Interview with Kieran Gilbert, Sky News

15 September 2014

Subjects: National Security; Australian Defence Force contribution to international coalition against ISIL.


Kieran Gilbert: Senator Brandis thanks very much for your time.

Attorney-General: Good morning Kieran.

Kieran Gilbert: Are we at war, now formally?

Attorney-General: No, the decision that was made by the Cabinet yesterday was to pre-position Australian forces in the UAE in the event that Australia decides to commit to a multi-national, essentially humanitarian force to deal with the ISIL insurgency in northern Iraq. So I don’t think it’s correct to describe what we are speaking of as a war in the first place. It is essentially a humanitarian mission, with military elements of course. But in any event the decision that was made by the Australian Government yesterday was a decision merely to pre-position in the event that the international community makes a decision to commit to the mission in the weeks ahead.

Kieran Gilbert: And if that deployment does take place in the next few days as we expect, are we then formally at war?

Attorney-General: Well I don’t think you would describe this as a war, certainly not as war is known in international law because, apart from any other consideration, the fact is what we are doing is assisting an established, lawful, constitutional government, the Iraqi government in dealing with a violent insurgency. So in the event there were to be a commitment sometime in the future and Australians forces, particularly air forces and our air assets were to be used, then they would be in support of and in defence of the Government of Iraq.

Kieran Gilbert: John Kerry said that the coalition that’s being formed would possibility be needed for years to come. Is that the Government’s expectation, that sort of timeline?

Attorney-General: I think yesterday, when he made the announcement, the Prime Minister, our Prime Minister talked about many, many months. I think he may have added to his comments this morning though I haven’t seen what he had to say this morning. So you know, this is something that is going to take an unspecified amount of time and potentially quite a long period of time, and it would be artificial and impossible to put a finite end date on it.

Kieran Gilbert: Special Forces soldiers are heading to Iraq as advisors. Is it likely that some will be fighting alongside the Peshmerga and Iraqi forces?

Attorney-General: Well in the event there were to be a decision to deploy those forces in Iraq, they would be going as military advisors not as actual combatants.

Kieran Gilbert: But in a war zone, they could end up as combatants if they are alongside, say a Peshmerga unit that goes into combat with the Islamic State. It’s possible isn’t?

Attorney-General: It think there is a well-established distinction between combatant forces and advisors. Now as to the shape and structure of the mission, that really is a question for the military commanders and it’s not something in any event on which it would be appropriate for me to speculate.

Kieran Gilbert: Is it a prospect that our personnel and fighter jets will be involved in Syria because there doesn’t seem to be a viable boarder across the Islamic State held area?

Attorney-General: The decision that the Cabinet made yesterday was a decision in relation to Iraq.

Kieran Gilbert: Okay, so if there is going to be any attacks in Islamic State held areas in Syria that would have to come from the US, is that right?

Attorney-General: All I can speak to is the decision made by the Australian Government yesterday and that is a decision to pre-position in the event of a future commitment and it was limited to Iraq.

Kieran Gilbert: Limited to Iraq, okay. You would concede though as you look at that situation if we don’t also take them on in Syria it seems like a futile exercise because their stronghold is in northern Syria?

Attorney-General: This is a very mobile and fast changing strategic environment, but Australia is making a proportionate commitment. If we do engage it will be part of a broadly based international force. We are offering up to eight Super Hornet aircraft and some 200 Special Forces personnel. So obviously Australia’s involvement if it comes to this is going to be limited by our proportionate share of the overall multi-national force. And as I say, the decision the Cabinet made yesterday was a decision in relation to Iraq.

Kieran Gilbert: And you know as well as anyone the record of success in Iraq, if you look at Western intervention in recent times, has not been great?

Attorney-General: Well I think there has been a lot of very simple minded commentary about this and people, especially I noticed Senator Milne, who of course is very ignorant of these matters, has drawn a direct comparison between 2003 and what the international community has in mind. Now of course there is this profound and fundamental difference. In 2003 it was actually an invasion with the advertent purpose of bringing about regime change. What we are speaking about today, what we have in contemplation is to support the Iraqi Government, the established, constitutional government of Iraq to defend itself from a violent insurgency.

Kieran Gilbert: Finally I want to ask you about the counter-terrorism laws to be introduced next week. Do you have the support of Labor or will you need to support of the cross bench to secure the passage of those laws?

Attorney-General: We expect the support of the Labor Party. Mr Shorten has been quite sensible, if I may say so, in his declarations that this is a bipartisan matter. We have kept the Opposition close and I will be offering a briefing to the Opposition during the course of this week to advise them of the shape of the final package and we will share with them a draft of the legislation after it’s been through our party room.

Kieran Gilbert: And on a related matter, the News Corp papers report missing rocket launchers. This is obviously very concerning given the suggestion they’ve been acquired by people with links to terrorists.

Attorney-General: Well I’m aware of those reports. I really don’t want to comment on them, I don’t want to confirm that the claims made in those reports are in fact accurate.

Kieran Gilbert: Okay, Attorney-General, appreciate your time.

Attorney-General: Thank you Kieran.