Stephen Smith MP
Minister for Defence
TOPICS: HMAS Success Commission of Inquiry, Bombings in Moscow
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Now the Department of Foreign Affairs is urgently checking whether any Australians were caught up in that Moscow attack. Defence Minister Stephen Smith joins us now in the studio. Stephen Smith, good morning.
STEPHEN SMITH: Good morning.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Any information you can share with us about an Australian aspect of this bombing?
STEPHEN SMITH: Our officials are working very hard to try and ensure that no Australians have been caught up in it. What's on the public record is our information as well. There's 35 killed, between 50 and 100 injured.
In addition to urgently contacting Russian officials our officials have also been checking with hotels and hospitals, in the area to see whether any Australians have been caught up in it but it's early days. It's now nearly one o'clock in Moscow so there'll be a bit more time but we haven't received any information which would tell us if someone has been caught up in it but we can't yet rule that out.
MICHAEL ROWLAND: This is the worst fear for many countries around the world in this day and age of terrorism, somebody doing this in a crowded space, be it an airport or a shopping centre.
STEPHEN SMITH: It's a terrible atrocity. It's aimed at civilians, it's aimed at people going about their normal travel, tourism or business lives so we condemn that absolutely.
A regrettable fact of modern life is that see this threat and this danger is ever present and that's why successive Australian governments and the international community continue to be as vigilant about it as we can to minimise the prospect of these terrible atrocities occurring.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: In your previous portfolio, of course, you spent a great deal of time, as do all such ministers, dealing with separatist ambitions, particularly if they come in the form of militant Islamist separatist ambitions. Is it time now for the Moscow leadership to try and deal with those - with those ambitions and that aggression in a slightly different way?
STEPHEN SMITH: Firstly I'm not proposing to from afar, and before the dust has settled and when our thoughts are with the families of the victims and our own people and hoping that no Australians have been caught up, make a judgment about who or what or why.
Yes, of course, when something like this occurs there is always a suggestion, as we've seen from some Russian authorities this morning, that it's to do with Chechnyan separatism but let's just take it step by step.
Australia, as an international citizen, always argues that these issues should be resolved peacefully and amicably in accordance with the constitutional arrangements of a particular country but I'm not proposing to make a judgment this morning so far away as to who or what might be responsible for this particular atrocity. We condemn it and of course our solidarity is with the Russian people and the friends and families of those who have been killed and injured.
MICHAEL ROWLAND: Moving on to another issue, you have received the first part of the report of the commission of inquiry - of inquiry into alleged sexual misconduct by sailors on HMAS Success. How damning is that first report?
STEPHEN SMITH: The Chief of the Defence Force received the copy of the first volume of Commissioner Giles' report earlier this month. I received a copy on Sunday. To be blunt about it, to use an Australian expression, it doesn't make good reading. I'm proposing to release the report as soon as I can, in whole or in part.
That's because the report really goes to a number of areas: firstly to personal conduct and personal accountability and people in those circumstances have rights of due process. I need to be careful about that. But it also goes to more cultural and institutional matters.
The cultural matter is the so-called tribal culture or culture on the ship which may be a broader issue for Navy, and secondly there are some institutional questions in respect of which Commissioner Giles will report further, about whether we've actually got our inquiry and investigation mechanisms right.
But my predecessor, John Faulkner, committed himself to fully informing the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade about this matter so, given that the Parliament comes back in a week or so, I'd like to be in a position to make the report public in a matter of weeks but I do need to be careful about individual rights and due process.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Given what you're saying this morning though, Minister, and picking up your comment that it doesn't make good reading, what in particular is so troubling?
STEPHEN SMITH: Firstly there has to be zero tolerance so far as harassment of individuals is concerned. That's the first point.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: And harassment is made clear in this report?
STEPHEN SMITH: That'll become clear when the report is made public, either in whole or in part.
But issues of harassment, issues of inappropriate conduct both on the ship and on shore, how that goes to discipline, how that goes to the standing of the ship, the standing of Navy and how that potentially has adverse implications for discipline and for authority all need to be addressed. As I say, it doesn't make good reading. I'm being quite frank about that. But because it does go to the conduct of individuals we just need to be a bit careful at this stage.
MICHAEL ROWLAND: Does it worry you that after all of these years, after all of these promises to stamp out bullying, to diminish this, as you say, tribal culture in various arms of Defence, this sort of thing's still going on?
STEPHEN SMITH: We often get bad examples. I acknowledge that. There's this bad example and we've also seen suggestions overnight in a different context, of bullying. All of these are rigorously investigated and so whether it's the Chief of the Defence Force, whether it's the Chief of Navy, Chief of Army, Chief of Air Force, there is zero tolerance.
But because we're dealing with individuals, with human beings, and we all have faults from time to time, these things occur, but it's not just the bad news that we see, it's also good news.
For example, again in the terrible context of Christmas Island, we saw the report yesterday which showed that Navy personnel had conducted themselves with great heroism and bravery, we see the terrific work that Defence Force personnel have done that circumstance but also more generally over the Christmas-New Year break on the floods.
So whilst on the one hand we can, from time to time, have bad examples which we don't tolerate, there are also very good examples which we also see which we shouldn't forget because that has given the Australian Defence Force and its personnel an international reputation for essentially doing its job in a first class manner and treating people with civility and dignity and respect and that's what we want not just in terms of the way that Defence Force personnel treat other people but also how they treat themselves, their own colleagues, with dignity and with respect.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: So we're talking about something specific to HMAS Success?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, in the main, yes, but there are issues as to whether some of the issues go further and go beyond that to more general Navy matters. But can I make this point as well.
The Chief of Navy in 2009 instituted a program which he describes as New Generation Navy which is aimed directly at these things of - which are aimed directly at treating people better, having better cultures, having better approaches to these matters.
Any change of culture takes time but what I want to try and see is that this report which, does not make good reading, to become public. I think transparency helps. I think it helps focus the minds of Ministers, of the Chief of Navy, of the Service generally. It helps focus minds on the things that we can do to try and ensure that these bad examples are eliminated or minimised in the future.
MICHAEL ROWLAND: I know you don't want to prejudge individuals but, given that you're so obviously disgusted by what you've read, would you expect heads to roll as a result of this inquiry?
STEPHEN SMITH: The Commission of Inquiry is aimed to provide the Chief of the Defence Force and the Chief of Navy and the Service with essentially an accumulation of facts. It's not a disciplinary hearing. It's not an investigative matter but it does provide a body of fact which enables the Defence Force to move forward so it'll be a matter for the Chief of the Defence Force to contemplate such matters as disciplinary procedures or other options.
MICHAEL ROWLAND: Dismissal, potentially?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I say it's important to take it step by step. That'll be a matter for the Chief of the Defence Force to work through carefully. From my perspective there are some fundamentals that are important.
Firstly, we've got to be transparent and that will see this report, this first part, made public and provided to the Parliamentary Committee in whole or in part, subject to due process and respecting individuals' rights and secondly to get the structures right, to do everything we can to avoid unacceptable cultures developing in the Navy or in the Service generally but then to make sure we've got our investigative procedures right. As I said, Commissioner Giles will provide us with a second report, we expect in the middle of the year, which will go to whether we've actually got our Commission of Inquiry and investigative procedures and other mechanisms to deal with inappropriate behaviour or inappropriate conduct, whether we've got those right, and I think the suggestion is that maybe we haven't and we can do better on that front.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Air Chief Marshal Houston has said on his very quick review, he says, of this first part of the report: it's clear to me the report raises very serious issues including in relation to questions about individual accountability but also broader cultural and institutional issues and concerns.
I'd suggest that's a very serious set of questions there for the commander of that vessel to have to answer as well.
STEPHEN SMITH: Again, it does go not just to my response or to the Chief of the Defence Force's response or to the Chief of the Navy's response, it also does go to the command structure. Now that - I'd make this point advisedly- I'm not making any reflection on the conduct of anyone on that ship, from the Commander down.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: No, except the report does it itself.
STEPHEN SMITH: Let's wait until people see the report and the aftermath because it is important that we respect individual people's rights of due process when their conduct may have been called into question. I agree with what the Chief of the Defence Force has said overnight. The report raises very serious issues of individual personal accountability and responsibility but also more general issues for the Navy and for the Defence Force itself and it's my responsibility and the Service Chiefs' responsibility to make sure that we sensibly progress those as well.
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