Minister for Defence – Interview with Lyndal Curtis, ABC 24



TOPICS: ADF Mental Health Study; Her Majesty the Queen – visit and CHOGM; Gilad Shalit; Super Hornets and Growler; Labor Leadership.

LYNDAL CURTIS: Stephen Smith; welcome to News 24.


LYNDAL CURTIS: The mental illness, mental health report will be released later this week. As I said there are some areas where the rates of mental disorders in the lower in Defence, others where they are higher. How much of an impact does the fact that Defence employs more younger people have?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well I think as General Alexander said this morning at Senate Estimates, it potentially does have an impact but on Friday the Minister for Defence Science and Personnel, Warren Snowdon together with the Chief of the Defence Force, will release the mental health and well-being study and the strategy for the future. That’s a very significant report. It follows on from the so-called Dunt Report, or Dunt Review which saw about 50 recommendations which Defence is painstakingly implementing.

But the general proposition, whatever statistics you look at you can find some areas where the occurrence of particular mental illnesses within Defence higher then the general community, or lower than the general community, or about the same level. What you do know in Defence is you’re dealing with a large number of people dealing in high stress circumstances. So anxiety, stress, dependence on the use of alcohol, these are challenges.

But this is an area where Defence has worked very well in my view over the last few years to make sure that everything that can be done is done. It’s an area where you can always do more as the Government’s general approach to mental health reform has shown in recent months. But it will be a comprehensive study and way forward which Warren Snowdon releases on Friday and that’s a very good thing.

LYNDAL CURTIS: If we could move on to other events which will be happening over the next week; The Queen is visiting. She’ll be visiting military training college Duntroon and the War Memorial; they’re two institutions with which she has a long history. What is the significance of the visit this time around?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well it’s the Centenary of Duntroon, the Royal Colours will be unfurled there, that’s a significant visit and of course we are very pleased about that, the Defence organisation generally is very pleased about it.

Importantly she will visit the War Memorial and pay her respects, again a deeply significant event. She’s been to both institutions before so it’ll be of no surprise to her, but they’re significant parts of her visit and we welcome that very much.

Defence of course is also in a portfolio sense responsible for the Admiral’s Barge, so there’s some enjoyment about that as well.

More generally whilst I’m pleased about all of those things as Minister for Defence, as Members for Perth and a West Australian, I’m very pleased that she’ll be performing and conducting all of the ceremonial duties at CHOGM. But as the Member for Perth and as a Perth citizen I’m looking very much forward to the barbecue on the foreshore which will be the highlight of the tour I’m sure, if only for Western Australians.

LYNDAL CURTIS: Overnight Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was released in a deal which will also see around 1000 Palestinian prisoners released. Is there a high price to pay for the freedom of one soldier?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well I don’t view this through the prism of a price or a multiplier. Firstly, it is a great thing for the family, it’s a great thing for him and it’s a very good thing for Israel and for the Jewish community throughout the world. This has been a terrible torment for a soldier and a family so we welcome the news very much; Australia has been urging his release consistently for the five-year period.

My own judgement is that rather than focus on the multiplier effect, that because of the good work that’s been done, including by Egypt, that this might actually be a positive step forward. In the end we have to have peace in the Middle East that can only come about by a two state solution which Australia continues to urge and encourage that. But hopefully out of what has been a terrible trauma for a family that some more general good will come as well.

LYNDAL CURTIS: There have been many signs of positive steps forward in the past though, and they have come sometimes to nothing–very little. Is it possible to say at this early stage that this is a significant move or is that one that time will tell?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well time will tell. I mean as you put it this has been a long-standing difficulty for Israel, for the Palestinian people, for the Middle East and the international community, and on too many occasions at the last minute we’ve seen in terms of the peace outcome, defeat snatched from the jaws of victory. But hopefully some good will come of it. Certainly some good will come for one family and for the Israeli people.

LYNDAL CURTIS: On the home front the Government is considering adding some, upgrading sorry, the Super Hornet fighter bombers, adding electronic warfare capability. Why are you looking at this?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well we’ve, this week we get the last of the 24 Super Hornets which we are very pleased about, on time and on or a bit below budget.

Sensibly my predecessor, one of my predecessors, Joel Fitzgibbon ensured that we made a decision to spend about 35 million dollars wiring up 12 of those Super Hornets for the so-called Growler, which is then electronic warfare capability.

All of the open source reporting, because I’d never refer to our intelligence or those assessments, indicates that the use of Growler by the US Navy planes in the first few days of the Libya campaign was very, very successful.

So as a consequence of spending that money we’re now in a position to make a judgement. So, we are about to start the comprehensive assessment. Is this a capability that we want or need? Would be in our national interests, our national security interests to acquire it and would we have the financial resources to do so? So we’re starting that process, but sensibly, we have the capacity to do it, it would be a very large capital investment but it may well be significant in our national interest to have that electronic capability. It would certainly add to our air capability which we regard as very much being in good order without Hornets and Super Hornets.

LYNDAL CURTIS: You say it would be a very large investment. Are you talking in the hundreds of millions of dollars and will this add, potentially cover, a capability gap that we have talked about for if the Joint Strike Fighters are late or some are not delivered?

STEPHEN SMITH: It’s a different capability. It’s an electronic warfare capability which knocks out enemy communications systems. And all of the open source reporting says that that occurred in Libya and the US Navy Chief, Admiral Roughead has made that point himself.

LYNDAL CURTIS: And the likely cost?

STEPHEN SMITH: It’s in the hundreds of millions but that’s the detailed assessment that we now need to go through. It’s a significant capital investment and we’re going to do that as we always do in a careful and sensible and methodical way.

In terms of Joint Strike Fighters – the Super Hornets to our air capability. I’ve made the point before, I’ll make again that in the course of next year I’ll make a judgement as to whether any scheduled delay on the Joint Strike Fighters puts us at risk of having a gap in our air combat capability and I won’t allow that to occur. I haven’t made any conclusions or decisions, but that may well lead to consideration of more Super Hornets.

LYNDAL CURTIS: And one final domestic political question. Your name’s being bandied about in the media as a potential leadership candidate. Has anyone in the party approached you about considering the leadership in a range of circumstances; whether the current prime minister resigns, whether there’s a challenge, whether there is an unfortunate bus accident?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well I make the point as I have in the past. I strongly support the Prime Minister, there’s no vacancy-

LYNDAL CURTIS: And no approach from anyone in the party?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well I’m very happy doing my job and I’ve made that point clear publicly and privately, as has by the way the Foreign Minister; made the point both of us that we strongly support the Prime Minister and we’re happy doing our jobs.

Now, there’s no point beating around the bush. We are going through some difficult political times but that’s because we are fronting up to some major national challenges including carbon pricing the need to get more carbon out of our economy and out of our environment. You always run into political choppy waters when you’re dealing with such big issues.

LYNDAL CURTIS: Stephen Smith, thank very much your time.

STEPHEN SMITH: Thank you, thanks very much.

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