the past and what we would have to do in this instance is seek additional funding for the extra costs that would be involved. We did that in relation to Timor, we did it for the war against terror and we'd have to do it in this instance the same way.
REPORTER: Are we talking huge money?
HILL: Well, it would be ... again, this is all hypothetical.
HILL: And I'm a touch uncomfortable, because we actually want the diplomatic process to work, we want an end to this weapons threat without conflict, but if Australia was involved - yes, it would be expensive. You can't do these things on the cheap.
REPORTER: So a special tax levy?
HILL: (Laughs) Well, again, that's ... you know, that may be an option, but we've been able to pay for our contribution to other conflicts without having to do that.
REPORTER: Would you prefer to see that avoided?
HILL: Well, that's a question of the overall budgetary planning and framework and objectives. We pride ourselves on being a low tax government.
REPORTER: The experts are saying that this time it will be different from the Gulf War, that Saddam has learned his lesson and won't fight in the desert but will base his troops and artillery in the cities. Is that what your experts are telling you?
HILL: Again, I'm a touch uncomfortable sort of covering this ground while the questions haven't even been specifically asked of defence. But the ... you know, I said the other day I think that there is a view coming out of authoritative defence sources across the world that this may not be a long conflict, that there will be a very powerful force against Saddam Hussein, and the objective would be to destroy the weapons program as quickly as possible.
Now, I suspect that quite a lot of the weapons program is out of the major cities and therefore there will be obviously action out of the major cities. But he may retreat to the protection behind civilian shields, in effect. He's done it in the past and could do it again.
REPORTER: The opposition to a war, particularly without UN backing, is becoming more and more impressive - we've had former political leaders, former military chiefs, a former head of the Foreign Affairs Department, the RSL President. That must be worrying for the government.
HILL: We've obviously got to take those views seriously - they're, you know, highly respected people and we respect their views. Our preference is a collective response through the Security Council, the Security Council actually accepting its international responsibility and if it gets to that stage, authorising an action to enforce its resolutions. But beyond that, we've got to acknowledge that the UN Charter does allow for self-defence, and self-defence in terms of non-state players and terrorist activity and weapons of mass destruction cannot be defined in quite as limiting terms as has been the case in the past.
REPORTER: Well Peter Lindsay, one of your own MPs who represents the biggest military base in Australia, says we shouldn't act without UN backing. Overnight there have been huge anti-war demonstrations in London and Rome. Do you see this opposition as an important factor for the government, or will you defy it if necessary?
HILL: Well, Peter Lindsay I think now understands that even the United States accepts constraints, and I showed him the doctrine that they've just released a day or so before his comment, in which they are talking in terms of self-defence, they're not talking about something that goes beyond that.
In relation to the broader community that argue that there should be sanctions through the Security Council, as I've said, that is our preference. But if the Security Council fails to meet that responsibility the United States still accepts it ... it still regards the weapons program as an unacceptable threat to which they must respond and seeks our support, then we'll consider that in terms of Australia's national interest at that time. And...
REPORTER: Would the government be game to say no to George Bush?
HILL: The government will make a decision in Australia's national interest. It is true that when our principal ally and friend under the alliance, the United States, has felt threatened in the past and asked us for support, we have supported them, and it's not surprising that an alliance partner would generally act in that way. But we would have... if it got to that situation, we would have to look at all the circumstances. Is the use of force justified in terms of self-defence? Do the facts warrant that? What is being asked of Australia, do we have the capability to meet that without unacceptable risk?
All of those national interest questions we would have to asks, and we will make the decision in Australia's national interest, not in the national interest of any other country?
REPORTER: The final issue - have you or the Prime Minister carpeted Small Business Minister Joe Hockey for that parliamentary interjection when he appeared to accuse the former SAS Commander Brigadier Jim Wallace of treason?
HILL: I haven't spoken to him. I was obviously in another house at the time, I saw the reports that he denied that he said that about former Brigadier Wallace. I can't imagine Hockey ... I don't think that's Hockey's style, I can't imagine him saying that and I gather there are differing versions of what must have been a rather heated moment.
REPORTER: If he was referring to the ALP, which is what he told the chamber, is it treasonous for an Opposition to question ... to ask questions about our defence preparedness?
HILL: No, it's not treason, of course it's not.
REPORTER: So, what should be done? I mean, should Mr Hockey be carpeted?
HILL: Well, you've got to establish the facts (laughs), and I think that the... you know, that's not a job for me, that's ... if the Prime Minister thinks that the version warrants his intervention he will intervene and establish the facts and respond appropriately. But, as I said, I know Hockey pretty well and he doesn't strike me as that type of person.
He's ... I cannot imagine him saying that about a respected former Army officer, and I actually can't imagine him saying it about the Opposition. You know, whatever we might think about the Opposition, and as much as we would like them to be supportive of our position because our position is designed to put that pressure upon Saddam Hussein that I was speaking of, and to end this stand-off short of military conflict, but as I said, whatever you think about them I wouldn't regard them as treasonous.
REPORTER: Senator Hill, we thank you.
HILL: A pleasure, Laurie.
REPORTER: Back to you, Jim.