Stephen Smith MP
Minister for Defence
TOPICS: Cyclone Yasi; Update to Projects of Concern; Defence Procurement; HMASSuccess
FRAN KELLY: Defence Minister Stephen Smith joins us this morning from our Parliament House studios. Minister, good morning.
STEPHEN SMITH: Good morning, Fran.
FRAN KELLY: Is that medivac of patients from those Cairns hospitals now complete?
STEPHEN SMITH: Yes, it was completed in the early hours of the morning, so we used C-130s and C-17s from Amberley and from Richmond in New South Wales, and evacuated the patients toBrisbane. So that's a good thing, we're very pleased to be able to assist.
And also, this morning on the ground, we've got about 100 troops from the Lavarack Barracks in Townsville assisting the Queensland emergency authorities going through some of the low-lying areas in Townsville helping Queensland authorities with, effectively, a mandatory evacuation from those areas.
FRAN KELLY: So that's soldiers going around door knocking, effectively?
STEPHEN SMITH: Yes, helping the Queensland emergency management authorities in these matters, of course. Whilst we are very positive and constructive in responding, we do so at the request of the civilian authorities in the same manner that we did, for example, with the floods in Queensland recently, and in Victoria. So, we work with them to help them at their request.
FRAN KELLY: Just back to the medical evacuation, it can't have been a simple exercise transporting all those patients, more than 200 - some critically ill - hundreds of kilometres to Brisbanehospitals. Did all go well?
STEPHEN SMITH: All went well on the advice I've got, and that's, obviously, a very good thing. But yes, some patients had to be assisted with medical and nursing staff. Others were able to, essentially, walk on themselves. There were about 160 who were able to get on themselves, but there were others who were more critically unwell who needed assistance of staff.
But it's a difficult logistical exercise, but we managed it and we’re pleased to have been able to help, just as, obviously, we've been pleased to be able to help in the floods in Queensland and Victoria and, also, in a lesser context in Carnarvon recently. And we're also on standby to respond to any request we get for emergency assistance in the aftermath of the cyclone.
And as well, of course, as you made the point in your introduction, we've got assets in Townsville and Cairns, both patrol boats and some aviation assets, and also the troops at Lavarack Barracks. So we're taking our own precautions.
FRAN KELLY: Yeah, what preparations are being made for them? Are the troops going to stay there or have they been evacuated?
STEPHEN SMITH: No. Troops will, essentially, stay but take the necessary precautions. And we follow, as everyone should follow, the advice of the local authorities in that respect. But we - it's not, regrettably, a dissimilar activity for us to effect, so there's plenty of experience in north Queensland military sites for cyclone prevention and, also, in the aftermath we've had recent experience with Cyclone Larry in Innisfail.
So we're well prepared in terms of our patrol boats, those that were able to get to sea have gone. We've got one or two under maintenance, so they're being effectively held down as best as possible, and we've got aviation assets that we've moved south, and the troops at Lavarack Barracks taking their precautions as well.
FRAN KELLY: Okay. Well, talking of patrol boats, you announced yesterday that the Government was scrapping what's called the watercraft project, a $40 million plan to build half a dozen landing craft. The ships, as it turns out, were duds, they were too heavy to be carted about by ships like the HMAS Manoora and the Kanimbla. Where are they now? Are they still moored at Townsville; are they in the eye of the storm?
STEPHEN SMITH: They are, effectively, in the eye of the storm and they have, obviously, been secured. I don't dispute the analysis that you've given, possibly in somewhat pejorative terms, but the grim reality for Defence...
FRAN KELLY: Well, 14 years and $40 million and you've got six landing craft that you can't use and you don't want, really.
STEPHEN SMITH: The grim reality for Defence is that this has, effectively, been a very sorry story, a waste of about 40 million taxpayers' dollars effectively building an asset which Defence could not utilise. So it's a very sorry tale and it is also, regrettably, just another example of procurement going wrong. And that's why I have made the point consistently, since I became Minister that the Government, having put external budget and procurement parameters around Defence with the White Paper and the Force 2030 structure in the budget rules, we now have to get the internal rigour and the internal arrangements right to meet those parameters.
In the old days, a Defence project, once it was up and running, essentially, the attitude was that whatever the outcome, that was fine because it was a Defence project. That's no longer the modern day, and I'll be bringing forward in the next few months a reform program aimed at accountability, aimed at getting internal rigour much better, much stronger, and trying to avoid these terrible excesses that we've seen historically.
FRAN KELLY: With respect, Minister, as long as I've been reporting on politics, I think there's been bungled Defence projects and stories - regular stories coming through. Every new Defence Minister says he's going to try and fix it, almost in exactly the words you've used there. I mean, what is wrong with Defence? Why does this keep happening? A very sorry tale is how you describe this - these six dud landing craft. Why is Defence building ships that don't work?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, as a general proposition, of course, when you're building assets for future strategic use, invariably, new and high technology is associated, so there are always risks with projects. What you have to do is minimise the risk.
We're not alone in this. Comparable countries, the United States, United Kingdom are all now moving in the same direction that we're moving in.
I think we have made some very important changes. My predecessor, Joel Fitzgibbon, saw the White Paper and the Force 2030, the strategic reform program and the budget rules that have put what I describe as external parameters around Defence for the first time.
The truth is, in the old days, if a Defence project was suggested, it was effectively given the nod and life went on whatever the consequences. That is not the modern day where we've got fiscal constraints, where the public are entitled to value for effort, and where, when Defence projects go wrong, officers in Defence need to be held accountable.
We've had very grave weaknesses on accountability, very grave weaknesses on internal rigour and too many examples of too many projects falling between cracks and people not taking responsibility. That has to and will come to an end, and the reforms that I will announce over the next couple of months are aimed very squarely at that, very squarely at personal and professional accountability from Defence, both as individual officers and as an institution.
FRAN KELLY: Okay. It's 10 minutes to eight on RN Breakfast. Our guest this morning is Defence Minister Stephen Smith.
Minister, worryingly, another project you added to the list of Projects of Concern was the $4 billion Sea King and Black Hawk helicopter replacement project. What's wrong with the new helicopters?
STEPHEN SMITH: We didn't list it as a project of concern. Jason Clare, the Minister for Defence Materiel, and I announced that that would be the subject of what's called a gate review, a diagnostic review. We are very concerned about the delay in that project, and that point's been made previously by...
FRAN KELLY: It's 18 months behind schedule now, is that right? What's the hold-up?
STEPHEN SMITH: It's behind schedule, it's had technical difficulties, it's had engine difficulties, and we're making it very clear to Defence, the Defence Materiel Organisation and the companies concerned that we're very concerned about that project. The so-called diagnostic review is the step before listing the matter as a project of concern.
FRAN KELLY: Does that mean the helicopter project is in danger of being scrapped or cut short?
STEPHEN SMITH: No, no, we take these things step by step. We are behind schedule, there have been difficulties and they have to be remediated and fixed as quickly as possible.
FRAN KELLY: Finally Minister, the report of the commission of inquiry into alleged sexual misconduct by sailors on HMAS Success, you've read the first part of the report, you say that it didn't make, quote, good reading. When will you be releasing that report to the public, because these events took place in 2009?
STEPHEN SMITH: I received the report recently. It's a commission of inquiry report. I want to release the report publicly. It's important that we take care of individual rights in these matters, so we have to be careful about the release of the whole report. We're currently working through what can be released.
The Parliament comes back next week. I want to provide an abridged version of the report, at least to the Parliamentary committee, to the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, which has had a keen interest in this matter. But I've got to make sure that I don't trample over anyone's individual rights. But it is important for transparency reasons that it's made public, and it will be.
The report, as I've said before, makes very sorry reading. It's not a good read, either about personal conduct, or about discipline, or authority or about a culture on the Success, which may be wider within navy. So these things have to be squarely addressed by the command structure in navy, squarely addressed by Defence and squarely addressed by me. And they will be. And that very sorry tale will be made public as soon as humanly possible when the Parliament returns.
I can't give a commitment that it'll be in the first week, but it will be very soon into the Parliament.
FRAN KELLY: Alright, Stephen Smith, thank you very much for joining us.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks Fran, thanks very much.
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