MINISTER FOR DEFENCE
STEPHEN SMITH, MP
TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH SABRA LANE, AM, ABC RADIO
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 16 FEBRUARY 2011
TOPICS: Amphibious ships fleet
SABRA LANE: Minister, good morning. Welcome to AM.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thank you.
SABRA LANE: How angry were you when you found out that the Tobruk was unfit for service just days after you announced Manoora's decommissioning and Kanimbla's long-term unavailability.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I've seen references to my anger. A couple of things: firstly, it is not about me. I expressed my disappointment privately as I did publicly but the most important thing when you are dealing with these issues is how one responds, how do we respond? And what we've tried to do is to make sure firstly that we get a comprehensive new transition plan for our amphibious fleet. And I've indicated publicly that we are looking, for example, at leasing or buying a Bay Class from the United Kingdom.
We've agreed enhanced arrangements with New Zealand in terms of joint use in our region of the HMNZSCanterbury. But we need to, as I've said to Defence, all options are on the table in terms of bridging this capability gap. That is the first point.
Secondly, I was very keen to ensure that we had a very close look at how we had come to this. So I got formal advice from the Secretary of the Defence Department and the Chief of the Defence Force and I published that yesterday. And I've asked now Mr Rizzo, supported by two former Navy and Air Force personnel, to essentially do a due diligence on how we work our way through a reform program so that this never happens again.
SABRA LANE: You say you won't talk about being angry but surely you must be disappointed? And were you misinformed when the Defence Chief told you that the Tobruk was leaving dock and ready for service when in fact it wasn't and it is still out of action?
STEPHEN SMITH: I've said publicly and privately that I was disappointed. In the case of the Tobruk I detailed yesterday the changing advice that I have received and I am disappointed that what I was told, effectively, at the end of January and the beginning of February has not materialised so far as the Tobruk is concerned.
But it is also clearly the case that both with Manoora, Kanimbla and also I believe with the Tobruk, these are not issues which have emerged in the last few months or the last few years. They are of long standing - a decade and a half or more.
A very important initiative of the Chief of Navy was the establishment of the Seaworthiness Board and really, it was the report of the Seaworthiness Board in September last year which brought these issues into a real focus and there will be a lag effect.
The reform by the Chief of Navy is a good one. That, I think, will help ensure we don't see this situation again, but there will be lag effects.
SABRA LANE: What percentage of the entire fleet is able to perform to 100 per cent of its capabilities now, including the Collins Class subs?
STEPHEN SMITH: Look I think, you know, I have made this point before. It is a faulty basis and a faulty starting point to assert that every ship that Navy has needs to be in the water at the same time. They are often on training, being enhanced with additional combat systems, or they are under sensible maintenance.
SABRA LANE: Sure, people would appreciate that. But how many of them are 100 per cent capable to go out now?
STEPHEN SMITH: Two points: firstly Navy has met all of its tasked operational assignments over the last 12 months. That is very important. We do have very significant challenges on submarines, which is of long standing and well known and I don't seek to underestimate those challenges.
We have ongoing maintenance and operation issues with the Collins Class submarines and we have a significant problem with the amphibious fleet but despite those two significant issues, as I say, the Chief of Navy advises me that Navy has been able to perform all of its assigned operational tasking over the last 12 months, and that is obviously a very good thing.
SABRA LANE: But are you able to give us a figure or you can't?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, firstly in terms of the amphibious fleet, I have made that as transparent as humanly possible. Indeed, some commentators have said more transparent that any Minister before me, including publishing very frank advice I received from the Chief of the Defence Force and the Secretary.
In terms of submarines, I don't in advance indicate the precise detail or nature of operational readiness. We do that after the event. I don't do it for current purposes or in advance for all of the obvious operational reasons.
But we publish on a regular basis the operational capability and capacity of our submarines on a regular basis and I again underline and reinforce, we have significant long standing operational and maintenance challenges so far as our submarine fleet is concerned.
SABRA LANE: Will heads roll over this?
STEPHEN SMITH: I think there is a general point here that I made yesterday. I received yesterday formally from Dr Rufus Black his report on accountability. We have very significant accountability issues in Defence. There is a lack of institutional accountability; there is a lack of personal accountability and this will form a very strong feature of the reform program which I will introduce in the next few months.
SABRA LANE: Mr Smith, thanks for your time.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thank you. Thanks very much.