Stephen Smith MP
Minister for Defence
TOPICS: Cyclone Yasi; Egypt; Soldier wounded in Afghanistan; and Update to Projects of Concern
KIERAN GILBERT: Good morning and welcome to AM Agenda.
In the face of enormous instability and days of protests in Egypt, the Egyptian President has said he won't be recontesting the election of September this year.
With me this morning on the program, to look at this developing story, the Defence Minister Stephen Smith. Minister, thanks for your time.
STEPHEN SMITH: Pleasure.
KIERAN GILBERT: Before I ask you for your reaction to President Mubarak's comments, I want to get from you a sense of what the military's doing in preparation for Cyclone Yasi. What's the military doing?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well it's really, it's three levels. Firstly we, of course, have assets in Townsville. We have the Lavarack Barracks, a large troop presence. We also have aviation and maritime assets. So we are taking precautions, putting patrol boats to sea, securing aircraft and flying aircraft south and the like. So doing everything we need to do to protect our assets.
Secondly, and very importantly we, of course, have a large number of defence families, so we want them to be following the advice of the local authorities and the Queensland authorities and taking their precautions.
Thirdly, of course, it's what we can do to help and already overnight, using C-130s and C-17s, we've effectively evacuated over 250 patients from Cairns Hospital and Cairns Private Hospital, and successfully evacuated them to Brisbane.
But the message to defence families is to follow the advice of the local authorities because this is going to be, on all the advice, a very significant cyclone.
KIERAN GILBERT: But unfortunately, beyond the evacuations of the hospitals and that sort of thing, it's a matter of sitting and waiting isn't it, like the rest of the community?
STEPHEN SMITH: That's true. We also, this morning as we speak, we've got about 100 troops from Townsville, from Lavarack Barracks joining with the Queensland authorities, going door to door in low lying areas in Townsville, effectively advising people to evacuate, what is effectively a mandatory or forced evacuation. So we're assisting on that as well.
And then in the meantime, it's take all the necessary preparations, batten down and protect people, protect the assets and then, of course, as I've made clear both in respect of floods and also the cyclone, we are looking at what we might be able to do if we have a terrible aftermath in terms of emergency assistance and the like. And we will respond positively to any requests from the Queensland authorities.
KIERAN GILBERT: So it's a matter of, you know, protecting the defence assets, protecting defence personnel and their families, and then assessing afterwards, you know, the evacuations and so on, aside, beyond the disaster and then it's assessing the damage and getting in to help as you did with the floods as the military did with the floods.
STEPHEN SMITH: Yes, but at the request of the Queensland authorities, because in the first instance it's a matter for the relevant civil authorities. But we have, regrettably, recent experience in this with Cyclone Larry at Innisfail. So on the basis of that experience we know there's a risk of communities being isolated, of communications and transportation down. The need for emergency assistance, food, water and water purification and the like, and also potentially emergency medical evacuations.
So we're doing that pre-planning and obviously we are on notice to establish a taskforce based out of Townsville in the same way that we have for the floods. But we also need to balance now the draw down of our contribution on the Queensland and Victorian floods with what we expect, maybe, are calls on us to assist in that emergency way.
KIERAN GILBERT: Because, as you mentioned, it is that area of Australia is the locale of a number of military bases and personnel. Thousands.
STEPHEN SMITH: We have assets in Townsville, both soldiers and aircraft - King Air, for example. We've got HMAS Cairns patrol boats. So, yes, we've got equipment that we need to secure and protect or move as we have with aircraft and patrol boats. But we've also got the people.
It's also the case that because of the experience of cyclones in North Queensland, that our people on the ground there, in some respects regrettably, do have the experience. If there's going to be a cyclone that devastates a part of the country, then in very many respects our military and defence personnel's experience and expertise in North Queensland is the best place for us to be in terms of an immediate assist and aftermath, but also the preparation because terribly, we've gone through it before.
KIERAN GILBERT: Let's look at those other issues that we flagged overseas, the comments by President Mubarak of Egypt saying he won't contest the September presidential election. Will that be enough, do you think, to placate the groundswell, the push for change that we've seen in the last week or so?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well the Foreign Minister and the Prime Minister have been making extensive remarks and I fully expect that in the course of the day the Foreign Minister would make a detailed response to President Mubarak's contribution.
I think, what I take personally from his contribution this morning, is his commitment that he wants to see a peaceful and orderly transition. That's what Australia's been saying, it's what the international community's been saying and that's what Australia wants to see, an orderly and peaceful transition. That can only be determined by the Egyptian people and Egyptian institutions.
So whilst it was a good thing to see the President stating very clearly that he wanted to see a peaceful and orderly transition, we do have to take it step by step. It's not a matter for Australia to determine the way in which events unfold. But what we do want to see is a peaceful transition. And we were very pleased, and the Foreign Minister has welcomed it, but as Defence Minister, I also welcome the fact that the Egyptian military forces have said that they will not take up force of arms against peaceful protesters.
KIERAN GILBERT: You referred to this, you know, the transition by President Mubarak in that regard. But a transition to what is the question, and I suppose there is a risk that we're going to see a move from a pro-western regime that we've seen for many years in Egypt to something else.
STEPHEN SMITH: A couple of points there. Firstly I welcome the President's statement that he wants to see a peaceful and orderly transition. His indication that he's not proposing to stand again as President, I personally think, makes a contribution to that. But it'll be a matter for the Egyptian people, some of whom are continuing to engage in a high level of peaceful protest, and Egyptian institutions to determine how that unfolds. It's not for Australia to judge that.
In terms of Australia's relationship with Egypt, we of course have a very strong relationship with Egypt and we want that to continue. A peaceful and stable Egypt is very important to peace and stability in the Middle East and very important to seeking to resolve longstanding issues with respect to Israel and the Palestinian people. So having a stable Egypt is very important.
We don't have any military assets per se in Egypt, but we do of course have Australian Defence Force personnel as members of the United Nations Multinational Force and Observers based in the Sinai on the Egypt-Israel border.
KIERAN GILBERT: But Israel is nervous isn't it, because they don't know, like the rest of the international community, exactly what would fill the void if Mubarak, like he says he's going to step down.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well any change brings with it uncertainty until you see the outcome. That's the first point. It has to be and will continue to be a matter for the Egyptian people to determine the make up and the framework of their Government organisation and Government arrangements.
We want to see continuing friendly relations between Australia and Egypt. We want to see a peaceful and stable Egypt. And we want to see Egypt continue to play a very positive role in seeking to bring peace and stability to the Middle East in the broader context.
KIERAN GILBERT: In the short term, a charter flight is to arrive in Egypt today to evacuate the first group of Australians, and the second charter flight has now been arranged as well.
STEPHEN SMITH: That's right, my understanding is that the first Qantas charter will leave Cairo today at about 4 o'clock Cairo time.
We've had about 600 Australians register, so there'll be a second charter flight which will arrive tomorrow, and take off tomorrow, Thursday, Egypt time. And essentially the Department and the Minister of Foreign Affairs have indicated for as long as we're able to have access, and as long as there is a need to assist in the evacuation, then flights will continue. But we've confirmed for the present two flights - one for today and one for tomorrow.
KIERAN GILBERT: Okay. And can I move to another couple of issues now. The wounded digger in Afghanistan - apparently an accidental shooting. What's his condition?
STEPHEN SMITH: He was very seriously wounded, very seriously wounded, and as Defence itself has said it was very good work by medical teams, both in Tarin Kowt and subsequently in Kandahar. He's been transported to Germany. His condition continues to be very serious but stable, and obviously our thoughts are with him and his family.
All the indications are it was accidental. The Department, the CDF and the Chief of Joint Operations have effected a standard inquiry into the circumstances, and that will now take place. And it's, I think, unwise for me to speculate further other than to say as I've said yesterday that all of the circumstances point to an accident.
We're very relieved that his condition has stabilised. And we'll do the formal inquiry and make judgments in the aftermath of that.
KIERAN GILBERT: And one last issue that I want to get your thoughts on. You announced that yesterday the scrapping of the water craft, the landing craft program has been scrapped at a cost of $40 million for no use. The choppers are now on the concern list, the replacement for the Black Hawks and the Sea Kings - why are there always problems with the procurement? It seems to be, you know, an endless problem in the culture of the place.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well a couple of things. Firstly, the replacement to the Sea Kings and the Black Hawks. We've indicated, the Minister for Defence Materiel, Jason Clare and I, that we would do what's called a diagnostic review. That's if you like the last step before putting it on the Projects of Concern list. But we are very concerned about the delays in that project, so we haven't formally put that on the Projects of Concern list yet. But we've got to get that project under control and make sure that we get it back on track. That's the first point.
Secondly, I think we now face the modern day reality where procurement projects, tenders for Defence, live in a world of fiscal discipline and value for money. In the old days, good or bad, there was very much a view and an attitude that a Defence project was a Defence project almost with impunity.
We have historically too many very bad examples where projects have not been successful, ending up with a capability we can't use or massive cost overruns. And the challenge now is to bring internal rigour and accountability within Defence for those procurement projects.
KIERAN GILBERT: Can you do it? Is it possible?
STEPHEN SMITH: I will be announcing, as I've indicated, a series of reforms in the first quarter of this year aimed directly at that. My predecessor, Joel Fitzgibbon, did a very good job of putting, for the first time, real external parameters around Defence, Defence budget and Defence procurements with the 2009 White Paper, the Force 2030, and the Strategic Reform Program.
The challenge now is to make sure that the internal discipline, the internal rigour, the internal accountability - both individual Defence officers and the Department itself - matches that external rigour. And we face this challenge as the United States does, as the United Kingdom does. But we have to do better and we will do better.
KIERAN GILBERT: Minister, appreciate your time, thanks.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks very much.
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