Australia – Minister for Defence Stephen Smith on MRRT, CHOGM, Facebook and Afghanistan

TOPICS: Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM); Facebook and Afghanistan; MRRT.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well thanks very much for turning up. I just firstly wanted to indicate how pleased the Federal Government is that Buckingham Palace has announced overnight that Her Majesty The Queen, together with His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh will come to Perth to enable Her Majesty to officially open the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in October.
This will be a tremendous boost to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting and a great thing for Western Australia and Australia.

CHOGM itself, of course, will be a tremendous opportunity for Western Australia and Australia to showcase itself to the rest of the Commonwealth. Over 50 commonwealth leaders, presidents and prime ministers, and over 50 foreign ministers attending over the CHOGM week and we very much look forward to it.

I, of course, was very pleased to have been able to play a small part in the last Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Port of Spain to encourage the Commonwealth to choose Australia and subsequently to allow the Government to announce that CHOGM will be held at Perth, and very much looking forward to, as the local Federal Member for Perth, seeing so many leaders from the Commonwealth come to Perth and Western Australia.

It will be a tremendous economic boost to Perth and Western Australia, but also a very good opportunity for Western Australia and Perth to showcase itself to the rest of the world. So we’re very pleased with the announcement overnight and I’m happy to respond to your questions.

JOURNALIST: How much will security have to be tightened even further now with the Queen being one of the headline acts, so to speak?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well we’ve always known that with significant international events regrettably in the modern era security will always be an issue, and security is one of the matters which the Australian Government is working very closely with the state government but also with the city of Perth, with local government as well.

There will be all of the usual security precautions taken. It will, of course, be a need for significant security for Her Majesty but, in any event, we will also have, as I said, over 50 leaders from the Commonwealth and that brings with it, regrettably in the modern world, the need for security but those matters will be assiduously attended to and I’m very pleased that on that front there’s very good cooperation not just between the Australian Government and the state government but also between the relevant agencies, in particular the Western Australian Police.

JOURNALIST: What do you think the reaction will be from Australians and, I guess more specifically, people from Perth about learning that the Queen will be coming out here?

STEPHEN SMITH: I think they’ll welcome it very much. Last year I had the great honour to represent Australia at the centenary of diplomatic relations between Australia and the United Kingdom at Australia House in London, had the opportunity of meeting Her Majesty and also meeting the Duke.

I think Western Australians will be very, very pleased. Many Perth residents and many West Australians will be old enough to remember Her Majesty opening the then called Empire and Commonwealth Games back in the ’60s and very many people will remember her most recent visit to Perth in 2000.

So she will receive a very warm welcome. She is very fondly regarded by Western Australians and Australians.

JOURNALIST: With the confirmation today, the debate’s kind of turned now to what we’d like the Queen to visit while she’s here. What would you like Perth to showcase? As the Member for Perth, what do you think we can take her and show her to see?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well I’ve always thought that one of the highlights of Perth was the view of the city and the river from Kings Park. That, of course, is where the leaders retreat will take place with the expanded Fraser’s Restaurant. So that’s, I think, an iconic view of Perth, so hopefully Her Majesty might have the opportunity of sharing that view when the leaders gather for their retreat.

There’s also an expectation, subject to confirmation, that she will stay at the Governor’s residence in The Terrace and, as many West Australians know, as many Perth residents know from the opening up of Government House on regular occasions for people to visit the garden and see the garden, that’s also a great, a great spot and a great part of the city itself.

JOURNALIST: Can we talk about Afghanistan now?

STEPHEN SMITH: Yeah, I’m happy to respond. If we’re finished on CHOGM I’m happy to respond to that.

JOURNALIST: Sorry, can I just-

JOURNALIST: Yeah, yeah, sure. Sorry-

JOURNALIST: In terms of the relevance of the Queen, it’s probably her last, fair to say her last visit to Perth anyway, if not Australia, being at the age of 85 I think she turns next month; so how significant and how relevant, I guess from a Commonwealth point of view, is her visit here because today’s society, I mean do you think people really care that she would be coming?

I mean is it really, does it really strike a chord?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well whether it’s Her Majesty’s last visit to Australia time will tell. I expect that she will be very, very warmly received. I think there is a great affection for her in the hearts of the Australian people.

I also think that there is great respect and regard for her in the way in which she has conducted herself as the Monarch. The view of the Government is at some time in the future Australia should move to become a republic and I share that view, but I think there’s also a view in the Australian community that maybe the appropriate time to do that is when Her Majesty finishes her reign.

But I think both affection and respect and regard are the way in which the Australian public view Her Majesty The Queen and I think that’s a very good thing.

JOURNALIST: So do you think it could also be the last time we get a visit from royalty as part of the Monarchy?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well time will tell. Time will tell.

JOURNALIST: Do you think there’s been a renewed interest in the monarchy because of the upcoming Royal Wedding?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well certainly when the Prince was both in New Zealand recently and also in Queensland recently there was an outpouring of affection for him and there’s great interest in the wedding. So I think the interest in the monarchy, the interest in the Royal Family continues.

JOURNALIST: How damaging has this latest internet scandal been to the Defence Force’s reputation and to Australia’s cause in Afghanistan?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well as I’ve said earlier in the course of the day, I spoke to Afghan Defence Minister Wardak last night. I apologised on behalf of Australia, I indicated to him that the Chief of the Defence Force and the Chief of Army would cause these matters to be investigated and in all likelihood, subject to the appropriate procedures, disciplinary action would proceed.

It is also a possibility or a prospect that those involved will return to Australia, but that’s a matter for the proper processes.

The reason I rang Minister Wardak was to make the point that I regard this very much as running counter to the tremendous work that the Australian Defence Force and Army have done in Afghanistan over a long period of time.

He indicated to me that he did not believe that this would sully Australia’s reputation. He said to me on the phone last night, as he has said to me in the past, that he holds Australia and Australian soldiers in very high regard, not just because of our fighting prowess but also because of the way in which we mix with and deal with the community in Afghanistan and in Uruzgan Province, not just community leaders but also Afghan citizens in the villages in Uruzgan Province.

And the reason I rang him was because we have, not just in Afghanistan but historically, a first class reputation for being a country which, through its Defence Force, whilst it is a defence force which has got a first class fighting prowess also treats the citizens and the civilians of countries that it is in with respect and regard and civility and dignity and we very much want that to continue.

JOURNALIST: I’m sure there’s already lots of rules and regulations in place about Facebook use and the internet access over there. Is it time though, given repeated incidents like this, that there’ll be more censorship, perhaps bans on the use of things like Facebook by Australian troops?

STEPHEN SMITH: [Interrupts] Well there is access to our forces, our personnel in Afghanistan. There is access to the internet and there is, there are some limitations on that.

One of the things which the Chief of the Defence Force will now examine and consider is access to and use of social media.

My own starting point, my preference in all of these matters is not that we prevent people from utilising methods of communication with family or friends, but that we ensure that it’s done in a serious and sensible and responsible way.

One of the lessons from this is the lesson that people continue to learn in the digital age that what you put online or what you put into cyberspace is there for, eventually, all to see for all time. So there’s a lesson about the use of what you put on Facebook generally.

But my own preference would be that culturally there is a sensible and responsible use of such matters, but in my discussions with the Chief of the Defence Force overnight and this morning, that is one of the issues that he will now have cause to look at.

JOURNALIST: It’s hugely damaging though to our reputation, isn’t it? Incidents like this can undo years of diplomacy and careful work by our troops overseas.

STEPHEN SMITH: Well this is precisely the reason why I have been strong in my remarks that what has occurred is not just inappropriate, it’s effectively appalling, it is required to be condemned and that view has been shared in remarks that the Chief of the Defence Force has made today, remarks that the Acting Chief of Army made overnight.

But the fact that there has been such a strong response to the incident from Defence, from the Army, from the Australian Government gives me cause for confidence that this will be seen for what it is, which is the actions of a very small minority which run counter to the work that Australian forces have done in Afghanistan over the last nearly decade and the work that Australian defence forces have done since the formation of the Australian Army and the Australian Defence Force.

And I’m, I gain my confidence in that as a result of the response from Defence Minister Wardak who was at pains to make the same points to me.

In the past when I’ve spoken to Defence Minister Wardak and when I’ve spoken to other Afghan officials, ministers and President Karzai they make the point to me that they highly value and regard Australia’s contribution not just because of the capability and fighting prowess of our troops in the field, but also because of the way in which they deal with Afghan communities and the way in which they work with and respect the Afghan population and civilians.

JOURNALIST: What about the argument that that sort of attitude or, I guess, aggression against the opposition during war time is necessary? A lot of former soldiers have come out and said that that sort of message is quite clearly made throughout Defence at different times. What’s your response to that?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well it’s not a view I share and it’s also entirely inappropriate for such views to be placed on cyberspace, on the internet where almost inevitably these things are made public.

So I don’t share that view.

JOURNALIST: What about-

STEPHEN SMITH: People are not entitled, in my view, to make remarks about the citizens of other countries which are racist, which are derogatory, which are critical of the cultural values that other people share. It is not a value and virtue of Australia generally.

It is not a value and virtue of what we have seen in terms of the Australian Defence Force contribution in Afghanistan and it’s not something which the Australian Army, the Australian Defence Force or the Australian Government or, in my view, the Australian people will tolerate.

JOURNALIST: It sounds like you’re going to have to restrict a lot of access, a few bad apples in the Army.

STEPHEN SMITH: Well that’s why, that’s why I say my own preferred outcome would be sensible access to such materials on the basis that people conduct themselves responsibly. But, as I say, this is an issue that the Chief of the Defence Force have discussed and it will form part of, necessarily form part of Defence’s consideration of that which has occurred.

What will also occur, which the Chief of the Defence Force has made clear, the Chief of Army has made clear and I have made clear is that this regrettable and offensive incident is the subject of an investigation.

In all likelihood, after the proper processes have been followed, disciplinary action will occur and there is also a prospect that the people involved and responsible will be returned from Afghanistan.

JOURNALIST: Minister, on one final note, what do you think of your colleagues threatening to withhold funding from WA if the state increases its mining royalties?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well I don’t interpret it in that way. I mean what the Treasurer and the Minister for Resources, Martin Ferguson, indicated yesterday was that the government has accepted all of the over 90, or nearly 90, recommendations of the implementation group. That’s a very good thing.

The mining companies who, on the basis of the legislation is enacted, who are taxed under the legislation, so that essentially is restricted to people who mine or produce iron ore, coal or oil and gas onshore or offshore, that they will get a credit for state based royalties.

The point that the Treasurer made and the Minister for Minerals and Energy made was that that is not a green light for any state to increase its royalties in isolation.

We have seen substantial increases of royalties in Western Australia and in other states from time to time. All of the economic analysis is that a resources rent tax, which is a tax on profits, is a much better way of taxing than a royalty, which is essentially on the basis of volume of production, not on profit.

The Treasurer this morning on Perth radio made it clear that this is an area where he wants to have a sensible conversation with Western Australia and Queensland, the two main minerals and petroleum resources states, he wants to have a conversation with them about it.

I also see the Premier, who’s made some rhetorically robust remarks but he’s also made the point that this is a matter that he wants to have a conversation with the Australian Government about at the next COAG meeting.

And that’s how it should proceed, a sensible conversation between the states and the Commonwealth about the implementation of a profit based tax, which is a much better and more effective and efficient way of taxing the production of minerals than a royalty which is simply a tax on the volume of production irrespective of whether a company is going well or going badly.

JOURNALIST: Sorry, just one more on Afghanistan. Given Defence refusing to release a video recently of soldiers in Afghanistan saving up to 30 Afghanis and then this very public scolding, do you think that soldiers over there should feel hard done by? Is it fair that some of them do feel hard done by?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, first, there are two separate issues. The issue that you refer to goes to the way in which Defence issue images, either photographic or video images, of operations out of Afghanistan and, for a long period of time, the approach has been that images are released on the basis of operational security.

These decisions are made by Defence officers and Defence personnel whether they’re in the Middle East or whether they’re in Canberra.

There was an assertion made, which was incorrect and without foundation, that the video to which you refer to was not released as a result of action by me or my office. That’s not true. These matters don’t come to me, nor should they. They are determined on the basis of operational security.

JOURNALIST: Thank you.


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

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