TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH LYNDAL CURTIS, ABC
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 30 JANUARY 2013
TOPICS: ADF assistance to flood affected area; HMAS Choules; Mali; Parliamentary reform.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Stephen Smith, welcome to ABC News 24.
STEPHEN SMITH: Pleasure.
LYNDAL CURTIS: What Defence Force assets are in Queensland now?
STEPHEN SMITH: We've been focusing, as you'd expect, on Bundaberg, we've had four Black Hawks doing search and rescue and evacuations over the recent period, they're now changing their focus to delivery of supplies, stores and water in particular. We've also got two C-17s and two C-130s delivering supplies out of Brisbane, and that'll continue.
LYNDAL CURTIS: And what sort of supplies are they?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, food, fuel, water in particular, as people would see there's a problem of water in Brisbane and elsewhere, so it's mainly the necessary kit that's required to keep people going. And that'll continue until matters return, you know, to some normality.
LYNDAL CURTIS: The Prime Minister said yesterday that the 100 strong taskforce the Defence Force has set up will be moving into broader Bundaberg, when will that happen, and what will they be doing?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well they've left Brisbane, they're on their way. It's a taskforce, essentially, of 100 out of Enoggera. We've also got two comparable taskforce of 100 strong on standby, should they be required.
LYNDAL CURTIS: So a second lot of 100?
STEPHEN SMITH: Two lots of 100 in reserve if required, but at this stage, the advice is and the request is for 100. They'll, essentially, help with the clean up, help repair anything that requires emergency repair, do the sorts of things that people saw writ large in Brisbane and in Ipswich a couple of years ago.
LYNDAL CURTIS: The Prime Minister said they will stay for as long as they're needed, but how long do you think they are likely to be there for?
STEPHEN SMITH: We need to take it step by step by step, as the Prime Minister said, and as I will say and the Chief of the Defence Force will say, they'll be there for as long as required. It's not their role to start doing things which local authority, or private householders, or business owners need to do, but they'll be there for as long as it takes to help Bundaberg get back onto its feet.
You know, very regrettably, we have in Bundaberg what occurred in Brisbane and Ipswich on a grand scale a couple of years ago. So, whilst the task in a sense is narrower, for the people of Bundaberg it's just as important, and we're treating it accordingly.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Are you expecting any requests from New South Wales for Defence Force assistance?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well we haven't had any to date. There are two ways in which the Defence Force can become involved. One is local commanders can exercise a judgement on the ground that a local community needs some assistance. Or, more generally, there's a national request through our emergency management arrangements, and you've seen the requests through the emergency management arrangements come in for Brisbane today, we've had none from New South Wales, but if there are, we will respond accordingly.
It's one of the great features of the Australian Defence Force that they do this work, it's one of the three great pillars of Australian Defence Force expertise, helping on disaster relief and humanitarian assistance, whether it's home or overseas, doing their peacekeeping work, and then, of course, their combat or warlike operations.
LYNDAL CURTIS: During the last major floods in Queensland and cyclone Yasi, you discovered the Defence Force didn't have any heavy landing ships available, that eventually led to the scrapping of two ships because of rust, and having to buy another from Britain which is now, itself, undergoing work. Should such a ship have been needed on this occasion, would one have been available?
STEPHEN SMITH: We've had two ships available over the so-called cyclone or summer disaster season, HMAS Tobruk, and also a second ship that we picked up which will, in a couple of years time, be transferred to customs, the Ocean Shield. They've both been available. HMAS Choules has had difficulty with the transformer-
LYNDAL CURTIS: You've had to replace all of them now?
STEPHEN SMITH: All the transformers have now been replaced because all of our evidence points to the transformer problem being a class-wide problem, and so every ship, whether it's a Navy ship or a civilian ship of that class, throughout the world, has now been alerted to the issue and the difficulty. So we think we're dealing not with a Choules specific problem, but with a class-wide problem.
LYNDAL CURTIS: And when will HMAS Choules be back in service?
STEPHEN SMITH: My most recent advice, which was in the last couple of days, is that we expect Choules to be back in action by April-May.
LYNDAL CURTIS: On to international events, Australia has given $10 million to aid the west African nation of Mali, but no troops. Was there any consideration given to sending troops, doing what Britain has done, sending military advisors?
STEPHEN SMITH: No, Foreign Minister Carr and I have made it clear to our international colleagues that we don't see a role for Australia to contribute in a military sense. We've made it clear that we're ready to assist in terms of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and that's part of the $10 million package, $5 million for humanitarian assistance through AusAid, the $5 million that we've contributed in addition to our humanitarian assistance, goes directly to the United Nations Fund to resource the African Union sponsored intervention force which will go in and, in due course, take over from the French and Malian forces.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Is $10 million the sort of proportional assistance that would be seen to be proper from a country as far away as Australia, or is it a token?
STEPHEN SMITH: No no, we believe - it's an appropriate and proportionate contribution. The French have done the right thing, there was a serious issue here of international terrorism, so we wanted to support the French. We made it clear we strongly supported their intervention. So it's more than a symbolic or a token gesture.
As well, of course, we've got a range of growing Australian interests in Africa, both the continent and its constituent countries. Over the last decade and a half we've seen Australia's minerals and the resources industries interest in Africa grow exponentially. And so we've got more Australians in Africa generally. Our relationship with Africa as a continent is strategically very important, so we need to make, in our own national interest, an appropriate contribution to reflect all of those factors.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Now, back home, the Opposition is outlining plans for Parliamentary reform, these are things that are often promised by oppositions, but rarely delivered, or delivered for long, when parties get into government. Regardless of the Opposition's stated reasons for delivering reform, that the Government has set a poor tone in Parliament. Is it needed to address the concerns that people have when they watch the Parliament?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, you've been watching the current Parliament for the last couple of years, and you seriously expecting me to take a suggestion from Tony Abbott and Chris Pyne that their interested in Parliamentary reform. This is the mob who walked away in less than two weeks of the Parliamentary sittings at the beginning of this Parliament from a signed agreement about Parliamentary reform, and a mob who have disrupted Parliament and question time, to a greater extent than we've seen so-
LYNDAL CURTIS: So the Government doesn't bear any responsibility for the current tone of Parliament?
STEPHEN SMITH: Tony Abbot and Christopher Pyne have suspended standing orders during question time, so I think on some 70 odd occasions, they've sought to suspend question time on so many occasions that it became a standing joke. Anyone who seriously believes that Christopher Pyne and Tony Abbot are interested in Parliamentary reform, obviously haven't been watching the Parliament for the last couple of years.
To think that Tony Abbott is somehow, given his Parliamentary performance over his entire career, is somehow going to bring a calmer and wiser and smoother environment to the Parliament is a joke and will be treated as such.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Stephen Smith, thank you very much for your time.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks Lyndal, thanks very much.