TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH LYNDAL CURTIS, ABC24
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 23 OCTOBER 2012
TOPICS: Afghanistan; HMAS Choules; MYEFO.
NICK GRIMM: The Defence Minister, Stephen Smith, spoke to our political editor Lyndal Curtis a short time ago. She asked if any more detail was known about the operation that involved Corporal Smith.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well the operation continues, so further detailed advice on that won't be available until it's concluded, and the Chief of the Defence Force will then make appropriate remarks about that.
The Chief of the Defence Force made it clear yesterday that his terrible death was instantaneous, as a result of an IED or a roadside bomb or a booby trap bomb. But in the normal course of events as a result of a fatality in combat, there'll be an inquiry officer’s report, so that detail will become available to Defence and any lessons that can be learnt will be incorporated into the future.
Suffice it to say of our 39 fatalities we now have about 15 who have been killed as a result of IEDs, which are an ever present danger.
LYNDAL CURTIS: We've talked before about the transition Australian troops will be making over the next few months. There is likely to be fewer patrols isn't there, less partnered operations as the Afghan National Army skills increase. Will that mean that increasingly the Australian troops are actually operating in a safer, more contained environment?
STEPHEN SMITH: As transition unfolds we will see the four infantry Kandaks or Battalions of the Fourth Brigade of the Afghan National Army be able to operate independently. My recent visit to Afghanistan coincided with the first of those four being accorded that status, and they are now operating independently.
That doesn't mean that we don't have a role. We continue to give them advice and support, and importantly, we also remain combat ready, so if there is a need to return to the field with them then that will occur. But there is a potential, a prospect as I've said before, that by the end of the year all four of those infantry Kandaks could be accorded a status of independent operation. And that does, as you say, see them patrolling by themselves, a cessation of the partnered operations, and that's the nature of transition. And that will, in due course, see our forces, our personnel essentially return to our major base in Tarin Kot, our multinational base in Tarin Kot.
But I've stressed before that we take it step by step, we're not going to assume this but we are on track for that to potentially occur by the end of the year. But I do stress that two things; that we will remain combat ready, and in any event, our Special Forces will continue to engage in their partnered operations. And of course Corporal Smith was a member of the Special Operations Task Group.
LYNDAL CURTIS: And one final question on Afghanistan. Does the hunt still continue for the Afghan National Army Sergeant who killed three Australians in August?
STEPHEN SMITH: Yes it does. The Chief of the Defence Force and I continue to get regular reports on that, so that continues, but I'm not in a position to advise any progress or obviously to detail how we're working on that. But we have certainly not let any opportunity slip so far as seeking to capture Sergeant Hek Matullah is concerned.
LYNDAL CURTIS: And back to Australia- the Defence Senate Estimates heard last week about HMAS Choules, the ship you bought because other Australian ships were essentially broken and not available during what become Cyclone Yasi. Now HMAS Choules is out of the water until at least January and possibly April because it needs its transformers replaced. So it potentially is not available during the next cyclone season. Are you a little embarrassed about that, upset about it?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, certainly it was unfortunate, and it came as a surprise that Choules suffered from what we're regarding essentially as an unusual, exceptional, indeed if not unique transformer fault. But as senior officials made clear at Senate Estimates, there is a prospect that this is a class-wide difficulty, and not just in Australia with the Choules, but across the world tests are now being done on comparable ships. On a good day, on a very good day, Choules might be back in operation by December-January, but it may take longer. In the meantime, as a result of the purchase of Ocean Shield, we continue to have two ships available for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief work - Ocean Shield and also HMAS Tobruk, but-
LYNDAL CURTIS: Now-
STEPHEN SMITH: -it's unfortunate that Choules is out of action because you're always better having three ships during our cyclone season rather than two.
LYNDAL CURTIS: It will-
STEPHEN SMITH: But for the present we've got cover.
LYNDAL CURTIS: It will cost $9 million to $10 million to fix HMAS Choules. Will we be seeking compensation from either the United Kingdom or from the manufacturer of the transformers?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, certainly I've said on your program before that we will be having a very close look at the analysis, and there may well be a discussion that we need to have down the track with the producer and manufacturer of the transformer.
In the meantime, we are seeking to determine whether this is a particular problem for Choules or whether it is a class-wide problem, and certainly the manufacturer's cooperating fully in that because it also wants to determine that outcome.
LYNDAL CURTIS: And finally, Defence didn't get cut in the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook yesterday. Is that a recognition that Defence has been cut enough?
STEPHEN SMITH: I've been seeing the speculation and rumour since the Budget that more money would be taken out of Defence, and I have repeatedly said in the face of commentators and others that Defence was exempt from the further efficiency measures that the Finance Minister imposed so far as travel and the like was concerned. We were also effectively exempt from the grants pause which was put in place, and yesterday in MYEFO there was no diminution of Defence's money. So that's a good result. It does reflect the contribution we've made.
I do make this point- yesterday, the Shadow Minister for Defence put out a press release saying that Defence had lost $119 million in MYEFO. That’s just wrong, it’s just incompetent. And it follows on from the Shadow Minister saying after Estimates- despite the fact that officials told him that he wasn’t correct in his analysis- asserting last week, and again yesterday, that there is a so-called $200 billion black hole so far as capital funding is concerned. And again, that is a complete nonsense. So, there is incompetence and massive overstatement by the Shadow Minister for Defence.
We're going through a tough time but we continue to protect not just our overseas operations but our core capability, and we add to that since the Budget as the acquisition of Growler, C-27s and 200 Bushmasters has shown.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Stephen Smith, thank you very much for your time.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks, Lyndal. Thanks very much.