ABC, The World with Beverley O’Connor

Interview: ABC, The World with Beverley O’Connor

2205-2215, 25 June 2015

MS O’CONNOR

Let’s cross to the NATO meeting in Brussels where the head of NATO says the alliance will not be dragged into an arms race with Russia. Jens Stoltenberg has said Defence Ministers have agreed to strengthen the group’s rapid response force, which includes increasing numbers by more than 27,000. His comments come as Russia accuses NATO of stepping up its military activity on the borders and the ongoing crisis in the eastern Ukraine.

The Australian Defence Minister is at NATO Headquarters and joins us from Brussels. Mr Andrews, many thanks for your time tonight.

MINISTER ANDREWS

Thank you.

MS O’CONNOR

It would be interesting to hear what the discussions were like in your meetings given this build-up on many parts of Russia’s borders. Can you understand why it might appear to them why there is a re-igniting of the old Cold War?

MINISTER ANDREWS

Well, the NATO Defence Ministers met yesterday to talk about Ukraine. Today we were talking about Afghanistan, which is an important involvement for Australia, but I wasn’t at the Ukraine meeting. It was a NATO Defence Ministers’ meeting, but the feedback that I’ve got is that there is a great deal of concern in northern Europe about some of the activities of Mr Putin. We saw it ourselves in relation to Ukraine. We saw, unfortunately, the shooting down of MH17 flight in which Australians were killed. Our view is that there should be respect for international rules-based order, that aggressive unilateral coercive behaviour, which is being demonstrated by Mr Putin, is totally out of place and no doubt that’s why NATO Ministers are so concerned.

MS O’CONNOR

The US, though, are positioning military personnel and bolstering their resources there on the borders. It could be seen as trying to at least meet what Russia is doing and, therefore, perhaps giving them some cause for concern?

MINISTER ANDREWS

Russia’s been flying aircraft right around Europe. We have seen them flying down the English Channel, around Ireland. We have seen activities from the Russian naval forces in the Baltic Sea in the North Atlantic. This has given concern to the European states and any response from Europe is simply to say to Russia that we don’t appreciate aggressive, coercive-type behaviour as we have seen in the Ukraine and you should desist from that behaviour.

MS O’CONNOR

Let’s talk a little bit about this increase to the rapid defence force. There have been calls by the UN for a stronger response to the threat that IS constantly poses for everyday civilians, and of course you talked about those talks with Afghanistan. How militarily should NATO be responding to these issues?

MINISTER ANDREWS

NATO has been quite involved in Afghanistan for a long period of time as we have in Australia. Over 13 years of involvement in Afghanistan, some 34,000 of our military personnel have been deployed there over that decade. Tragically, we lost 41 Australians in Afghanistan. We are committed to seeing a stable resolution in Afghanistan. This is the first time in which the Afghan National Security Forces are actually leading the way themselves and they are facing some challenges, but I had a long meeting last night with the new Afghan Defence Minister in which he, overall, believes that they’re in the right direction, they’ve got some challenges but with the continued support of NATO countries and other countries like Australia over the next year or two. He believes that will lead to a stable, unified Afghanistan and that means for Australia a much safer and secure region, and safer and secure Australia.

MS O’CONNOR

It must be frustrating after the resources, as you point out, that have been poured into the region, you saw incidents like this week with that attack on the Afghan Parliament and these coordinated attacks by the Taliban?

MINISTER ANDREWS

The Taliban insurgency is still there and because the Afghan National Defence Forces are now taking the lead in Afghanistan, it’s quite clear that they are being challenged by the insurgents. The reports from the NATO military commanders today, and indeed the observations from the Afghan Defence Minister in my conversations with him last night, were very much that the insurgents are not succeeding. Yes, there have been incidents like what occurred in the Parliament. Yes, there have been more casualties to civilians but that’s having the effect of driving people against the Taliban and the insurgents in Afghanistan. As I said, he thinks that, overall, we are in the right direction to a stable, unified and more secure Afghanistan.

MS O’CONNOR

With regard to ISIS, their attacks get more and more brazen. There seems to be a conflict as to how to resolve this going forward, whether it needs to be more of a negotiated settlement, a political settlement rather than a military one. What are your thoughts?

MINISTER ANDREWS

Well, ISIS, or Daesh, has proclaimed a caliphate. They don’t believe in the way of life of others outside that caliphate. I think prospects of a negotiated settlement, a negotiated compromise with Daesh are next to zero. They’re involved in a conflict. They are employing medieval, evil tactics in relation to what they’re doing. We see it, regrettably, on our television screens and in the media. Our view is this has to be defeated. It won’t happen overnight. We are making a significant commitment. We’ve got 170 Special Forces at Baghdad. Another 300 regular forces training the Iraqi Army at Taji and a very significant Air Force mission with six Hornets, an air refueller and a command and control aircraft. That’s part of a broader coalition involving many countries. But, ultimately, our view is that we have to defeat Daesh and that’s the only resolution that we can see that will bring about peace in Iraq and indeed peace in the Middle East.

MS O’CONNOR

More military muscle do you think even from organisations like NATO?

MINISTER ANDREWS

Well, a number of countries are involved on the ground at the present time and we are one of them. After America, we have the next largest number of Defence personnel engaged in Iraq at the present time. It is not going to come to a resolution overnight. We made a commitment to put our troops there for a period of two years. We will review it after a year, and then again after the second year but, on current indications, this is going to be a medium to long-term deployment so far as Australia and the other coalition allies are concerned.

MS O’CONNOR

Of course, the IS debate was front and centre in Australia this week after a controversial ‘Q&A’ went to air. I know you are out of the country. We just had the Managing Director, Mark Scott, live on air talking about the need for diversity of debate and that, of course, Q&A, as you yourself know, can be a bit of a high-wire act. Do you acknowledge that it is still important that all sides of this debate are aired in a community like Australia?

MINISTER ANDREWS

I think there is a difference between ordinary free speech and giving a platform to somebody who has convictions, who doesn’t seem in any way regretful about his views, who uses the most vile language about anybody who disagrees with him, including female journalists. I think for the ABC, as in Q&A, to give a platform to that person, frankly, was an error in judgment. The ABC is a very wonderful national institution and media organisation in Australia, but I think Q&A got it wrong on this occasion.

MS O’CONNOR

Yourself, you have said you won’t go on that program. Is that something you are still committed to?

MINISTER ANDREWS

I was asked to go on next Monday evening and I said that I wouldn’t. I thought I should take a stand in this instance. Doesn’t mean I will never go on Q&A in the future but, as I said, I think they need to look at what happened in this regard and then, you know, show some appropriate remorse for what they did. The fact that they then went and replayed the show with this exchange on it, I think, compounded the problem and I hope that the producers and those responsible for Q&A understand that there is a great deal of concern in the Australian community about what happened.

MS O’CONNOR

But would you believe that the ABC was not representative of the Australian public?

MINISTER ANDREWS

Well, I think the decision in this instance wasn’t representative of the Australian public. I mean, the Australian public want a safe and secure country. That’s why we are in places like Afghanistan. That’s why I’m here at NATO in Brussels, for this important meeting. Australian Defence Force personnel are currently putting their lives on the line in Afghanistan, in Iraq and other places around the world. I think we owe it to them a degree of respect for what they are doing on our behalf and not to have people like the gentleman who was on Q&A spouting things which are totally against our value system in Australia.

MS O’CONNOR

Kevin Andrews, we do thank you for your time.

MINISTER ANDREWS

My pleasure, Beverley.