ABC 774 Radio Interview with Rafael Epstein

RAFAEL EPSTEIN

Kevin Andrews, good afternoon.

MINISTER ANDREWS

Good afternoon, Raf.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN

Would you rule out expanding Australia’s role in the sky above Syria?

MINISTER ANDREWS

Well, to put this in context Raf, we are in Iraq fighting Daesh. Our aim is to destroy Daesh. Daesh operates across the border between Iraq and Syria, so we won’t rule anything out at the moment. But having said that, we have not had any request at this stage from the US or otherwise, to do more than what we are currently doing.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN

So not ruling it out, what would be the reason for expanding our role? What do you need? Is it just because, you know, we’re not winning? IS is staying put? Or do you need a further reason to expand Australia’s efforts?

MINISTER ANDREWS

We have a number of efforts there, if I could just briefly relate what they are. We’ve got 170 of our defence force personnel in Iraq training Special Forces and counter-terrorism units. We’ve got about 300 at Taji training regular Iraqi units. But then in addition to that, we have got three areas of involvement, which involves operations in Iraq and in a sense into Syria. First of all, we’ve got the Command and Control, the Early Warning aircraft – the Wedgetail – which commands aircraft that fly over Iraq, our aircraft. But which also commands other aircraft that fly from other nations into Syria. We have a refueller, which refuels planes, our planes that fly over Iraq and other planes which fly over Syria. Secondly, we have ADF personnel who are embedded in the US headquarters in the US and also across the Middle East. And then thirdly, we’ve got a small number of our Air Force personnel which are embedded in the US Air Force – the units that are responsible for operating unmanned aircraft that support coalition operations in Iraq and Syria.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN

So we are already involved in Syria to an extent?

MINISTER ANDREWS

They haven’t actually started that work yet, but they are embedded. We’ve had embeds in various operations for decades. But they are embedded in the US Air Force unit, which will be flying the unmanned aircraft which go across both Iraq and Syria.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN

But what is the reason? I mean, a request might come from the United States, but that’s a highly stage managed affair. I just wonder, what would you need to see to increase Australia’s efforts?

MINISTER ANDREWS

Well the reality is that Daesh, or ISIL, doesn’t respect borders. It threatens Iraq’s security and international security from its safe havens in Syria. So, if our job there is to be at the defence of Iraq, then the reality is that to do that, to ensure that Iraq is safe, then we need to, between us and our Coalition partners, to tackle Daesh, tackle ISIL, both in Iraq and across the border. Now, at the moment we’re doing that in Iraq, but other coalition partners are doing it elsewhere and that would be the reason – that we are fighting Daesh, and Daesh don’t respect a border.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN

Would you be happy effectively siding with the side responsible for the lion’s share of death? The Assad regime from independent observers is responsible for most of the death. If you target IS in Syria, you’re siding with the Assad regime. They use chlorine bombs, they torture people, they disappear journalists. Are you happy directly benefiting that regime?

MINISTER ANDREWS

I think Raf that there are two issues here. Our focus is on Daesh, it’s not on the domestic affairs of the Assad regime in Syria.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN

But it has an indirect impact doesn’t it? Wars are complex; if you become a player….

MINISTER ANDREWS

One thing I’ve learnt Raf is that everything in the Middle East has an indirect impact on everything else. But if our task as it is at the moment is focused solely on Daesh, then it would be possible, theoretically – and we haven’t had a request as I said – for us to operate across the border into Syria against Daesh but not become involved in the wider conflict involving the Syrian regime.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN

Are you just pulling the war card? There’s quite a bit of cynical commentary that you’re in trouble. That Dan Tehan is just drawing attention from the Government’s troubles.

MINISTER ANDREWS

I’ve spoken to Dan Tehan. I didn’t know his article was going to be in the papers until I read it this morning. I’ve obviously subsequently spoken to it.  He is the Chairman of the Parliament’s Intelligence Committee. He has just got back from visits to, I believe, the US, UK and France where he has been in discussions with a whole range of people about a range of matters, including the Middle East and this is his strongly held view. But it’s his view. It wasn’t something I suggested he should go out and do or anyone else.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN

Why I was asking you about indirect consequences is that last time I spoke to you, you refused to pass judgement on 2003. That invasion clearly was a significant factor in the creation of the group you want to fight – Islamic State. You have to factor in possible unintended consequences, don’t you?

MINISTER ANDREWS

In every public policy decision you make, let alone every strategic decision you make, you’ve always got to try and consider what the unintended consequences are. It’s natural to look at the intended consequences but you always have to try and factor in unintended consequences.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN

So would you concede that 2003 led to the problems…

MINISTER ANDREWS

Well I think we’ve learnt lessons from 2003, Raf. I think we’ve moved on from that and my task is not to be a historical commentator on what happened in the Middle East. My task is to do the job at hand.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN

Can we know your opinion of the invasion’s contribution to Islamic State, because your opinion on that will shape our understanding of your judgment of what might happen next, because you’re making decisions about what might happen next. So if we know your judgment on the past that gives us a much better understanding of how you think. Do you think 2003 was part of the problem?

MINISTER ANDREWS

Look, my focus now, as I said, it’s on what’s happening now, its on the crucifixions, the beheadings, the evil barbaric behaviour which Daesh is carrying on and I have a view that we have to ultimately destroy them because, as I think I said to you Raf before, that there are essentially two purposes of warfare, there’s to fight in order to negotiate a peace and if you cant do that then you’ve got to fight in order to win. And I don’t think Daesh is interested at all, and probably we aren’t either, in negotiating a peace with them. So we’ve got to ultimately prevail.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN

1500 222 774 is the phone number. We’d be interested to hear what you think on what Kevin Andrews has to say. He’s the Minister for Defence. Kevin Andrews, I have to ask you about the Royal Commissioner, Dyson Heydon. It was organized by Liberal lawyers. The form said the money went to State Liberal campaigning. Every previous speaker was a Liberal Minister. That’s a big problem for the Royal Commissioner isn’t it?

MINISTER ANDREWS

Well the Royal Commissioner has withdrawn from that event. Look, I don’t know the circumstances, but I can imagine some lawyer in Sydney who knows the Royal Commissioner saying, “come along and give the Garfield-Barwick narration or address”. I mean I don’t know if he even enquired….

RAFAEL EPSTEIN

This is someone who could get Bronwyn Bishop’s seat….I mean its clear that it is a Liberal function. Should he have agreed to do it?

MINISTER ANDREWS

Look I think that he’s said that he is withdrawing from it. That’s shown that he thinks it’s not the appropriate thing to do as the Royal Commissioner and I think that’s quite appropriate that he did withdraw.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN

Does that mean it was a mistake?

MINISTER ANDREWS

Well I’ll leave him to answer that Raf.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN

Isn’t that important though, because Bill Shorten is facing some very serious and significant questions about not checking where the money was coming from an employer to a union and what for. Can Dyson Heydon query someone else’s due diligence if his own looks like being pretty poor?

MINISTER ANDREWS

I think there’s a pretty big difference between accepting an invitation which he’s done and now says, “well now I’ve found out more it’s inappropriate to do that”, with the whole range of allegations that have been made for Mr Shorten. But ultimately that’s a matter for the Royal Commissioner.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN

But it’s your Royal Commission. I mean, the Government’s commissioned Dyson Heydon and he’s written in the past….when he was in the High Court he wrote that, “bias is all about the public’s perception of neutrality”. Yet he doesn’t seem to be aware at all that going to an inherently Liberal function could have been a problem.

MINISTER ANDREWS

Well I don’t know if he knew if this was an inherently Liberal function or what he knew about it. What I do know is that is….

RAFAEL EPSTEIN

…but even if he didn’t know it was a Liberal function he should have checked. I mean, he can’t sit there as the Royal Commissioner damning the union movement and just go, “oh, I didn’t know it was a Liberal function”. Otherwise you’d have Bill Shorten saying, “oh, I just didn’t know what the money was used for”.

MINISTER ANDREWS

I think you’re drawing a long bow there Raf.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN

Final question – referendum or plebiscite for same-sex marriage?

MINISTER ANDREWS

I think we need to have an ongoing discussion about that. There are pros and cons to both plebiscites and referenda.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN

Is it a constitutional question or not?

MINISTER ANDREWS

Well, marriage is in the constitution at the present time, so there’s an argument for saying therefore it’s a constitutional question. If you want to resolve it according to the constitution then do it by way of a referendum. But, you know, there are arguments for a plebiscite as well. I think we need to have a careful, measured discussion on the pros and cons of the way you do this and come up with the best result.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN

There hasn’t been, to my knowledge, a single reference by the Government to a popular vote until the Prime Minister needed that to get the outcome he wanted – to delay this outcome. Why has the Prime Minister suddenly latched on to a popular vote?

MINISTER ANDREWS

Look there’s been lots of discussion amongst my colleagues for months now. I mean the issue’s been before the Parliament for some years, with various private members bills, so there’s been a lot of discussion about it.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN

Has a Government Minister mentioned a referendum or plebiscite?

MINISTER ANDREWS

Well, we have lots of discussions about things we don’t mention in public. We have discussions about how the Government runs, how is doing certain things. Those discussions happen all the time and I think that’s quite useful because, you know, with all due respect to you and your colleagues in the media Raf, when things get in the media they tend to become black and white and sometimes it’s better to have careful discussions and try and work through, as I say, the pros and cons of the best approach.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN

Ok, thank you for your time.

MINISTER ANDREWS

My pleasure Raf.