Australia – Minister for Defence on Japan, Libya, Christmas Island

TOPICS: Extension of ADF assistance to disaster relief in Japan, Libya, Christmas Island.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, thanks very much for turning up. I just wanted to announce today that this morning I have agreed that Australia should extend by a week the assistance that we’re giving in Japan through one of our C-17s, entitled Operation Pacific Assist. The request for an extension of the use of our C-17 aircraft- which has been conducting together with the United States and Japanese forces heavy airlift capability moving food, water, personnel and vehicles throughout Japan to assist in the aftermath of the terrible tragedy- this morning we’ve received a request from the United States and Japan to continue that, so I’ve authorised today an extension by a week, to next weekend, next Sunday.

We’ll keep it under review and subject to any further requests, and with the ongoing need, we’ll of course make all the decisions in that respect. But in the midst of a very serious tragedy, this has been a very good operation, so far as Australia is concerned. It again underlines the great utility we get from our C-17 heavy airlift aircraft. It has underlined the very close relationship between Australia and Japan.

It has also underlined the trilateral strategic relationship that we have formally with Japan, the United States and Australia. And so this operation, working closely with United States Air Force Command in Japan, working closely with the Japanese Defence authorities, has been, amidst this terrible tragedy, a very good operation so far as Australia is concerned. And Australians are entitled to be very proud of the high praise that the Australian Defence Force personnel are receiving for the work they’re doing in Japan in these terrible circumstances.

As I’ve made the point previously, our C-17 is of course operating consistent with taking every precaution so far as the nuclear power station is concerned, and following very closely, abiding very closely, by the 80 kilometre exclusion zone. So every precaution is being taken in that respect.

JOURNALIST: Minister- news today of a survivor being pulled from the rubble. What’s your response to that?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well I agree [indistinct] with not just our own emergency rescue authorities who are on the ground, but also from the Japanese rescue authorities, which is that we should never give up hope, that we should continue until the very last [indistinct], individual survivors.

The expectation at this stage is that our emergency rescue team will be there also for the following week, and in due course we’ll make announcements about that team returning to Australia. We’ll almost certainly do that utilising the C-17. Again, we’ll take that step by step, but there’s an expectation at this stage that in the course of the coming week that the emergency team will return to Australia.

But to all emergency services personnel, whether it’s in Australia, whether it’s overseas, is that they should never give up hope. It’s always great to see when it’s unexpected, and to see individual people survive when it’s against every expectation.

JOURNALIST: How many people does Australia have in Japan at the moment?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well in terms of Defence Force personnel, operating the C-17 and providing assistance, we’ve got between 35 and 40. We have over 200 diplomats and civilians rendering assistance and helping through our Embassy in Tokyo. And at last count this morning, there were 10 Australians unaccounted for. They are of course Australians who we have every reason to believe were in the adversely affected area when the tsunami struck, and we haven’t been able to make contact or communications with them. But our officials are working constantly through that. And I’m sure you can appreciate that in the last four of five days that number has fallen from 140 to 10 today, but our officials have been very assiduous in that respect, but they’ve also been taking all necessary precautions, as has been the case from day one.

JOURNALIST: [indistinct] What is Australia’s humanitarian contribution to Libya at present, and will it be upgraded?

STEPHEN SMITH: Two points on Libya- I’ll deal with the humanitarian assistance first. Firstly, the Foreign Minister has over the last week or so announced a range of financial contributions from Australia. Now, from memory, more than $11 million that goes to the International Red Cross and to United Nations agencies. So, a significant financial contribution from Australia. And the Foreign Minister has made it clear that further financial contributions will be kept under consideration. I’ve made the point in recent days and it remains the case that we are giving consideration as to whether there’s a need for us to supply a C-17 for humanitarian purposes, either for the delivery of equipment or for evacuation purposes. We have made that point clear to the international community. We continue to be in close consultation with them. At this stage there has not been a request from our international partners for the use of a C-17, but we’ll keep that under review.

Secondly on Libya, we warmly welcomed yesterday the United Nations Security Council’s resolution to effect a no-fly zone over Libya, to also make the point that the protection of civilians is paramount and utmost in the Security Council’s mind. And that’s clearly the aspiration of the international community. As I indicated earlier, Australia won’t be making a military or defence contribution to the no-fly zone, there’s no expectation that we would do that. The expectation is that would come from constituent countries in the region- NATO or constituent countries.

And I just won’t be drawn on any operational aspects of that. But so far as Colonel Qaddafi’s comments through his Foreign Minister overnight that he would immediately abide by the ceasefire, I think the international community and Australia is entitled to take that, frankly, with some scepticism. Paramount in our minds is the protection of Libya’s civilians. So I think the international community will take this very much step by step, and want to see concrete, real, practical outcomes and improvement on the ground rather than simply taking Colonel Qaddafi at his word. So I’m sure the international community will have as its starting point some degree of scepticism about that undertaking from Colonel Qaddafi.

JOURNALIST: [indistinct] on Christmas Island, will there be any Defence [indistinct] will there be any Defence intervention?

STEPHEN SMITH: No. Well, yesterday the Minister for Immigration made it clear, as did I, a number of things. Firstly, the Minister for Immigration has effected an inquiry or a review into the circumstances, a very sensible thing to do, and that will give us lessons for the future so far as Christmas Island is concerned. It will also I suspect give us some lessons for security arrangements in other detention centres.

The Immigration Minister has made it clear to me that the lessons learned from Christmas Island will of course be applied to Northam, and he continues to say publicly that Northam will be the subject of appropriate, tight security arrangements, and that it will be run in consultation with the local authorities and also with the state. So far as Defence assets are concerned for Christmas Island, other than the obvious Defence assets, aerial and naval that we have in terms of cooperation with Customs and Border Protection for surveillance, there’s no intention to utilise Defence Force personnel on Christmas Island in the face of the disturbances that we’ve seen.

In the first instance, it’s entirely appropriate for Immigration and its contractors to deal with those matters, and when they’re not in a position to do that as we’ve seen over the last 24-48 hours, then a very strong Australian Federal Police presence is appropriate, and that’s what we’re seeing now. And there’s no intention, now or in the future, to utilise Defence Force assets for that purpose on Christmas Island.

JOURNALIST: Sorry, just coming back to Japan, of those ten Australians that are still unaccounted for, do you know how many- if any- of them are from WA?

STEPHEN SMITH: No I don’t, you’d need to chase DFAT for that information.

Thanks very much.

Press release
Ministerial Support and Public Affairs,
Department of Defence,
Canberra, Australia

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