12 March 2009
Interview - Sky News
Subjects: German School Shooting; Aid for Zimbabwe; Iraqi PM and FM visit to Australia; Afghanistan; Aid for Family Planning
COMPERE: Well now, for more on this story, let's go to Canberra where Sky News political reporter Ashleigh Gillon is speaking with the Foreign Minister, Stephen Smith.
REPORTER: Foreign Minister, good morning.
Has Australia offered its condolences over the terrible school shootings we've seen overseas and can you confirm that no Australians have been involved?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well firstly, this is the first opportunity I've had to do it publicly, so obviously, it's a very terrible and distressing circumstance.
We offer our condolences to Germany and the German people and the families involved. It's obviously every parent's nightmare. It's just an awful, terrible situation and hearing some of the parents on radio and seeing the pictures on TV, it's just awful.
We'll formally relay our condolences in the course of the day but this is the first occasion I've had to do it publicly and, obviously, I do so.
So far as Australians are concerned, we're obviously checking to make sure that no Australians are involved. I can't confirm at the moment that no Australians are involved, but there's nothing to indicate that they are. So I don't want to alarm anyone. We don't expect any Australian involvement but our consular officials in Germany are working very hard to confirm that as we speak.
REPORTER: Back home, the Iraqi Prime Minister will be officially welcomed to Australia here at Parliament House this morning. Obviously, Australia doesn't have combat troops in the country any more, but we do have personnel still there. What can we expect from these talks today?
SMITH: Well, I think the visit here by Prime Minister Maliki and Foreign Minister Zebari. really marks the beginning of the modern relationship between Australia and Iraq. We withdrew our combat troops. We have a small number of Defence personnel embedded with other coalition forces, generally in -sort of - headquarters operations. In accordance with the resolution of the Iraqi Parliament, they'll be out by 31 July.
But as we've withdrawn our combat troops we've enhanced our civilian and capacity building contribution. So our effort now is $160 million over three years. We're looking at what we can do in some important areas: agriculture, for example, scholarships, capacity-building and training in law and justice administration.
So I think that it's a very important visit and I think marks the start of the modern day relationship between Australia and Iraq. They had very successful provisional elections in recent times, so that was a very good sign. They still have, obviously, a security challenge, as we've seen in recent days, but the improvements that the Iraqi security forces and personnel have effected in the last 12 months are very, very encouraging.
REPORTER: The US Vice President, Joe Biden, has warned that a fresh build-up by al-Qaeda threatens western nations and he specifically mentioned Australia. Do you believe that there is a heightened threat level?
SMITH: Well, regrettably, it's a fact of modern life since September 11 that there's a terrorist threat to the international community, including Australia. Vice President Biden made the same point that I have been making, and Australia has been making, for some time, which is the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area is unfortunately currently the hot bed of international terrorism. We know that that can move quickly to the north, to Europe, to the south-east to Asia. Whether it's Bali, where we've been on the terrible receiving end or to Lahore where, in recent days, we've seen Australians caught up in the attack on the Sri Lankan cricketers.
REPORTER: Could the Vice President's comments though be designed to pressure Australia, to send more troops to Afghanistan?
SMITH: No, absolutely not. I mean I've seen his comments, he's making the point that we have to be all wary, potentially we're all under threat. And that's why we make our own contribution.
We haven't received, as Joel Fitzgibbon and I have made the point in recent times, a formal request from the new US Administration about a greater contribution. We won't be surprised if and when it comes. We welcome the fact they're doing an overarching review to look at not just the military contribution but the civil reconstruction and the political dialogue possibilities. And so, the fact that they're doing their overarching review is a good thing.
If we get a request, we'll judge it on its merits and make our decision at the time. But Vice President Biden has made the point that this is the hot bed of international terrorism and we have to confront it.
REPORTER: Looking at Zimbabwe, you've announced $10 million worth of extra aid funding. Australia has become the first western nation to do that. There must be some risks involved.
SMITH: Well, when I spoke in the Parliament yesterday, I made precisely that point. There are risks involved. We want to support Prime Minister Tsvangirai and his Ministers as much as we can. We'd prefer Mugabe walked off the stage.
But we do have to help build and reconstruct Zimbabwe's economy and social circumstances, so we've indicated we'll move beyond strict humanitarian assistance like food aid and anti-cholera activity to try and get involved in capacity- building the areas.
So I've announced $5 million through UNICEF, essentially for water, to help water infrastructure, and also to combat cholera. That'll be done through local authorities, because they, rather than the Government, have responsibility in that area. And also, $5 million through the United Kingdom Department for International Development for incentive payments to get Zimbabwe health workers and health professionals back into the health system, because they simply can't rely upon or haven't been able to rely upon the Mugabe regime to get any salary.
So it is pushing the barriers. We know there are risks because the political situation is fragile. But we want to support Prime Minister Tsvangirai and, at some stage, the international community has to start helping to rebuild Zimbabwe.
REPORTER: A couple of days ago you announced an overturning of a ban using foreign aid for abortions. Mr Rudd has made it clear that this happened despite his opposition to the move. He's been accused of being a hypocrite over this, and accused of trying to walk two sides of the fence by telling the Christian lobby that he had no plans to do this, and now saying it's not his decision, but then letting it happen under his leadership.
SMITH: Well I think that analysis is frankly very unfair. I've made the point that this was, for me and for the Government and all people concerned, a difficult decision. And this is not an area where I think it's appropriate to categorise everyone else's personal view.
In this area, the Labor Party has had a long-standing approach and tradition that we respect people's rights to have a view and to articulate that publicly and privately, whether they have a different view from the decision that the Government may make.
So this was a difficult decision but in the end, I thought that the substantial decline in Australian overseas development assistance, in child care, in child health and maternal health care, the fact that we want to be involved in family planning to avoid abortions as best we can - for us, abortions is a terrible last resort - that's why I also announced $15 million to assist in family planning and counselling in areas related to contraception and family planning.
It's a deeply sensitive area. There are strong views, personally held. And I don't categorise or criticise anyone for the view that they take in this area and I think the same rule should apply to the Prime Minister.
REPORTER: Why should you, as Foreign Minister, have the power to place restrictions on foreign aid and make these decisions. Is it something that perhaps in the future should be put to a vote in Parliament, or as the Greens are suggesting that there shouldn't be restrictions at all on foreign aid.
SMITH: Well I'm a Minister. There are a range of Ministerial decisions I make on a daily basis, involved with overseas development assistance or in matters of foreign policy and foreign policy administration. I'm very comfortable with the decision being a Ministerial decision. And so I'm not proposing to change that for the future. Ministers who follow me may well decide to make the change but no Minister is ever going to be able to make the change without the spotlight being on him or her.
I think the important thing here is transparency and openness and public and Parliamentary accountability. And there's no doubt that the process we went through was very open, very transparent, and also open to Parliamentary support or criticism and public support or criticism.
REPORTER: Foreign Minister Stephen Smith, thanks for your time.
SMITH: Thanks very much.
Foreign Minister's office (02) 6277 7500