TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH JON FAINE, ABC 774
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 25 MARCH 2011
TOPICS: Facebook and Afghanistan; HMAS Success; Army uniforms; Defence Procurement;; Political debate.
JON FAINE: Stephen Smith is the Minister for Defence and joins me in the studio. Mr Smith, good morning to you.
STEPHEN SMITH: Good morning Jon.
JON FAINE: Have you got a cultural problem in the defence forces, coming off the back of a review of navy as well?
STEPHEN SMITH: I mean it's very important to make this point that we've seen some very bad examples of terrible personal conduct in navy recently, with the report of the HMAS Success, and overnight with this Facebook incident we've seen some terrible and appalling remarks by Australian soldiers, potentially some Diggers in Afghanistan.
I think the first important point to make is that I don't, in any way, regard this has being reflective of Australian Defence Force personnel. Let me deal with the Facebook incident, because that's, if you like, the overnight or breaking news.
I've spoken to the Chief of the Defence Force and the Chief of Army last night put out statement, which I strongly support, which condemns this conduct.
JON FAINE: Soldiers swear. I mean that's hardly, itself-
STEPHEN SMITH: No, no, it's not just - it's not just swearing. This is appalling racial abuse. Appalling, inappropriate conduct.
JON FAINE: It's a tough workplace. There's bullying, there's binge drinking, there's sexual harassment. None of that's new.
STEPHEN SMITH: There is no place in the Australian Defence Force, there is no place for our Diggers on the ground in Afghanistan, to engage in cultural abuse, to engage in racial abuse. Now, this is not-
JON FAINE: You can't sanitise and make politically correct the work of soldiers in the field. They kill people. It's kill or be killed.
STEPHEN SMITH: Our soldiers are very effective in Afghanistan at doing two things. Firstly, at being very effective fighters and a very effective fighting output. But they're also very good at engaging with the local community and respecting the local community. I was so concerned…
JON FAINE: Well this is just them [indistinct] minister.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well- and I make this point- I was so concerned by this incident, which the Chief of Army condemned overnight, and which there has been already instituted an investigation by the Chief of the Defence Force - and in all expectation, adverse consequences will flow for those concerned. Of course, we have to respect their rights, but there's an investigation on foot. And there may well be action taken under Defence Force Discipline Act. And there's also the prospect that-
JON FAINE: Well-
STEPHEN SMITH: -the people concerned will be brought home. But-
JON FAINE: There will be a real backlash within the forces surely-
STEPHEN SMITH: I was - well it's not just-
JON FAINE: -if soldiers think that they can't be themselves, they can't react to the stress and tension of the moment with a little outburst, well they're-
STEPHEN SMITH: Jon, there's a difference between some rough and tough language, when you're out on operation and thinking that you can relax by putting remarks on Facebook which are absolutely to be condemned.
I was so concerned that - of the image, or the reflection that this might have, not just on our troops in Afghanistan, not just on army and defence, but also on Australia, that last night I rang Afghan Defence Minister Wardak and I said to him this is appalling it's occurred. We're investigating it. It's deeply regrettable. I apologise.
And he said to me- what I expected he would say to me- that he held the Australian soldiers in Afghanistan in very high regard, not just because of our fighting effort, because of the way in which we respected Afghans and the way in which we engaged in the community. And he did not regard this as an incident which would colour his mind, or his view, of the standing in which Australian soldiers are held, for the way in which they conduct themselves.
And that's why - because this runs so counter to what army have been doing in Afghanistan for 10 years, to a longstanding, well regarded very high international reputation of Australian soldiers and defence force personnel, that's why I regard it so seriously. That's why-
JON FAINE: Does it undermine our efforts, in the field, in Afghanistan? Does the binge drinking in the Navy - you relate that to the fact that half the fleet can't be put to sea. Do these problems - surely, you have to acknowledge they impact on our operational ability?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well on Navy, the Chief of Navy was out there yesterday generally to all of Navy personnel, making the point that if you don't conduct yourself appropriately, either on ship or onshore, then adverse consequences will flow. Firstly, there's-
JON FAINE: But this is going right through.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well-
JON FAINE: This is the culture of the organisation. It's not just a few rotten apples in the bottom of the barrel.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I think you need to read, Jon, the HMAS Success report which makes it clear on HMAS Success we had some very serious problems - inappropriate, personal conduct involved - or related to drinking, related to sexual harassment both onshore and-
JON FAINE: And bullying-
STEPHEN SMITH: -offshore.
JON FAINE: Bullying is part of the culture of the defence forces, not just the Navy.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well one of the things we've done, and one of the things that the Chief of Navy has done, is to make sure that these issues are addressed squarely. And that's why he was out there yesterday saying if you're in the navy and you want to drink, if you're onshore you need to understand you're representative of Navy, you're a representative of Australia and you have to conduct yourself appropriately.
JON FAINE: I've had a look at the Facebook and the comments that are being referred to here. Binge drinking's a feature of the work being done there too. They way you provide alcohol to soldiers when they're off duty encourages, even, that culture of binge drinking.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well that's not - well firstly Jon, that's not true. The defence force-
JON FAINE: They wipe themselves out. They boast of it.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well the defence force, in terms of whether it's Navy or Army, if you're on operations it's a dry ship or a dry dock. That's the first point.
Secondly, a commander is entitled, from time to time, to allow modest amounts of alcohol to be served and that's appropriate. It's appropriate, provided people then don't go and conduct themselves inappropriately.
JON FAINE: They boast of their binge drinking, how they've wiped themselves out and how out of it they get.
STEPHEN SMITH: Yeah, and defence, whether it's Navy or whether it's Army have got ongoing efforts to make sure that there's no abuse either of drugs or alcohol, certainly in the workplace. But also the people understand that when they represent Navy or represent Army, they have to conduct themselves appropriately.
JON FAINE: 1300 222 774. Can you in any way change the culture of the defence forces? 1300 222 774.
I'll get to your calls in a moment, but Stephen Smith is the Minister for Defence in the Gillard Government and he's my guest in the studio this morning.
JON FAINE: There's also a report in The Australian today, from Cameron Stewart, that yet again another Defence procurement scandal, uniforms specially commissioned for the SAS arrived in American sizes, not Australian sizes, don't fit the soldiers who they're required for, money down the drain, start all over again. I mean this is just endless, the problems with this organisation.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well firstly, Jon, again, you need to understand the facts. We're ordering about 5000 new uniforms, which both our special operations forces and our troops in Afghanistan are very pleased about, it's the uniform they wanted, we're ordering 5000, I'm very happy to acknowledge that a small number of those-
JON FAINE: They came in American sizes, no-one made the difference between Australian sizing and American sizing, so they're too small for the big blokes of the SAS.
STEPHEN SMITH: There was a mistake made with respect to a small number of uniforms, of course that's regrettable. I wouldn't put it, or characterise it in the way in which you have, I have any other number of examples of where a very serious procurement issue has gone wrong, and one of things I've been doing-
JON FAINE: Minister, where does - you've got ships that can't go to sea, submarines that can't go underwater, helicopters that can't fly, tanks and armoured personnel carriers that can't do the job given to them, uniforms that don't fit, I mean the list just goes on and on and on, and these aren't small ticket items, these are massive hits to the budget.
STEPHEN SMITH: One of the things that I have made clear since I became Minister, and one of the things that has occurred over the last three to four years, is trying to bring much greater rigour to procurement and capability issues.
In the bad old days, the attitude was essentially there are no constraints on Defence, there are no constraints on procurement, and people would just suffer the consequences of things going wrong. That's not the modern world, and it's not the modern circumstances in which Defence can operate, and that's why we have imposed a whole range of much greater rigour in our capability and procurement areas, we have a lot more work to do-
JON FAINE: Clearly.
STEPHEN SMITH: -and I've made it clear that one of the issues is-
JON FAINE: Do you want to talk about cultural change in the fighting troops, a cultural change in the back office would be good too.
STEPHEN SMITH: One of the issues is personal and institutional accountability, and whether it's heavy amphibious lift ships, maintenance and sustainment of that, whether it's the material that we give to our soldiers in a fighting arena, we have to minimise the mistakes, and minimise the risks.
Now in the broader context, this is not a problem that Australia has by itself, there are similar problems in the United States, United Kingdom, New Zealand, Canada, et cetera, but they can't be ignored, and I've indicated to all concerned that getting better output here, instilling greater rigour, trying to ensure there are better controls, is one of the highest priorities I have.
JON FAINE: We're talking about the behaviour of personnel within the Defence Forces, what about the behaviour of Parliamentarians, Parliament, I think there were eight people thrown out in question time on Wednesday, which - I don't know if that's a record, but it must be getting right up there, and then the sort of language used against Julia Gillard at the rally, the carbon tax rally the other day, it's taking things to a new low.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, a few points there. Firstly I think on Wednesday the speaker tipped out six or seven people for an hour, and the Manager of Oopposition Business was named and expelled for a day-
JON FAINE: It was eight altogether.
STEPHEN SMITH: First point. Second point, I'm sure there've been worse examples. Question Time is a robust arena, it's our clearing house of democracy, and I'd much prefer that we had fights on the floor of the Parliament than the way in which other people settle their disputes, which is fighting on the ground. That's the first point.
Secondly, my experience as a Member of Parliament is the community always responds adversely to that, and that's very well understood.
So far as the rally is concerned, there was a whole range of inappropriate conduct there, but my central thesis for the rally is that Tony Abbott showed very poor judgment, very bad judgment in attending, it reminded me of John Hewson going to the rallies in the last week of the 1993 campaign, and in that context, the Australian judgment - the Australian community made the judgement that John Hewson wasn't fit to be Prime Minister, and I think that episode showed that Tony Abbott wasn't fit to be Prime Minister as well.
JON FAINE: We'll get to calls, 1300 222 774 after one more question, if I may. Stephen Smith, Minister for Defence in the studio with me.
Mining companies, it's revealed today in the paper, are paying laundry workers and cooks in excess of $400,000 a year, to work offshore. You're from Western Australia, that's where the mining boom's hitting hardest, it's unbelievable, you are now, as the Minister for Defence, the Prime Minister, everybody else, paid less than someone doing cooking, or cleaning, in some of the mining operations.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I haven't seen that report, so I can't make any comment on that, I can make some general comments, firstly I'm sure there are plenty of people out there who are paid more than me, but equally, there are plenty of people out there who are paid less than me. What the-
JON FAINE: But to work as a cook, or a cleaner-
STEPHEN SMITH: But what the-
JON FAINE: $400,000.
STEPHEN SMITH: I can't vouch for what's behind that report. What I can say is that one of the things we know, because of the ongoing minerals and petroleum resources boom, which primarily comes out of Western Australia and Queensland, we have to be very conscious of what we describe as a two-speed economy, and we know that a minerals and petroleum resources boom, will see higher wages in the minerals and petroleum resources industry, and that can suck people from elsewhere, and we have to be very conscious of that.
JON FAINE: Any soldier who's been disciplined for swearing in Afghanistan, would be well within their rights to say, oh, stuff it, I can make five, six, seven times more working on the mines in Western Australia, I'll chuck in the Army.
STEPHEN SMITH: It's open to anyone to decide they want to change their employment, and we know for example that in the manufacturing industry in South Australia, there've been plenty of workers in manufacturing in South Australia who've gone to the North West, or the North East, so-
JON FAINE: Haven't been tempted yourself, minister?
STEPHEN SMITH: This is - I'm very happy in Western Australia.
JON FAINE: And in Parliament, you could earn more money being a cleaner?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I'll make a general point about Ministers and Members of Parliament, for all of the…
JON FAINE: You had a moment's hesitation there, not such a bad idea?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well-
JON FAINE: At least I won't have to put up with interviews like this one anymore.
STEPHEN SMITH: No, well I did reflect for a moment, I could still be a lawyer in Perth, looking out a window at the Swan River, but I haven't - in my experience, members of Parliament, from whatever side of politics they come from, don't do it for the money, either for the amount of money, absence or presence of it.
JON FAINE: It's distorting the economy, is the bottom line, isn't it?
STEPHEN SMITH: And this is the serious economic point I'm making. We've got a two-speed economy as a result of the minerals and petroleum resources industry, we have to be very conscious of that, because of that, that's one of the reasons we are imposing the minerals resources rent tax on the mining industry in three commodities, iron ore, coal and oil and gas, to make sure that the Australian community gets the benefit of that mining boom, and in the course of the last couple of days, you would have seen Wayne Swan and Martin Ferguson accept all of the recommendations of that joint committee, so we're making progress on that front as well.
JON FAINE: Very briefly, any suggestion we might join in with the campaign in Libya?
STEPHEN SMITH: No, we strongly support the no-fly zone but I've made it clear from day one that whilst we supported that, we weren't in a position to provide military or Defence assets, that's appropriately a matter for the region, in particular NATO and constituent countries.
But I've made it clear that we would be in a position to contemplate assets like a C-17, if humanitarian assistance or evacuation was required, but at this stage, the international community hasn't seen the need to take up that offer, but that's effectively a standing offer.
JON FAINE: Thank you for your time this morning, the Minister for Defence.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks, Jon.
JON FAINE: …in the Gillard Government, Stephen Smith.