TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH GEOFF HUTCHISON, ABC 720
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 15 JUNE 2012
TOPICS: DLA Piper Review
GEOFF HUTCHISON: Minister, your response to the singling out of HMAS Leeuwin as one of the worst incubators of abuse in the 1960s and '70s.?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we need to proceed quite carefully with all of these matters. I've made it clear that we're dealing with what I'm advised is over 700- what are described as plausible allegations. We're taking those seriously. Those plausible allegations at some stage will need to be tested. The person against whom the allegation is made has to have a fair opportunity to respond. But because we're dealing with such a large number of complaints or allegations, over effectively a 50 year period, we have to work out what's the best way of proceeding, and the materials that I've previously released - and what I've said publicly - lay out the array of options from telling people to rely upon existing procedures like going to the Police to a Royal Commission.
We're not too far away from coming to conclusions on the process, but it will take some time for all of those individual matters to be dealt with. As well, we've then got - are there any systemic cultural issues here that we need to deal with, in addition to the work that we've been doing in this area for some time now.
GEOFF HUTCHISON: Have you been privy to any of the allegations that have come out of HMAS Leeuwin, and the reason I'm pursuing this - and I understand specific details remain secret- but the Executive Summary of the review said, and I quote, the examples selected are horrific because they give an indication of the sort of abuse that occurred. Are you aware of what the abuse was, what the allegation of the abuse was?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I have made a particular point of not involving myself or inveigling myself into particular allegations. All of these issues stem effectively from the publicity associated with the so-called ADFA/Skype issue. In the midst of that, my office and I were inundated with people sending letters, emails, phone calls essentially saying I have an allegation to make - I was treated badly in the past, or I complained, and no-one said anything about it. So I had to respond to that. I could have ignored it, but what I did was to - with the then Secretary of Department of Defence- was to say we need to have an independent process here, so that all of these things can be examined, so DLA Piper, a leading law-firm was commissioned to do that.
In October last year, I got the first phase of their report. In March of this year, I put out an edited or redacted version of the Executive Summary, which to my mind underlined the seriousness of the issues we were dealing with, and the seriousness of thinking required by the government to make a response.
And in April of this year - less than two months ago - I got their complete first report, including all of the various allegations. So what's come out over night under Freedom of Information legislation, is essentially all of the Executive Summary. What hasn't come out-and this is sensible- are all of the individual allegations and the assessment of those allegations. Now, at some stage, they may well come out but if they are to come out it will come out in a process where the person who's making the complaint and the person who is alleged to have done some wrongdoing will have a fair process opportunity.
That might be some further judicial or legal inquiry, or it might be some existing current processes whether that's a police investigation or a military investigation, but I haven't- deliberately, and I've done this advisedly- involved myself in the detail of any of the allegations because I have to stand back from that and work out two things - what's the best way of dealing with over 700 so-called plausible allegations over a 50 year period, and at the same time make sure that we are putting in place systems and structures and cultural change to make sure that these allegations, these instances, these suggestions of systemic abuse can't occur in the future.
GEOFF HUTCHISON: You're listening to Defence Minister Stephen Smith. A broad theme throughout this report - hostility towards those who complained, a culture of covering up behaviours, and then a failure to punish the perpetrators. It's very familiar to us isn't it. We've seen it in the church. We've seen it in institutions who are meant to care for orphans and child migrants. Is there a compelling argument that it does now and of course this is the talk the morning after the night before, that it requires a royal commission to clean out what appears to be a cupboard full of dirty secrets?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I said last night on the ABC, and I said again this morning as well on your show and other shows - that from the first moments when I spoke about these matters, I have never discounted the possibility of a Royal Commission. It's not the only possible solution. One difficulty of a Royal Commission is that inevitably it takes a long period of time, but that's an option. Some form of reconciliation process is also an option, some compensation scheme is also an option. But I have - and to underline the seriousness of the allegations and to underline the seriousness with which we are treating them - ourselves, my colleagues and particularly the Attorney-General - I have never, and I don't discount the possibility of a Royal Commission.
But one thing that has occurred, you might recall in the aftermath of that, I initiated half-a-dozen inquiries into various aspects of Defence culture; treatment of women, use of alcohol and the like. And in April of this year, the Chief of the Defence Force and the Secretary, in response to all of those reviews, issued their own report which is called - which is effectively about dealing with cultural change for the future, where they in a report effectively written by them, acknowledged that in the past there had been inappropriate conduct. In the past there had been the turning of a blind eye. In the past there had been a failure to properly deal with these matters. But we had to proceed now on the basis that those days were over - that there was a zero tolerance. There had to be a culture, not just of zero tolerance, but of encouraging people to bring complaints and make reports and for people to be supported in that process if there were allegations of wrong doing.
So one thing I'm absolutely convinced of is that the Chief of the Defence Force, the Secretary and the current service chiefs are absolutely committed to turning around these bad instances in the past.
GEOFF HUTCHISON: And yet Minister, we talk about hundreds of allegations made over half a century. Some may say this is trawling through miserable history, but as the report makes pretty clear, there is the very real prospect that some of the perpetrators may indeed be senior Defence people today. So how do you test that?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well this is one if you like, of the complexities of trying to work out the best way of responding, both the individual allegations and to any systemic issue. Now in the first instance, whilst we've got what are described as over 700 plausible allegations, those allegations haven't yet been tested. So a person against whom an allegation has been made is entitled to some fair process and to respond. So yes, it is a - there is a possibility. There is a potential that current serving Defence Force personnel may have engaged in wrong-doing in the past, and they may be the subject of allegations. But they're entitled to have the opportunity of rebutting those allegations. So they haven't been tested. But that is one of the issues that we have to deal with.
So yes it's a possibility, but you can't leap to that conclusion. What we do know is that we've hundreds of people out there who have said either directly to me or to Defence or to other organisations; I was badly treated. They clearly need support and they need to be thought of as we go through this process. And at the same time there may well be people in the system who will be the subject of allegations as a result of my initiative to forward all of these matters to independent review by DLA Piper.
GEOFF HUTCHISON: You're listening to the Defence Minister, Stephen Smith - 1300 222 720. On the strength of what you have heard, what would you like to see happen now? There is talk of a Royal Commission, and that will take time. But will that finally break open a history of behaviours? I'd also like to know if any of you have had personal and specific experience - maybe you were a recruit at HMAS Leeuwin. I would like to know if you can give us some perspective - we have a broad allegation that HMAS Leeuwin was one of the worst incubators of abuse in the 1960s and 70s. And if you feel you are able to talk to me this morning about it I'd like to hear from you - 1300 222 720.
Minister, just before I let you go, what happens next? There will certainly be a lot of argument today, calls for the Royal Commission. What do you next have to determine?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well as I said yesterday and today, we're not too far away from coming to conclusions in this. I'm not putting a timetable on that, but we've been doing a lot of thinking and a lot of work as this process has gone. Now, I'm not going to be in any way disturbed from my focus by the Freedom of Information legislation that has come out. To me, the material I put out in the public domain underline the seriousness of all of these issues and the seriousness of what we had to confront, and the material released by the Freedom of Information decision maker, simply in my view serves to underline and reinforce that. So we'll just keep on dealing with the issues in the way in which we do.
There are probably - just a couple of points I think I should make. Firstly, in the old days, people were able to be recruited into Defence Forces at a very early age - 13, 14, 15. That's not been the case for some time, so the earliest effective entry now is 16. So yes, there are some serious allegations about systemic abuse of what we'd effectively regard as children, but those earlier entry dates no longer - earlier entry ages no longer occur. And secondly, the Chief of the Defence Force has said to me privately, as he said publicly in written form, that the Defence organisation has to face up to whatever failings there were in the past. And so in some manner or form, we do have to face up to what may well be in some respects be a legacy of history. But we have to deal with that to learn the lessons for the future. We have to deal with that to give some proper process to people who regard themselves as having been abused or regard their complaint as not having been properly investigated.
And only by doing that can we really make sure that we're confident of the structures we put in place in terms of cultural change for the future. But the one thing I'm absolutely confident about is that working with the Chief of the Defence Force, his service chief colleagues, the Chiefs of Army, Navy and Air Force and the Secretary of the Defence Department, there's absolutely a zero tolerance for these matters and there's a zero tolerance for turning a blind eye. We have to and want - and we want to encourage a system where if people feel they have been subject to inappropriate treatment by whoever it is, that they're able to come forward, and people are supportive of that and treat and deal with their issues in a proper manner and in a civilised and dignified way. But also in a way which deals with those issues in a proper and lawful manner
GEOFF HUTCHISON: Thank you very much for your time this morning.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks Geoff. Thanks very much.