TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH ASHLEIGH GILLON, LUNCHTIME AGENDA, SKY NEWS
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 7 JULY 2011
TOPICS: Afghanistan; HMAS Success, Gyles Report part 2; DLA Piper; CEO of DMO, Dr Stephen Gumley.
ASHLEIGH GILLON: Minister Smith, thank you for your time.
STEPHEN SMITH: Pleasure.
ASHLEIGH GILLON: Today you delivered another update on Afghanistan. You revealed that our troops are now directly involved in helping local authorities crack down on the opium trade. What are the implications of that for our soldiers on the ground? How much of their workload is now being taken up that role?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well we received the request from the Afghan government to assist their National Interdiction Unit which is dealing with trying to stop the flow of the proceeds of the opium trade and narcotics to the insurgency. So we provide perimeter security, some logistical backup and the like.
It continues in that context to be difficult and dangerous work, so I'm not underestimating that. But we believed it was a good thing for our forces to assist, and already we're seeing some early results in this fighting season of breaking the proceeds of the narcotics trade to the Taliban.
ASHLEIGH GILLON: Considering the significance of that trade, why haven't we been doing this before?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well we only do things of that nature if we're requested by either one of our coalition partners and the Afghan authorities. So we received the request, and it was in our view, a sensible thing to be doing. It's only been in recent times that their group, the National Interdiction Unit has got the necessary skills and capacity to do this work. But we think it's another area where we are putting the Taliban - putting the insurgency under pressure. But I do stress it is like the vast bulk of what we do in Afghanistan, difficult and dangerous work.
ASHLEIGH GILLON: Are our troops on track, do you think, to train Afghan forces and do that handover by 2014? Is that a date set in stone? There's a lot cynicism among [indistinct] that that can be achieved.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I don't share that cynicism. And in my report today to the Parliament, I detailed the progress that we believe we're making in terms of transition. We're training in Kandaks out of the 4th battalion of the Afghan National – 4th brigade of the Afghan National Army, and we believe we're making progress.
We've got one into a position where they're not too far away from being able to manage their own affairs and operate on their own and others are making progress. So the advice that I have consistently had from the former and now the current Chief of the Defence Force is that we're on track. That's the view shared by my counterparts when I was recently in Brussels for the NATO ISAF Defence Ministers Meeting.
People are optimistic and confident about making the transition. It won't be uniform. It will be province by province and district by district, and we're not expecting Uruzgan to be one of the first to transition. But we believe we're on track for 2014.
ASHLEIGH GILLON: This week, we learned of the death of another Australian soldier in Afghanistan, Sergeant Langley. He was on his fifth tour in the country. Are we putting too much pressure on our troops - especially on our elite forces?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well he was on his fifth tour to Afghanistan and he had two previous tours to East Timor. I think a couple of points: firstly, the people who go to Afghanistan are all volunteers, and the people who go on more than occasion are also volunteers. And whether it's our special air services regiment or whether it’s our commandos, when I talk to members of those two Special Forces squads, they were always very keen to get back. So there's no lack of enthusiasm.
But as the new Chief of the Defence Force made clear earlier in the week, it is something that we do need to look, and we are looking at, just to ensure that we've got the management of that right. But he of course, his death was terrible and tragic, but he was a very experienced soldier and we lose not just him in the short term, but we lose that depth of experience which we [indistinct] in the long term as well.
ASHLEIGH GILLON: Today, you've also released part two of the HMAS Success Commission of Enquiry Report. That's the enquiry that looked into incidents of bad behaviour on board that ship. This enquiry report recommends that three sailors caught up in that scandal should be given A, an apology and B, paid compensation. Why is that necessary?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, Commissioner Gyles who was previously asked to do an independent Commission of Inquiry will now present his report in three parts.
The first part, which you referred to, I publicly released earlier this year which detailed significantly inappropriate conduct. This report deals with the way in which Navy and Defence responded to that conduct and it makes the point that three sailors who were landed in Singapore weren't given proper or fair process, and he recommends that they receive an apology from the Chief of the Defence Force and the Chief of Navy, and that also there be compensation; and the Chief of Navy and the Chief of the Defence Force have done that, and that recommendation's accepted.
There was also significant criticism of a Defence inquiry conducted in 2009; suggestions or comments about bias, and he has effectively exonerated the two officers who did that report, and they'll also receive, or have also received an apology from the Chief of the Defence Force and the Chief of Navy.
At its heart, that goes to how did Navy respond? How did Navy manage these difficult issues? And the answer is, not as well as Navy could or should have.
His third report, which I'll receive in the course of this year, I think will be in some respects, the most helpful document because that goes to the more general issue of how do we ensure that such issues are treated and dealt with in a better way so that we don't end up having to pay people compensation for taking away their rights?
ASHLEIGH GILLON: How much were they paid? Are you able to say?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well the conversation about compensation is just beginning with the relevant sailors' legal representatives.
ASHLEIGH GILLON: Meantime, there are also several inquiries of course going on into that. So called Skype scandal, how many people have now made complaints about their treatment in the ADF as a result of that scandal?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well earlier today, Defence put up on their website the terms of reference for all those inquiries and essentially, an update or a snapshot of where they are.
In terms of the DLA Piper inquiry where I've asked DLA Piper to do an external legal review of the allegations that have come in, they gave in a sense, an interim report to me, or an update to me recently. They've received about 1000 allegations. They're now going through the process in an arms length way of determining which of those allegations require further attention; which of those allegations, for example might be a prima facie case or a plausible case.
They're due to report to me before the end of August and that will then provide me with an assessment about how many of those thousand allegations require further work - further effort, and I'll patiently wait until I receive that.
I've also made it clear as a - the law firm that any allegations that come subsequently we'll of course deal with in a sensible and serious way.
ASHLEIGH GILLON: And so you'll wait until the end of August to decide whether a judicial inquiry is necessary?
STEPHEN SMITH: I'll get their report first. I'll obviously have a look at it. It's the sort of report that I would want to have a conversation with some of my Cabinet colleagues, in particular the Attorney General. But as soon as I get that report and I'm in a position to make some announcements about it, I will. But I'm expecting to receive that report before the end of August.
ASHLEIGH GILLON: The CEO of Defence Material Organisation, Dr Stephen Gumley has quite today. Is his resignation anything to do with problems with Defence procurement? The $8 billion Air Warfare Destroyer projects have been plagued by delays, not to mention the Collins Class Submarine-
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I think it would be unfair to Dr Gumley to put it in that context. His resignation's been announced today. Earlier in the week he advised me, he advised-
ASHLEIGH GILLON: So he was under no pressure to resign?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well he advised me earlier in the week. He advised Jason Clare, his portfolio minister, the Minister for Defence Materiel. He advised the Secretary of the Department that he'd decided to retire. He told me that he - once having made the decision to retire, he thought that a clean, quick cut was the best way of doing it. He's been in, what is in very many respects, one of the most difficult jobs in Canberra and in Government. He's been doing that job for seven and a half years. It's a long time.
And yes, in any period of time in the procurement area there will be challenges of difficulties. But he has had, in my view, a very successful tenure. He has taken the DMO into prescribed agency status. He has overseen some [indistinct] reforms and Air reforms and the Mortimer reforms and he's been responsible for some very big and successful projects.
ASHLEIGH GILLON: So he had your full confidence?
STEPHEN SMITH: He had my confidence absolutely. And he Minister Clare's confidence and he had the confidence of the previous Government, as reflected by the remarks made by the Shadow Minister in the Parliament today. But he presided over some very big projects: Bush Masters, C-17s, Abrams Tanks, and so we are in a much better position now than when he started seven and a half, or nearly eight years ago. And if he said, what do I think was the central reason for his retirement; he's been doing a very difficult job and doing it well for seven and a half, to eight years. It's a long stint for anyone, and we thank him for his contribution and we obviously wish him well.
ASHLEIGH GILLON: Just finally, we have seen some reports about what the Australian Defence Force may have known about abuses happening in Iraq at Abu Ghraib Prison. How has the Government and the Defence Force responded to those reports?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well these are issues, frankly, that have been traversed in the public arena and in the Parliament previously. They relate to the previous Government, to previous times in Iraq or Afghanistan. And importantly, the issues that are being traversed don't go to a period when Australia was a detainee country.
In Afghanistan under this Government, and under my time as Defence Minister, we became a detainee country on 1 August last year when the Dutch withdrew from Uruzgan. And we have put in place a very rigorous and transparent detainee management system and I reported further on that today.
But they're issues which have been dealt with exhaustedly by the Parliament. Any personal knowledge or interest is essentially former Howard Government ministers, and I've been asked whether we're going to have an inquiry, and I see no purpose or point in doing that.
ASHLEIGH GILLON: Stephen Smith thanks for your time.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thank you. Thanks very much.