TRANSCRIPT: MEET THE PRESS
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 23 June 2013
TOPICS: Incident in Afghanistan; Leadership; Defence abuse allegations; Afghanistan.
KATHRYN ROBINSON: And our guest this morning is Defence Minister Stephen Smith, who joins us now live from Perth. Good morning to you, Minister. Some tragic-
STEPHEN SMITH: Good morning, Kathryn.
KATHRYN ROBINSON: Some tragic news out of Afghanistan this morning. What more can you tell us?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, as much as the Chief of the Defence Force has told the Australian public this morning. It's a devastating blow, our 40th fatality. Our condolence is with the family concerned, who have asked that their privacy be respected at this stage. So we are not proposing, until they are ok about it, to release further details of the soldier concerned. Suffice to say he was a Commando, he was an elite soldier, made a substantial contribution, and he will be tragically and terribly lost. And our thoughts will be with the family today, but also with the families of the other 39. This will be a terrible reminder to them. So this is a gut-wrenching blow, and it just underlines the ongoing risks that we find in Afghanistan.
BRENDAN NICHOLSON: Minister, the fact that up to 1,000 of our 1,600 or so personnel in Afghanistan will be withdrawn towards the ends of this year has probably left a lot of people with the impression that the war is basically over for us. But this has reinforced the reality that the Special Forces are heavily engaged still in Afghanistan. Talks are under way between the Karzai Government and the Coalition on the future make-up of Coalition forces, including Australian. Do you believe now, is there any further information on what role our Special Forces might have in Afghanistan after the end of 2014? And do you believe they'll be adequately protected with a smaller force there?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I made clear in the House in the course of the week, with one of my regular reports, that we are still awaiting decisions by the United States and Afghanistan, and also by NATO and ISAF as to what, if any, Special Forces role Australia might have after transition occurs at the end of 2014. So we'll take that step-by-step. But what this tragic fatality today underlines is a point that I've been making, the Prime Minister has been making, and the Chief of the Defence Force has been making, is that Afghanistan continues to be difficult and dangerous. There are risks. The risks have changed. The bulk of our deployment to Afghanistan is now at our main base in Tarin Kot. But we’ve made it clear that our Special Forces are continuing to operate. In the main they are doing that almost exclusively as partner patrols, or joint operations. But their work continues, as ever, to be dangerous, but there continue to be risks for others - the IEDs, the roadside bombs, and also the high-profile propaganda-motivated suicide bomb attacks. So there continue to be risks, and we want our forces in Afghanistan to be constantly aware of those risks, but the dangers continue. But, yes, we are transitioning out. The main base at Tarin Kot will be closed by the end of the year. About 1,000 Australians will come home. But we need to await those decisions and discussions by the United States and Afghanistan in particular about an appropriate mandate for Special Forces after 2014, before we can come to those orderly decisions.
BRENDAN NICHOLSON: Given the uncertainty, do you believe that the Karzai Government couldn't maintain control without units like our Special Forces to keep the insurgency under control?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well after all the years we spent in Afghanistan, after all the tragedy and all the resources, we don't want, at the end of 2014, to walk away from Afghanistan. That's why, not just Australia, but the international community, has said that there will continue to be support. That will be, from our perspective, a - what's called a “train, assist and advice.” We'll have some trainers there to train, for example, Afghan officers. But we have also made it clear that if there's an appropriate mandate, then we will potentially leave a Special Forces contribution, either for training or for counterterrorism operations. But we have got to take that step-by-step. But we don't want, after all of the time in Afghanistan, to walk away and not continue to give some form of assistance to the Afghan Security Forces, and the Afghan institutions of state as they take upon themselves a responsibility for security for all of their country.
KATHRYN ROBINSON: Minister, if I could move us on now to the broader political stories of the day - and that is the Labor leadership. Should Kevin Rudd challenge this week?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, Kevin has said repeatedly that he's not proposing to challenge again for the leadership of the Labor Party. When he was defeated 71/31 back in 2012, he said that he wouldn't challenge, and he went further and said if anyone else challenged he would be a human shield and stand between the challenger and the Prime Minister. And more recently in the non-challenge or the no-show, after that he said that he would never again seek or have the leadership of the Labor Party. So I take Kevin at his word, but what we need to do is to not continually focus on our own internal arrangements, but start focusing ourselves and having the Australian public focus on the substantial achievements, particularly economic achievements, that we've made as a Government.
SIMON BENSON: Sorry to interrupt you, Minister. But on that point, we have had one challenge, we have had a faux challenge, we’re having a potential challenge perhaps this week. When I don't want to be blunt about it, but what on earth is wrong with the Labor Party? What on earth is wrong with this Government? I think most Australians, you know, would demand an answer to that question.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, in terms of leadership, the Prime Minister has made it crystal clear, absolutely crystal clear, that she's not proposing to do anything other than to lead the Labor Party and lead the Government to the election. No-one is proposing - none of the Cabinet colleagues I've spoken to are proposing to seek to tap her on the shoulder and ask her to stop doing the job she's doing in tough and difficult circumstances. So if anyone else in the Parliamentary Caucus wants to disturb that arrangement, they have to do something. Now my advice to them is we should focus now on the achievements we've effected as a Government, and start talking about the challenges that our country faces. And if we don't do that, then it's no surprise that we will continue to have difficult political circumstances, whether that's reflected by opinion polls or just speaking to people in the community. The community want us to get on with the job of governing, and that's what the Prime Minister has been urging all of our Parliamentary colleagues to do.
SIMON BENSON: Ok, Minister, several of your colleagues have suggested that if Kevin Rudd believes he has the numbers, he should challenge. Do you agree with them? And, secondly, would you serve under Kevin Rudd as a Cabinet Minister?
STEPHEN SMITH: Firstly, as I’ve just said, the Prime Minister is not going away. If someone wants to disturb the current arrangements, they need to do something about it, if they want to. In Kevin’s case, and I take what Kevin says at face value, he said repeatedly he's not proposing to challenge. So, if someone wants to change the current arrangements, they'll need to do - or try to do - something about it. That's entirely a matter for them. My focus is on my portfolio, sometimes, in the tragic circumstances that we see today. The Prime Minister has been repeatedly urging the Party generally to focus on the responsibilities of Government, to articulate to the community the achievements that we’ve made - managing the economy, avoiding recession in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, and getting on with the job. And if we don't communicate that to the Australian people, then it’ll be no surprise if you continue to see bad polling results and potentially, ultimately, a bad outcome at the election.
SIMON BENSON: Ok. This morning the former NSW Labor Treasurer Michael Costa suggested that - that someone else should come in and end this sideshow, namely Bill Shorten. Would you support Bill Shorten coming in and taking over as leader?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, Bill has made it clear he supports the Prime Minister. He's not a candidate for leadership of the Labor Party either. I currently haven't seen anyone declare himself or herself as a candidate for leadership of the Labor Party or the Government, other than the Prime Minister, who has made it crystal clear she's not going anywhere. And the Cabinet has made it crystal clear that the Cabinet supports her. We should simply get on with the job of governing and communicating that with the Australian people.
KATHRYN ROBINSON: So, Minister, would you say that the best thing for the party would be to stick with Julia Gillard, given the polls, given the sentiment, given that your message is often being lost because everyone is looking at you internally, and the disunity internally.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well it’s no surprise to me, either from opinion polls, or more importantly just speaking to people in my local community, that the Australian public take a dim view of a political party or a Government which continues to be internally-focused. Unless we, in the course of this week, and after the Parliament rises, start speaking about the issues of importance to the Australian people, then we'll continue to go through very tough political times. So my urging to my colleagues is, let's get on with the job of governing, let’s get on with the job of articulating the challenges that Australia has for the future, but also get on with the job of reminding the Australian public the good work that we have done - whether it's in disabilities, whether it’s in education, whether it's on managing the economy generally.
KATHRYN ROBINSON: Ok, we need to take a short break now, Minister. But please do stay with us. After the short break, we’ll look at the latest scandal to rock the Defence Force Academy.
KATHRYN ROBINSON: You're watching Meet The Press. You can add your views on our Facebook and Twitter pages. Use the hashtag #mtp10. Well, the Australian Defence Force Academy was this week embroiled in yet another scandal, with seven people suspended for misconduct. It's a another blight on the Academy's record following the 2011 Skype scandal, and comes just over a week after it was revealed that high-ranking personnel were involved in the exchange of illicit emails. Back now to our guest this morning, Defence Minister Stephen Smith, who is live in our Perth studio. Minister, we had Kate, the woman at the centre of the Skype scandal, on our show last week. She said that she didn't believe that the culture had changed at in Defence, at ADFA. And the last week would suggest that maybe it hasn’t. What are you doing to change the culture in Defence?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I was very pleased, and strongly supported the response that we’ve seen in recent days and weeks from General Morrison with respect to inappropriate conduct in the Army, but also from the Vice-Chief of the Defence Force with respect to inappropriate conduct at ADFA. In the aftermath of the Skype scandal back in 2011, we instituted a range of reviews, which led to the so-called ‘Pathways to Change’ document, but also asked the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick, to also look at the treatment of women both at ADFA and the Australian Defence Force generally. And the Sex Discrimination Commissioner's first audit of ADFA is due to be published shortly. All of the assessment is that we’re making progress, but more work needs to be done. But I think the key thing about what we have seen in recent days, in the last couple of weeks, has been the strength of the response from the Defence leadership making it crystal clear that there is zero tolerance for this sort of conduct, and if you engage in this conduct then you will be punted, you will be suspended. And that, I think, is very much welcomed. The Chief of the Defence Force put out a very strong statement on Friday afternoon making it clear that the leadership of the Defence Force won’t tolerate inappropriate conduct. There'll be zero tolerance for it. And if you engage in it, you will be suspended.
BRENDAN NICHOLSON: Minister, you initiated the DLA Piper investigation, which produced a report which is understood to contain the names of a number of officers, possibly still serving. DLA Piper said that people responsible for pack rapes and other serious crimes might well still be serving. Do you believe that criminal action will be taken against them - will they be charged in court with crimes?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we have to let the processes take their course. On Thursday of last week I gave a comprehensive report to the Parliament, including on those issues. What the Defence Abuse Response Taskforce, chaired by Len Roberts-Smith, has found is they have now got about 48 allegations from ADFA about serious issues, and they are processing those. Some may well end up going to the appropriate authorities for prosecution purposes. But we have to bide our time about that, and let the processes take their course. But what is absolutely clear, and the Len Roberts-Smith taskforce also made this clear, is, I’ve said to them that if they believe they need the powers of a Royal Commission to investigate those matters into ADFA, then they will be made available to them. To date the taskforce has said that those investigative powers are not currently required. But those cases are under investigation by the response taskforce, but we'll let the processes take their course.
SIMON BENSON: Minister, can I take you to another issue, involving the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan? Sources of mine have told me that there are concerns now for the future of Afghan translators, that have been promised a return to Australia - well, not a return, but citizenship in Australia, and to come home with our troops. There are suggestions that there are delays in the processing of visas for these translators because of the border protection issues that we have, and lengthy delays in processing. Can you guarantee, and will you take personal responsibility for ensuring that these translators, who have put their lives at risk, and will be at risk if they’re not brought home with our troops, are brought home with our troops?
STEPHEN SMITH: The Minister for Immigration and I announced at the end of last year that we would put in place a visa processing system, which would enable locally engaged employees in Afghanistan, including interpreters, who had been assisting our personnel, whether it was Australian Defence Force, or Federal Police, or Foreign Affairs, to give them the opportunity of applying for visas to come to Australia. Like any application for entry to Australia, there's no guarantee. There's a process that needs to be gone through. But I, as Minister for Defence, have authorised a range of applications to go forward to the Immigration Department and the Immigration Minister for consideration. I have had that suggestion put to me in the past. And the advice that I have is that those matters are being processed in an appropriate timely way to enable decisions to be made so that the interests of the people who have assisted us in terms of risk will be very carefully and seriously taken into account. What I can guarantee is there's a process in place, but, like everyone else, there's an immigration process that needs to be gone through before someone is granted a visa to Australia. The details of that I announced last year with the then Immigration Minister.
BRENDAN NICHOLSON: Minister, just back on to politics - there have been suggestions that you might not actually contest your seat in the coming election. Is that a possibility?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, it's a bit late, Brendan. I think I was endorsed by the National Executive some time last year. The election is in September, and I'm planning my campaign. So once we get out of the Parliament and my Ministerial responsibilities start to wind down, as they will when the Parliament gets up, then I'll be on the hustings in Perth. So, I don't quite know where that suggestion has come from, but I think it's a bit late in the process for any of that.
KATHRYN ROBINSON: Ok. Minister, we are going to have to leave it there. Thank you very much for joining us live from Perth today, on what is a very sad day for Defence in light of the developments out of Afghanistan in the last 24 hours. Thank you.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks, Kathryn.