TRANSCRIPT: MINISTER FOR DEFENCE & MINISTER FOR DEFENCE SCIENCE & PERSONNEL - JOINT PRESS CONFERENCE
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
TOPICS: Removal of combat restrictions; Projects of concern; Maritime arrivals.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks very much for turning up. Sorry we're a bit late. A number of announcements today, but could I start just by mentioning that today is the private funeral of Beau Pridue, who unfortunately died from injuries sustained in a car accident in East Timor. His private funeral is being held today in or near Newcastle.
I was overseas when the accident happened, and I'd just like to take this opportunity of expressing publicly my condolences to his family and to his friends and to his workmates. So that private funeral is occurring today in Newcastle.
A number of announcements today. Firstly, I'll deal with the removal of combat restrictions and then ask Warren Snowdon, the Minister for Defence Science and Personnel, to make some remarks.
Then I've got a couple of announcements to make on capability issues and I'll then deal with questions.
Firstly, on the removal of sex discrimination from frontline roles, can I announce that last night the Cabinet, with the full support of the Service Chiefs, formally decided to remove discrimination against women from frontline combat roles. We have an Australian Army that's been going for 110 years, an Australian Navy that's been going formally for 100 years, and an Australian Air Force that's been going for 90 years, and last night we resolved to remove the final restrictions on the capacity of women to serve in frontline combat roles.
So the last of the sex discrimination against women in frontline or combat roles will now be removed.
Currently, some 93 per cent of positions or categories are open to women. There are seven per cent of positions which are currently excluded from women simply on the basis of sex. They are essentially mine disposal, divers, Air Force defence guards, and infantry and artillery combat or frontline positions.
These take up some 7 per cent of employment opportunities in Defence, and so these restrictions will now be removed. There will be a staged implementation program which will see these restrictions removed over a maximum period of five years.
It's important that implementation of this matter be done carefully, methodically and is done to ensure that the appropriate training and other opportunities are available to enable women to take up these positions if they so choose. The first implementation report will come to the Government in the first quarter of next year.
But this is a change which has the strong support of the Chief of the Defence Force and the Vice Chief of the Defence Force and three Service Chiefs. It's also a change which had the strong support of their predecessors.
You might recall in April of this year, I announced with the strong support of the then Chief of the Defence Force and Vice Chief of the Defence Force and the Service Chiefs we would bring to the Government a paper to enable this formal decision to be progressed.
When the staged implementation has been effected in full, that will enable Australia to remove its reservation from the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Currently we have a reservation recorded against our ratification of that Treaty. That's reflected in our domestic law by Section 43 of the Sex Discrimination legislation which provides a comparable exemption.
On the implementation of this reform, that exemption under Section 43 of the Sex Discrimination Act and that reservation from our ratification of the Convention against the Discrimination of Women will be removed.
You might be aware that the Attorney-General is currently engaged in a consolidation program of our anti-discrimination law, and the staged implementation of the reform I've announced will be reflected in that consolidation program.
I'll ask Warren to make some remarks, then I'll deal with the other matters I've referred to and then happily respond to your questions. Warren.
WARREN SNOWDON: Thank you, Stephen. I think it's very important to understand what's happening here. At its base what we are doing is removing all discrimination from jobs in the Defence community.
Currently, as Stephen said, 93 per cent of trades are open to women. A small 7 per cent are not. What we will be doing here is ensuring that jobs are decided - the capacity to do a job is decided on the individual's capacity to do the work, not on their gender.
This will be based on work which is being currently done by the Defence, Science and Technology Organisation in partnership with the University of Wollongong, determining what the physical employment standards are for the combat trades. That will determine ultimately what are the particular physical capacities that are required to do the work, and that's how people will be judged - their physical and psychological capacity to do the work, not on their gender.
That will make a significant difference in opening up these trades to women and it will mean that in future we may well see women leading, for example, infantry companies.
I was in Canada recently and had discussions over these sort of issues with the Canadian , Military, who have got a policy which is open at the moment. They talked glowingly of a company, a female Company Commander in Afghanistan.
We need also to appreciate that we currently have women at the frontline doing many of the sorts of roles that we'd expect our soldiers to do, whether they're in the Air Force, Navy or the Army. In the area - in artillery, for example, women can operate UAVs, they can operate surface-to-air missiles and they can operate ground-based air defence systems.
So there are many jobs which are currently available to women that are currently working in Afghanistan on the frontline. What we'll do now is open up these other trades so that women can have any job that's available in the Defence Force, provided they have the physical capacity and the application and the psychological suitability to do the work.
It's a very, very important change.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks very much, Warren. Just to underline that point, as I said at my commencement, 110 years of Army, 100 years of Navy, 90 years of Air Force, and now all of the roles on the frontline will be determined on the basis of merit, not on the basis of sex. So a very significant reform announced by the Government today.
Can I just make some brief comments on the capability issues that Jason Clare, Minister for Defence Materiel and I have announced today?
Firstly, ongoing work on the projects of concern. Jason Clare is currently with companies who have projects listed on the projects of concern list as part of the reforms we've announced earlier this year. So over the course of the next two days he'll be in conversation with companies such as ASC on Submarines, Boeing on Wedgetail, CEA on anti-ship missile defence, Thales on lightweight torpedoes, Airbus Military on the Multi Role Tanker, and BAE on electronic support measures for Orion aircraft. So a very important two days for Jason Clare.
I just underline the point I've made previously. Our public policy objective here is not projects of concern; our public policy objective here is a successful project, so a very important ongoing part of our reform for capability and procurement issues.
Secondly, announcing today that the Government has recently approved the purchase of 12 new watercraft from Navantia for our two Canberra Class Landing Helicopter Docks. So 12 watercraft, described colloquially as watercraft medium, to enable our new Landing Helicopter Docks, our new heavy amphibious lift ships which will arrive from 2014, the water craft associated with those two large Canberra Class Landing Helicopter Docks.
It's important, I think, to underline that Defence has learned the lessons of 10 years ago where mistakes were made, very serious mistakes were made a decade ago, which saw at the beginning of this year Jason Clare and I cancel the project for water craft for our heavy amphibious lift ships at a cost of $50 million to the taxpayer, where the water craft which were produced were not fit for the purposes and could not fit onto our heavy amphibious lift ship.
We've learned those lessons; Defence has learned those lessons of a decade ago. The water craft which will be purchased are essentially off the shelf. They are already in operation in the Spanish Navy, and they are designed and built for the purpose of being unloaded or embarked from the Navantia-constructed Landing Helicopter Docks. So an important capability there.
And you'll also see the announcement so far as improving communications at our Joint Headquarters in Bungendore for communications and command procedures. So they're detailed in the papers that have been released to you.
We're happy to respond to your questions on those or other issues. There's one in the middle.
JOURNALIST: Minister Smith, given that you had to remove that reservation and also change that section of the Discrimination Act, what's the time line for when we could see-
STEPHEN SMITH: Sure. We've given ourselves a maximum five-year period. So the Chief of the Defence Force is confident that two things will occur, that there'll be a staged implantation, so for different categories there'll be a different implantation. I'm not seeking to predict which ones will come first or which ones will come last, but you've got to expect a different timetable for Air Force defence guards as compared with, for example, mine disposal divers. So it'll be a staged implementation.
We've given ourselves five years to make sure that we can do the job within that period, and I've described that as a maximum of five years, up to five years, or no longer than five years. We would want to do it in a period that's earlier than that, but it is important that this is, as I describe it, that this is reflected by reality and is not just a paper entry.
There is of course no compulsion here for women to seek these tasks; it's a matter entirely up to an individual woman to choose. We then need to make sure that we've got the tests and the training right. And the test or the criterion is essentially; does an individual have the right physical and psychological and mental attributes to be able to do that job irrespective of sex?
This is a significant and major cultural change and it will require significant and major management of the reform. And that's why we'd rather err on the side of caution, and expressing a five year period rather than having a shorter period and falling outside that.
So we've given ourselves that capacity. It'll be staged, it'll occur on a different timetable for different positions, but we hope that within that five year period, indeed we're confident within that five year period we would have fully implemented it. That would then enable us to remove the ratification and to remove what will, in the consolidated legislation be the equivalent of the current section 43.
JOURNALIST: Has the University of Wollongong study been completed - and are you able to release it? And how long do you envisage that women might serve in a unit like the Special Air Service Regiment in a front line combat role?
STEPHEN SMITH: Once this is fully implemented, there will be no restrictions. If a woman is capable of doing the entrance program for the SAS or the entrance program for Commandos, then they'll be in it. This will remove any restriction. We will go from 7 per cent restriction to zero restriction.
Whether you're in the SAS, whether you are in Infantry or Artillery, your career, you role, your position will be determined upon your ability, not on the basis of your sex.
Warren will answer about the Wollongong study.
WARREN SNOWDON: On the study between Wollongong University, well the work being done by Wollongong University and the DSTO, we expect the combat trades to be finalised by the end of this year.
JOURNALIST: How does this - as far sexual equality goes in the Defence Force, how do we compare with other countries? You mentioned Canada - are they as progressive as this, and does it affect interoperability? There are Australian troops that are swapped over with US troops and what not; will the women in combat positions have that same opportunity?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well Warren may be able to add, but there's Canada, New Zealand and Israel, so my understanding is that Australia will become the fourth to entirely remove these restrictions, and we don't see issues of interoperability as being a difficulty for us.
We will present our soldiers as potential embeds or potential third party, or third country deployees on the basis of their capacity and their ability, not on the basis of their sex. Warren.
WARREN SNOWDON: And [indistinct] - when I've spoken to senior Defence people in Canada and New Zealand, there are no issues. I mean there are obviously cultural issues which have to be worked through and that's what we're doing, but once they have bedded down, there have been no significant impediments at all to undertake-
JOURNALIST: I understand that Israel does not have female combat troops, and not - women are not allowed to apply. That they were decades ago, but not no longer?
WARREN SNOWDON: I'm uncertain about Israel, but I can definitely tell you about Canada and New Zealand because I've had conversations with their senior personnel about it.
STEPHEN SMITH: And I'm happy to be corrected either in terms of taking one off or adding them in. But certainly in terms of our regular partners so to speak, New Zealand and Canada; we will have the same position as New Zealand and Canada's.
JOURNALIST: Minister, what's your message to ADF personnel? You mentioned that it is a big cultural shift and you might see women in roles such as SAS and other Special Forces roles in the future. What's your message to those soldiers that are currently in the ADF that will oppose this move?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well there will be different views. There will be strong support in some quarters and there will be questioning in others. My message to someone who's currently in the Defence Force, whether they're on the civilian side or whether they're on the military side is into the future. In the future, your role in the Defence Force will be determined on your ability, not on the basis of your sex. It'll be determined on the base of your ability.
And one of the reasons we want to ensure that we've got a well-managed, well-ordered, carefully calibrated implementation program is to make sure that there is no diminution of standards so far as roles are concerned.
So my message is straight forward: people will be able to serve, whether it's behind a desk in Russel, or on the front line in Afghanistan or elsewhere on the basis of their ability to do the job and nothing else.
JOURNALIST: And that could be within five years or after five years?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we will implement this program - this reform fully within a five year period. Some parts of it will occur before then and indeed the Chief of the Defence Force is confident that we can do all of it in advance of that timetable. We've given ourselves plenty of time to implement it fully.
I would hope, and I would be certainly confident that we will have parts of it done in advance of five years, and hopeful and optimistic that we'd have it done within the five year period.
JOURNALIST: That's probably-
STEPHEN SMITH: But that is a five year period, effective sunset clause; it will be done within that timetable.
WARREN SNOWDON: Can I just add though that we don't underestimate the cultural issues here. And these will be dealt with by the service troops. There's absolutely no doubt about their support and the support of the senior officers across the Defence Force for this move.
JOURNALIST: What about the cost of implementing this as far as, you know, you mention interoperability - what about the cost of having, you know, separate ablutions for females that are working in infantry companies - I mean there's a lot of things that-
WARREN SNOWDON: Well you're making assumptions here which may or may not turn out to be true.
For example, we're recently provided for the capacity for women to be serving on Submarines sharing bunks space, I mean the bunk areas with their male colleagues. So it's a shared environment.
STEPHEN SMITH: This is finishing the job. We are down to 7 per cent of categories, or 7 per cent of tasks. We're down to less than 20 per cent of the employment opportunities within the Defence Forces generally.
Currently, all but, as Warren and I have both said, all but 7 per cent of roles can be performed by women. So whilst there will be implementation challenges, there will be cultural challenges. This can be done effectively from within Defence's existing resources because it's not as if we're starting from scratch.
Over the last couple of decades, a lot of good work has been done. It's worth underlining though, Warren's point, which I made earlier: this initiative, this reform, this program, has the very strong support of the Chief of the Defence Force, and the Vice Chief, and the Service Chiefs, just as it did their predecessors.
JOURNALIST: I think Warren didn't answer the question, that was how strong do you expect that opposition to be within the rank and file?
WARREN SNOWDON: Well I've actually had an interesting opportunity to talk about these sorts of issues with some Defence Force personnel and there was a variety of opinions as you'd expect. And I think in some places there'll be some resistance which will be stronger than others.
But we've set ourselves a time period here where we can where the Defence Chiefs and Chief of Army for example, will have the responsibility of managing the cultural change within the Army. I'm confident that will happen.
JOURNALIST: Is there are [indistinct] on women in the Defence Force to become infantry soldiers or clearance divers or special ops?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well this is not conscription. We're not making it compulsory. It'll be entirely a matter for the men and women of the Defence Force, the men and women of our services to put their names forward for a particular role. If they're up to the task, they will be able to do it.
WARREN SNOWDON: Can I just add that two years ago, well thereabouts, I attended a graduation ceremony at Cerberus. The top recruit was a young female sailor. After we presented her with an award, I said; what trade do you want to do? She said; I want to be a clearance diver. She didn't - she wasn't able to. But she definitely had the desire. So there will be people who have the desire to do these jobs. But as Stephen has said, this is not compulsion; this is about people having a choice.
JOURNALIST: Minister, do you think that having women on the front line will make Australian troops more of a target in places like Afghanistan where attitudes to women differ significantly?
STEPHEN SMITH: It'll make us no more nor no less of a target. Whether that is in terms of the combat roles we play in any engagement - is currently Afghanistan - in any peace keeping or stabilisation mission, whether East Timor or the Solomons, or in any future engagement. This is simply about putting into the frontline those people who are best placed to do the job, irrespective of your sex.
JOURNALIST: You talked about the culture in the Defence Force, but isn't there a cultural issue there as well? I mean, you're talking about putting women on the frontline, potentially, in Afghanistan in the next couple of years. So, have you had chats to your Afghanistan colleagues about how they would respond to having a female, say, mentoring the local-
STEPHEN SMITH: No, but I expect to - I see Defence Minister General Wardak, on a regular basis. I expect to see him before the end of this year. And whenever I meet with him, I update him on significant changes that we have made either to our mission in Afghanistan in an operational sense, or, more generally, this will be one of the issues that I update him on.
But I'm not expecting any difficulty as a result of what to the Government and to the Service Chiefs is a logical conclusion, a logical extension to a very strongly held view in Australian society that all of us are equal irrespective of our backgrounds and irrespective of our sex.
JOURNALIST: Is there a feeling there though from Afghanistan about what it might mean to have a female Australian soldier teaching locals - local soldiers?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I haven't had that conversation, but we will - as I said in answer to the question on interoperability and third-country deployees, we will, as we've always done, present for operations, present for third-country deployees, present for training the people who we believe are the best people suited to that job - to do that job.
Into the future, that'll be a person determined on merit, not necessarily excluded on the basis of her sex. There was one-
JOURNALIST: Which [indistinct] will be opened up first? Is there a plan, you know-
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, as I say, I'm not proposing to put a timetable or to disaggregate the various categories at this stage. We'll get the first implementation plan from the Chief in the first quarter of next year. I'll almost certainly take that to Cabinet so that Cabinet has a first view or first look at the implementation and we'll go from there.
But I'm also - there's no reason why, as we go over the forthcoming period, that both the Chief, the Secretary and the Ministers for Defence and Defence Personnel can't be transparent about the way in which we are progressing. But commonsense tells you that there will be different timetables for different categories that are opened up.
JOURNALIST: Was there any [indistinct] from Special Forces or from Operations Command at all on this?
STEPHEN SMITH: This is strongly supported by the Defence leadership and by the military leadership.
JOURNALIST: Just following up on my question. So, as part of that rollout, you would expect, perhaps, that Special Forces would be on the tail end of that five years.
STEPHEN SMITH: Not necessarily. We currently have a small number of women who do some training with some of our Special Forces. So, I'm not proposing to make the judgement in advance of the Chief and the Service Chiefs having the opportunity to present the Government with an implementation plan.
What you do know is that there will be stages, there will be graduations, there will be phased implementations and that will differ from category to category.
JOURNALIST: And just also, people against these sort of changes often make the argument that allowing women into combat units can reduce the effectiveness of that unit and distract personnel. What would you say-
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, what I'd say to that is, the only thing that will reduce our capacity will be by making choices other than on merit. You know, and Warren's given you a couple of anecdotes. I'll give you one. But I don't rely upon anecdotes, I rely upon public policy principle.
But one anecdote, a member of my staff has a relative who is currently in a platoon. The best shot in the platoon is currently a woman. Currently, she would be prohibited and prevented from being a sniper in Afghanistan. Why would we take away the chance of the best shot in the platoon from playing that role?
The only thing that will reduce our capability will be by reducing our standards, which we're not proposing to do, or by not allowing the best people to come forward, which is what we are proposing to do.
JOURNALIST: Can I change the topic slightly, and ask you what advice you've received from the Navy as to the capacity to turn back boats, and I've got a follow-up question if you could answer that one.
So, it's whether they could do it, whether it would actually work and whether they are willing to do it.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I haven't had that discussion because it's not Government policy. It's not Government policy to turn back the boats. Our history as a nation, and our experience, has shown that that is a fool's errand. It worked for a very limited period of time, but we've seen tragically in more recent time’s people wilfully disabling boats. There is no longer a capacity.
So, it's not a matter for Navy. It is Government policy that that is not a safe or sensible option.
JOURNALIST: And my follow-up question is about rules of engagement because we did see the navy using rules of engagement to turn back boats in two thousand and [indistinct] you know, and [indistinct]-
STEPHEN SMITH: Which is not the current Government's policy.
JOURNALIST: And since - you know, [indistinct] is a good example which became children overboard. You had the boats being attacked with water cannon and then they were firing machine guns at asylum seekers. Would you be comfortable, not just as a Minister, but as, you know, a senior Australian public official that we would ever countenance such rules of engagement.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, those things occurred in the past. They haven't and they won't occur under the current Government because it is not Government policy. That's the first point.
The second point is, the only rule of engagement - and we've seen this in recent times - the only rule of engagement that Navy apply itself assiduously to is that when people are in trouble, they do everything they can to rescue them, including, and in particular, putting their own lives at risk when the seas are very, very dangerous.
And I'm not proposing to reflect in any way, in advance of the coroner's report, that I previously said and not proposing to deviate from this, that all of the advice and all of the evidence I've seen is that in that tragedy at Christmas Island over the Christmas-New Year period, Navy personnel conducted themselves in a fearless way in the face of very grave danger, operating under Navy's rule of engagement number one. If someone is in distress, we will do everything we can to rescue them.
JOURNALIST: One of the criteria to become Chief of Defence or Head of Services is that you've had a frontline, I believe, or active service. So, [indistinct]-
STEPHEN SMITH: Yes. No, your point is a good one and I've made it previously. What this will also inevitably do, is that at some point in the future, it does open up all of the senior positions to women.
We've seen over the years a slow, but nonetheless progressive increase in the number of women in senior positions, and there are some notable senior women in the service at the moment. But this change will effectively enable into the future women to fall for consideration for all of the positions including the highest.
JOURNALIST: Just hypothetically, given the changes you have to make and the time period you're looking at, hypothetically, when could we potentially see a woman as a Chief of Defence Force?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, there are people in this room who know me well enough to know I don't deal with hypothetical’s.
JOURNALIST: Are you considering putting the warfare destroyers and the projects of concern list at this stage? There's obviously talks going on.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well-
JOURNALIST: And ASC will be there and their involvement?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, Jason Clare and I have been in regular discussion with the Air Warfare Destroyer Alliance. You'll recall that some months ago we took measures to essentially cut the anticipated delay from two years to 12 months.
I recently met with the new Australian head of BAE Australia. I left him in no uncertainty as to the Government's very strong desire to ensure that that project comes to a successful conclusion.
When I was last in South Australia, I made the same point to ASC and its officers, as the Government has made, through Minister Clare, generally to the Air Warfare Destroyer Alliance. This is a very important project.
I've seen some suggestions to the contrary that this is not a capability that we should have. I reject that entirely. We are a maritime country, a maritime continent, and just as we are able to, and just as we need to have an effective air combat capability, so we need to have an effective maritime capability, including a maritime combat capability, and that's what we're doing.
But there's currently no consideration of putting that project on the project of concern list. But, obviously, we are in ongoing, very serious discussions with the Alliance to ensure that the project comes to a successful conclusion.
And if that requires the moving of blocks to other locations, the further moving of blocks to other locations, then so be it.
JOURNALIST: This was-
STEPHEN SMITH: There's one here and then we'll go back again.
JOURNALIST: Minister, do you believe that having females in all combat roles will add to the complexity for commanders on the ground? There were some concerns about that, and do you think your tactics will have to change or anything like that?
STEPHEN SMITH: Not if the implementation is done correctly, and that's what we're doing. And tactics are always determined on the basis of being able to put your best people into the field.
JOURNALIST: Some people might think that these reforms will lead to 50 per cent of Commando or SAS units being women. What - realistically, what sort of proportion do you think - percentage of women do you think will-
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, time will tell. But as I say, it's not compulsory. It'll be entirely a matter for-
JOURNALIST: [Indistinct] How many?
STEPHEN SMITH: It's entirely a matter for men and women to choose what role they want to try and play in the service. What we do know about the SAS and because I come from the West I'm obviously very familiar with it before my time as Defence Minister, there is a very, very rigorous program to get into the SAS. Not everyone who applies is successful. So, time will tell.
But what we're not seeing to do, because this would get in the way of doing it on merit, we're not proposing to either impliedly or expressly have any quota system.
However many women we end up in these roles that are currently excluded will be determined on the basis of the desire of an individual woman to want to perform such a role and then their capacity to do it.
JOURNALIST: [Indistinct] quota system, talking about creating a realistic expectation of the community of what your reform will mean.
STEPHEN SMITH: Realistic expectation of the community - from this day forward when we fully implement this program, no combat role, no frontline role will be excluded from an Australian on the basis of his or her sex. It'll be open to anyone to apply on the basis of merit.
JOURNALIST: Mr Smith, just on Andrew's question just before, would you like to see the Opposition take a briefing from the Defence Department about whether it's feasible to be able to turn boats around and send them back to [indistinct]?
STEPHEN SMITH: In the national security space, whether it's dealing with Defence Force operational matters, or intelligence and the like, any time the Opposition wants a briefing, all they have to do is ask.
JOURNALIST: Kevin Rudd said this morning had a slip of the tongue and said that he's a happy little Vegemite being Prime Minister, and then corrected himself. Just wondering how much-
STEPHEN SMITH: Which bit did he correct? The Vegemite?
JOURNALIST: The Prime Minister bit.
STEPHEN SMITH: Slips of the tongue occur every day in our noble profession, both yours and mine. I wouldn't read too much into it.
JOURNALIST: Is that on people's mind though? Is that possibility on people's minds?
STEPHEN SMITH: I've said previously what my view on that is.
JOURNALIST: Mr Snowdon, in your conversations with the New Zealanders or the Canadians, did they give you any anecdotal or factual information on what units they are putting women into or how many might be there?
WARREN SNOWDON: Well no, I didn't go through the - well, they did give us the numbers, but I can't recall them. But what they did do is give me a very fine example of a Infantry Company Commander who is a woman, who performed exemplary - in an exemplary fashion in Afghanistan. So-
JOURNALIST: That was a Canadian?
WARREN SNOWDON: A Canadian, absolutely. So, I don't - I think the message here is very clear: we shouldn't look this - look through this in the lens - through the lens of us creating something which shouldn't happen. What we're doing is creating an opportunity for people to do