TOPICS: HMAS Toowoomba departure to the Middle East; CDF, VCDF and Service Chiefs appointments.
STEPHEN SMITH: I'm very pleased to be here to help send off HMAS Toowoomba off to the Middle East for Operation Slipper. We've been doing this as a navy and as a nation for nearly 10 years and HMAS Toowoomba and its company will continue the good work that HMAS Stuart is doing.
Stuart returns in a month's time and the focus now in our Maritime Security Operation in the Middle East is essentially counter-terrorism and counter-piracy, so it's very important work. We're making a substantial contribution to the international community's effort in the Middle East Area of Operations and Toowoomba will follow on that very fine tradition.
More recently, in addition to counter-terrorism, counter-piracy has come into play and HMAS Stuart recently rescued a number of hostages from Somali pirates. It's a very important role that the ship's company play and today will be a sad day for friends and family but we wish them well and we look forward to their safe return in six months' time.
JOURNALIST: How many crew on board and primarily what will their role be whilst over there?
STEPHEN SMITH: Their role will be, under the effective command of our Joint Operations Centre, directed by our Chief of Joint Operations, Lieutenant General Ash Power. The ship's company will focus on really three issues: firstly, maritime security generally, secondly, counter-terrorism and thirdly, counter-piracy.
Since we started Operation Slipper in the Middle East Area of Operations back in 2001, the role has moved from maritime security and counter-terrorism to also include the piracy work.
We know that particularly around the Horn of Africa that piracy is becoming a very significant problem and Australia's playing its role, its part, making its contribution to the anti-piracy efforts in conjunction with the international community's maritime force in the Middle East Area of Operations and so that's a substantial contribution that Australia makes.
JOURNALIST: Given that, as you mentioned, HMAS Stuart saw some action last time, a very important role can be fraught with its own risks, would you have sort of a personal message for the friends and family who are here today and the kids, if you were sort of to image that you were speaking directly to them?
STEPHEN SMITH: I'll shortly have the opportunity of speaking to the ship's company and also to their loved ones. When a ship's departing for a deployment into an area where we know that the ship will be at risk, effectively in warlike conditions, it's always a sad day so our hearts go out to the families and friends on a day like today.
In the run-up to today, of course, the ship's company have been engaged in a lot of training so there have also been absences from families and friends over the recent months.
But today is a day where we say to the friends and family that not just are you proud of your loved ones, we're proud of them, the nation, the country is proud of them, we know that they're well-trained, we know that they're fit for the job that they're about to do, and we look forward to them safely returning in six months time.
JOURNALIST: Given the events of this year, is our role there now crucial more than ever?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we play-
JOURNALIST: In terms of terrorism?
STEPHEN SMITH: -we play a very important role in our Middle East Area of Operations, of course that's primarily our contribution in Afghanistan, our 1550 on average contribution in Afghanistan, but there's also a wider role that we play and that's reflected by the work that we do as part of the international community's maritime security arrangements.
We're now into almost a decade of that contribution, the deployment today is the 26th deployment that we see, as a contribution to Operation Slipper, it's a very important contribution that we make to maritime security.
JOURNALIST: Just on another matter, the chief of the Defence Force, who would you like to see take over that role?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, the appointment of the Chief of the Defence Force, the Vice Chief of the Defence Force, and the Chiefs of the three services, the Army, Air Force and Navy, is a matter for the Government to consider and announce in due course.
I've seen some recent commentary which frankly falls into the category of baseless and idle speculation.
The process that the Government is adopting for these appointments, which take effect in early July and will be announced next month, in June, the process that we're following is the same process that's been followed by Governments of both political persuasions over the years.
I've received a series of recommendations and advice from the Chief of the Defence Force, Angus Houston, and obviously the Government will weigh very seriously his advice. I'll also take the advice of the Secretary of the Department, and I'll also speak to the current Service Chiefs, to get their views. There is wide consultation, but in the end these decisions, these appointments, are what are described as statutory authority appointments. They are a matter for the Government of the day, and in due course, the Prime Minister and I will make a recommendation to the Cabinet and in due course, the Prime Minister and I will announce the appointments and that will be done in a methodical and orderly fashion and we will make our announcements about these matters next month, in June.
JOURNALIST: Are there any preferences that you have?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I don't believe it's appropriate for me to speculate or comment on individuals. What I can say is that the Government, the Parliament, the nation, is well served by a number of senior officers, all of whom are appropriately qualified to play a role which will involve the Service Chief, the Vice Chief, or the Chief of the Defence Force.
So, the Government has a series of difficult decisions to make, but they are difficult decisions as a result of choices and not through a lack of choice. We have a number of senior officers, to whom we can look to take up the leadership of the Australian Defence Force over the next few years.
I'm not proposing to speculate, as I say, I've seen some baseless and idle gossip and commentary. In the end the Government will make an announcement about these positions, following effectively the same process that our predecessors have followed, and in the end the Australian community will be able to judge the quality of the appointments.