TRANSCRIPT: PRESS CONFERENCE, PERTH
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 31 OCTOBER 2011
TOPICS: Afghanistan; CHOGM; Qantas.
STEPHEN SMITH: Good morning ladies and gentlemen. I'm sorry to be a bit late.
I wanted to give you an update on events in Afghanistan over the weekend, the terrible and tragic events.
Secondly to make some remarks about CHOGM, and thirdly to indicate that later today I'll be leaving for the Five Powers Defence Arrangement 40th Anniversary Meeting.
I'll give you an update on events in Afghanistan. As we speak, Defence are releasing the names of the three Australian soldiers killed in Afghanistan.
It's my sad duty to advise you that the three soldiers concerned are Corporal Ashley Birt who was aged 22 years of age; Lance Corporal Luke Gavin who was aged 27; and Captain Bryce Duffy, who was aged 26.
Corporal Birt was born in Nambour in Queensland. He was based in Enoggera in Brisbane, and was part of combined team Uruzgan. Lance Corporal Gavin was based in Townsville in north Queensland. He was born in Manly in New South Wales. Captain Duffy was also based in Townsville. He was born in Sydney, New South Wales.
Defence is, as we speak, providing the full details of the three soldiers tragically killed, so other than again expressing my condolences to the families of Corporal Birt, Lance Corporal Gavin, and Captain Duffy, I'll leave it to Defence's usual procedures to provide the public with the full details of service and the particulars of the three concerned.
This is of course a tragedy for our nation. But it is a tragedy for those three families, and a terrible reminder to the other 29 families who have seen their sons, husbands, brothers killed in the course of our time in Afghanistan.
Can I provide you with an update on other particulars given the interest in this matter- General Hurley has provided an update in the day. General Hurley is now in Singapore in preparation for the Five Powers Defence Meeting.
There are a range of issues which General Hurley and I were asked about yesterday which we are able to address, but as you would appreciate, very many of them remain subject to careful and exhaustive assessment. But can I advise that the offending ANA soldier was engaged and killed by two Australian soldiers. One of the Australian soldiers had been himself wounded in the incident.
The seven wounded Australian soldiers, the seven casualties have since been moved to Kandahar in preparation for their movement to Germany for medical treatment. This is a familiar medical treatment process, but all seven will arrive in the course of the next few days in Germany for ongoing medical treatment.
The 6th Kandak of the Afghan National Army 4th Brigade which was and is based at the forward operating base are no longer confined to barracks, are no longer confined to their quarters, but are engaged in administrative and training issues.
This decision has been made by Brigadier Khan in consultation with Australian command on the ground. It is not proposed at this stage to rearm or reequip the sixth Kandak of the Afghan National Army 4th Brigade. But that is a decision which is expected to be made by Brigadier Khan over the course of the next couple of days. In the meantime Australian personnel are working with Brigadier Khan, with the Afghan National Army 4th Brigade on the ground, planning and working through the resumption of training and mentoring so far as the 6th Kandak is concerned.
They are the most pertinent issues in respect of updating events over the weekend on Afghanistan, and if I can finish my comments in that respect by again expressing condolences on behalf of the government to the families of Corporal Birt, Lance Corporal Gavin, and Captain Duffy.
I'll make some brief remarks on CHOGM and the Five Powers Defence Arrangement and then I'll respond to your questions.
Can I just indicate as a Western Australian that, as the member for Perth, what a success I thought CHOGM was, not just for Perth and Western Australia but for the nation generally.
Perth was showcased for more than a week. The arrangements on the ground were very successful. And I think there are a number of substantive issues which came to the fore. Firstly, Perth as a modern vibrant city. Secondly, Perth and Western Australia as an attractive destination for investment - this was particularly reinforced by the Commonwealth Business Forum program. Thirdly, I think there's a much greater appreciation now not just in terms of people from the eastern states - but also people from the international community of the advantages that Perth plays as effectively Australia's Indian Ocean capital, with access to India itself, the sub-continent, and also to Africa, and a much greater appreciation of the economic potential that exists for trade between Australia and Africa and Australia and India. In the case of Africa, in the first instance, lead primarily by Western Australia's mineral resources industry.
So this was I think it was a very successful event for Perth and for Australia. And if I can congratulate Terry Crane and the CHOGM taskforce from the Commonwealth for his very good work and the work of his officers; also for state officials from the State Premier Colin Barnett down; there was first class cooperation between Australia and Western Australia officials and also from the City of Perth through the Lord Mayor Lisa Scaffidi. So if I can congratulate all concerned.
Later today I'll be leaving Perth to visit Singapore and Kuala Lumpur and Butterworth near Penang, Malaysia, for the 40th anniversary Five Power Defence Arrangements Meeting. There I'll meet with my New Zealand colleague, Dr Wayne Mapp; my new United Kingdom colleague, Mr Philip Hammond; my Malaysian counterpart, Dr Zahid; and my Singapore counterpart and host for the 40th Anniversary, Defence Minister Ng.
The Five Powers Defence Arrangement, which obviously consists of Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Malaysia and Singapore, has been in existence since 1971, it is a unique regional arrangement so far as Defence to Defence, and military to military arrangements are concerned, and it arose essentially out of the Malaya insurgency, and the historical support that Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom gave Malaysia at the time of the insurgency.
Not only are there annual Defence Ministers meetings, but also exercises with the current Five Powers Defence Arrangement Exercise, Bersama Lima.
This is a modern regional Defence arrangement which if we tried to establish today, would have little if no prospect of effecting it, or securing it, so it provides a very important bridge for Australia to on a regular basis, deal formally with our Singapore and Malaysian counterparts, but also to engage with the United Kingdom and New Zealand.
In the course of that visit, which will take the course of Tuesday and Wednesday, we'll also meet formally with Singapore's Prime Minister, and visit Butterworth, Butterworth of course now a Malaysian Air Base, but there was a point in time where thousands of Australian RAAF and Defence personnel, were based at Butterworth.
This of course is no longer the case, but Butterworth has a large degree of historical significance so far as Australian Defence engagement in South East Asia is concerned.
I'm happy to respond to questions on the issues I've raised, or other matters, and we'll no doubt deal with Afghanistan matters, and the terrible events there first.
JOURNALIST: What's the condition of the Australian soldier who was in a life-threatening state?
STEPHEN SMITH: The advice I have is that the prognosis of our wounded seven has not changed overnight, we had one very seriously injured, I've got no further update or advice of their circumstances overnight.
The fact that we are planning to move all seven to Germany for treatment, is on the one hand a good prognosis, because it indicates a fitness to travel, but we just need to take it step by step, the assessment detailed yesterday by General Hurley, has not changed, and my memory is he detailed that again this morning.
JOURNALIST: Minister, do we have any further understanding of why this happened?
STEPHEN SMITH: No, and I think that will take some time, and again, as in the case of Shafied Ullah, the rogue ANA soldier who killed our Lance Corporal, we may never know the motivation. But we will do that exhaustive assessment; General Hurley put on record this morning, which you're no doubt aware, that he had recently transferred to the 6th Kandak, he had been in the ANA for a period, but only recently transferred to the 6th Kandak of the 4th Brigade.
But we'll do that exhaustive assessment, not just in conjunction with the Afghan National Army, led by Brigadier Khan on the ground, but also with our International Security Assistance Force colleagues; with ISAF.
JOURNALIST: So we don't know if he's a Taliban plant, or just a disgruntled ANA soldier?
STEPHEN SMITH: Look, I'm not proposing to tilt the lever one way or the other, whilst as I say, in the case of Shafied Ullah, we will never know his motivation, on balance our conclusion is a rogue ANA, some factor caused him to react or respond in the way in which he did, it's early days so far as this particular terrible tragedy is concerned, so I'm not tilting the lever one way or the other.
JOURNALIST: Minister, if it is a rogue element, why then disarm the entire active [indistinct]
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, as I say, I haven't come to that conclusion, it is a distinct possibility, I haven't come to that conclusion, that's the first point. Secondly, that decision was made on the ground by Brigadier Khan, General Hurley indicated yesterday and I'm very happy to indicate today, I think that was a sensible decision, whilst we do have in Uruzgan Province in the course of the training and mentoring that we do, contact between 3000 and 4000 members of the Afghan National Army, this is the second incident that has occurred in a number of months of this nature.
That obviously deals a shattering blow in terms of confidence, and so that's I think a confidence-building measure, the confining to barracks, the removal of weapons, as I've indicated, the confining to barracks is no longer occurring, planning for training and mentoring is underway, administrative duties are being effected.
JOURNALIST: How hard has it been to prepare that [indistinct]?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, in the aftermath of the Shafied Ullah incident, confidence was quickly rebuilt, we did two things on that occasion, ensured that confidence was rebuilt on the ground, but secondly, reviewed all of our arrangements and processes, and also asked ISAF to examine and review theirs, and we will do precisely the same on this occasion.
The Prime Minister yesterday morning asked me to effect a full and comprehensive examination of the incidents, and all matters pertaining to the incidents, that includes our own processes and procedures in terms of dealing with the Afghan National Army, it also includes the International Security Assistance Force processes so far as recruitment and the like are concerned, and General Hurley and I will do that.
JOURNALIST: Is there a time frame for [indistinct]?
STEPHEN SMITH: The expectation is that Brigadier Khan will make that decision over the course of the next couple of days, he'll do that in consultation with our command on the ground, in the end it'll effectively be a matter for his decision, but the indications are, in the course of the next couple of days, next few days, as confidence returns, the ANA 6th Kandak will be rearmed, but we are leaving that decision, whilst it's obviously being done in close consultation with us, we're leaving that decision to Brigadier Khan, who commands the Fourth Brigade on the ground in Uruzgan, and in the operating base, which is just south of the border, as we detailed yesterday.
JOURNALIST: Minister, you've asked the - you've gone back to NATO and asked that they review their-
STEPHEN SMITH: To ISAF.
JOURNALIST: To ISAF, pardon me, to ask that they review their screening procedures, what exactly are you looking for them to do, and how do you think it could be employed?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, just to review all of their own arrangements, we've got in the order of 300,000 Afghan National Security Force personnel in Afghanistan, don't hold me to the figure, but my memory is that over 280,000 of those have been the subject of identification procedures and measures, so it's a question of making sure identification procedures and measures are as robust as humanly possible, making sure that any other sifting arrangements and screening arrangements are suitable and appropriate.
Can I just make a general point? As I say, we've got 300,000 Afghan National Security Force members in Afghanistan, and whilst we have now been terribly on the receiving end of two of these incidences, and whilst I don't keep a tally, I know that in the first six months of this year, there've been anywhere between 10 and a dozen such instances. In the overall scheme of things, it is a small number.
The difficulty of course is because of the nature of the incidents, because of the particular circumstances of the incidents, they do, as I said yesterday, they do send a shattering blow to confidence, and undermine trust, a point the Prime Minister made yesterday.
JOURNALIST: [Indistinct] on CHOGM in terms of the number of world leaders who may not have been able to leave Perth as yet?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, my advice is that as at this morning, all CHOGM leaders, or Foreign Ministers or other ministers who wanted to leave Perth have either - if they were disturbed by the Qantas arrangements, have effected other arrangements.
There's a suggestion that we assisted Prime Minister Cameron, I think, in one of the papers today, that's not the case, he travelled as I understand it, on a United Kingdom plane, so whilst we were happy to see whether our assistance was required, the advice I have is that effectively the CHOGM leaders were able to make other arrangements.
Now there will of course be a number of delegations, particularly from the Pacific who are in the process of either going from Perth to Sydney or Brisbane, to the eastern seaboard, to return to the Pacific. They may well have missed connecting flights and the like, so we may be the subject of requests in that respect, if we are, we'll consider them on a case by case basis.
The only other - or there are two other aspects I think I can add. As is always the case in the run up to a parliamentary sitting; a number of 34 squadron planes were put on to make sure members of Parliament could get to Canberra. That was part of our usual operating procedures, but also to provide travel to Canberra for those members who were normally travelling Qantas and couldn't make other arrangements. It's also the case that today out of Perth; it's proposed to return to Canberra through use either of a C-17 or a C-130. A range of Commonwealth officials who haven't been able to make alternative arrangements - and that will occur out of Perth today.
JOURNALIST: You talk about success of CHOGM Perth for Australia. Has it - has this Qantas grounding of the fleet tarnished part of it?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well it's certainly tarnished Qantas, but I don't believe its tarnished Perth or Western Australia or CHOGM. I've been asked by a number of people do I think there are adverse consequences from this. I certainly think there are adverse consequences for Qantas, but I don't believe it will leave any lasting tarnish on what was a terrific event for Perth, for Western Australia, for Australia and the Commonwealth.
JOURNALIST: Just ask you about that, saying [indistinct] tarnished Qantas. What do you think of how Qantas carried this out in terms of leaving people stranded halfway around the world, leaving people stranded across the country? What do you think about that?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I don't think it's been very helpful for their reputation. It came as a bolt out of the blue. You'd have to ask Qantas what was in their minds when they decided on a Saturday as a bolt out of the blue to disrupt all of Australia and the Australian travelling public overseas and to disrupt potentially 50 delegations from overseas that were in Perth.
You'd have to ask Qantas what was in their mind when they thought that that was a sensible thing to do. And whilst obviously I will leave any matters of detail to the relevant portfolio ministers, Minister Albanese, Minister Evans, and the Prime Minister, you'd have to ask Qantas why they thought that that would be such a terrific thing to do on a Saturday afternoon, giving limited if no notice to the travelling public and limited if no effective notice to the government of the day.
JOURNALIST: Minister, does Western Australian hospitality industry face [indistinct] CHOGM if they needed to be on their utmost manners [indistinct] serviceability and look after all these foreign delegates, and that was really important for the reputation and image of our city.
So for them, for an airline to keep people waiting and mess them around [indistinct].
STEPHEN SMITH: Well as I said I've been - it's been raised with me by a number of people. I've made this very simple point. You should regard that as a reflection on Qantas, not a reflection on CHOGM or Perth or Western Australia.
You should regard that as a reflect on Qantas, a private company - not a reflect on Perth, or Western Australia, or CHOGM. And in terms of hospitality and the like, I had nothing but the most positive conversations with overseas guests from Minister's down about the organisation - the friendly way in which people were looked after both by hospitality, whether it was hotels or travel, but also the friendly nature, and inviting nature of Perth itself.
Any lasting repercussion on that will be a lasting repercussion for Qantas, not a lasting repercussion for Perth or the people of Perth. Okay?