TOPICS: Funerals of the Christmas Island boat tragedy victims; Amphibious ships fleet; HMAS Success Commission of Inquiry
KIERAN GILBERT: Defence Minister, I want to ask you about a speech you gave yesterday and some developments in Defence matters. But first and foremost on this issue of the asylum seekers, the funerals yesterday, what do you make of criticism from Scott Morrison that the cost was not reasonable to fly relatives to those funerals?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I think it is very regrettable and most unfortunate that Mr Morrison has chosen to effectively create a political controversy off the back of people who are grieving as a result of the loss of family and loved ones in a terrible tragedy.
The only sensible thing to do in these circumstances is to apply common sense, understand that people are entitled to bury their loved ones in an atmosphere of civility and dignity, with as much compassion as the state or the community can summon. And I think Mr Morrison has made a very bad mistake here and that's been reflected by comments to the contrary that we've seen come from his own colleagues.
KIERAN GILBERT: The Prime Minister was asked about this yesterday in New Zealand. Initially she said it was a matter for relevant Ministers. It took her a while to find her voice on this issue. Was she treading a little bit carefully because of the politics of this?
STEPHEN SMITH: No no, she was also asked some questions about my speech and she sensibly said portfolio Ministers are dealing with these matters in Australia, I'm on an overseas trip.
So that's a sensible approach. But I think you've seen overnight and this morning a number of things occur. Firstly, I think there would be a generally held community view that in the aftermath of a tragedy of that nature, people should give every assistance that they can to enable loved ones to say a dignified farewell at the funeral of their family members.
Secondly, it's never sensible, it's never a good thing for the community, it's never a good thing for our country when either deliberately or inadvertently, events like these are politicised. It doesn't help anyone. Invariably they rebound and they've rebounded on Mr Morrison today. And they've rebounded on Mr Morrison because members of his own political party have made comparable points to the points that I make.
KIERAN GILBERT: On to Defence matters. You've set up an expert advisory panel to assess why the transport ships Manoora, Kanimbla, and Tobruk were all out of action at the time when the Government wanted them to support the response to Cyclone Yasi. You must have been flabbergasted that none of them were in operation at that time?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I've expressed my disappointment both in private and in public, firstly. Secondly, I've been very frank with the community with the problem that we have and the need to address it. That's why I've established an expert independent review team chaired by Mr Rizzo who's well experienced in such matters. But I’ve also asked Defence to provide formally a new transition plan for our amphibious or heavy-lift fleet.
These things are disappointing. But as the materials and the remarks I made yesterday made clear, they're problems of long standing. And one of the good initiatives that the Chief of Navy has effected in recent years has been the Seaworthiness Board. It was really the report of the Seaworthiness Board into the Manoora and the Kanimbla which really brought a focus on these things.
KIERAN GILBERT: So why are you just focusing on these three ships then? Shouldn't this panel be tasked with looking at the Navy across the board?
STEPHEN SMITH: The terms of reference and my public remarks make it clear that whatever lessons we learn from this in terms of changes that we need to make for the maintenance and sustainment of our amphibious fleet, any lessons that we learn which apply more generally will be utilised.
Our heavy amphibious lift is required for two reasons. One, the obvious military transportation, but secondly for disaster relief and humanitarian assistance. And in recent weeks I have indicated to our United Kingdom counterparts and colleagues that we're very interested in either leasing or buying one of their amphibious lift fleet. And also when I was in New Zealand last week, reaffirmed by the two Prime Ministers yesterday, a much enhanced shared arrangement so far as the use of a New Zealand amphibious lift ship, the HMNZS Canterbury, is concerned. And that will apply for regional disaster relief and development assistance.
KIERAN GILBERT: Given the amount of money that goes into Defence though, the fact that the three amphibious vessels, we had all three of them out of action, it seems remarkable. Is this a dysfunctional part of the military that we're talking about here?
STEPHEN SMITH: I've made it very clear that there is clearly a cultural problem here. There seems to have been over a long period of time, more than a decade, a decade and a half, a view that in some respects these were second-class ships. They weren't given the priority that they deserved.
We also have, in my view, significant personnel and institutional accountability issues in Defence. And in my speech yesterday I indicate that I yesterday received from Dr Rufus Black his review into accountability - personnel and institutional accountability – which will form a very significant feature of the reforms that I will roll out in the next few months.
There's also a lag effect here. I made the point yesterday the Chief of Navy is to be complimented for establishing the Seaworthiness Board. That was inevitably going to draw attention to difficulties of the past. But one of the good things we hope and are confident in is that will be a significant factor in helping to ensure that this situation never emerges again.
KIERAN GILBERT: And Minister, just finally, I understand you've got an update for us on the report into alleged misconduct aboard HMAS Success.
STEPHEN SMITH: I've indicated that I want to make that report from Commissioner Gyles public. But I have to be very careful about the way in which that is done to protect people's individual and personal rights. I'll be in a position to release substantial parts of that report early next week. And I'll do that when the Parliament resumes in the first part of next week.
KIERAN GILBERT: Okay, Defence Minister, appreciate your time, thanks.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thank you, thank you very much.