Minister for Defence Stephen Smith – Press Conference

TRANSCRIPT: PRESS CONFERENCE

TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE

DATE: 3 SEPTEMBER 2012

TOPICS:
Afghanistan; Visit to Indonesia

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, thank you very much for turning up. Later this morning I’ll depart for Indonesia together with Jason Clare, the Minister for Defence Materiel, and the Home Affairs and Justice Minister. And we’ll be joined in Indonesia by the Transport Minister, Anthony Albanese, for discussions with our ministerial counterparts.

I’ll deal with that shortly but let me first deal with some matters arising from Afghanistan. You’ll of course all be aware of the terrible events of last week. I spoke to you about this time on Friday. Since that time Defence have announced the five Australian soldiers who were so terribly killed in action in Afghanistan. Let me just take this, my first opportunity to publicly express my condolences to the families concerned. To the family of Lance Corporal Stjepan Milosevic or Rick Milosevic, as he’s known to his family, from Penrith; to Private Robert Poate from Canberra; and to Sapper James Martin based in Perth, and I’ll make some remarks about that in a moment.

They were the three soldiers terribly killed in the insider incident or the so-called green on blue incident. My condolences go to their friends, their families and their loved ones. The two Australian soldiers killed in the helicopter crash both Commandos from Holsworthy, both Special Forces personnel, Private Nathanael Galagher from New South Wales and Lance Corporal Mervyn McDonald also West Australian, from Carnarvon, with family in Western Australia. So can I extend again my condolences to those families and to their friends, their mates and their loved ones.

There will of course, in Perth and Western Australia, be particular interest in the terrible fatalities of Mervyn McDonald and also Sapper James Martin. Lance Corporal McDonald grew up in Carnarvon and continues to have family in Western Australia. He of course was recently based at Holsworthy. Sapper James Martin grew up in Perth and, as the local federal member for Perth, I know that in his youth he played local cricket with the Maylands Cricket Club and also played local football with the Bayswater Bears Football Club. So, there’ll be a lot of sadness in our local community with young James Martin’s death tragically at the young age of 21.
 
Let me now deal with some of the matters arising from those terrible events last week. Let me firstly deal with issues arising from the so-called green on blue incident. As you’ll be aware last week both the Chief of the Defence Force and I indicated that following terrible like events last year Australia had taken additional force protection measures in Afghanistan. Following the events of last week the Chief of the Defence Force and his chain of command have instituted additional force protection measures.
 
I’m not proposing to go into those details other than to say that additional precautionary measures have been taken. I spoke with the Chief of the Defence Force earlier this morning and he advises me that from today – from Monday morning Afghanistan time in Uruzgan Province, Australian personnel will be conducting the tasks and the operations which had previously been set for them this week. So, their work continues but with those additional force protection measures.
 
Let me just draw some attention to a number of ISAF decisions that have been made over the weekend and announced, decisions by the International Security Assistance Force, and there’s been some reporting of these matters, some has been accurate, some has been inaccurate. I don’t say that critically, but let me just place on the record the decisions and the announcement which ISAF have made. And of course these – Australian officials both in Afghanistan and Australia have been made aware of these decisions, so I’ll outline the decisions and then reflect upon any implications for Australia.
 
Firstly the International Security Assistance Force, ISAF, has announced that Afghan local police recruits, new recruits, will no longer be trained pending additional vetting or re-vetting procedures of those Afghan local police recruits. That involves about 1000 new Afghan local police recruits.
Australia does not train Afghan local police at all and so this has no impact on Australian operations in Uruzgan province or Afghanistan generally. But that decision has been announced by ISAF over the weekend.
 
ISAF has also made it clear over the weekend that partnered operations between International Security Assistance Force and the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police will continue. So, there have been no changes to those partnered operations, they will continue, they are not affected. And so, International Security Assistance Force partnered operations including partnered operations with Australian Defence Force personnel with Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police continue. Contrary to some reports, Special Forces operations will continue. That has been made clear by the leadership of ISAF over the weekend. So, Special Forces operations – partnered Special Forces operations will continue.
 
What is occurring on that front is that ISAF, in conjunction with the Afghan National Security Forces, are checking the vetting status of Afghan Special Forces personnel and Afghan Commandos but operations have not been suspended. So, there’ll be some checking of the vetting status of Afghan Special Forces and Commando personnel, but there’ll be no suspension of those partnered operations. So at this stage, there is no impact on Australian operations and those operations continue, as I indicated earlier, the task which had previously been set for Australian forces in Uruzgan for this week will continue. The additional task of course, in addition to those tasks previously set, is the partnered operation with Afghan National Security Forces chasing, seeking to locate and find and capture Hek Matullah, the alleged perpetrator of the atrocity last week. So, there’s no disturbing of the Australian operations, as I’ve outlined.

Let me now deal with a statement released by the Palace in Kabul over the weekend with respect to a particular partnered Australian Afghan National Security Force operation. The operation in question was a fully partnered operation with Afghan forces and it had as part of its objective to seek to locate Hek Matullah or to locate insurgents who were suspected of assisting his escape. That fully partnered operation, which was conducted over the weekend, involved some 60 Australian Defence Force personnel and over 80 Afghan National Army personnel. Contrary to suggestions from Afghanistan, that partnered operation was authorised in accordance with the usual and normal procedures. It was authorised in accordance with the usual procedures conducted with the Uruzgan Chief of Police and the Governor of Uruzgan Province. So, the usual processes were followed and that partnered or joint operation was fully authorised in accordance with the usual arrangements.
 
I’m advised by the Chief of the Defence Force that the outcome of that operation were that two people, who have been confirmed as insurgents, were killed. Any loss of life is of course regrettable, but I’m advised by the Chief of the Defence Force that the two people who were killed have been confirmed as insurgents both by Australian sources and by Afghan sources. Twelve people were detained as a result of that operation. Of the 12 detained, one was a woman; the first such occasion, according to our records, where a woman was detained. Subsequent to the detention of those 12, 11 were subsequently released, and they were released to the satisfaction of Australian personnel who believe there was no evidence warranting their ongoing or continued detention. The 11 who were released included the woman concerned.
 
The one who was detained who continues to be detained is regarded as an insurgent leader in Afghanistan in Uruzgan Province. And Australian Defence Force personnel in Uruzgan are proceeding on the basis that there is evidence that he sought to assist or did assist Hek Matullah in his escape from Afghan National Security Forces and Australian forces who were pursuing him.

ISAF have verified overnight that ISAF – the International Security Assistance Force – also believes in that analysis and accords with those facts. There are suggestions of ill-treatment of those people who are detained. That is not my advice, and I have very strong advice to the contrary from the Chief of the Defence Force.
 
Finally, a statement which has been issued by President Karzai’s Palace over the weekend in Kabul, that this operation was not authorised is wrong. That is not factually correct, and this point has been made strongly by Australia’s Ambassador to Afghanistan, to Palace and Presidential officials, including the National Security Advisor, Mr Spanta. So, the operation in question was fully authorised – was fully partnered, and the outcome of the operation has been the detention of an individual who is regarded not just as a leader of the insurgency in Uruzgan Province, but a person who was also sought to – or actually assisted Hek Matullah in his escape. And our Ambassador in Kabul has made clear to the Palace our disappointment at the statement issued from the palace over the weekend.
 
Can I very quickly deal with Indonesia, and then I’ll happily take your questions. As I’ve indicated with my two Ministerial colleagues, we’ll depart Australia today for a visit to Indonesia. In my own case, I will meet with my Indonesian counterpart, Defence Minister Purnomo. This will be the first formal annual defence ministers dialogue that we conduct with Indonesia. Whilst of course I’ve met Minister Purnomo on three or four occasions since becoming Defence Minister, in accordance with enhancing our formal defence-to-defence and military-to-military engagement with Indonesia, we have in recent times for the first time effected a so-called two-plus-two meeting: a meeting of Defence and Foreign Ministers, which we did in Canberra earlier this year. And so the purpose of my visit to Indonesia is to engage in that first annual formal dialogue with Minister Purnomo.
 
Defence Materiel Minister, Jason Clare, will accompany me, and we will discuss with our Indonesian counterparts the potential – the capacity for greater collaboration, greater co-operation so far as defence capability is concerned. And you might recall when the President of Indonesia visited Australia recently in Darwin, we gifted four C-130 aircraft to Indonesia. We’ll be accompanied by Transport Minister, Albanese. Minister Albanese will be conducting his third dialogue – his third annual dialogue with his Indonesian counterpart. And we’ll also be pursuing with his counterpart a further enhancement to Australia’s Indonesia Transport Safety Assistance Package, or ITSAP as it is known.
 
We’ll also be discussing with our Indonesian counterparts whether it is possible for us together to do more on the search and rescue front. You might recall that in conjunction with SBY’s visit to Darwin, that Minister Clare and I and our Indonesian counterparts made it clear that as an adjunct to my previously arranged visit to Indonesia, we would discuss with our counterparts, the prospect or the possibility of doing further work on the search and rescue front. Finally, can I just make some remarks about my visit last week to Vietnam. It was not appropriate on my return from Vietnam to deal with these matters, given events in Afghanistan. But can I just place on record that my third visit to Vietnam, my second as Defence Minister, was a very successful and productive visit.
 
I have agreed with my Vietnamese counterpart that we will pursue annual Defence Ministers’ meetings, and I’ve also invited Vietnamese Minister for Defence Thanh to visit Australia next year to coincide with the 40th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Australia and Vietnam.

We’ve also agreed to enhance our peacekeeping support to Vietnam, our English language and officer training support to Vietnam. And we’ve also agreed to explore giving Vietnam assistance to remove unexploded ordnance from Vietnamese territory. So, a successful visit to Vietnam enhancing our relations with Vietnam, in what is growing as a very important strategic relationship with Vietnam as Vietnam emerges as one of ASEAN’s leaders.
 
I’m happy to respond to your questions.

JOURNALIST: How do you explain the gap between the view of operations between yourselves, ADF and Karzai?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well as I said, our Ambassador in Afghanistan has made representations to the Palace and put Australia’s point of view. And our knowledge and understanding and view of the facts is shared by the International Security Assistance Force, whose leadership has also made representations to the Palace. We’re disappointed that there is a misunderstanding, but I don’t put it any higher than that. From time to time there are misunderstandings about operations, but we have made our view to the Palace crystal clear. But regrettably from time to time there are misunderstandings. We’re disappointed by that, but we are absolutely of the view that the facts as I have outlined them is a correct account of the facts, a correct analysis, and that account is shared by the International Security Assistance Force leadership.

JOURNALIST: Do you have any information about the circumstances around that raid? Were those insurgents firing on Australian troops?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, the advice I have from the Chief of the Defence Force is that two insurgents were killed as a result of an engagement. They’ve been confirmed as insurgents, not just by Australian sources by also by Afghan sources. Any loss of life is regrettable, but Australian personnel were conducting themselves in accordance with our rules of engagement.
 
As I’ve indicated, 12 other people were detained and 11 were subsequently released. Australian Defence Force personnel take very great care – very great care when dealing with these matters, particularly when civilians are involved. But at the end of the day we are very strongly of the view that the operation, a joint authorised, partnered operation with Afghan National Army personnel – some 60 Australian Defence Force personnel, and over 80 Afghan National Army personnel – has seen two insurgents removed from the battlefield, and importantly, an insurgent leader in Uruzgan Province who we believe and have evidence has either sought to or actually assisted Hek Matullah in his escape has been detained-

JOURNALIST: [indistinct]

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, in the normal course of events when there is any suggestion of either ill-treatment or involvement of civilians, Defence conducts a standard process. Firstly there is a quick assessment, and secondly if there is a need, there is a formal investigation. The Chief of the Defence Force has ensured that there has been an exhaustive assessment done over the weekend of the facts and circumstances, and they are as I have outlined. Not only is that Australia’s view, that is also the view of the International Security Assistance Force leadership.

JOURNALIST: If they – Hek Matullah was helped by these insurgents, is there a suggestion that he [indistinct]-

STEPHEN SMITH: No, the International Security Assistance Force has made it clear that the view of the person who is being detained is a person who has sought to, or given assistance to, Hek Matullah after the event. In other words, has sought to facilitate his escape from Afghan National Security Forces and Australian forces. Now this is not unusual. When these terrible incidents occur, there is enough information to ISAF and also to Australian forces to draw one to the conclusion that as soon as one of the incidents occurs, the Taliban will seek to facilitate or help the person who has committed the atrocity. And that-

JOURNALIST: You don’t believe [indistinct]-

STEPHEN SMITH:    -is what has occurred here.

JOURNALIST: You don’t believe he [indistinct]-

STEPHEN SMITH: Well as I said last week, we don’t have yet a sufficient basis to form a conclusion on that. The best way in which we could form a conclusion on that would be to capture Hek Matullah and to detain him and to interrogate him. But the experience – the terrible experience of 40 to 50 incidents which have occurred over the last two or so years to International Security Assistance Forces generally, and four so far as Australia is concerned, is – it’s either a personal dispute, a cultural difference or a genuine insider, effected by the Taliban. The Taliban claim all of them, as you would expect. There is evidence of a small number of incidents where infiltration has occurred.
 
In the case of the now four incidences where Australians have been killed or wounded, two of the perpetrators are deceased before a chance of interrogation, so we can’t come to a conclusion there. One is still on the run – the perpetrator who wounded a number of Australian soldiers. We know that he is outside of our area of operation but is still on the run, and we are in pursuit of Hek Matullah. So, we’ve come to no conclusion about motivation. But as I’ve said previously, in these circumstances, often it is very difficult – if not impossible – to come to a conclusion about motivation. But the evidence that the International Security Assistance Force has, and they’ve made this clear over the weekend, is evidence of either actually facilitating his escape or seeking to facilitate his escape.

JOURNALIST: When do you expect the bodies of those five Australians to return home?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I spoke with the Chief of the Defence Force about that this morning. The five bodies are now at our base in Al-Minhad in the United Arab Emirates, and they are scheduled to return to Australia mid-week. There’ll be a ramp ceremony at the appropriate base. There’s one in Brisbane and one in Richmond, New South Wales.

JOURNALIST: Minister, can you put your finger on anything you think might have been motivated behind the comment by President Karzai today?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, as I say, from time to time there are misunderstandings about operations and when those misunderstandings occur, they’re regrettable. But the views, the facts and the analysis is as I have outlined them. And it’ll be a matter for the Palace to make any further statements, if it so chooses, or a matter for people to put their questions to the Palace. And I’m sure that’ll occur in Kabul in the course of the day.

JOURNALIST: Minister, what response did the Ambassador get when he made representations to the Palace?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, he made strong representations that Australia was disappointed with the statement that had been released. He also made very strong representations about the facts and the circumstances as we and ISAF know them to be. And he made his views on my behalf and upon Australia’s behalf crystal clear to the Palace. It’s now a matter for the Palace to respond if it so chooses.

JOURNALIST: Do you expect them to correct the record?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, in the end, it’ll be a matter for them, but we are proceeding very firmly on the basis which I have outlined.

JOURNALIST: Do expect that this misunderstanding will have practical consequences for the relationship?

STEPHEN SMITH: No, I don’t. It – look, as I say, in the past, from time to time, there have been misunderstandings about operations. Those of you who have followed these issues would know that for a long period of time there have been sensitivities and concerns on the part of the Karzai administration and the Afghan authorities about so-called night raids. In more recent times, that has seen memorandums of understanding struck between the United States and Afghanistan and, also, between the International Security Assistance Force and Afghanistan which go to the authorisation and the partnering of those operations. And I again simply say, but say it firmly, that the partnered operation which we engaged in was a partnered operation, and was properly and duly authorised, in accordance with the usual procedures and the usual requirements on the International Security Assistance Force.

JOURNALIST: Is it a case that the people detained had connections to President Karzai, had cultural connections?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I’m unaware of those and wouldn’t go to those. They may come from the same tribal group as President Karzai, but that is not something which is of relevance to Australian forces in making a judgment about detention or otherwise. The advice I have is that 12 people were detained, 11 were subsequently released because there was no evidence to warrant their continued detention. And if you look at the statistics, which I have published in the Parliament on a number of occasions, there are very many more people who are detained initially who are subsequently released than who are subject to ongoing detention, and that is because there is no evidence to warrant their ongoing detention, and that is what has occurred here, and occurred in a relatively short space of time. But the one person who continues in detention is a person whose circumstances are as I have outlined to you.

JOURNALIST: [indistinct]

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, it’s not an issue for Australia, because we don’t train Afghan local police forces. And so, that won’t have any impact on our operations in Uruzgan Province or elsewhere. From time to time, we do partnered operations out of Uruzgan Province, again, as I’ve placed on the public record. But it won’t have an impact on our operations because we don’t train Afghan local police recruits.

JOURNALIST: But did you also say though that vetting was happening with Afghan Special Forces?

STEPHEN SMITH: Yes, what is occurring there is that there is no disturbance to the ongoing Special Forces operations which are joint and partnered between International Security Assistance Forces and Afghan Security Forces. But ISAF, in conjunction with the Afghan National Security Forces are effectively conducting a check of the vetting procedures and arrangements previously put in place and previously conducted for Afghan National Security Force – Special Forces personnel and for Commandos. But, in the meantime, there’s no disruption to operations, so far as Special Forces are concerned.

JOURNALIST: What about the local police? You said 1000 of those training had been suspended pending further vetting. Even if it doesn’t have an impact on our operations, what about just practically on the ground if you’re not having those extra thousand?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, they’re recruits, their training has been suspended subject to re-vetting. We would, of course, hope that that vetting occurs in quick order but it won’t have any implications for us in Uruzgan Province. And in recent times, over the last 12 months or so, including the last couple of months, a lot of work has gone into the quality of the vetting procedures that have been conducted by the Afghan National Security Forces. They have been substantially improved in recent times, including the use of biometric technology. But I’m not aware as to how long the re-vetting of those thousand will take. But again, I say it won’t have any implications for us in Uruzgan.

JOURNALIST: Mr Smith, how do you, sort of, reconcile the public and the family of soldiers who have been killed in Afghanistan that the President of the country now rebukes your troops [indistinct] an operation that’s taking part in, and that the people that we’re training to protect their country are killing us. How do you reconcile that to the public?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I-

JOURNALIST: Do you think it’s getting beyond the pale now?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I said last week that I could not envisage worse circumstances for Australian fatalities out of Afghanistan. Firstly, we had two Special Forces personnel killed in a helicopter crash, and Special Forces and helicopters is something which brings a great deal of pain to the Australian Special Force community, both SAS and Commandos. So, that was a terrible reminder, a terrible tragedy for the families concerned, but a terrible reminder of past events.
 
Secondly, there can be no worse blow to morale than a so-called green on blue incident, where the people who we are trying to help turn on us. So, there’s no more significant or deeper blow to morale than that. But again, we have to understand, we’re dealing here with a force of between 300,000 to 350,000 Afghan National Security Forces, both Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police. And we’ve had less than 50 such incidents over the last two years. Each one of those is terrible, each one of those is a shattering blow, and each one of those undermines trust and confidence.
 
But as I said recently to the Parliament, we shouldn’t allow these small number of incidents to reflect on our Afghan partners generally, or to reflect upon the vast bulk of the people whom we work closely with every day. And again, the Afghan National Security Force leadership have been as appalled by this as we have been, and they have been very enthusiastic and very positive in their assistance to us, particularly their efforts with us to chase down Hek Matullah.
 
As I’ve said, the statement from the Palace over the weekend, which misunderstands the facts of an authorised operation – an authorised joint operation is disappointing. I don’t put it any higher than that. And our views have been made crystal clear to the Palace and to the President’s officials but there have been misunderstandings about operations in the past and there may well be misunderstandings about operations in the future. From our perspective, we are obliged to follow the procedures laid down by the International Security Assistance Force and any agreement that ISAF has with Afghanistan. And on this occasion, in this case, those procedures were followed., absolutely.

JOURNALIST: Do you see any risk at all [indistinct] the security changes, the vetting changes and the training delays to the timeline for transition?

STEPHEN SMITH: No, we – I’ve had discussions with the Chief of the Defence Force about this, not just today but over the last few days as you’d expect, and we remain of the view that in Uruzgan we started transition in July of this year. We remain on track to effect that transition over the next 12-18 month period. So, we’ve always said that whilst we regard ourselves as being on track there will be terrible days, there will be terrible setbacks. We can’t lull ourselves into a false sense of security. It will not be plain or easy sailing as the events, the tragic events, the terrible events of last week show.

JOURNALIST: [Indistinct] Indonesia. Can I just ask you how you feel about the Indonesian military presence in West Papua and will you be raising that?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, firstly alleged Indonesian atrocities in Papua and West Papua provinces. As a general proposition, Australia at a defence-to-defence and military level, provides Indonesia with counter-terrorism training. That’s the first point. Secondly, as part of that training we are assiduous about including as part of that training the need for the protection of human rights. And when incidences occur, whether they are in the Papuan provinces or elsewhere, we let our views be known.  Indeed, there’s been one incident in recent times where Foreign Minister Carr has privately and publicly said that he believes an investigation into the circumstances of that is warranted. And whenever I have discussions with my Indonesian counterparts about the training we provide, part of that carries with it the training we provide on human rights and other international legal obligation matters.

JOURNALIST: [indistinct].

STEPHEN SMITH: Well look-

JOURNALIST: -Indonesians are in there doing some horrible things in West Papua and we’re training some of their troops.

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, you might have noticed that I refer to Hek Matullah as an alleged perpetrator despite the fact that there is an overwhelming preponderance of evidence.

JOURNALIST: [indistinct]

STEPHEN SMITH: That’s the-

JOURNALIST: Are you seriously suggesting that what we’ve seen in the videos on the 7.30 Report are not Indonesian [indistinct]-

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, that’s the first point. Secondly, I was in Vietnam last week and when I returned – since that time I have focused exclusively on matters arising out of Afghanistan. So, I’m very – I have no qualms in saying to you I have not seen the videos you refer to. I wasn’t watching the 7.30 Report from Hanoi. That’s the first point. Secondly, any allegations, whatever the evidence, have to be dealt with seriously by the Indonesian authorities. We have made that point to the Indonesians and the point I make is this: in one of those incidents the Foreign Minister has privately and publicly called for a formal investigation into those circumstances.
 
And in my discussions with Indonesian counterparts, whether in the past as Foreign Minister or as Defence Minister, when we discuss issues of training to Indonesian military and Defence Force personnel for counter-terrorism purposes, that always carries with it our professional advice and requirements so far as human rights matters are concerned.

JOURNALIST: [Indistinct] where to now?

STEPHEN SMITH: The pursuit continues.

JOURNALIST: Minister, it’s been revealed that top secret US spy plans were flying out of Adelaide between 2001 and 2006. Given the amount of time that’s passed, can you give us information about why that was happening?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I haven’t descended my mind to those matters at all. As I’ve indicated, I’ve been focused exclusively on Afghanistan matters.

JOURNALIST: Can I just clarify then though, when you’re in Indonesia you will raise these issues [indistinct]

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I think I’ve just said to you on two occasions that whether as Foreign Minister or as Defence Minister, whenever I have a conversation with Indonesian counterparts about training in counter-terrorism, they always carry with them a conversation about the need to comply with human rights standards and comply with international legal requirements.

JOURNALIST: But if you had evidence that those standards were being abused or breached, what would you do about that?

STEPHEN SMITH: And I’ve said to you on two occasions that the Foreign Minister has already said to his counterpart privately and to the Australian and Indonesian public publicly that in one instance he believes an investigation – a formal investigation should be effected.

JOURNALIST: What are you hoping to get of Indonesia with these search and rescue discussions?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, when we were in Darwin, we made the point that there’s a long-standing and very good cooperation between Australian and Indonesian authorities on search and rescue matters. But given the terrible tragedies which have occurred in recent times, we want to make sure that everything we can possibly do is being done. So, Minister Albanese, who is responsible for the Australian search and rescue authorities, will have a conversation with his counterpart to see whether the cooperation levels can be enhanced or whether there are any further practical measures that we can pursue.

JOURNALIST: Will Australia [indistinct] giving more funding to Indonesia to – maybe if [indistinct]

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, under the transport arrangements, funding is provided. I’ll leave it to Minister Albanese to indicate whether further enhancements of that are agreed or proposed.

JOURNALIST: When you look at the distance of these [indistinct]- Indonesian coast. That situation is not sustainable is it?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, whenever there’s a search and rescue effort we have an obligation under international law to render assistance and-

JOURNALIST: [indistinct]

STEPHEN SMITH: And for a very good reason. And that very good reason is often it’s the case that we have air or naval assets closer to the scene than Indonesia does. That’s the first point. Secondly, you may have seen last week there was a search and rescue effort very close to the Indonesian coast line and the people who are rescued were taken back to Indonesia. So, whether it is Defence, Border Protection and Customs or merchant naval assets, as soon as there is a search and rescue effort, it’s all hands on deck and people have one focus which is to rescue the people in distress. And if there are civilian maritime assets close to the scene, they go first. If there are Australian assets, Defence assets or Border Protection and Customs assets close to the scene, they go first. If there are Indonesian assets, they go first. It is simply an exclusive objective to effect the rescue.

JOURNALIST: [indistinct].

STEPHEN SMITH: I’ve seen that suggestion; I’ve also seen that suggestion disputed.

JOURNALIST: Any comment on Julie Bishop’s view that we do [indistinct] on asylum seekers?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I found that extraordinary. Firstly, the suggestion is in breach of the Refugee Convention and in breach of international law. Secondly, this is the political party who said that they couldn’t authorise the Malaysian arrangement because Malaysia was not a party to the Refugee Convention.
 
So, I find it both extraordinary and hypocritical. On the one hand they say you can’t effect an arrangement with Malaysia because Malaysia is not a party to the Refugee Convention. On the other hand, they say with respect to Sri Lankan asylum seekers that they would tear up the Refugee Convention. We have an obligation under the convention and an obligation under international law to process someone’s application for asylum if they make it. So, I found it both hypocritical and extraordinary.
 
Okay, thanks very much.

 


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