TRANSCRIPT: PRESS CONFERENCE, PERTH
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 20 January 2012
TOPICS: AUKMIN 2011; Defence Hot Issue Briefs; Dubai alcohol incident; Future submarine; JSF; US Defence Budget and Priorities; Resignation of Eric Ripper; Kirkham report; Oakajee project; Gambling reform; Afghanistan transition; NATO helo crash; Abbott gaffe.
STEPHEN SMITH:? Thanks very much for turning up. Tomorrow I leave Australia to attend, together with the Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd, the annual Australia-United Kingdom Ministerial consultations or AUKMIN as they are known. This year's AUKMIN consultations will be held in London.
It will be the third AUKMIN consultation that I have attended, one in Leeds, one in Sydney last year, and this year in London. And in addition to the Foreign Minister and I leading the Australian delegation, the United Kingdom delegation will be led by the Foreign Secretary Mr Hague and the Defence Secretary Philip Hammond.
I'll be accompanied by the Secretary of the Department of Defence and also the Chief of the Defence Force. And we're looking very much forward to important strategic conversations with the United Kingdom.
We of course have long standing historical bonds with the United Kingdom, but our Defence, national security and strategic relationship is very strong and continues to be very important. Indeed after the United States it's probably the case that Australia has a closer intelligence and strategic relationship with the United Kingdom than any other country. We are both for example members of the so called Five Eyes intelligence community; United States, Australia, United Kingdom, Canada and New Zealand. In our region we are of course both members of the five powers defence arrangement together with New Zealand, Malaysia and Singapore.
Towards the end of last year Defence Secretary Hammond and I attended both Singapore and Kuala Lumpur for the anniversary celebrations of the Five Powers Defence Arrangements. That was my first opportunity to have a formal bilateral conversation with the relatively new UK Defence Secretary Mr Hammond. Following the AUKMIN consultations he and I will engage in formal bilateral discussions and also travel to Portsmouth where we'll discuss both submarine and surface fleet issues.
Secondly, I'm announcing today that we are releasing the so called hot issue briefs which I have received since I became Minister for Defence. Hot issue briefs provide early and urgent advice to the Minister for Defence and to the senior Defence leadership on issues that arise on a regular basis.
Since I became Minister for Defence in September 2010 I've received 248 hot issue briefs, so nearly 250, and in the course of my time as Minister for Defence over the last 16 to 18 months very many of those have been released either at the request of journalists or as a result of Freedom of Information applications. Indeed, earlier this year over 100 hot issue briefs were released as a result of Freedom of Information requests. Today I'm releasing over 100 hot issue briefs, some 116 hot issue briefs, and as we speak these are being placed on the Defence website.
This will see 245 out of the 248 hot issue briefs which have come to me as Minister for Defence made public. Three are being withheld at this stage because they may prejudice either ongoing operations, prejudice investigations or lead to invasion of privacy, so they will be released in due course.
I'm also announcing today that we are instituting a reform to have the effect of greater transparency so far as defence is concerned and the hot issue briefs are concerned. From today when a hot issue brief is prepared, as a general proposition it will be released publicly within a week of its presentation to me. If it is not released within a week that'll be done on the personal decision of either the Secretary of the Department of Defence or the Chief of the Defence Force, and that will be as a result of the potential to prejudice investigations or to prejudice ongoing operations or for other important reasons. These are detailed in the media release which I have distributed, as are precise numbers of hot issue briefs which have been released over the period.
This is a very important transparency measure. Very many of the hot issues briefs deal effectively with inappropriate conduct, and it's very important that where there are instances of inappropriate conduct provided we take the precaution of ensuring that personal privacy is not invaded and requirements of the Privacy Act are not breached, provided we ensure that investigations either by the Defence organisation through ADFIS, the Defence investigative service or through state investigative authorities, obviously state police, provided these matters aren't breached it's important for transparency reasons, in my view, that these matters are released in a timely way.
It also reinforces the point that Defence has a zero tolerance of inappropriate behaviour, and I've made this point repeatedly, and transparency in this area will reinforce that very strong conviction held by the Defence leadership. So those two issues are the subject of papers which have been released to you today.
Can I just make some very brief comments on matters which have occurred over the break and then touch upon some local issues and then I'm happy to respond to your questions. Over the Christmas-New Year break you may have seen reports that eight Australian Defence Force personnel from Mentoring Taskforce Three consumed alcohol in Dubai. This was inappropriate conduct, and as a result of that they were returned from Dubai to Tarin Kot, they were dealt with by their commanding officer, they pleaded guilty to disciplinary charges, they were convicted of disciplinary charges, they were each fined $1800 for the offence, two non-commissioned officers were reprimanded, and they returned to Australia some 72 hours late as a consequence of that conduct.
It was inappropriate conduct, it was not tolerated, and I'm pleased with the way in which the Defence organisation handled that matter. I've seen some criticism of the Defence organisation for returning the eight concerned to Tarin Kot to be dealt with. I strongly support Defence's decision to do so- that enabled these men to be dealt with by their commanding officer in a timely way, it also reinforced the point that inappropriate conduct in uniform will not be tolerated.
Those matters are subject to a legal review, that legal review has been effected and the facts and the circumstances, the convictions and the penalties remain in force after that review.
There's been a fair amount of discussion over the break on two very important projects, firstly submarines, the future submarine project and secondly the joint strike fighter project. On submarines the Government's position remains as I stated it at the end of last year. We are committed to the white paper proposal to build 12 new submarines, these will be assembled in Adelaide and other than ruling out nuclear propulsion, other than ruling out nuclear submarines all options are on the table.
And in the course of the first quarter of this year, I will go to my Cabinet colleagues through the National Security Committee of the Cabinet to start the formal process of what will be the largest defence project that the Commonwealth has seen. Secondly, so far as the Joint Strike Fighters are concerned, you may have seen over the Christmas/New Year break so far as Australia was concerned, President Obama and my US counterpart, Defence Secretary Panetta announcing new United States strategic guidance.
This reinforced and underlined the point that President Obama had made in Australia in his address to the Parliament that whilst as a result of budget difficulties and financial constraints, there would be budget cuts. These would not adversely impact upon the United States role in the Asia Pacific. Indeed it would not adversely impact upon an enhanced United States role I the Asia Pacific. That was reaffirmed by the strategic guidance announcement by President Obama and Defence Secretary Panetta. Indeed, President Obama referred to his address in the Australian Parliament in his announcement.
But because of budget constraints and difficulties, questions have been asked about the ongoing progress of the Joint Strike Fighter. I again make the point that Australia has committed itself to acquiring 14 Joint Strike Fighters. And additional Joint Strike Fighters over and above that number will be subject to future government consideration and decision making. I've made it crystal clear that I'm not proposing to allow any delays in the Joint Strike Fighter project to prejudice our strike capability. And as a consequence I will not allow a gap in our capability to occur.
In the course of this year, we will conduct an exhaustive review of the Joint Strike Fighter project- its timeliness, the schedule and the like. And the government will make a decision in the course of this year as to whether any alternative capability is required.
I've made the point that additional Super Hornets are an obvious option, but I've come to no conclusion and made no decisions in that respect. Can I just quickly deal with a very important local matter which has occurred in recent days and I'm happy to respond to your questions.
Can I firstly compliment Eric Ripper on decades of a very fine contribution to the Labor Party in Western Australia. Both as a Labor Party Member of Parliament, as an important member of the Western Australian State Parliamentary Leadership Group, both as deputy leader and subsequently, leader. For his very fine service over an eight year period as treasurer of the state. And then for his very fine work as leader of the opposition.
Eric took on a very difficult job which is becoming leader of the opposition after you've been in government for a relatively lengthy period - some seven to eight years. My own judgement was that he did that in a civilised and dignified manner and gained the respect of all concerned. And when he came to his own conclusion, to use a phrase that I saw him use; that things weren't working, he put the party interest and the parliamentary party interest ahead of his own interests and stood aside.
Eric and I have known each other in the Western Australian branch of the party since the mid 1970s. I've always held him in very high regard, and he did great credit to himself for his service to the state, for the - for his service to the party, and I thought great credit to himself in the manner in which he resigned the party leadership.
Can I congratulate Mark McGowan on effectively getting the consensus support of the Parliamentary Labor Party to become the new Labor Party leader in Western Australia, to be formalised on Monday at a state parliamentary caucus meeting. Again, I've known Mark for a decade-and-a-half or more. I've known him since he was a candidate for pre-selection for Rockingham, and worked closely with him over the years, particularly when he was Education Minister and I was Shadow Minister for Education prior to Labor's election federally in 2007.
He's got off, in my view, to a very good start. He will be a most effective leader of the opposition, and he will present himself as a very attractive alternative premier. And I wish him very well. As I say, I think he's got off to a flying start - he's done very well. And I look forward in my capacity as a member of the federal parliamentary party from Western Australia and a Cabinet member in the government to working closely with him and I wish him and his colleagues all the best. He will certainly give Premier Barnett a very decent run for his money and lots of competition. That's a good thing for the Labor Party in Western Australia. It's also a good thing for the state.
So my friendship and congratulations goes to both of those colleagues. I'm happy to respond to your questions on these or other issues.
JOURNALIST: ?Mr McGowan has already indicated [indistinct] must have meant that dealing with the federal government and his predecessor in the past he's sharply contradicted Martin Ferguson, for example. Is that a concern?
STEPHEN SMITH:?Absolutely not. I haven't necessarily seen all of that which Mark has said. But everything that I've seen Mark say; everything I've seen him reported as saying doesn't cause me any difficulty whatsoever. He's made it crystal clear that his obligation as the state parliamentary leader is to put the interests of Western Australia first - that is as it should be. He's made the point that he wants to see Western Australia get what he would regard as an appropriate share of Commonwealth revenue and infrastructure - that's entirely appropriate.
On Commonwealth revenue there is of course a review of the GST arrangements which the Treasurer has effected. My understanding is that the first or the preliminary report or assessment of that comes to the treasurer in the first half of this year. Secondly on infrastructure, he's made the point that he wants Western Australia to get a maximum amount of infrastructure.
That rests on my shoulder very easily, and not just because in the course of the current Federal Labor Government's period in office we have effectively delivered double the amount of infrastructure expenditure to Western Australia in effectively a third of the time of the Howard Government. And that includes very important projects in which I have a personal interest as the local Member for Perth. Whether it’s the sinking of the underground railway which would not have occurred without federal infrastructure money, or the changes to the airport so far as the road configuration is concerned, and many other projects.
So I've been very pleased with the start that Mark has made and there's nothing that I've seen him say which cases me any response other than I look very much forward to working with him on these issues as I know the prime minister does, as I know that Anthony Albanese as Infrastructure Minister does.
JOURNALIST: ?But he's called for 60 per cent of the infrastructure fund to go to Western Australia because its-
STEPHEN SMITH:?Well I've never known a person who wanted to be Premier of Western Australia to call for something less than an ambit claim. He's perfectly entitled to make that claim. The point I've made is that this federal government has effectively spent or committed to double the infrastructure spend in a third of the time that the Howard Government did.
We're committing ourselves to $2 billion worth of infrastructure spend in Western Australia into the future. And it's perfectly appropriate for the person who wants to be the premier of the state to argue to any Commonwealth government that Western Australia should get more. That will no doubt be the subject of very cordial conversations between him and the infrastructure minister and the treasurer and the prime minister in due course.
JOURNALIST:? Will the early release of the Hot Issue Brief affect what goes on in them? Will there be more caution?
STEPHEN SMITH:?Well no, I hope not. The purpose of the Hot Issue Brief is to provide essentially quick and speedy alerts to the minister of the day and to the defence leadership, the Secretary and Chief of the Defence Force that an issue has occurred which has not been expected, which may be the subject of public interest or public controversy. It's essentially an early heads-up.
It doesn't contain all of the necessary details, nor indeed often does it contain- because of the speed in which it has been put together as an alert- necessarily contain all of the factual analysis. That will continue, but I've come to the conclusion and the Secretary of the Department has come to the conclusion and the Chief of the Defence Force has come to the conclusion that there's no point to be served by these going into the system, then being stored up and then essentially being released as a job lot when they're the subject of an FOI application, for example.
We're proposing to release them on a regular and ongoing basis. They'll be done consistent with the principles that are attached to Freedom of Information and it will do I think a couple of useful things. It will reinforce the notion of transparency; that's a good thing. But [inaudible] secondly it will also reinforce a notion that inappropriate conduct won't be tolerated.
Now we need to protect everyone's interests and rights in that process and I've referred to privacy and I've referred to not prejudicing ongoing investigations. But releasing these in a timely way I think will enhance transparency and reinforce the notion that inappropriate conduct will not tolerated.
JOURNALIST: ?Is the number of Hot Issue Briefs you've received as Minister; does that represent an increase on the same period?
STEPHEN SMITH:?I haven't done a check on what occurred before my time. I simply ask the question, how many Hot Issue Briefs have I received as Minister; the answer was effectively 250. As to how many of those have been released by way of FOI or handing over at the request of journalists - and that was over 100 - and I said, unless there's a good reason why these can't be released, let's release them now and change the way we release them in an ongoing way.
There are three that won't be released for some of the reasons I've outlined. I'm very happy to take on notice and see what the stats were in preceding years, but I wanted to deal in the first instance with my tenure as Defence Minister.
JOURNALIST: ?But do you think that behaviour is increasing or decreasing?
STEPHEN SMITH:? From my anecdotal experience they've been pretty static; 250 over essentially a year and a half period. What are we looking at; maybe between 150 and 200 a year? Whether that's disproportionate, I'm happy to take on notice and happy to make that public.
JOURNALIST: ?Do you think it would further strain your relationship with Defence?
STEPHEN SMITH:?Well no because this is something that it became an issue over the break when over 100 of these were released by way of FOI - Freedom of Information. The Secretary and I spoke when I returned from leave and he and I thought - we were both of the same mind - he and I had both independently come to the conclusion that we should put these out on a regular basis. And we spent the last few days working on the detail of that and I've announced it today, as you've indicated.
So on the contrary, this is something which is done not just by me as minister but by the Secretary and also by the Chief of the Defence Force. People who prepare the Hot Issue Briefs as a result of Freedom of Information legislation - including the changes that the government made including the Public Information Register - have essentially known that whenever they prepare such matters there was always a prospect that they would be released publicly at some stage.
We're now saying they'll be released within a week unless there is a reason, either privacy or prejudicing, investigations or prejudicing ongoing operations. And that will be determined by the Secretary or by the Chief of the Defence Force. But in any event when those issues have passed, they'll be released at some subsequent stage.
JOURNALIST:?What are some of the examples of bad behaviour that have been released?
STEPHEN SMITH:?Well some of the examples of bad behaviour are inappropriate behaviour such as being drunk and disorderly. And I've referred to the eight defence force personnel who inappropriately engaged in consuming alcohol in Dubai; a number of allegations or suggestions of inappropriate sexual conduct and behaviour.
But there are also what you would regard as ordinary, every-day events which because they occur with the involvement of defence force personnel may be of interest to the public, of interest to the media, or just of interest to the organisation itself. So for example, in tragic circumstances when defence force personnel are involved in car accidents, which regrettably happen every day, that can of itself become a media issue or an interest in the organisation.
So a lot of these matters relate to the personal conduct and personal experiences. Some of them are just ordinary, everyday occurrences which if they occurred out in civilian society might be of some interest in a local community but wouldn't necessarily be of public or media interest.
JOURNALIST: ?What about the Kirkham Report? Why hasn't that been released yet?
STEPHEN SMITH:?Well the Kirkham Report was handed over to the Vice Chief of the Defence Force in the middle of December. I received a copy of the report in the middle of December. The Vice Chief of the Defence Force and the Chief of the Air Force, who was the commissioning officer, are now required and have been over the period doing a lot of exhaustive work, because there's a range of work that needs to be done as a result of that report.
I received further advice from the Vice Chief of the Defence Force in the course of this week and I'm expecting to get further advice from the Vice Chief of the Defence Force and the Chief of the Air Force over the forthcoming period. When we are in a position to make announcements about that and release appropriate detail, we can and we will.
But I'm not proposing to do that in advance of the serious work that needs to be done by the Vice Chief of the Defence Force who is essentially responsible for ADFA and also the Chief of the Defence Force who was effectively the commissioning officer of the inquiry. I've had a copy of the report since the middle of December but that as I've indicated both over the break and today, has and does require ongoing work by both the Vice Chief of the Defence Force and the Chief of the Air Force.
When it is, of course, when that work has completed, when decisions have been made, when it is of course released it will be obviously the subject of intense public and media interest. And I fully expect that to occur and I'll proceed on that basis.
JOURNALIST :?As a senior member [inaudible], can you flesh out what the Federal Government's fears are with regard to the Barnett Government's so called secret deals with the Chinese over energy?
STEPHEN SMITH:?Well there are couple of things. Firstly this has been a matter of controversy in the State Parliament, but there is of course a Commonwealth interest and the Commonwealth interest, as the Prime Minister has made clear in recent days, is we as a nation are bound by our undertaking to abide by World Trade Organisation principles and rules. And that effectively does not allow anti-competitive behaviour.
So in the last week or so the Prime Minister indicated publicly that the Department of Industry was conducting an investigation on that and other matters to satisfy the Commonwealth in the first instance the Department of Industry that no World Trade Organisation obligations were being trampled upon by the actions of the State Government. Now there's a very simple way through all of that is for Mr Barnett to be transparent about what obligations and undertakings and contractual obligations he has entered into with the various parties so that the Commonwealth can satisfy itself that there's no breach of world trade organisation obligations.
There's the second point as well which a general point, which is we have a minerals and petroleum resources boom, not just in Western Australia, but also in Queensland and the Commonwealth Government wants to make sure that Australians maximise the benefits of that minerals and petroleum resources boom.
And one of those areas of intense interest, interest to local industry, is ensuring that local content and local industry can be maximised in a way which is competitive. And that's been the subject of public commentary by my colleague, the Minister for Manufacturing and also by the Minister for Industry.
JOURNALIST: ?The Acting Premier, Kim Hames has said [inaudible]-
STEPHEN SMITH:?Well it's a nonsense. It's a compete nonsense. These are, as I understand it, contractual obligations by way of a state agreement that the state government entered into in preceding years. I'm happy to stand corrected, but as early as 2009 Mr Barnett has been the subject of questions about this matter during question time in the state parliament as early as 2009 and certainly 2010, 2011.
So this has been a matter where the state has acted in the past, issues have been raised, the state government has not been transparent. The Department of Industry - the Commonwealth Department of Industry - has an interest in ensuring that no world trade organisation obligations have been met. Other parties have an interest, including the Commonwealth, in ensuring that everything can be done in a competitive way to maximise the local content of projects that occur in Australia. And those two issues have been raised by this matter.
JOURNALIST: ?Has the Government dudded Andrew Wilkie over the pokies?
STEPHEN SMITH:?Well the Prime Minister and Mr Wilkie have had discussions over the break and those discussions are ongoing. The Prime Minister's made some remarks about them today; I'm not proposing to add to her remarks. It's a matter for her and Jennie Macklin, the relevant minister. Those discussions are ongoing.
JOURNALIST: ?There were talks with UK Defence Delegation and it touched on preparing the Afghan National Security Forces to take responsibility for the country. Will that include talking about a timetable for a full handover and withdrawal?
STEPHEN SMITH:?Well Afghanistan will be one of the key subject matters that we talk about with our United Kingdom counterparts. This will be a big year for Afghanistan in terms of the transition. The international community, through the International Security Assistance Force, has committed itself to transition by 2014.
I've made the point in recent months that we are on track to meet that transition in Uruzgan Province. Indeed we may well get there earlier. So we'll have a conversation about how we believe respectively we're both going in terms of our own individual national areas of operation in Afghanistan, but also how we see things progressing nationally.
The last conversation I had with Defence Secretary Hammond, he and I were both of the view that we were on track in Afghanistan to effect that transition by 2014. As I say, so far as we're concerned in Uruzgan Province, we may well get there earlier but time will tell.
JOURNALIST: ?A matter has - before we go there – [inaudible] confirmed that six foreign officers were killed in southern Afghanistan in a helicopter crash. Do you know if any Australians were killed in that?
STEPHEN SMITH:? No, there were no Australians involved. Firstly if we're talking about the same helicopter crash, which I think we are, there was no Australian involved in that matter.
JOURNALIST: ?And just in regard to Tony Abbott's jokes in regard to the Italian cruise ship; do you think they were appropriate to make considering they were still retrieving bodies?
STEPHEN SMITH:?Well, I have to confess I haven't been focusing on Mr Abbott's remarks on the cruise ship liner, so I don't know what he has said or what he's been reported as saying. So I'm not proposing to reflect on any of his remarks as a general proposition and this should not be linked to anything Mr Abbott has said because I'm not aware of it. What occurred there was obviously a tragedy. As late as last night on TV I saw family members desperately wanting to discover whether family members had somehow survived; so it's a tragic circumstance. There are also very clear issues of significant concern, not just the passengers and families, but also to the Italian Government. And we should simply wait and allow those to transpire. In the meantime our sympathy goes to all of those people who have been caught up in it, particularly those family members who've had loved ones lost or who continue to be missing. There were some Australians caught up in it, but fortunately those Australians managed to escape relatively, if not completely, unscathed. And obviously from an Australian point of view that's a very good thing. There is a very big Italian community in Western Australia and Australia and obviously our thoughts will be with our Italian friends at this time.
Okay, thanks very much. Cheers.