TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH FRAN KELLY, RADIO NATIONAL
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 8 MARCH 2012
TOPICS: Defence reviews.
FRAN KELLY: Well, the Minister Stephen Smith is in our Parliament House studios, Minister, good morning.
STEPHEN SMITH: Good morning, Fran.
FRAN KELLY: This is a bit of a horror story, isn't it. The Australian Defence Force, one of the most respected institutions in the country, you'd hope, 775 cases of abuse, admittedly over many years, are you shocked by the extent of the abuse unveiled yesterday?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I certainly think that Defence and the Government's response to the DLA Piper report, which I expect to receive by the end of this month, my current advice is, as you've indicated, over 700 plausible allegations of serious sexual or other abuse, so that's a challenge, and yesterday I released parts of the advice from DLA Piper about how we might manage that, going from existing procedures to a Royal Commission.
At the same time, and you had some remarks from General Hurley, the Chief of the Defence Force, General Hurley, and the Secretary of the Department, released their Pathway to Change document, which is about driving cultural change through Defence generally, and it's a very frank and sober assessment of the past, but I think a very positive pathway for the future.
It says that in the past, Defence hasn't met the highest standards required, but in the past, failure to meet those standards has effectively been met with a blind eye, that Defence needs to understand that the world and Australia has changed, and Defence has to have a culture where people make a point of saying to others where they see inappropriate behaviour.
So the two, I think long term, enduring challenges emerging from yesterday, are driving home that zero tolerance reference point we now have from the leadership of the Defence Force, and how Defence, and the Government generally, deal with such a large volume of what are described as plausible allegations of abuse.
FRAN KELLY: Let's stick with that for a second, do you think a Royal Commission is most likely the best way forward?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well yesterday I didn't rule in or rule out any particular options. I've given the full part, or the full first part of the DLA Piper report to the Attorney-General. These will be decisions not just made by Defence, not just made by me, but involve other parts of Government. This is, as General Hurley said yesterday, you know, a significant potential turning point for Defence, so we've got to deal with this-
FRAN KELLY: It's just that we've been at these turning points before, haven't we? I remember it was the mission of the last CDF, Angus Houston, when he took over, to address this, to change this culture. I mean it's obviously proving very difficult to do, and will prove it again, especially when all these cases get aired publicly, it's going to be very difficult.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, all of the reports that were released yesterday, and the one I've focused on is the comprehensive response from the Chief and the Secretary, show that in areas of use or abuse of alcohol, treatment of women, use of social media, conduct in uniform and the like, that over the years progress has been made, but we've got a long way to go.
I think the difference and the significance of yesterday, is that the Pathway to Change document, which is essentially signed by the Chief, and signed by the Secretary, now provides a zero tolerance pathway.
In my own view, all reference points now for inappropriate conduct, will be viewed through that prism, and in my view, it's a quality document. It's frank about the mistakes of the past, but it does provide a very good pathway for the future. But I think-
FRAN KELLY: Okay-
STEPHEN SMITH: Defence, the Government, will be judged on the implementation of that, but also judged on how we respond to the fact that an independent law firm, in the aftermath of the ADFA Skype controversy, after about 1000 allegations were received, is now saying to us that we have over 700, what the law firm described as plausible allegations of sexual or other abuse.
Now they need to be tested, but we also need to work our way through how do we deal with such a large volume of allegations, yes, over a lengthy period of time, from as early as 1951, but also allegations as late as last year, and it may well be that the publicity which has attended to the release of all those documents yesterday, brings forward further allegations which we'll likewise need to deal with.
FRAN KELLY: All right Minister, there's a lot to get through. The Kirkham Inquiry, dealing with some of the most recent allegations, you're referring to there, an independent QC has found that Commodore Bruce Kafer was not wrong proceeding with unrelated disciplinary charges against the cadet. Do you now accept the Commodore did not mismanage the matters?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, the Kirkham Inquiry found three things in that respect, firstly found that it was reasonable conduct, on the part of Commodore Kafer, to proceed with the disciplinary proceedings, and that was not an error of judgement.
Kirkham also found that a different decision-maker could have taken a different decision, namely not to proceed with the unrelated disciplinary proceedings about alcohol use and absenteeism, and thirdly found that it was unfortunate that Commander Kafer had no conversation with Officer Cadet Kate, or her representative officer, the person representing her, about those proceedings, obviously hinting at if such a conversation had taken place, there may have been a different outcome.
Now I absolutely accept those findings, and absolutely accept the decision of the Chief of the Defence Force and the Vice Chief of the Defence Force, to reinstate, after a period of leave, Commander Kafer, to his position, there's no legal basis for doing anything to the contrary, so I-
FRAN KELLY: When you say you accept the finding, do you accept then that it was not an error of judgement made by the Commodore at the time, because at the time, of course, you came out, you said you thought it was a serious error of judgement, you thought it was stupid, inappropriate, insensitive and wrong?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I don't resile in any way from the view that I expressed at the time.
FRAN KELLY: How can you not, if you say you accept these findings by the Kirkham Inquiry?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I've just indicated to you the three findings of the Kirkham Inquiry-
FRAN KELLY: One of which was it's not an error of judgement.
STEPHEN SMITH: And the second of which was that a different decision-maker could have made an entirely different decision, namely not going ahead with the proceedings, and thirdly that it was unfortunate there wasn't a conversation about those proceedings with the cadet and her officer representing her.
But the point I made at the time, in the face of an 18-year-old innocent victim of an alleged, serious sexual abuse, I thought it was wrong then, and I believe it's wrong now I haven't changed my view. To bring her character or conduct into play, was wrong in principle.
There was a time in Australian society, when it was pretty standard practice in the face of the innocent victim of a sexual assault, to try and bring her character or conduct into play, to drag out the age-old, terrible comment that it was all her own fault.
Now, I might be old-fashioned, I might be a lawyer who grew up in the '70s and the '80s, and was trained accordingly, but it's wrong in principle to bring the innocent victim of a sexual assault, to bring her character into play, and in my view, that was what occurred at the height of the ADFA Skype controversy.
FRAN KELLY: Do you think you're old-fashioned, or do you in fact really believe, the fact you're sticking to it, and refusing to apologise or back down, do you think it's the Defence culture that is old-fashioned again here, in insisting that, you know, you retract these comments? I mean there is a QC who's found that there was no error of judgement, but do you think you're right culturally, is that why you're sticking to this?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I do make the point-
FRAN KELLY: Or is there some other political power play at play here?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, look, I don't quite know what you mean by political power play, but let me make this point. If you go to the report on Pathway to Cultural Change, handed down yesterday, signed effectively by the Chief of the Defence Force and the Secretary, one of the points it makes is that Defence needs to understand that we are now living in a different world, that society has changed, we've got to be much more conscious of equity, and diversity.
And so the point about treatment of women, the point about understanding diversity in the Australian community and in Defence, is made crystal clear in the report that the Chief and the Secretary handed down yesterday.
Now it's very important in my view, that Defence and the Defence Force, are kept to the highest standards. They're in uniform, they represent the nation, and as a consequence of that, we can't afford to have any tolerance to lack of meeting those standards, and that's not just me saying that, that is the written document handed down by the leadership of the Defence Force yesterday, and that is the prism now through which all or any inappropriate conduct in the Defence Force, now has to be viewed.
FRAN KELLY: Just finally, Minister, we are out of time, but you now have to deal with the ramifications of this, you've got retired Major General Jim Molan, once Head of the Academy, saying Australia deserves better from you, you've been criticised by other former military staff, Commodore Kafer will be back at his desk this week, running the Military Academy, you won't say whether you've got full confidence in him, because you say it's up to the Defence Chiefs, but is the issue whether the Defence Chiefs have confidence in you, given this stalemate or stand-off you seem to be at now?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, everything we did yesterday, we did together, I don't see it in those terms, and I think it's very important that people don't ascribe to the Chief of the Defence Force, the Vice Chief of the Defence Force, the Service Chiefs or the Secretary, ascribe to them the views that commentators or retired service personnel might have.
I made the point yesterday, I've seen references to difficult conversations. There's a difference between a difficult conversation, and a conversation about dealing with difficult issues.
What we unveiled yesterday has long term ramifications for the Australian Defence Force, has long term ramifications for Australia, and the issues that cause those ramifications, are hit head-on, in the Pathway to Cultural Change document handed down by the Chief and the Secretary, and in the pending receipt of over 700 plausible allegations of abuse in the past, and how we respond to that, will be how we will be judged in the future.
FRAN KELLY: Minister, than you very much for joining us again on Breakfast.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks, Fran, thanks very much.