Minister for Defence – Interview with Lyndal Curtis, ABC 24



DATE: 14 June 2013 

TOPICS: Allegations of improper behaviour by ADF Members; US Marines rotation; Syria.

LYNDAL CURTIS: Stephen Smith, welcome to ABC News 24.

STEPHEN SMITH: A pleasure.

LYNDAL CURTIS: The Chief of Army in a message to his troops last night said he’d be ruthless in ridding the Army of people who can’t live up to its values. Does he have your absolute support?

STEPHEN SMITH: Absolutely. He has, in my view, conducted himself perfectly appropriately. He has made it clear to all concerned, not just in army but in the Australian Defence Force generally, that inappropriate, improper, despicable conduct will not be tolerated and if you engage in such conduct you are at risk of being suspended from the Army.

Essentially, what he’s saying is shape up or ship out and I strongly support what he has done with all of the action that he has taken since he became aware of these terrible allegations.

LYNDAL CURTIS: He has confirmed some of the detail of what is alleged to be in these emails. Did you – were you briefed about them and what was your reaction?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, as soon as General Morrison was in a position to brief me he did. That was very shortly after he had become aware of the matter through the Australian Defence Force investigative service- through ADFIS. He of course had a conversation with the Chief of the Defence Force and the Secretary- as I did as well- but he briefed me. I strongly supported his proposed action. I wanted him to take the running of it because that was the best way of sending the most important signal which is the leadership of the Australian Defence Force, the Chief of the Defence Force, the Vice Chief, the three service Chiefs and the Secretary will not tolerate in any way inappropriate conduct.

It reflects adversely on the Australian Defence Force. It reflects adversely on the thousands of and men women in the force who each day do great work, whether that’s on the field, in operations, whether it’s peacekeeping, whether it’s humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, whether it’s working back of house, it terribly damages the reputation of the vast bulk of the Australian Defence Force and Defence organisation who do great work.

So there could be no better signal, and I strongly encouraged the Chief of Army in this respect, there could be no better signal than the sort of response and action which he has initiated and shown over the last couple of days. I didn’t want to see and I didn’t need to see the materials that he had seen. It was sufficient for me to get the briefing from him and then to strongly encourage and support his actions. And I think his actions over the last 24 hours have been a credit to him, a credit to the Defence leadership and a credit to Army and the Defence Force.

LYNDAL CURTIS: Should those found to have taken part in the production and distribution of these emails be out of the military as soon as their guilt is proven?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, General Morrison has made it clear he has already initiated three suspensions, he’s taken action to start the process for five, he’s made it clear that others who are found to have conducted inappropriate, improper conduct or actions run the risk of suspensions as well and I don’t think he could have made it clearer with his direct address to Army and to Defence Force personnel that if you fall short of the standards that we have now put in place through the Pathways to Change document signed up to by the Defence leadership, to the recommendations of Liz Broderick, the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, in her review into both the ADF generally and ADFA.

If you’re short of those standards then you run the risk of being outed. So, whilst he has made it clear that there are investigative and legal processes to go through, he’s also made it absolutely crystal clear and I strongly support him in this, if you fall short of these standards then you run the risk of being suspended and ultimately drummed out of the service and that is the only way forward in terms of protecting the reputation of the Australian Defence Force both current and into the future.

LYNDAL CURTIS: Now you’re announcing today that the rotation of US Marines to Darwin will increase in numbers to 1150 from next year, that includes four heavy-lift helicopters as well. Is the aim still not to step up to the peak of 2500 until 2016?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we made it clear when the Prime Minister and the President announced the six-month rotation, that we would, through a period of years, step up from 200 to 250 marines to 2500. We’ve seen last year and this year between 200 and 2500. We’ve released recently the economic and social impact assessment of 1100 marines in Darwin or the Northern Territory and today the Prime Minister and I and the Defence Personnel Minister, Warren Snowdon, announcing that next year, 2014, we’ll step up to 1115 and then following next year, we’ll do the usual assessments to see what next step we go go to.

But our ambition remains, to sometime around 2016/2017, to step up to the full 2500 marine task group. But our agreement with the United States is that we will examine every rotation and we’ll make that advised governmental decision step by step as we go. But we’re certainly not looking at 2500 in advance of 2016 which is what we outlined when we announced the decision back in November of 2011.

LYNDAL CURTIS: If I could ask you one further question about the United States before returning to domestic matters. We had news this morning that the White House says it has definitive proof the Syrian President has used chemical weapons. President Obama previously said that was a red line. Is this something likely to spur a change of mind on things like arming the Syrian rebels?

STEPHEN SMITH: I think we’ve got take it step by step. Firstly if we condemn absolutely the use of chemical or biological weapons it is clear that what should now occur is that the Assad regime should undertake to desist from use or contemplation of use of chemical weapons. They should allow the United Nations investigation team to go in to do the investigation. The statement made by the United States official earlier today, our time, essentially says that they are now looking – the United States is now looking at the array of diplomatic and military options. But they’ve also made it clear they’re taking it step by step.

So Syria is complex, very difficult. There are no easy solutions. We would have wanted the Assad regime to have walked of the stage some time ago but that is unlikely to occur. But we strongly support the robust actions that the United States have taken on chemical weapons and we strongly urge the Syrian regime to allow the United Nations Investigative team to enter Syria and do its own investigation.

LYNDAL CURTIS: Now the Prime Minister’s just begun a news conference with the South Australian Premier, so that’ where we’ll have to leave it Stephen Smith. Thank you very much for your time.

STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks Lyndal. Thanks very much.

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