Australia — Minister for Defence Stephen Smith on Amphibious ships fleet

TOPICS: Funer­als of the Christ­mas Island boat tragedy vic­tims; Amphibi­ous ships fleet; HMAS Suc­cess Com­mis­sion of Inquiry
KIERAN GILBERT: Defence Min­is­ter, I want to ask you about a speech you gave yes­ter­day and some devel­op­ments in Defence mat­ters. But first and fore­most on this issue of the asy­lum seek­ers, the funer­als yes­ter­day, what do you make of crit­i­cism from Scott Mor­ri­son that the cost was not rea­son­able to fly rel­a­tives to those funer­als?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I think it is very regret­table and most unfor­tu­nate that Mr Mor­ri­son has cho­sen to effec­tive­ly cre­ate a polit­i­cal con­tro­ver­sy off the back of peo­ple who are griev­ing as a result of the loss of fam­i­ly and loved ones in a ter­ri­ble tragedy. 

The only sen­si­ble thing to do in these cir­cum­stances is to apply com­mon sense, under­stand that peo­ple are enti­tled to bury their loved ones in an atmos­phere of civil­i­ty and dig­ni­ty, with as much com­pas­sion as the state or the com­mu­ni­ty can sum­mon. And I think Mr Mor­ri­son has made a very bad mis­take here and that’s been reflect­ed by com­ments to the con­trary that we’ve seen come from his own colleagues. 

KIERAN GILBERT: The Prime Min­is­ter was asked about this yes­ter­day in New Zealand. Ini­tial­ly she said it was a mat­ter for rel­e­vant Min­is­ters. It took her a while to find her voice on this issue. Was she tread­ing a lit­tle bit care­ful­ly because of the pol­i­tics of this? STEPHEN SMITH: No no, she was also asked some ques­tions about my speech and she sen­si­bly said port­fo­lio Min­is­ters are deal­ing with these mat­ters in Aus­tralia, I’m on an over­seas trip. 

So that’s a sen­si­ble approach. But I think you’ve seen overnight and this morn­ing a num­ber of things occur. First­ly, I think there would be a gen­er­al­ly held com­mu­ni­ty view that in the after­math of a tragedy of that nature, peo­ple should give every assis­tance that they can to enable loved ones to say a dig­ni­fied farewell at the funer­al of their fam­i­ly members. 

Sec­ond­ly, it’s nev­er sen­si­ble, it’s nev­er a good thing for the com­mu­ni­ty, it’s nev­er a good thing for our coun­try when either delib­er­ate­ly or inad­ver­tent­ly, events like these are politi­cised. It does­n’t help any­one. Invari­ably they rebound and they’ve rebound­ed on Mr Mor­ri­son today. And they’ve rebound­ed on Mr Mor­ri­son because mem­bers of his own polit­i­cal par­ty have made com­pa­ra­ble points to the points that I make. 

KIERAN GILBERT: On to Defence mat­ters. You’ve set up an expert advi­so­ry pan­el to assess why the trans­port ships Manoo­ra, Kan­im­bla, and Tobruk were all out of action at the time when the Gov­ern­ment want­ed them to sup­port the response to Cyclone Yasi. You must have been flab­ber­gast­ed that none of them were in oper­a­tion at that time? 

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I’ve expressed my dis­ap­point­ment both in pri­vate and in pub­lic, first­ly. Sec­ond­ly, I’ve been very frank with the com­mu­ni­ty with the prob­lem that we have and the need to address it. That’s why I’ve estab­lished an expert inde­pen­dent review team chaired by Mr Riz­zo who’s well expe­ri­enced in such mat­ters. But I’ve also asked Defence to pro­vide for­mal­ly a new tran­si­tion plan for our amphibi­ous or heavy-lift fleet. 

These things are dis­ap­point­ing. But as the mate­ri­als and the remarks I made yes­ter­day made clear, they’re prob­lems of long stand­ing. And one of the good ini­tia­tives that the Chief of Navy has effect­ed in recent years has been the Sea­wor­thi­ness Board. It was real­ly the report of the Sea­wor­thi­ness Board into the Manoo­ra and the Kan­im­bla which real­ly brought a focus on these things. 

KIERAN GILBERT: So why are you just focus­ing on these three ships then? Should­n’t this pan­el be tasked with look­ing at the Navy across the board? 

STEPHEN SMITH: The terms of ref­er­ence and my pub­lic remarks make it clear that what­ev­er lessons we learn from this in terms of changes that we need to make for the main­te­nance and sus­tain­ment of our amphibi­ous fleet, any lessons that we learn which apply more gen­er­al­ly will be utilised. 

Our heavy amphibi­ous lift is required for two rea­sons. One, the obvi­ous mil­i­tary trans­porta­tion, but sec­ond­ly for dis­as­ter relief and human­i­tar­i­an assis­tance. And in recent weeks I have indi­cat­ed to our Unit­ed King­dom coun­ter­parts and col­leagues that we’re very inter­est­ed in either leas­ing or buy­ing one of their amphibi­ous lift fleet. And also when I was in New Zealand last week, reaf­firmed by the two Prime Min­is­ters yes­ter­day, a much enhanced shared arrange­ment so far as the use of a New Zealand amphibi­ous lift ship, the HMNZS Can­ter­bury, is con­cerned. And that will apply for region­al dis­as­ter relief and devel­op­ment assistance. 

KIERAN GILBERT: Giv­en the amount of mon­ey that goes into Defence though, the fact that the three amphibi­ous ves­sels, we had all three of them out of action, it seems remark­able. Is this a dys­func­tion­al part of the mil­i­tary that we’re talk­ing about here? 

STEPHEN SMITH: I’ve made it very clear that there is clear­ly a cul­tur­al prob­lem here. There seems to have been over a long peri­od of time, more than a decade, a decade and a half, a view that in some respects these were sec­ond-class ships. They weren’t giv­en the pri­or­i­ty that they deserved. We also have, in my view, sig­nif­i­cant per­son­nel and insti­tu­tion­al account­abil­i­ty issues in Defence. And in my speech yes­ter­day I indi­cate that I yes­ter­day received from Dr Rufus Black his review into account­abil­i­ty — per­son­nel and insti­tu­tion­al account­abil­i­ty – which will form a very sig­nif­i­cant fea­ture of the reforms that I will roll out in the next few months. 

There’s also a lag effect here. I made the point yes­ter­day the Chief of Navy is to be com­pli­ment­ed for estab­lish­ing the Sea­wor­thi­ness Board. That was inevitably going to draw atten­tion to dif­fi­cul­ties of the past. But one of the good things we hope and are con­fi­dent in is that will be a sig­nif­i­cant fac­tor in help­ing to ensure that this sit­u­a­tion nev­er emerges again. 

KIERAN GILBERT: And Min­is­ter, just final­ly, I under­stand you’ve got an update for us on the report into alleged mis­con­duct aboard HMAS Suc­cess. STEPHEN SMITH: I’ve indi­cat­ed that I want to make that report from Com­mis­sion­er Gyles pub­lic. But I have to be very care­ful about the way in which that is done to pro­tect people’s indi­vid­ual and per­son­al rights. I’ll be in a posi­tion to release sub­stan­tial parts of that report ear­ly next week. And I’ll do that when the Par­lia­ment resumes in the first part of next week. 

KIERAN GILBERT: Okay, Defence Min­is­ter, appre­ci­ate your time, thanks. 

STEPHEN SMITH: Thank you, thank you very much. 

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

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