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Transcript - 23830

Interview with Neil Mitchell, Radio 3AW, Melbourne

Photo of Abbott, Tony

Abbott, Tony

Period of Service: 18/09/2013 to 15/09/2015

More information about Abbott, Tony on The National Archive website.

Release Date: 16/09/2014

Release Type: Transcript

Transcript ID: 23830

Subject(s): Australian Defence Force contribution to international coalition against ISIL

PRIME MINISTER:

Neil, it’s a pleasure to be with you.

NEIL MITCHELL:

Have Australian personnel now left for the Middle East?

PRIME MINISTER:

Some personnel have left for the Middle East. More personnel will be leaving for the Middle East in the course of the next four or five days.

NEIL MITCHELL:

Can you tell us who’s gone?

PRIME MINISTER:

Look, it’s best not to talk about that, but obviously we are sending a force to the Middle East. It will be in the United Arab Emirates and if other decisions are made it will be deployed for combat operations inside Iraq.

NEIL MITCHELL:

There is further speculation today that the SAS will one way or another be involved in combat. Is that likely?

PRIME MINISTER:

What we have in mind, Neil, and this won’t happen without further decisions, but what we have in mind is what’s known as military advising roles. We have quite a tradition of our Special Forces operating as military advisers to the military of other countries. We’re not conducting combat operations independently. What these military advisers do typically is they’ll be based in the battalion headquarters of the Iraqi or the Peshmerga forces. They’ll be there to try to ensure that those forces are acting effectively against their opponents.

NEIL MITCHELL:

Will they go into the field with those forces?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, no, that’s not the normal understanding of military advisers work. They’re with the headquarters’ of the relevant unit to which they’re attached. And I stress, Neil, that we’re not talking about independent combat operations by Australia, we’re not talking about ground combat operation by Australia, we’re talking about military advisers to be placed with the Iraqi security forces and the Peshmerga Kurdish forces.

NEIL MITCHELL:

Will they be armed?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, they would be armed.

NEIL MITCHELL:

Ok. It’s estimated today this could cost billions of dollars for Australia which is possibly correct, obviously you wouldn’t know. But does this jeopardise the surplus?

PRIME MINISTER:

The short answer is it shouldn’t.  At the moment we a have a commitment in Afghanistan and it’s envisaged that the commitment in Iraq will cost about the same as our commitment in Afghanistan costs and that was in the order of a quarter of a billion dollars every six months, but the final costings are obviously yet to be worked out.

NEIL MITCHELL:

The United States continues to describe this as war. Do you still want to avoid that term?

PRIME MINISTER:

Look, obviously we’ve sent this force to the Middle East with an eye to engaging in combat operations inside Iraq. But we’re not fighting another country; we’re fighting the terrorists of the ISIL death cult – that’s what we’re doing. So, we certainly have combat operations in mind, but there’s a world of difference between combat operations inside a country which are conducted with the full support of, and indeed in cooperation with the armed forces of that country, and taking on another country in a war. So, I don’t want to minimise the difficulties and the dangers here, Neil, because there are difficulties and there are dangers, but nevertheless I think strictly speaking it’s best described as a mission rather than as a war.

NEIL MITCHELL:

When you refer to combat operations, are you referring to the Air Force or do you put the SAS into that category as well?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, if they are military advisers to Iraqi and Peshmerga forces that are engaged in combat operations, they are themselves engaged in those operations. But obviously as military advisers they’re not normally on the front line of those operations. Now, as for the aircraft that we’ve deployed to the Middle East with a view to deploying them subsequently inside Iraq, these are Super Hornet fighter bombers, they can have a ground attack role, they can fly combat air patrol. They’re a very capable aircraft and they’ll be used effectively with the full support of the Iraqi government.

NEIL MITCHELL:

You’ve indicated, Prime Minister, that our role there will be under review, I assume you mean it’s almost a constant review is it, as to whether we take another step, whether we get further involved?

PRIME MINISTER:

Exactly right. These things are constantly subject to review and by the time any final decision to engage in combat operations is taken, there will be very strict rules of engagement, there’ll be an absolute plethora of legal documents in place regarding our operations inside Iraq. But obviously the whole thing is subject to an overall national interest assessment. The point I’ve made all along here is that this is a fundamentally humanitarian mission. It’s to protect people from ISIL – this murderous death cult which is threatening not just the people of the Middle East, but people right around the world, including in Australia. But in order to operate in a fundamentally humanitarian way it’s necessary to disrupt and degrade as far as we can ISIL’s capacity to inflict harm on people and that’s the operations that our armed forces will be contributing to should final decisions be made, along with the armed forces of many other countries.

NEIL MITCHELL:

If there is to be an escalation in our involvement, will that be a matter of public or parliamentary discussion or will it be a decision for the Government?

PRIME MINISTER:

Decisions to deploy the armed forces of the Commonwealth, Neil, are made by the Cabinet. The National Security Committee of the Cabinet considers the matter, makes a decision, it then goes to the full Cabinet. There are consultations with the Opposition and normally there is parliamentary discussion. I think certainly we’ve already had one parliamentary discussion and subsequent debate on the situation in Iraq right now and I imagine that should our forces be committed to actual combat operations there will be – obviously – a parliamentary discussion, a full opportunity for parliamentary debate.

NEIL MITCHELL:

Prime Minister, we haven’t got long. A couple of related areas – Senator Jacqui Lambie has said sharia law’s effectively abhorrent to Australia and people observing it should not be able to stand for high office or able to receive welfare payments. Do you believe sharia law is abhorrent to Australia?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well no one’s talking about sharia law here in Australia. Sharia law doesn’t operate in Australia, as far as I’m concerned it won’t operate in Australia. People are perfectly entitled to live their lives in accordance with a particular moral code, but the law of this land is Australian law and that’s the way it should be.

NEIL MITCHELL:

We do have sharia bank loans and that type of thing.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, look, people are entitled to lend money to others, and provided it’s in accordance with Australian law and Australian legal requirements, any other bells and whistles they put on it is entirely a matter for them. But it’s Australian law that governs Australia and I just think it’s a bit of a red herring to start talking about something which doesn’t operate in Australia and which no one is proposing should operate in Australia.

NEIL MITCHELL:

It’s reported today some charities have been raising money for ISIS. Can you do anything about that? Or even if it wasn’t deliberate, the money has been passed to ISIS. Can you do anything about that?

PRIME MINISTER:

We are doing our best to ensure that this doesn’t happen. Just as it’s a very serious criminal offence to leave our country to fight with a terrorist organisation abroad, it’s also a serious criminal offence to fund terrorist organisations. So, we have just recently committed, from memory I think it’s $20 million, to upgrade the ability of AUSTRAC, which is the government organisation that tries to keep tabs on the movement of money, we’ve given them an extra $20 million to try to ensure that we are vigilant against any attempts to launder money from this country to terrorist organisations overseas.

NEIL MITCHELL:

Are you aware on another thing of a man called Mohammad Daniel, a former Sydney man who has been Syria and wants to come back into the country but did have a New Zealand passport? Are you aware of his case?

PRIME MINISTER:

I would be confident that our security agencies would be aware of this case. I haven’t been briefed on him. I am aware that there is some reporting on him today and the general rule is that if you are fighting with terrorist organisations overseas, you are committing a very serious offence, and should you come back to Australia, or seek to come back to Australia, you will be arrested, you will be prosecuted and you will be jailed.

NEIL MITCHELL:

Prime Minister, a couple of other quick things. You’re in Arnhem Land – Aboriginal issues – do you think there should be separate seats in Parliament for Aboriginal representation or, indeed, a separate Aboriginal Parliament?

PRIME MINISTER:

I’m into uniting our country, Neil, not dividing our country. I would like to see a constitutional referendum that provides for recognition of indigenous people. I would like to see that. John Howard first proposed this back in 2007. It’s basically been a subject of bipartisan agreement ever since that we should do this. But, we’ve got to do it when the time is right and we’ve got to do it around a proposition which has a very, very good chance of uniting our country. It would be very good for all of us if we could resolve this matter and if we could do so in a way which was reminiscent of the marvellous unifying moment that was the 1967 referendum.

NEIL MITCHELL:

Are you aware of, or have you had reports on the, it could be as many as 700 asylum seekers drowned in the Mediterranean?

PRIME MINISTER:

Again, Neil, I am aware that there are press reports to this effect and it just goes to show that it is imperative to stop the boats, because as long as people smugglers are in business, the drowning’s will take place. Now, we don’t believe there has been anything like a single incident on that scale in respect of people smuggling to Australia, but there was that terrible, terrible incident back in late 2001, I think, when some 300 or so people perished. We had the terrible disaster on the cliffs of Christmas Island at the end of 2010. We think that well over 1,000 people have perished at sea because of people smuggling, and that’s why I keep saying, Neil, that the most humanitarian thing you can do is stop the boats and thank God, as a result of the policies of this Government, the boats are stopping.

NEIL MITCHELL:

If you don’t mind, Prime Minister, two quick things – the East West Link in doubt here, is your money conditional?

PRIME MINISTER:

It’s for the East West Link. It’s not for anything else, it’s for the East West Link, and this is a very important piece of national infrastructure. It will be terrific for Melbourne, terrific for Geelong, terrific for Victoria and very important for Australia. So, we want to get this thing built and built as quickly as possible, and I don’t understand why the Victorian Opposition Leader is saying that contracts, which he once thought were sacrosanct, can now be ripped up by an incoming government.

NEIL MITCHELL:

Thank you for your time. I assume we’re talking on your special ‘Bat-phone’! What can you see from where you are?

PRIME MINISTER:

We’re just talking on a standard mobile at the moment, although, I do have secure communications up here, and I was able to have a conversation with the incoming ASIO Director-General yesterday. From my tent, apart from a very handsome member of my staff…

NEIL MITCHELL:

Who’s winding you up!

PRIME MINISTER:

I can look out across the escarpment, across some bush and in the distance there are sand hills and there’s the Gulf of Carpentaria beyond. It’s a magical, magical spot. It’s Gulkula, where the Garma Festival is held every year in the Yolngu Country of Galarrwuy Yunupingu and it’s a place more Australians should see.

NEIL MITCHELL:

Thank you so much for your time.

PRIME MINISTER:

Thank you so much. Thanks, Neil.

[ends]

Transcript - 23830