TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH FRAN KELLY, RADIO NATIONAL
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 6 March 2013
TOPICS: Afghanistan; 457 Visas; WA State Election.
FRAN KELLY: Defence Minister, Stephen Smith, joins me in the Breakfast studios now. Minister, welcome again to Breakfast.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks, Fran.
FRAN KELLY: This incident is being investigated by Australian Commanders, I understand working with the NATO-led ISAF forces and Afghan colleagues. What's the latest you can tell us about what actually happened and how are the Australian SAS forces involved?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, it was a terrible tragedy and given the fog of war and the need to be very careful about what precisely has occurred, neither the Chief of the Defence Force, General Hurley, nor the Commander of ISAF, General Dunford, nor I will be drawn on the facts or circumstances. We want to wait until the formal review by the Australian Defence Force and the formal review by ISAF come in.
What we have said in the meantime, is this is a terrible tragedy. The general circumstances are that Australian SAS or Special Forces personnel were involved. There was an incident, they called in air support. Now the air support or the enablers or the helicopters in Uruzgan are provided by ISAF, International Security Assistance Force, generally, almost invariably US forces. And as a consequence of the calling in of air support, this terrible tragedy occurred.
We need to pick our way through precisely what occurred but in the meantime I've said, General Hurley has said and General Dunford has said that Australian Defence Force and ISAF jointly accept responsibility. And we've made that point clear to Afghan officials including the Governor of the Province, Governor Akhundzada.
FRAN KELLY: Without going into the detail, though if you can't do that, can you give us a sense of - the shots were fired by the helicopter? Was it a visibility issues? Was there a mistake in the calling in, can you give us any sense of it?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well if I go into that detail, then I'm really speculating or pre-empting what we'll actually find.
FRAN KELLY: So when will this - results of this investigation be-
STEPHEN SMITH: We'll do it as quickly as possible but these things always take time. That's the regrettable fact. The important thing from my perspective is that civilian casualties are always terrible. We do everything we can to minimise or avoid them. When they occur in Afghanistan, we have got a good reputation of letting the authorities know whether it's Afghan authorities or ISAF authorities know that a terrible incident has occurred and then we exhaustively investigate them. This one we're doing effectively jointly with International Security Assistance Force. But I think our quick, joint acceptance of responsibility, the fact also that we are the leader in Uruzgan, we lead the ISAF contingent in Uruzgan. So we, as ISAF have said, we ultimately accept responsibility for what has occurred. But we need to carefully pick our way through the detail of precisely how this has unfolded.
FRAN KELLY: You said compensation will be paid to the families, does the Australian Government pay that compensation?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well in the normal course of events, when a tragedy like this occurs, it's part of Afghan culture that some compensation or reparation payment is made. In 2009 we formalised what is known as the tactical compensation arrangements. And in the normal course of events, in a case like this, either the ADF or ISAF or both, will make some form of payment to the families concerned.
FRAN KELLY: So who's doing it this time? Is it the ADF?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we'll pick our way through that. As I say in the normal course of events, you'd expect that the ADF would make a payment as would ISAF. We've already relayed our apologies to the family. When I say we, both the ADF and ISAF. We've relayed our apologies and our regret to Afghan officials at the highest level - both in Kabul and in Uruzgan Province. And as you indicated in your introduction, the Governor of the province, in a significant intervention, accepted that this was inadvertent, this was a terrible tragedy, this was an accident.
But we do want to make sure that we know all of the facts and circumstances and that's why you see both the ADF and ISAF conducting the respective reviews.
FRAN KELLY: So, Minister, we pay compensation, reparation - let's call it that - you've said last night on 7.30, that will be in the hundreds rather than thousands of dollars, which doesn't seem like much. How much is a young boy's life worth?
STEPHEN SMITH: What I said was it'll depend on the facts and circumstances of each case. That's the first thing. Secondly, our experience - because this is driven by Afghan culture and Afghan practices and traditions - it's not something that we would normally do. In the end, when a family and here we've got two families, both of whom have lost a son, you can't put a price on that all.
But part of Afghan culture is that when something like this occurs, there is some form of reparation to the family members concerned and that's the process we're going through.
FRAN KELLY: And how - what is the scale for that, for this technical compensation?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, as I said last night, we are talking here in terms of our practice which is limited over the last few years. You're talking hundreds rather than thousands but hundreds of dollars in Australian terms can be a deeply significant amount in Uruzgan Province.
FRAN KELLY: I understand that. I'm just wondering is there like a scale that you refer to or is it something you negotiate with the family, the ADF negotiates with the family?
STEPHEN SMITH: It unfolds depending upon the circumstances and obviously you have a conversation with the family and in this case that may well be a conversation not just with the ADF and the family, it's the family's concerned but also ISAF, International Security Assistance Force.
FRAN KELLY: And in the past, it's been hundreds - $300, $700?
STEPHEN SMITH: It's varied, depending upon the facts and circumstances. As I said last night and have to say again, it depends on the facts and circumstances. It's driven by Afghan practices and culture, not our own. And in the past we've seen payments in the hundreds or in the thousands.
FRAN KELLY: And perhaps no one's at fault and it's an accident and it's a tragedy. Is that the end of it when the Australian Defence Force is involved with killing civilians, is there other support - ongoing support for families in this situation of some kind? Not necessarily monetary?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, in our own case firstly, we've got very strong rules of engagement which we follow strictly. Every time there's a terrible incident like this, we go through carefully and exhaustively to see whether there are any lessons to be learned. One of the things which holds us in good stead is that we have got a very good reputation, both in Afghanistan and historically, of being careful about these matters.
And every time I go to Uruzgan, the current Governor and previous governors has said, have said, how much they respect the ADF and our soldiers. Because they get on well with the locals and they respect the locals and treat the locals well. So that has been one of the reasons together with our quick apology and quick acceptance with ISAF of responsibility, which has if you like, contained this as a broader issue because civilian casualties, as you'd expect can be highly emotional and have wide ramifications in Afghanistan.
FRAN KELLY: It's 21 minutes to 9. On Breakfast, our guest this morning is Defence Minister, Stephen Smith. Minister, can I go to you now as a Minister from Western Australia and ask your view on this debate that's raging about 457 visas?
Last year, immigration figures show that the number of visas granted for foreign workers going to Western Australia increased by 88 per cent in the first 10 months of this financial year. Ninety per cent of workers emigrating to WA on the 457 visas are managers, professionals or skilled tradespeople, with most going to work in the construction and mining industry.
Are you relaxed with that? Are you confident that there's not skilled tradespeople and skilled managers already there in Perth and beyond to the extent that this number of people needs to be imported by the 457?
STEPHEN SMITH: This is one of the things that we are trying to make sure doesn't occur. Now in Western Australia in particular where you've got very strong ongoing investment and growth in minerals and petroleum resources, there are skill shortages in those particular professions. So the 457 visa when it's used correctly and properly enables that skill shortage to be met.
What we need to ensure and the Immigration Minister, Brendan O'Connor and his predecessor Chris Bowen have worked very hard to try and ensure, that we exhaust our Western Australian and Australian supply first. And this is the point that-
FRAN KELLY: Has that been happening? You're there on the ground in WA. Has that been happening?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, from time to time you get suggestions from the workforce that there were people in Western Australia or in Australia who had those appropriate skills and they weren't made aware of the vacancy. They weren't made aware of the opportunity and that's one of the things we're trying to do. And you see comparable suggestions from time to time in the local content area.
So both in local content and in skills, you've to make sure that every local avenue is exhausted before you utilise an offshore option. That's what successive Immigration Ministers have tried to do and that's what the Government is now trying to do and that's the point the Prime Minister has made in recent times.
FRAN KELLY: We heard earlier from the CEO of the BCA, Jennifer Westacott, saying that the language around this has got out of hand. I mean, in WA, are the employers telling you don't muck this up, we need this 457 system? Don't get in the way of it. And are you worried about the tone around it is questioning the integrity of this system?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I haven't seen anything that the Prime Minister has said or that I've said or the Immigration Minister Bowen or his successor O'Connor have said which would cause me to have that concern. We have consistently made the point-
FRAN KELLY: Aussie workers are at the back of the queue?
STEPHEN SMITH: We have consistently made the point that you need to have a sensibly administered overseas skill program. Australia is built as a country of migrants and we've gone from family reunions to a skilled-driven migration program in abroad. We've got pockets of our economy in Western Australia and Australia generally, where there are clearly skill shortages and we need to fill those. What we want to do is to have a regime in place where every opportunity is exhausted to fill that skill shortage from a locally qualified person whether from a particular state like Western Australia or from Australia and then if that skill is not there, to utilise an offshore skill set through a 457 program.
That's what we're trying to effect and the fact that we've got unevenness in our economy, stronger growth in some industries and stronger growth in some states or regions, makes this a particular problem in particular parts of the country. It's been a longstanding issue in Western Australia, not just in minerals and petroleum resources, but also in hospitality, particularly in the south-west of the State.
FRAN KELLY: And just finally Minister, there's a state election in your state this weekend. The polls suggest that although the Labor opposition leader, Mark McGowan is quite popular. Labor's vote is likely to go backwards or certainly its number of seats is likely to go backwards. It's pretty obvious that Mark McGowan hasn't invited the Prime Minister to help with this campaign. How much is the Federal Government's mining tax a factor in this Labor vote if it goes backwards?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, Mark's done very well. He's won the campaign and he has brought Labor in my view within striking distance. It's very hard in the Western Australian context historically to defeat a Government after one term. So that's the challenge he has. Colin Barnett started as favourite and I said so, I think in the middle of the last week, he remains favourite. Time will tell whether in the last week Mark can make up the ground required. It's very difficult I think to make judgements about numbers of seats. We're going to have to wait to the night. Fortunately, I'm on the ABC panel so we'll know on the night.
My instinct has been it's going to be a bit closer than people have been speculating. But Colin Barnett started as the favourite and he finishes the week in my view as the favourite but you know, in a campaigning sense Mark has done very well and that's been reflected by the personal support that we see.
Now how the election unfolds time will tell but I've always been of the camp that the punters whether they're in Western Australia or elsewhere know the differences between state polls and federal polls and the good folk of Perth and Western Australia know that they've got a state election on Saturday and they've got a federal election on 14 September.
FRAN KELLY: Stephen Smith, thank you very much for joining us.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thank you.