Minister for Defence – Transcript – Press conference

TRANSCRIPT: PRESS CONFERENCE

TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY AND E & OE

DATE:  23 April 2012

TOPICS: Legacy Services Trust; Anzac Day; PNG and Solomon Islands; Moorebank; Submarines; Peter Slipper; Afghanistan.

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, thank you very much for turning up today. I’m very pleased to be here with Lieutenant-General David Morrison, the Chief of Army. Also pleased to be here with the former Governor of Western Australia, Ken Michael, who is the chairman of the Legacy Services Trust. And also pleased to be here with His Honour, Peter Blaxell, a former judge of the Supreme Court, who is also the chair of the SAS Regiment Trust.

We’re announcing today that the Government will provide $14 million to the newly-formed Legacy Services Trust to assist the families, in particular the widows and the children, of Australian Defence Force personnel adversely affected, killed or incapacitated as a result of their service for our country.

Whilst in the first instance the priority will be for the families of those killed or incapacitated in Afghanistan, the provisions of the Legacy Services Trust apply to the families of the victims of past and future conflicts.

The reason that today we are joined by the chair of the SAS Services Trust is that in 1996 the SAS Services Trust, the SAS Regiment Services Trust, was established for effectively the same purpose but limited to those members of the SAS Regiment based, as people would well know, here in Perth.

When the Government came to office in 2007, it did so with a commitment to make a contribution to the SAS Regiment Trust, and we did that in 2009 with a contribution of $10 million.

Last year, the Commando Welfare Trust was established, and the chair of the Commando Welfare Trust, Peter Harvie, has been briefed on today’s announcement. He fully supports it and he’s asked me to relay his regrets at his inability to be able to attend, Peter being based in Melbourne.

In October-November of last year, the Government made a contribution of $8 million to the Commando Welfare Trust. The Commando Welfare Trust established for generally the same purpose, to look after the families of commandos who were either killed or incapacitated as a result of service to our country, in particular Afghanistan.

What of course the establishment of the Commando Welfare Trust and the SAS Regiment Trust showed was that there was a gap in the community coverage so far as our Defence Force personnel in Afghanistan was concerned. There was very good cooperation between the SAS Regiment Trust and the Commando Welfare Trust to help the Commando Welfare Trust establish itself. And after the establishment of the Commando Welfare Trust and the Government’s contribution to that trust last year, both the SAS Regiment Trust, the Commando Welfare Trust had discussions with the Government and Legacy with a view to establishing a Legacy Services Trust which would effectively cover the field so far as Australian Defence Force personnel is concerned and not limit the coverage of these trusts to either our Special Services or to our Commandos.

I was very pleased that Legacy nominated Ken Michael, who I’ve known for a long period of time as a distinguished Western Australian public servant but subsequently and more recently as the Governor of Western Australia, very pleased when Legacy nominated Ken Michael to essentially be the contact person for discussions with the SAS Regiment Trust with the Commando Welfare Trust and the Government. And those discussions have culminated in Ken’s recent appointment as the chair of the Legacy Services Trust and today’s announcement.

As I say, whilst the priority is for the families adversely affected by service in Afghanistan, the provisions of all three trusts enable past and future conflicts and families adversely affected to be covered by the provisions of those trusts. But in the first instance, as you would expect, the priority is of course as a result of service in Afghanistan.

Tragically, in the run-up to Anzac Day, we know that our period of time in Afghanistan has seen 32 fatalities and over 200 casualties or woundings, some 220, and it is those families of the 32 and the 220 who will be the beneficiaries of the good work by the Commando Welfare Trust, the SAS Regiment Trust and now Legacy Services Trust.

So I’m very pleased to be joined by the representatives of the trust here today, also very pleased to be joined by the Chief of Army, General Morrison.

I’ll ask General Morrison to make a few remarks and then I’ll ask Ken Michael and Peter Blaxell to make some remarks, and then I’ve got a couple of comments to make in other areas, and I’ll do that and then we’re happy to respond to your questions.

So if I could ask the Chief of Army to make some remarks. David?

DAVID MORRISON:      I’d like to take the opportunity of thanking the Government and Legacy for the very significant involvement that they are making today in the care of those families who have suffered as a result of the nation’s wars. This contribution today will apply to all of the Army outside of the Special Forces, but also to the Navy and the Air Force. And while I’m the Chief of Army, I speak on behalf of the ADF in saying how grateful we are.

Australia has a long history of supporting the men and women who it sends to fight the nation’s wars and the families who are left behind. Legacy is almost 100 years old. Formed out of the events of the First World War, it has been providing great comfort to those who have been left behind. And I was delighted to be involved in some small way with the way the Government has sought Legacy’s assistance here in overseeing how this trust will be used now and into the future.

So on behalf of the ADF, thank you very much.

KEN MICHAEL:    Thank you.

Firstly, right at the outset, I would like to thank our Minister, Stephen Smith, not only for the grant today but for the ongoing support he has given us in forming this Legacy Services Trust and in working so closely with the other two trusts, the Commandos and the Special Air Services, so that we can make sure that we complement each other’s efforts and that we understand exactly what we’re here for.

And that is today to fill that gap that was left of the Defence Force’s personnel who unfortunately have either been – lost their lives or have been seriously incapacitated in the wars, particularly Afghanistan, and that this provides an opportunity for us to look at their families and determine the ways in which we can offer them support, be it through education, be it through looking after their own personal needs, or be it looking after the children right up to the age of 25.

So the whole process is complete now with the formation of the Legacy Services Trust. I feel very honoured to be its chair and I’m looking forward with great anticipation on what we can do to help those who’ve unfortunately suffered because of their service to this great country of ours, and for providing us with the great freedom and democracy we enjoy.

And it’s those messages that we should never forget as to what our service personnel have provided for us all, and the measures that we can give back through these processes is something that I’m very proud to be involved with.

And again my appreciation to the Federal Government for making this substantial grant available which will allow us certainly to put in place the policies and the principles and the procedures that we need to address those in need as we will continue to find people who have particular courses to be supported in some way. It is a great privilege, and I feel honoured to be in this role.

Thank you very much.

PETER BLAXELL:  The SAS Resources Trust is very proud to have played a role in the formation of the Legacy Services Trust. Two years ago when our trust received a very generous gift of $10 million from the Federal Government, we were acutely aware that it was only SAS widows and children who were receiving the benefit of Government support in this way.

Accordingly, our trust resolved that it should encourage other regiments and units in the ADF to form trusts, similar to our own. We also resolved that we’d provide financial assistance to any such new trust. And for that purpose we have been setting aside in each financial year the excess of our income over expenditure.

The first trust that we helped to establish was the Commando Welfare Trust which looks after the families of casualties in the Commandos’ Regiment and the Incident Response Regiment.

When that trust was formed in October 2010, we provided it with a donation of $390,000. The second trust we have helped established is the Legacy Service Trust which as you know will look after all of the families of all casualties in the ADF other than Special Forces casualties. There is much work to be done in that area, particularly with casualties from the Mentoring Taskforce in Afghanistan and particularly for the children who have lost fathers.

Now nothing could ever make up for the loss of a father, but at the very least these three trusts could make sure that those children get the very best start in life by funding their education, and making sure they get settled into a profession or a trade and a useful way of living.

Now with the Legacy Services Trust, it’s received the announcement of a very generous gift of $14 million from the Federal Government, but it will be some months before that money will be received. In the meantime there’s a lot of urgent work to be done, and our trust would like to see this new trust hit the ground running.

So for that reason, I’m very pleased to provide a donation today from the SAS Resources Trust to the Legacy Services Trust to the sum of $440,000.

And I ask Dr Ken Michael to come forward to receive this cheque.

KEN MICHAEL:    Well if I might just take the liberty of thanking Peter and the SAS for this donation. We are ready. We are moving. We are preparing the policies and the procedures. A bit of money will help us get going even better. And this generous donation is a great start to the Legacy Services Trust.

And when we have all the matters of protocol and arrangements in conjunction with the Federal Government, in conjunction with the Minister, we have the beginnings of a trust that will provide those services for so many in need, and also work with the special service areas so that we can learn from each other as well as complement each other’s work and certainly provide the very services that we know that are needed for those families that have suffered as a result of services in war and in other places.

Thank you very much.

STEPHEN SMITH: Well thanks very much General Morrison, and thank you Ken, and thank you Peter, and can I complement the SAS Resources Trust on its donation to the Legacy Services Trust.

Just very quickly – Wednesday of course is Anzac Day. Early tomorrow morning General Morrison and I will fly to Papua New Guinea, we will spend the Anzac Day dawn service at the Bomana War Cemetery just outside of Port Moresby.

Our trip to Papua New Guinea reflects the fact that this year is the 70th Anniversary of Kokoda, the 70th Anniversary of what in very many respects was a turning point of the war in the Pacific. So General Morrison and I will be with great pride, and with great honour, represent Australia at the dawn service at Bomana.

We’ll be accompanied by the Secretary of the Department of Defence, and later on Anzac Day, on Wednesday, the Secretary of the Department of Defence and I will travel to the Solomon Islands, and there we will spend some time on Anzac Day with Australian Defence Force personnel – some 84 Defence Force personnel who make up the Australian component of the Regional Assistance Mission for the Solomon Islands, our Solomon Islands peace and stabilisation contribution – commonly known as RAMSI.

So that will be a very good opportunity for the Secretary of the Department and I on behalf of the Australian Government, the Australian Parliament and the Australian people to acknowledge and pay tribute to that overseas service by our Australian Defence Force personnel taking part in the RAMSI mission.

Anzac Day of course now getting very close to its centenary, and in recent decades Anzac Day has grown to be – together with Australia Day – very much the Australian national day.

It is a day when not only do we acknowledge and pay tribute to the service of all Australian Defence Force personnel, men and women, over the history of our nation, and the sacrifice that has occurred during that period, not just in conflicts but also in the course of peacekeeping missions, either United Nations or regionally approved peacekeeping missions such as the Solomon Islands and East Timor.

But Anzac Day has also come to be a day where we acknowledge our nation’s values and virtues, the notions of mateship, the notions of a fair go, the great Australian tradition of a sense of humour in adversity, and the notion that irrespective of how we might view our own circumstances, there’s always someone less well off than ourselves to whom we can give a helping hand.

So these great Australian characteristics, great Australian values and virtues now form part of the Anzac Day commemoration, the Anzac Day celebration of a service to a nation.

Finally before responding to your questions you may have seen earlier today the Minister for Finance and the Minister for Infrastructure make an announcement with respect to Moorebank as an infrastructure hub just outside of Sydney.

The Moorebank infrastructure hub will require the relocation of the School of Military Engineering. That transfer will take place in the course of the end of 2014 through to 2015. And the relocation of the School of Military Engineering will occur to the Holsworthy Army Base.

That announcement’s been made today earlier in Canberra by my two ministerial colleagues, but there is a Defence implication and that will see the relocation of the School of Military Engineering.

We’re happy to respond to your questions on our announcement with respect to the Legacy Services Trust. If you have questions in other areas, then I’m happy to take those after we’ve dealt with the announcements. Happy to respond.

JOURNALIST:      [Indistinct]

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, the primary objective of the Legacy Services Trust is to support the families, in particular the children, of those servicemen and women who were either killed or incapacitated as a result of their service to our country.

The lesson of the SAS Trust and the Commando Welfare Trust is that these two trusts have paid particular attention to the educational wellbeing of children. But as I indicated earlier, the trust has a capacity to assist the widows and families of the victims of other conflicts both in the past and into the future.

But given our involvement in Afghanistan, given our 32 fatalities and our 220 woundings, the priority in the first instance will be with respect to the children and the family members of those who have been adversely affected from our time in Afghanistan.

As both Ken and Peter and I have made the point, this now sees the establishment of three community or service-based trusts which cover the field of our deployment to Afghanistan.

Our first deployment to Afghanistan was of course a Special Services contingent, and after the interruption of service in Afghanistan as a result of the Iraq conflict, when we re-entered Afghanistan, it was also with Special Forces. Over that time we have seen the addition of Commandos and also a very strong mentoring and training contingent. And tragically, we’ve seen fatalities from all three groups.

The establishment of the Legacy Services Trust makes sure that all of our service personnel, men and women, in Afghanistan are now potentially covered by a community-based, service-based trust.

JOURNALIST:      What role will Legacy play- [indistinct]

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, Legacy of course has been going for nearly 100 years. I think, from memory, next year is Legacy’s 95th anniversary. And Legacy is in very many respects the best example of Australians wanting to make a contribution to the families of veterans and it’s been doing so for a long period of time.

Legacy have established as a separate legal entity the Legacy Services Trust chaired by Dr Michael, and so it’ll be the duty and the obligation of the trustees of that trust to allocate the income from the trust to the benefit of adversely affected families.

Of course, the fact that it is named after Legacy and has Legacy’s support and is in its inception a Legacy initiative, is a very strong recommendation. And I’m sure that recommendation, together with the Government’s contribution of some $14 million, will see other contributions to the Legacy Services Trust just as we have seen other contributions to the SAS Trust and the Commando Welfare Trust.

JOURNALIST:      [Indistinct]

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, firstly I don’t see the link between the Speaker of the House and Commander Kafer. But I’ll deal with that in a moment.

But firstly, the only institution that can require a Speaker to step aside is the Parliament itself. Of course, the Speaker has taken his own action to step aside pending an investigation into what are allegations of fraud, effectively a potential criminal allegation. So he has taken his own decision, his own initiative, to step aside whilst that matter is being investigated.

He’s made it clear that once that investigation has been completed, if that effectively clears him, then he’s proposing to resume the Speakership. That is a matter for him and ultimately a matter for the Parliament.

So far as the other matters are concerned which relate to civil matters, we have any number of examples in the past, including with current serving Liberal members of Parliament, where they have either been officeholders or ministers and they have been subject to a civilian or civil case or allegation or claim. And so the Government has made it clear that it fully supports the Speaker in his decision to step aside, and we should now allow those processes to take their place.

I’ve seen references by the Liberal Party to Commander Kafer. Frankly, I don’t see the link, but in Commander Kafer’s case, he was required not by me but required by his Commanding Officer, the then Vice-Chief of the Defence Force, the current Chief of the Defence Force, to take leave pending the conclusion – the instigation and conclusion of the Kirkham Inquiry.

JOURNALIST:      [Indistinct]

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I think he’ll come to regret those remarks. I don’t want to on Anzac Day, particularly given our long heritage and involvement with our New Zealand colleagues, to say anything which would be critical of our trans-Tasman brothers and sisters. But I treat them with the disrespect they deserve and I am absolutely confident that if you asked my New Zealand counterpart, Jonathan Coleman, the same question, he would give precisely the same answer.

We have the highest regard for the contribution made by our New Zealand colleagues as they do have for us. Anyone who has been to Gallipoli, who has gone to the New Zealand monument at the top of the hill, who understands the contribution that our Kiwi brothers and sisters made in Gallipoli alone, let alone in other conflicts, including and up to Afghanistan, would dismiss those comments with the disrespect that they deserve.

JOURNALIST:      [Indistinct]

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I’ve seen a lot of speculation about our Future Submarine Project, and there are a number of points which are worth making.

Firstly, we have had Collins Class Submarines since the 1990s, and since the 1990s we have had long-standing, well known, entrenched maintenance and sustainment issues and difficulties with our Collins Class Submarines. That has gone on for almost two decades under governments of both political persuasions, and I have made a point since becoming Defence Minister to do everything we possibly can to address those maintenance and sustainment issues and problems and to get better operating service out of our Collins Class Submarines. That’s the first point.

Secondly, when I became Minister for Defence, I was urged by any number of people to immediately take forward to my Cabinet colleagues a proposal for our Future Submarine Project. My own judgment was that it would not be the correct course of action, indeed it would be irresponsible to rush into the Future Submarine Project without seeking to fully understand the difficulties that we had inherited so far as the Collins Class Submarine was concerned, in particular the maintenance and sustainment of the Collins class submarine and the inability over almost two decades to get better operational service out of the Collins Class Submarine.

That caused me to establish the Coles Review, the first part of which I received in December of last year, and the second and final part of which I am expecting to receive in the course of the next month or so.

At the same time, we have been doing a range of work preparing for the Future Submarines Project. And as I have said in the past, all options remain on the table other than the nuclear propulsion option.

Some people have suggested an off-the-shelf submarine from Europe. An issue with an off-the-shelf submarine from Europe is the distance that a European submarine has to travel in, for example, the North Sea or the Baltic Sea versus the distance that a submarine has to travel to patrol Australia’s borders, including the Pacific Ocean, the Indian Ocean and the Great Southern Ocean.

So there are capability issues which attend to that but no decisions have been made other than the Government ruling out a nuclear option. And the reason we have ruled out a nuclear option is that Australia does not have a nuclear industry, and if we acquired nuclear submarines that would effectively see the outsourcing to another country of our maintenance and sustainment of our submarine fleet.

But we are proceeding very carefully, very methodically, with planning for the Future Submarine Project. We remain committed to 12 submarines assembled in Australia. I’ve yet to see the Liberal Party make a comparable commitment.

And in terms of any gap in capability, when you move from one capability to another – as we did from the Oberon Submarine to the Collins Class Submarine – there is always a risk of a gap in capability. Whether there is a gap in capability will in the end depend upon the decision that we make about the new submarine, firstly; secondly, the length of life or the life of type of the Collins Class Submarine.

That is currently not known and one of the very important factors that go into – that goes into place as far as that is concerned is the lack of time that the Collins Class Submarine has actually spent in the water on operations. And so one of the studies we have currently under way is a study trying to better define the life of type of the Collins Class Submarine; that is one of the issues that we are working our way through.

But so far as I’m concerned it would have been in my view wrong – indeed, irresponsible – to have leapt into a Future Submarine Project without trying to address the long-standing endemic, systemic difficulties that we’ve had with the Collins Class Submarine.

JOURNALIST:      [Indistinct]

STEPHEN SMITH: I’m confident that the Government is doing everything possible to ensure that in due course we can make the best decision in our national interest and national security interest so far as the adoption of a Future Submarine is concerned. We remain committed to 12 new submarines assembled in Australia. In the meantime, we remain absolutely committed to seeking to enhance the operational capability and ability of the Collins Class.

Everyone happy? Ok-

JOURNALIST:      [Indistinct]

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I think Peter Slipper has actually been a very good Speaker. In terms of his performance in the House, he has been, in my view, as good a Speaker as I have experienced in the time I’ve been a Member of Parliament. And that’s the only basis that I have on which to judge him. The allegations and the suggestions that have been made are not matters within my knowledge.

JOURNALIST:      [Indistinct]

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, as I say, in my experience he has been as good a Speaker as any of the speakers who have been the presiding officer in my time in the Parliament. In my view he has done a very good job in discharging his duties as Speaker, particularly at question time. As I say, I’m not in a position to make a judgement about the other matters; I have no knowledge of them. And that is why these matters should now be left to the usual processes to determine.

JOURNALIST:      [Indistinct]

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, it would descend into and this is the great risk; the great risk is that it would descend into instability if we were to leave now. And that is why we’ve made it absolutely clear – as my International Security Assistance Force Defence counterparts made clear to me in Brussels last week, and that is why we all remain committed to the arrangement struck at Lisbon that we would transition to Afghan-led security responsibility, that we would affect that by the end of 2014.

In Australia’s case, the Prime Minister and I have made it clear, as early as November of last year that in Uruzgan Province we believe we are making sufficient progress to effect that transition to Afghan-led security force responsibility by 2014, if not earlier. And my recent trip to Kandahar, Tarin Kot and Kabul the week before last has reaffirmed that view in my own mind.

In Brussels last week, together with the Chief of the Defence Force and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, we reaffirmed that analysis with our Defence and Foreign Ministerial colleagues. And both NATO and the International Security Assistance Force remains committed to our objective. And our objective is to make sure that Afghanistan does not again become a breeding ground for international terrorism.

As we speak, Umar Patek is on trial in Indonesia on charges of terrorism arising out of the Bali bombings. He was trained in Afghanistan. So we don’t want those types of incidences to occur again.

The Prime Minister and I have also made it clear that when transition is effected by 2014, that Australia remains ready, willing and able to make an ongoing contribution to Afghanistan, and to the Afghan National Security Forces in two ways.

Firstly, by making a fair contribution to sustaining the Afghan National Security Forces and secondly, by an in-kind or ongoing support. Now that might be through ongoing training. We do, for example, artillery training. We’ve committed ourselves to supporting the British in their effort for officer training. It also may mean under the appropriate mandate, a Special Forces contribution, either to continue training or indeed to be involved in counter-terrorism operation.

At the same time, we’re working towards the establishment of a long-term strategic partnership between Australia and Afghanistan, which we may well be in a position for the Prime Minister and President Karzai to sign up for in the Chicago summit next year.

So I often see urgings by commentators and others to leave immediately. To leave immediately would be to run the risk that Afghanistan again becomes a haven for international terrorism, and that is our mission objective, and that is what we believe we are on track to prevent occurring again.

JOURNALIST:      [Indistinct]

STEPHEN SMITH: Well the Government is a minority Government as everyone knows. And the Parliament has functioned well, and has functioned in a manner which has enabled us to pass, Mr Albanese would know the precise number, but if not over 100 pieces of legislation, over 200 pieces of legislation. And I am confident that as I’ve always been that this Parliament will go its full term, with an election September, October, November of 2013.

JOURNALIST:      [Indistinct]

STEPHEN SMITH: Well I’ve been around long enough to know that ANZAC Day marches, essentially the province of the RSL, so that will be a matter for them. I do make this general point that when you speak to our troops on the ground, particularly those who handle dogs, whether they are dogs who are trained in drug sniffing and the like, that they value very much the contribution made by our dogs in Afghanistan. They are very highly-regarded by our troops.

Who marches on an ANZAC Day parade is a matter for the RSL and I’ll leave it to them.

Okay. Thanks very much everyone. Thank you.


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