Transcript of Interview: Defence Minister Peter Reith
30 September 2001
Reporter : Laurie Oakes

In New York yesterday for a service to remember the Australians who died in the attack on the World Trade Center, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said Australia would have to accept the risk of military casualties as the price of supporting America in the war on terrorism. That support now seems likely to include sending elite troops into Afghanistan to join the allied hunt for Osama bin Laden.

In a moment we'll see what dangers such a mission will hold, but first we'll talk with Defence Minister Peter Reith on the strength of Australia's military commitment to this battle. Mr Reith is in our Melbourne studio and he's talking with Sunday's political editor Laurie Oakes.

REPORTER: Morning, Jim. Mr Reith, welcome to Sunday.


REPORTER: When will we get some details of the role Australia will be playing and the forces and facilities we'll contribute to this US-led war on terrorism?

REITH: As you would know, the Prime Minister spoke with President Bush in the last thirty-six hours. We did send the Chief of the Defence Force, Admiral Chris Barrie, to Washington at the end of last week. He is there now. He's having discussions with his counterparts there. We also have, without going into any details, pretty constant contact with US military authorities about what is happening and what they're planning and thinking is.

So, it is a matter of, you know, developing a sort of broad scale and comprehensive approach to the issue. The political side of it obviously gets a lot of visibility but all these things need to be timed in some sequence, Laurie.

REPORTER: So what are we offering them?

REITH: Well, it's ... what we are doing is holding discussions. Obviously, the US has a pretty good idea of our capabilities. Obviously, what we do is within our capabilities. We are holding discussions but it's not really a matter of making an offer as such. I mean, in due course I would expect there to be a formal request and a formal response.

REPORTER: Well, you see, you say that, but Richard Armitage, the Deputy Secretary of the US State Department, on television here last week said, we're interested in hearing from Australia what the government and the people of Australia think they might contribute. It is not for us to go out and be requesting these things. These are decisions that governments have to come to.

So what decision have we come to?

REITH: Well, the way you go about this, Laurie, is you sit down and talk about what they have in mind, what capabilities they have a requirement for and how Australian military capability might fit within the coalition, and there are various parts to this jigsaw puzzle so it's a matter of sensible discussion and that's one of the reasons we've got the CDF there now.

REPORTER: Now everyone assumes that our main contribution will come from the SAS. Is that an accurate assumption?

REITH: Well, I don't want to go into the operational details or the likely offerings. There are various other things that we might offer. As you know ... I mean, we are already providing a ship in the Persian Gulf, which is not directly associated with but obviously frees up capability there.

We also do have very close intelligence relationship and some of that relates within my area of defence and we are assisting already and we have people already on exchange. I mean, it's not a question of are we going to be helping. The fact of the matter is, Laurie, we are already helping.

Now, sure, a formal force structure commitment, you know, is still ahead of us, but I mean obviously we are very willing to participate. As to the details of that, well the military people need to be talking.

REPORTER: Now, we've learned that the US and British special forces are already operating in Afghanistan. Can you say categorically that no Australians are there yet?

REITH: Well, as to what we know about what the British and the US are doing, I am not aware of those details. In respect of Australians, I have already made it very clearly that where we have Australians on exchange in US or UK units then they are authorised to deploy with those units. In terms of a formal commitment obviously we've not made one at this point in time.

REPORTER: Are you saying though that some Australians could be there as part of British and American units already?

REITH: I'm just repeating the statement I've already made. As to the involvement of Australians on exchange within deployed units, that is ... they are basically within the command structures of those units and as I've said in the past as to information about that we will provide information where we've got it and some of that information is a bit sketchy for security reasons within those command structures.

REPORTER: Now, it's pretty obvious, isn't it, that this war on terrorism changes Australia's defence assessments and priorities. It must do, mustn't it?

REITH: We made the point in the White Paper last year that asymmetrical threats, i.e. the sort of the non-conventional threats, were a matter of significant concern and although you don't give these things a lot of profile, even in a formal document like that, I mean, we saw outside of defence last year, for example, ASIS, quite a significant build-up in resources for intelligence.

We've got a decade long build-up in resources for intelligence within defence. We've got a decade long build-up in special forces resources within defence. So the fact ... I'm not saying we predicted obviously the catastrophic events of recent times, but concerns about other threats - cyber warfare, terrorism, drugs, people smuggling - have certainly been very much on our mind in recent times.

REPORTER: Well, Kim Beazley says we're going to need to re-weight our defence expenditure to some extent towards counter terrorist operatives, SAS, commando units and intelligence collection. Are you saying that is not necessary?

REITH: Well, what I'm saying is we are already re-weighting some of our resources. But, also within a context which says that the way you manage defence forces is to give yourself as many options, you know, to deal with different scenarios in the future. Now, I hear what Kim Beazley says, but quite frankly, I've got no idea of what money he's talking about.

I mean, the only things I've got on the public record at the moment are that he's going to cut the Navy pretty significantly, well, that would not be in Australia's interests if you are concerned about, you know, the maritime approaches to Australia, for example, as part of this asymmetric threat and response.

REPORTER: Well, I think when you say he's going to cut the navy, he's going to divert some of it to a Coast Guard, but I'm going to go on to that a bit later.

But is Australia in a position at the moment...

REITH: Well, I'm sorry, but I mean that is a cut to the Navy. You can come back to it, but I mean he is going to cut the Navy. Don't have any doubts about that.

REPORTER: Yeah. But it'll be taking over jobs done by the Navy, anyway. But let me ask you this, is Australia now at this moment in a position to deal with the kind of terrorist attacks that occurred in the US on September the eleventh?

REITH: Well, we are in a position to respond to what we think is the sort of range of scenarios, i.e. the risk assessments which we get by ... from our professional advisors on these issues. I mean, obviously, Laurie, you know, I think within the highest levels of government, we've been sort of re-asking the basic questions, and there's sort of no great surprise about what those are, and asking ourselves what further things that we can do?

And as I said to one of our senior people the other day, well in this situation, you've got to think outside the box. I want you to know from the government's point of view, you know, all options are on the table ... you know, subject obviously to considered and balanced professional advice.

But we do have a pretty professional sort of base upon which we can draw for advice. We did, of course, put a lot of work into the Sydney Olympics last year. We built up our capability for the Sydney Olympics. Just for CHOGM alone, a lot of work has gone in on the intelligence side, counter terrorism and the like.

So, we are perhaps better prepared I think than what we have in the past been, and at a policy level within the White Paper, we've given additional priority already to these issues.

REPORTER: Why didn't the government accept Kim Beazley's offer to help rush anti-terrorism laws through parliament before it raised the election, laws similar to the British anti-terrorism act?

REITH: Well, I'm not sure ... quite frankly, I'm not quite sure what he's saying on some of these things. I mean, there ... he's been...

REPORTER: Well, that's pretty clear.

REITH: Well, no, it's not clear at all, Laurie. It's befuddled as usual, I'd have to say. In respect of one of the conventions, we've already said that we're going to ratify it, and in respect of the other, the legal advice is that domestic law already covers the issues raised, so...

REPORTER: But does domestic law at the moment cover the issues covered by the British terrorism act?

REITH: Well, that is the subject of examination now, and was prior to Kim Beazley making his comment, and the PM has made it clear we are having a look at certain legislative matters, but...

REPORTER: But parliament has now risen for the election. If cabinet decides we need this now, it's too late before the election.

REITH: Well, we've already had a bit of a look at it, Laurie, so let's just sort of put this thing in proper perspective. But to be saying you're going to rush in a domestic law, when the domestic law is already covered in respect of that particular convention, quite frankly ... you know, is sort of not on top of the game, I'd have to say, when it comes to the facts.

REPORTER: Now, cabinet, as you say, will deal with this on ... consider this on Tuesday. Will you be looking, for example, at the use of armed sky marshals in Australian aircraft?

REITH: Well, in the aviation area or any of the other areas that ... I mean, that is a matter for cabinet. Quite frankly, there is a lot going on in the security and intelligence area, and for very sensible reasons, the government is muted in its public statements about some of these issues.

As to that particular one, obviously that would by and large fall within John Anderson's area, but ... I mean, cabinet is looking at these issues. We've already had a number of cabinet level discussions about some of these things, and quite frankly, a lot of these things, it's not in the national interest to be talking about them.

REPORTER: Okay. A few weeks ago, the government announced with great fanfare it was putting this wall of ships and aircraft between us and Indonesia to stop boat people coming to Australia - five navy ships, four P3 Orion aircraft. Why has that now been secretly scaled back?

REITH: Well, what we said was that we would review that operation. Nothing is ... it's not a question of secretly scaling anything back. What we said...

REPORTER: It wasn't announced.

REITH: Well ... well. Sorry, what we said was that we would review it after three weeks, and last week I made a statement about it. So ... I mean, we said we'd review. We've had the review. I've made the statement.

REPORTER: Mr Reith, just a week ago today...

REITH: Well, no. Can I just...

REPORTER: Can I just ask you, just a week ago today, you said the decision that we've made is to continue the build up in the north.

REITH: Yeah.

REPORTER: Within days of making that statement, we find that the number of ships between ... that you'd stationed up there has been reduced by one or two, the number of aircraft has been halved. How do you justify that statement?

REITH: Well, what I said was we were going to continue the military presence in the north which was the operation, and basically...

REPORTER: It's a build up.

REITH: Well, at the ... well, it was a build up.

REPORTER: Well, now it's a build down.

REITH: Well, no, what we are doing is we are maintaining a sufficient military capability in that operation to achieve the objectives we first set at the start of the three weeks. And I've had ... to be blunt with you, I've had military advice as to the level of military capability required to meet our objectives and that's what we're doing. It's as simple as that.

Are we going to be continuing to advise people smugglers of which ships, exactly where they are at any point in the day or the week? No, we're not going to. And I don't think it's responsible to do so.

REPORTER: But as I understand it, you were informed by the Navy top brass, the defence top brass, that this would interfere with our ability to deal with other commitments including the war on terrorism. Now, doesn't this justify Kim Beazley's point that having multimillion dollar frigates intercepting leaky, unarmed Indonesian fishing boats is not a useful way of deploying resources?

REITH: Well, the frigates' deployment has been, I think, a very successful one in meeting the objectives that we set for it. I think it's a complete nonsense to say, oh it would be much better if we had a bureaucratic organisation called Coast Guard to do this task. The costs of which the Labor Party are running around at twenty million dollars a week, also include, and I think that's based ... I don't know what that figure's based on, presumably the three million put into the Federal Court, that includes salaries and wages, Laurie, which we pay anyway. The marginal or the additional cost is significantly less than the twenty million dollars a week that they are talking about by quite a factor.

And for Steve Martin to be saying we've got a third of the Navy at Christmas Island, quite frankly, is simply not true. And I have privately briefed him to that effect. Now, it is a good operation. I think the whole thing is working very well. We've got the Nauruan government yesterday saying they'll take the sixty-two off the Tobruk. So we are going well in putting those facilities in place. The whole thing's been a sensible operation.

REPORTER: Well, one final issue, on the HMAS Manoora at Nauru you've got over two hundred asylum seekers virtually holding that ship hostage. How are you going to free our ship?

REITH: That has sort of run on for a few days. But you've got to understand, Laurie, the reason for that really is that we are wanting to get the New Zealanders off first, and we did have troubles getting charter flights out of Nauru. So the thing has sort of been delayed a bit basically because of that. Obviously, these people want to go to Australia, and obviously they're not going to, they're going to have to go to Nauru.

REPORTER: Well, how do you get them off the ship to Nauru, when the Nauruan government says it won't accept them if they're taken off by force?

REITH: We have had ongoing discussions with the Nauru government. We've got some AFP negotiators and translators, linguists, and the sort over there now. I mean, I think it is just a matter of managing it sensibly, Laurie. Neither you nor I have been there to see the situation first-hand or talk to these people. You've got to let it be properly, sensibly managed by the people on board Manoora and the advisors that they've got. But, I mean, the fact is they're not going to stay, it's as simple as that.

REPORTER: Mr Reith, we thank you.

REITH: Thank you.

REPORTER: Back to you, Jim.

PRESENTER: Peter Reith, talking there with Laurie Oakes.


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