TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH LYNDAL CURTIS, ABC24
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY AND E & OE
DATE: 14 MARCH 2013
TOPICS: Defence Abuse Response Taskforce; Media reforms; 457 visas.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Stephen Smith, welcome to ABC News 24. You tabled the interim report of the Taskforce, a report which says on top of the more than 1000 cases of alleged abuse they received from the DLA Piper review, they're getting more than 15 new matters a week. Is that why you extended the timeframe?
STEPHEN SMITH: I extended the timetable on the recommendation of Len Roberts-Smith, Chair of the Taskforce, for two reasons. Firstly, once the Taskforce leadership group had done an initial assessment, they came to the conclusion that they would need more time to do that body of work and in addition to that we've seen the steady flow of additional complaints.
There's been over a thousand contacts with a hotline established and of those a thousand contacts there are more than 300 new matters and new complaints. So, we've done-
LYNDAL CURTIS: Do you know yet what had been described as plausible complaints or is that still being assessed?
STEPHEN SMITH: That's still being assessed but they are being treated as new complaints. So what we've got is a careful assessment now of the initial body of work plus new matters coming in. On that basis, the Attorney-General and I agreed and we've announced today that we'll extend the Taskforce time period for six months. That'll take them until May 2014.
But there also has to be a cut off point for new allegations or new complaints and we've said that will be the end of May. So that gives people who might be contemplating or considering, it gives them a couple more months but it then gives the Taskforce a good 12 months to do its work and complete any new complaints within that timeframe.
LYNDAL CURTIS: The report also flagged problems with what it called the Defence Force's hybrid military education model. Now, it's just flagged it at this stage but at the end of this process are we likely to see a review of the way the military educates its young officers?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, as I've made clear from day one, there'll be two streams which flow from the work the Taskforce is doing. The individual complaints that may lead to reparation, it may lead to criminal prosecution, it may lead to an apology, it may lead to conciliation or counselling and the like. But secondly, I've expressly asked the Taskforce for any systemic conclusions that the Taskforce come to which we can use to add to the body of work that I initiated at the same time.
Now, the reference to the military education or confluence is in reference to ADFA, the Australian Defence Force Academy, where I've expressly asked the Taskforce to contemplate whether a Royal Commission might be required into a series of allegations, commonly known as the ADFA 24, but there may well be more allegations.
And in the interim report, the Taskforce makes it clear that they've frankly only just started that look but they have detected some potential disconnect between the military and the education but we need to await further work in that respect.
LYNDAL CURTIS: The report also says its resolve for the most part, Defence's concerns about the privacy of those alleged to have perpetrated the abuse. But what about procedural fairness for those people if they - and we know there are a number, I think Defence Force Chief said about 10 - are not charged and do not face courts? Can in the interest of procedural fairness, can there be any effect on their careers?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, a number of things there. Firstly, in terms of handing over information from DLA Piper to the Taskforce, that has been subject to very careful assessment of privacy considerations and the consent of the people concerned. Secondly, the Taskforce will advisedly reassess all of those individual matters.
And thirdly, the Taskforce Chair has made it clear both in the report and generally that he will, and the Taskforce will, respect people's rights and their interests, which clearly entail the notion of not trampling over people's rights where allegations have been made against them.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Because it will be a difficult one for Defence to handle if there are allegations made against serving officers but those allegations are not tested in court.
STEPHEN SMITH: And that's also covered in the report where the interim report says as they do their body of work that may well present the Chief of the Defence Force and the Secretary with administrative matters they need to deal with. So, for example, if an allegation made against a serving Commonwealth officer or a serving member of the ADF, it's open to the Secretary or the Chief of the Defence Force, as the case may be, to make a judgement about whether it's in everyone's interests for some administrative action to be taken pending the resolution of that matter.
And that's clearly referred to in the interim report by the Taskforce and it's made in the context of the ADFA 24 where DLA Piper expressed a concern that these allegations may well relate to current serving officers.
LYNDAL CURTIS: If I could ask you a couple of quick questions about current political events. There are stories around that the Cabinet was ambushed, in the words of the newspaper reports, by the media reforms. Did cabinet have adequate time to consider them?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, no self respecting Cabinet is ambushed and this is a self respecting Cabinet. These issues have been around for a long period of time. I'm not going to go through our Cabinet processes but when we made our decisions it was not the first time that we have contemplated them. And so I wouldn't worry too much about cabinet processes.
What I would worry about would be here's the decision the Government had made. There has been a response to that by members of the media and communications industry. Some of it spectacularly hysterical and others more sober. And what we're now trying to do is to see whether there's parliamentary support for the measures.
Now, some of the measures are entirely non-controversial. The license fee matters and the Australian content matters. Others [indistinct] to some controversy. I frankly think that they are a range of modest proposals which would assist. Whether there's parliamentary support or not, time will tell, but the point that my colleague, the Communications Minister Stephen Conroy, has made is that we're now coming to the end of a parliamentary term.
Parliamentary time is becoming precious and so there's no point having an extended period for parliamentary consideration simply because we'd like to know one way or the other whether there's parliamentary support for these proposals.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Just a final question. The Prime Minister has continued to criticise the 457 visa program but it was a program that your Government has supported, your Government has, in fact, allowed to grow. The Government's only now, after it's announced the changes, making the case for those changes. Doesn't it leave the perception that it's doing the bidding of the unions rather than tackling what is a widespread problem? Because the spread of the problem hasn't yet been established, has it?
STEPHEN SMITH: I don't see it that way. And if you listen to the analysis that Brendan O'Connor, the now Immigration Minister, puts out, his department and the previous Minister, Chris Bowen, were looking at these difficulties for some period of time. What we've always tried to do, whether it's been with 457 visas or, for example, local content, is to make local content in contracts and the like, and both of these are issues in my own state in Western Australia in particular.
But what we're trying to do is to make sure that we've exhausted very local state or national capacity for a skilled job that needs to be done before we resort to an overseas applicant for discharging that skill and the same applies to local content. So, I don't interpret it in the way that you have. What we're trying to do is to make sure as we have skill shortages and different peaks and troughs of employment and unemployment around the country that we exhaust every last effort to find the skill in Australia before we go offshore.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Minister, thank you very much for your time.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks Lyndal. Thanks very much.