Interview: Defence Minister Robert Hill
June 16, 2002
Reporter : Laurie Oakes

With Prime Minister Howard promising full support for America's plan to attack terrorists wherever it finds them, Defence Minister Robert Hill talks about what that means for Australia's armed forces and our commitment in Afghanistan


REPORTER: Good morning, Jim.

Senator Hill, welcome to Sunday.

ROBERT HILL - FEDERAL DEFENCE MINISTER: Thank you, Laurie. Good morning.

REPORTER: Are you expecting more calls on Australian troops?

HILL: We're not expecting more calls, we've said that if we are asked to assist at a further theatre then it would be considered at the time of the request and on the merits of the individual request.

REPORTER: Well, if America decides to go into Iraq do we have enough SAS soldiers to handle that operation as well?

HILL: Well, that's a huge leap. If the US decides on a military action in Iraq and it asks us for assistance, the question is ... would be what sort of assistance, what role could we appropriately play. It might involve forces on the ground, but it might not.

REPORTER: Now, there's no doubt that we would be involved, is there? When Mr Howard was in Washington he gave a pretty firm impression that he'd go along with anything the Bush administration wants.

HILL: I don't think he said that, but what he has said is that we're committed with the US and other Coalition partners to continue to defeat the infrastructure of terrorism in order to significantly reduce its threat. A lot of it was obviously sourced in Afghanistan, we've been very successful to date in operations there. But we know it extends beyond Afghanistan and we're worried also about terrorist organisations getting access to weapons of mass destruction, which brings in the Iraq issue. And we say that a lesson of the eleventh of September is that when you can see a problem developing it's important to tackle it then rather than hope that it simply goes away.

REPORTER: Well, what is the situation in Afghanistan now? Is the work our troops are doing there getting easier?

HILL: It's getting easier in the sense that we are not finding concentrations of Al Qaeda or Taliban. It's getting harder in the sense that as they've dispersed they're not as easily identified and, in some ways, can be therefore more threatening. And it really does require the sort of skills that our Special Forces have to be able to identify and monitor those that may be threatening to see whether they are re-grouping, to follow them down to identify weapons caches and the like, and they're doing that work very well.

But with the dispersal of Taliban and Al Qaeda, as I said, there's a new element of danger that comes into it that requires particular skills.

REPORTER: So we're not getting to the point where other soldiers could take over from the SAS?

HILL: Well, there is an infantry back-up if our Special Forces identify something that needs to be addressed, and at the moment we think that's the best way to do it, particularly in the eastern side of Afghanistan up the Pakistani border where there are Special Forces from Australia and some from other countries that are conducting these recognisance and surveillance missions, getting to understand the country, the villages, who's who - it avoids mistakes. And then, as appropriate, calling in heavier fire power, which could be air power, it could be infantry on the ground.

REPORTER: The first group of Australian SAS soldiers sent to Afghanistan stayed, I think, about four months, the people who are there now went in March. Will they be rotated and when?

HILL: Yes, we've made a decision for a third rotation, which will take place next month, and that will be for about four months as well. And that will mean that most of our Special Forces would have had one rotation of service within Afghanistan. We monitor it almost on a daily basis, we have no wish to stay any longer than is absolutely necessary, but also, we don't want to make the mistake of withdrawing too early. As I said, we think that great progress has been made in Afghanistan, and you can see the benefits in terms of the lawyer (indistinct) and the gradual re-establishment of a more civil society.

You see it in there no longer being the concentrations of Al Qaeda and Taliban, but we are concerned that if we make the mistake of withdrawing too early and then they re-group, then much of the benefit that would have been achieved would be lost.

REPORTER: Did the Prime Minister tell President Bush about the decision to send a new contingent of SAS troops to Afghanistan?

HILL: I don't know that, we made a decision in principle before he went. We wanted to ensure, as I said, that our information is up-to-date to the minute before we make final decisions. We are now confident that it's the right time to make that decision, we try and give families as much notice as possible, for obvious reasons. These men have now been training for some months, they had the expectation of a rotation of service in Afghanistan, and we've now made the decision to proceed.

We'll also do a rotation of our Air Force crews at Manus in Kyrgyzstan next month as well. They are re-fuelling both American and French fighter aircraft and, again, doing a great job.

REPORTER: Senator, there's a huge split in Coalition ranks over whether Australia should ratify the treaty setting up an International Criminal Court. Where do you stand on that?

HILL: Well, I'm a member of the cabinet and I've supported the cabinet's position, which has been in support of the International Criminal Court. Australia's been a leader in the development of that court now for some years. It was established in 1998. It's ... it now has the number of parties necessary to bring it into effect from the first of July. So, it is coming into effect.

Its purpose is to provide a resource that's a deterrent to genocide, to those who ... you know, the Pol Pots of this world, who are not prepared to abide by any reasonable standards of civil behaviour. And we believe, not wanting to overstate its importance, but it can be a valuable tool, together with others, to therefore contribute to a more civil society.

REPORTER: Well, Bronwyn Bishop, the most outspoken of the motley crew that's demanding that the cabinet decision be rolled, says the court would have, and I quote, the power to charge our brave soldiers with genocide just for doing their duty, unquote. Is that true?

HILL: Well, the Australia Defence Force has actually been supportive of the concept of the court, because it means that those who do ... are not prepared to accept either the rules of war or the rules of a civil society run the risk of being prosecuted by the court.

Our forces abide by the conventions, they abide by our domestic law and therefore we don't see a threat to them. And, in fact ... well, as I said, the leaders of the Defence Force, obviously on advice from within the Department of Defence, have been quite comfortable with it.

REPORTER: So, you, as the minister responsible for our brave soldiers, don't see a problem. You think Bronwyn is talking through a beehive?

HILL: No, I don't put it that way. I know there are some very rational people within the RSL who have been worried about it. As a result of that, they raised that with me very early in my term. I took further advice. I went back to the ADF. I went (laughs) through every clause of the convention and it doesn't seem to me to be a threat.

We will be passing complimentary legislation if an Australian ... I hope it never happens, but if an Australian commits a war crime, they'd be ... they are prosecuted under our law. The international regime provides for that. The ... it provides for complimentary state systems and, in fact, it provi... it obliges the states to take the primary responsibility. This is designed to be an extra resource to act as a deterrent and when we look at the experiences of Rwanda and Kosovo, Cambodia and the like, we think that it can be a useful tool.

REPORTER: If I can switch to border protection. The Labor Party has decided to oppose regulations excising up to three hundred ... sorry, up to three thousands islands off Australia's northern coast from the migration zone. As government leader in the Senate, do you concede that now means the measure is doomed?

HILL: Well, my experience in the Senate is that you should never (laughs) ... never accept the obvious. But, it would seem that the numbers are there now to defeat it. The Labor Party's supporting the Greens and I heard Bob Brown coming out and congratulating Mr Crean. That might something that Mr Crean is pleased about, I don't know.

But it does weaken the regime, that ... the protection regime that we've put in place. You know, we excised Christmas Island because that was being seen as an easy route to get the protections under Australian law. We did so with Ashmore Reef as well. We know the people smugglers are looking for new routes for easy access to the Australian courts.

We had information to suggest there was at least one boat moving down the Indonesian archipelago and we believe there was a chance that they would simply lodge themselves on one of our islands and therefore gain that protection. It seemed to us to be a next logical step and so we've sought to make it difficult for them. You know, we are opposed to illegal entry to Australia, we are in favour of a strong regime of border control and that's the policy of the Coalition and that's what we'll be continuing.

REPORTER: Do you ... does the Defence Force know what's happened to that boat that sparked this action by the government?

HILL: We'd ... well, I haven't heard anything in the last twenty-four hours but would it ... before the last twenty-four hours, no, there haven't been reports for some considerable time. The original reports were just sketchy and they were, of course, always coming in, but there were suggestions that there was at least one boat moving down the ... as I said, the Indonesian archipelago. Whether it's turned back or where it's got to, we don't know.

REPORTER: Could I ask you about the incident in the election campaign when one of these boats sank and three hundred and fifty plus people were drowned. The government has always claimed that that boat sank in Indonesian waters, but now there is evidence before the Senate committee that that's not the case. Do you still maintain that boat was in Indonesian waters?

HILL: We ... well, we don't know exactly where it sunk. What we do is that we didn't have a capability to assist it because we didn't know where it was. If we had a capability to rescue people at sea, we would obviously utilise that. We would ... our Defence Force, our Navy would drop everything else and do it. It's just part of the way in which they behave. But we didn't know where it was and we didn't know that it sunk until some considerable time after.

REPORTER: If the government has nothing to hide, Senator, why have banned Rear-Admiral Raydon Gates from appearing before the Senate committee? After all, isn't he the man that you assigned to conduct a review of intelligence reports to find out what was known?

HILL: Well, that's not why they want to call him. What ... they want to call him on another excursion which, we believe, is outside of the terms of reference of the committee. So, what I've said is, if you want to expand the terms of reference, you've got the numbers anyway with the Democrats and the Greens. You come in and you adopt the proper process, expand the terms of reference and then you can legitimately call him. We've got nothing to hide.

REPORTER: But if they want to question him on this, will you let him appear?

HILL: Oh yes. There's ... we have been giving extensive evidence on this particular subject, but that's not what this latest business is all about. This is ... it's to get back into the Department of PM&C and trying to discover its internal relations with a particular defence staffer who was working there at the time, which was totally outside of the terms of reference that were before the committee.

So, I'm not making it easy for them in terms of wanting to enter off on every frolic that suits their interests, but in terms of the public interest of insuring that the committee is able to properly pursue the terms of reference be... that are before it, then I will totally cooperate. [emphasis added]

REPORTER: A final issue, tomorrow begins the last two weeks of the budget session of parliament. Labor, the Democrats, the Greens are vowing to block three measures. Can you ... I suppose, can you have any hope of getting them through or have you given up?

HILL: No, again, we haven't given up, but it's disturbing to us that promises we made, for example, in relation to the superannuation surcharge, promises in the last election, are now going to be defeated again by this coalition of the Labor Party, Democrats and Greens.

We are seeking welfare reform and part of that was in the budget and they are going to vote that down. They are ... they say they are going to vote down this reduction of the superannuation tax. That is disturbing to us as a government, a recently re-elected government, but we will continue to use whatever persuasive capabilities we have to move them in another direction.

And, if that's unsuccessful, we appeal to the public, in terms of the public seeking to ... having a right to have a mandate that it endorsed the election implemented. We're seeking to do it in this next fortnight and will continue undeterred.

REPORTER: Senator, we thank you.

HILL: Thank you, Laurie.

REPORTER: Back to you, Jim.



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