Sky News with David Speers – 25 August 2015

QUESTION

Minister thanks very much for your time this afternoon. It’s nearly a year since the PM first committed Australian forces to the fight against Islamic State in Iraq. Can I ask what have we achieved over the past year?

MINISTER ANDREWS

It’s a very significant contribution that the Royal Australian Air Force has made. We’ve flown close to 900 missions over that period of time. We’ve targeted many ISIL targets and we’ve been quite successful in terms of that operation. We’ve also been part of a broader coalition in the air; through our Wedgetail command and control aircraft and through our refueller, which has served not only Australian aircraft but American and coalition aircraft as well. So that’s been quite significant. Secondly, on the ground we’ve trained somewhere in the order of 500 of the Iraqi counter-terrorism forces; they are their Special Forces. Since we’ve gone into Taji we’ve now trained around 1600 of the regular forces in the Iraqi army. So these are all making a significant contribution.

QUESTION

Now that all sounds impressive. On the ground though, when it comes to trying to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL what sort of progress are we seeing there? I know Mosul remains under IS control. Ramadi does as well, although Shia militia is trying to recapture it. A lot of the oil infrastructure is still under IS control. So what are we seeing on the ground?

MINISTER ANDREWS

Well if you look at a map of where the IS controlled Iraq say 6-8 months ago compared to now, then it’s a much diminished proportion of the country. We had some very significant success at Tikrit. Yes, we went backwards I suppose in Ramadi; a lot of that is contested at the present time. But over all Iraqi forces, with the assistance of the coalition forces there, have taken much more territory from ISIL than we have before and that’s been a success. But this isn’t an overnight event. This will go on for some time and we have to continue to do our part to bring about peace in Iraq.

QUESTION

Given that, would you say that ISIL is on the back foot at the moment or is that overstating it?

MINISTER ANDREWS

Well, as in any war, there are ups and downs in terms of the battles that occur and that’s going to be the case in Iraq as it is with any other war throughout history. But the reality is that if you look back 12 months ago compared to today, then the Iraqi forces and the coalition forces actually control a lot more of Iraq than they did a year ago.

QUESTION

Alright, well you mentioned that this is going to take some time. Can I ask what your current thinking on this is? Is it going to take longer than initially thought before we got involved and is the strategy still the right strategy or does that need to change?

MINISTER ANDREWS

Well the strategy is to defeat Daesh. As you know, I had a letter from the US Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter, about a week ago asking if we could expand part of our operation, in particular the air operation, which we will consider and we will take to the National Security Committee of Cabinet. But we’ve got to defeat Daesh and we will continue to make a concerted effort, not just for ourselves but for example the Kurds in the north and others. We review our mission on a fairly regular basis and we particularly review our troops on the ground, both at Baghdad and Taji and elsewhere, on a yearly basis. So we will continue to do that and we will make adjustments from time to time as to the balance of our forces in Iraq.

QUESTION

Well we did see in March a further 300 troops committed for the training role that you were talking about earlier. Now, as you mentioned, the government is considering extending the air strikes into Syria as well. I must ask once again, is this mission creep that we’re seeing?

MINISTER ANDREWS

No it’s not mission creep. The reality is that Daesh don’t respect borders like you and I respect borders, David. The reality is that they are operating across the border between Syria and Iraq and if we want to be more effective against Daesh then obviously we need to chase them when they move across the border into Syria, rather than just restricting our activities as we do at the present time to Iraq. Now, other members of the coalition are doing that. The request is for us to join that effort, or expand that effort that’s there, and we will give proper consideration to it. We will get advice from Defence, and then the National Security Committee of Cabinet will ultimately make a decision.

QUESTION

There are some complexities with doing this, with extending into Syria, and one of the big ones here is the legal question. Strong legal footing in Iraq, we have the Iraqi Government requesting us to be there. That’s not the case with Syria. Now I know the United States uses the argument of collective self defence of Iraq as a legal basis for the strikes being conducted in Syria, that’s not recognised by the United Nations though is it?

MINISTER ANDREWS

Well, we’re in Iraq at the present time, as you say, at the invitation of the Government of Iraq. We’re part of a coalition, which is part of a coalition lead by the United States as the major partner. We will consider the advice and the international law questions about this before we make any decision and indeed a consideration of those matters will be part of what the NSC takes into account when a decision is made.

QUESTION

Yes, but if we are using the argument that it’s collective self defence of Iraq, as the Foreign Minister has argued as the legal footing here, can I just ask, does that mean we would only be hitting targets in Syria that are a threat to Iraq, not actually those that are a threat to Syrians?

MINISTER ANDREWS

The focus of our activities is clearly on Daesh. We’re not involved in the broader conflict in Syria. We are not involved in the conflict involving the Assad regime. The request that has come to us is specifically in the context of our fight against Daesh and any decision that we will make….

QUESTION

…I understand that, what I’m trying to…if we are conducting air strikes in Syria and the legal case is to defend Iraq, does that mean we would only hit targets that are a threat to Iraq?

MINISTER ANDREWS

Well Daesh is quite clearly a threat to Iraq. Daesh operates across the border between Iraq and Syria. Our focus is on Daesh and I believe that will continue to be our focus.

QUESTION

It’s also another complexity in Syria about what the endgame would be, what the overall aim would be. As I say, Australia does not support the Bashar al-Assad regime. He is, however, the Government there in Syria. If you’re fighting Daesh in Syria, who are you actually fighting for? What sort of Government, what sort of force, do you want to see in Syria take control?

MINISTER ANDREWS

Well our focus is on the peace and prosperity of the people of Iraq, not on Syria, and that will continue to be our focus. As I said, the terms of the request from Secretary Carter from the US are specifically in relation to Daesh, the fight against Daesh and the fact that Daesh cross the border with impunity between Iraq and Syria. That’s the context of the request. That’s the context of our engagement at the present time and it will continue to be so in future.

QUESTION

But if we want to destroy Daesh, which is the aim here, in Syria who’s going to take that place?

MINISTER ANDREWS

Well that’s a complex question beyond what we are considering at the present time. There are different views about the future of Syria depending on which country you’re talking too. At the moment that’s not part of our consideration. Our consideration is quite squarely on Iraq, on the defence of Iraq, and hopefully the peace and prosperity of that country.

QUESTION

Sure, but Minister with respect, if we are going to conduct air strikes in Syria for the first time, surely there’s got to be some consideration about who should be in control in Syria. If we’re going to try and wipe out Daesh fair enough, but who do we actually want in control in Syria?

MINISTER ANDREWS

Well as I said David, there’s a lot of consideration of those matters by coalition and other partners. Everybody around the region as a view on this, which not a settled position, whether it’s Iran or Turkey or the Emirati countries or Egypt or others around the region. There’s a whole complex interaction…..

QUESTION

…but does Australia have a view? If we are going to get involved, does Australia have a view?

MINISTER ANDREWS

Our view at the moment is in the context of the mission we are on, which is at the invitation of the Government of Iraq. We want to degrade and destroy Daesh. That’s our prime objective. If we do extend beyond where we are at the present time, then our mission would be in that eastern part of Syria. They wouldn’t be over near the capital. They wouldn’t be on the western side of the country. It’s primarily something that would be an extension against Daesh, because Daesh don’t respect the border between Iraq and Syria.

QUESTION

Just a final question on this, a practical one. Are we taking about using the same six strike fighters, the Super Hornets and FA-18’s in Iraq? Or are you talking about an increase, potentially if we do this, an increase in the number of strike fighters involved?

MINISTER ANDREWS

No we’re talking about the same fighters. We rotate them on a regular basis. So we have, I think, the Classic Hornets there at the moment. At some stage later in the year I expect they will be replaced by the Super Hornets. So that rotation will occur. And we have an air-to-air refueller and the Wedgetail command and control aircraft. So we’re talking about the same aircraft.

QUESTION

Minister, just a couple of other questions quickly. The Liberal candidate in the Canning by-election, Andrew Hastie, raised concerns over the weekend following Fairfax reports about the incident in Afghanistan two and a half years ago. He’s concerned that one of the troops that he was commanding is still under investigation for allegedly chopping off the hands of dead Taliban ….He said, “this issue has cast a shadow for two and a half years over this man’s life. I believe the Defence Force has a duty of care to finalise its investigation more quickly”. Do you agree?

MINISTER ANDREWS

Well investigations need to be taken out appropriately. They need to be taken out thoroughly and they need to be timely as well. I’ll certainly make some inquiries about why this is taking so long, but at the same time, these have to be independent investigations. There’s not a place for Defence Ministers or other Ministers to be involved in an investigation like this. It’s quite appropriate that it be completely at arms distance from me and I respect that.

QUESTION

And just a final one Minister, if I can, on the politics today, the opinion poll. Look Labor has been ahead for about 16 months in the opinion poll. The Newspoll today shows the Prime Minister’s satisfaction rating has fallen again. Do you think there’s a problem here for the Government?

MINISTER ANDREWS

Look I think the fundamentals for the Government are still quite good David. Yes we go up and down in the polls. I’ve been around in parliament for 24 years now and it’s often been the pattern that mid-term the Government, regardless of whether we were in Government or Labor was in Government, was behind and sometimes substantially behind in the polls. That’s been a fairly regular the pattern over terms of parliament and over terms of Government. I don’t think there’s anything peculiar about that. We’ve got work to do. We will concentrate on that and that’s essentially about a two things: a strong, prosperous economy for jobs for Australians, and in my areas in particular, the safety and security of our nation.

QUESTION

Defence Minister, Kevin Andrews, thanks for talking to us this afternoon.

MINISTER ANDREWS

Thanks David.