23 September 2001

BARRIE CASSIDY: The Federal Government has said it will assist the war against capabilities, but what are those capabilities and what will the mention expect from us? I am joined now by Defence Minister Peter Reith.

PETER REITH: Good morning, Barrie.

BARRIE CASSIDY: Committed to the limit of our capabilities, what does that really mean?

PETER REITH: Well, that we do have pretty significant capabilities. Obviously there are limits on Australia's capabilities, but against a backdrop where we have been spending more money, more resources, and have undertaken a significant reform the Australian defence force, we are certainly in a much better position than what we were some years ago. When we came into office, the teeth-to-tail ratio - that's the insiders terminology for the balance between combat support, combat and sort of bureaucratic administrative balances within the defence force - was 42 per cent. Today it is 62 per cent and well on the way the target of 65 per cent that we have set. Look, whilst we are busy in defence today, we are in a reasonable position to back up those statements that we have made.

BARRIE CASSIDY: What are we particularly good at, in the context of the sort of conflict that lies ahead?

PETER REITH: We are pretty good at quite a lot of things, for example, we've had very positive reports about the work of HMAS Anzac in the Persian Gulf on sanctions-busting work. The Americans have been very positive about that, in terms of changing tactics. In the RAAF we have very good pilots and on the ground, some of our units - without pulling out one in particular - but our units are as good as any, Barrie.

BARRIE CASSIDY: And that implies ground forces may be used, Australian ground forces?

PETER REITH: Well, that has not been ruled out. The PM was asked that question and answer is we're not ruling anything in or out. Obviously there are prospects of that but we have to wait and see.

BARRIE CASSIDY: Given that the world has now been told to expect a long campaign, should we be building up our numbers, the regulars and reserves, and should we be targeting our training to the specific conflict in mind?

PETER REITH: Well, two answers to that. As far as our numbers are concerned, we have been running a big campaign to build our numbers, so all our recruit schools today are full. We have people queuing outside our recruit schools, so we are managing that and doing that well. In terms of resources and the structure of our forces, one of the strengths of the White Paper last year was to say, you have got to give a government as many options as possible within the resources you are allocating. You need to appreciate, we have been allocating more resources, so in intelligence, for example, which an important area in the future. We've got a consistent build-up of intelligence resources over the decade and in other non-defence intelligence agencies, ACEIS for example, a 23 per cent increase this year. For embassy protection, we had substantially more funds in this year's Budget. So you are seeing a build-up prior to this, given that 'options-available' approach which we set out in the White Paper.

BARRIE CASSIDY: Obviously the defence portfolio is going to be critical now in the next period. Given that, and in the interests of continuity, any pressure come on you to reconsider your position to retire from politics, or is that irreversible?

PETER REITH: I am going. I think continuity is an important point, though, and that is why the White Paper is very important. That is a 10-year plan. It has given the organisation the best forward plan, and the money to go with it, that they've had for decades, and you've also have personnel continuity. I mean, John Howard is the number one bloke when it comes to defence. The National Security Committee is probably the best and most informed group of senior politicians we have had in decades.

BARRIE CASSIDY: Sure, but the Defence Minister is still critical.

PETER REITH: Oh yes, sure.

BARRIE CASSIDY: I'm just wondering then - you've confirmed that you're going, in that event, should the PM announce in advance during the election campaign who the Defence Minister will be in a re-elected Howard Government?

PETER REITH: I think continuity question is whether or not you still want John Howard as the bloke running the show.

BARRIE CASSIDY: That's one issue.

PETER REITH: Well, let's face it, I think that is the central issue, and the fact is, this Government has wisely, in advance of these latest events, been putting more resources into defence. We ran, and continue to run, an excellent operation in East Timor. All the decisions we have taken in respect of defence have given us a better-prepared defence force. It is an investment that has been made very wisely.

BARRIE CASSIDY: On another issue, you have been accused, if that's the right word, of linking terrorist attacks with asylum seekers, in this sense - that you said that border protection is part and parcel of our security posture. Are you suggesting that there is some threat from boat people?

PETER REITH: The threat as far as Australia is concerned has been the subject of a lot of comments by me and Daryl Williams and others, to the effect there has been no increased security concerns in Australia as a result of the events in New York, but at the same time making the obvious point, and that is that additional precautionary measures are sensible. The comment I made was to reflect comments made by Jim Kelly - Jim Kelly is number two to Colin Powell. He was in Jakarta at the time of the 'Tampa' crisis and he made these very points. Quite frankly, Barrie, it is irrefutable that part of your security posture is your ability to control your borders and to know who is coming in.

BARRIE CASSIDY: Does that imply there are potential terrorists aboard these boats?

PETER REITH: What it implies, as Jim Kelly said was, that if you've got people - I think the words he used were - 'with strange identities' - walking around, then that enhances your security concerns. It can't be just put to one side as if border protection is not an issue from a security point of view. I'm sorry, but it is.

BARRIE CASSIDY: When you started the border patrols from the north, you said they would be up for review after three weeks. Three weeks is up, what's going to happen?

PETER REITH: We have reviewed that. We are very been pleased with the message that the enhanced naval and RAAF surveillance work has given Australia. The decision that we've have made is to continue the build-up in the north.

BARRIE CASSIDY: At the same level?

PETER REITH: We are not going to make a statement about operational details.


PETER REITH: You will appreciate the overall security situation has changed quite significantly and we don't intend telegraphing our punches to people smugglers who read the newspapers. What I can tell you is we will continue to have major naval units to the north. We think the exercise and the operation has been a success. It's fulfilled the objectives we set for it, and we are going to keep it going.

BARRIE CASSIDY: With George Bush's call to arms, should that be the priority or should they be back home preparing for something bigger?

PETER REITH: The priority has got to be that we are in a position to respond to requests. Without going into operational details, obviously we are doing a lot of planning and preparatory work, so that we are in a position to respond as we believe we may be asked to.

BARRIE CASSIDY: Now, on the 200 mostly Iraqis and Palestinians refusing to get off the Manoora, what do you do about that?

PETER REITH: Well, they're not going to stay, I can tell you that.

BARRIE CASSIDY: How do you move them?

PETER REITH: Again, I'm not going to go into the details of that, but we are not running a permanent platform for these people. They do need to go to Nauru. We are managing this with the International Organisation for Migration and those people are going to have to get off the Manoora.

BARRIE CASSIDY: But when? It's dragged on for a bit now.

PETER REITH: Well, look, I just think it's a thing you've got to, sort of, sensibly manage. There is no point sitting here and setting a timetable for that, but the fact is, they are not going to stay on the Manoora - the Manoora is going to need to come back.

BARRIE CASSIDY: Thanks for your time this morning.

PETER REITH: Thank you.



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