Meet the Press, Channel 10
PAUL BONGIORNO: Welcome back to the programme, Stephen Smith. Good morning, Minister.
STEPHEN SMITH: Good morning, Paul. Thanks very much.
PAUL BONGIORNO: The reports yesterday that sexual abuse in the defence force goes back 40 years. There is now talk of class action. Those inquiries that you set up at the beginning of the week, how far back will they go?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I’ve made it clear that so far as any allegations of mistreatment or any failure to investigate properly, which had been raised either privately with my office or in the media, or more generally with the Department of Defence, they will be in the first instance referred to an external group of lawyers.
They will do an initial assessment and they give me advice as to what further steps, if any, I need to recommend to my ministerial colleagues for future action. I have made it clear that the first thing we need to do is a methodical assessment of all those cases to see if anything more needs to be done. I do not rule out in that context any further legal or judicial activity so far as those complaints or allegations are concerned.
PAUL BONGIORNO: So you are saying that even those recent complaints going back maybe three to four decades are part of the process you have announced?
STEPHEN SMITH: I have made it clear that anything that is raised in the context of the publicity on the so-called Skype incident is concerned, will go to that external group of lawyers for an initial assessment to enable me and my ministerial colleagues, particularly the Attorney-General, to make a judgement about what we need to do.
It may require further legal work on individual cases, it may require more general and a judicial approach to the general complaint or suggestion that over a long period of time, complaints were covered up or not investigated properly.
PAUL BONGIORNO: As well as we have seen in other institutions, as in the churches for example, the potential is for millions of dollars in compensation. Is it looking like we may even need, as you say, a judicial or a royal commission to look into this?
STEPHEN SMITH: I am certainly not talking in terms of a royal commission at this stage. We do need to take it step by step. There are a range of possibilities. One, for example, would be intense legal work on particular cases, particular individual cases, another might be a use of lawyers or retired judges to look generally at the issue.
There also is the possibility we have seen in other circumstances like these of giving people who want to tell their story the opportunity of doing that, and also giving people who may have been involved in such cases, so-called bastardisation or victimisation, giving them the opportunity to express a modern-day view. We have seen examples already where people have said “I did that in the past, I now regret it, it wasn’t the right thing to do, I wouldn’t do it now”. So all of that awaits us – we need to take it sensibly, carefully, step by step.
PAUL BONGIORNO: You cannot rule out claims for compensation. There is a direct duty of care and it is not going back a century, it is going back 30 years maybe.
STEPHEN SMITH: No, that point is absolutely right. There is a distinct possibility, either in individual cases or more generally, that through the Department of Defence or through the services, there is a Commonwealth liability here. That is why I say we need to proceed carefully, we need to make sure we respect all the rights of the people who are either complaining or raising issues or in respect of whom, adverse comments have been made, and do that in a sensible way, which meets all of the responsibilities that the government of the day would have.
PAUL BONGIORNO: The Defence rumour mill says this answer from Commodore Kafer on the day the Kate story broke shows his reaction was timely and appropriate. Listen to this.
CDRE KAFER AUDIO: After initial reporting of the incident we referred through Defence up to the ACT Police for guidance on jurisdiction and we were informed by the ACT Police that it was not part of the Criminal Act in the ACT and so it was referred back to Defence.
PAUL BONGIORNO: The accusation from the Defence Association and others is in a sense, you have victimised Commodore Kafer.
STEPHEN SMITH: That is absolutely not the case. I have said two things. Firstly, whenever any issue was raised by the handling of the matter by Commodore Kafer, I said I need to get some advice on that, I raised the particular issue with the Chief of the Defence Force, and I made responses about that. When I had strong advice, a suggestion that had been made about the handling of the matter weren’t correct, I made that clear publicly.
My very strong criticism of Commodore Kafer was when he allowed the parallel tracking or the handling at the same time of discipline me hearings against the young woman concerned, not related to the Skype incident, occurred in March, relating to drinking and absence without leave, and the handling of that on the day that the Skype issue became public, did two things.
Firstly, it raised the spectre that a potential innocent victim of a serious sexual abuse was herself been punished, and secondly, brought into play, her character and conduct. And I regard both those things as entirely appropriate. I regard the decision to allow those matters to be dealt with at same time as a serious error of judgement which also cut to the entire handling of the matter by ADFA and by Commodore Kafer and that’s why in the event, in his best interest, and in ADFA’s best interest, and in Defence’s best interest, the Chief of the Defence Force placed him on leave over last weekend and we have established an independent inquiry to look at the handling of the matter generally. That enables everyone to put their point of view in an objective way.
PAUL BONGIORNO: Time for a break. When we return with the panel, is the defence budget in the cross hairs? And women on the front line – a policy some of our Korean War veterans thought was the dumbest idea of the week.
PAUL BONGIORNO: You are on Meet The Press with Defence Minister Stephen Smith. And welcome to the panel, Fran Kelly, ABC Radio National Breakfast and Nick Butterly, the West Australian. Good morning Fran and Nick. Monday’s marathon news conference saw the Minister announce Labor would finally implement its policy of giving women combat roles which could eventually clear the way for a female Defence Force Chief.
PM AUDIO: A few years ago, I heard Peter Cosgrove say that men and women should have an equal right to fight and die for their country. I think he is right about that.
TONY ABBOTT AUDIO: The fact is that if a woman has the capability, there is no reason why she should not do the job.
FRAN KELLY: Minister, we have bipartisan support for women in combat roles, women on the front line. Is it time we had a real deadline set for this otherwise it is going to just keep on meandering through?
STEPHEN SMITH: I have asked the Minister for Defence Personnel together with the Chief of Defence Force and the service chiefs to bring forth implementation of this policy as soon as possible.
FRAN KELLY: Why not put a deadline on it?
STEPHEN SMITH: Because I want to make sure that we get it right. The policy position is quite clear. We believe that frontline operational matters and your capacity to do that should be determined not on the basis of your sex, but whether you have the physical, intellectual and psychological capacity to do it. We are working through those judgements. Currently, 93% of positions are open to women. It is essentially a small number of frontline operational positions – infantry and some Navy and Air force operational matters-
FRAN KELLY: But they’re the last bastion and whenever we talk about capacity, a lot of people raise questions of well, could a woman walk for two weeks with an 80kg pack on her back? Could she do those roles? I mean, can she? How do you get around that?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, you get around that by saying that if a woman wants to do that, if she has the physical and intellectual capability, we should not stand in her way. We’ve currently got between 50,000 and 60,000 people who are Defence Force personnel. It is a small number of a country of 23 million people. It is not compulsory. But if women want to go all the way, so far as the Defence Force is concerned, so far as leadership is concerned, then they need to have access, if they want to, and they’ve got the capacity to the positions, these front-line operational positions and that is what we want to implement and that is a very strong view of the Chief of the Defence Force and the service chiefs.
NICK BUTTERLY: Minister, in a few months, you will be appointing a new Chief of the Defence Force, a new head of the Army, Navy and Air Force. Will these issues of bastardisation and women on the front line be front of mind for you when you are appointing this new service and is there a woman that could be appointed to any of these roles?
STEPHEN SMITH: Firstly, no, I won’t have those issues front of my mind. What I will have at the front of my mind is finding the best group of individuals to take the best interest of the services and take national security interests forward. I have will not be drawn or speculate on who they might be. I am working very closely with the Service Chiefs now and I’m absolutely confident we have a range of options in terms of the future leadership of the force. As we make that transition, we need to keep our national security interests uppermost in our mind.
Whilst these issues have been very high-profile issues in recent times, it is important to understand and make the point that all of the measures I announced last week, I did with the Chief of the Defence Force, they all have his strong support as they do the support of the Vice-Chief of the Defence Force, and the service chiefs generally, as we move through to take a stock take on the cultural issues, but also to deal with some of the longer term issues, such as the interrelationship between the civil and the military law, and also dealing with the allegations and suggestions that we have seen arise as a matter of the publicity of the Skype matter.
FRAN KELLY: What about the interrelationship between the Minister and the Defence Force chiefs? It’s obvious there have been tensions over the last two weeks over this issue. It is dangerous to have any kind of fracture between the Defence Minister and the Chief of the Defence Force and the service chiefs, isn’t it?
STEPHEN SMITH: Which is why on this matter, as I’ve made clear for a number of days, the Chief of the Defence Force, the Secretary of the Department, the Vice-Chief of the Defence Force and I worked through these issues very methodically, and the announcements I made last week were as a result of that work. We agreed to them all jointly and we strongly support them. They will be in the best interests of the Defence Force and the best interests of the Defence Force personnel.
PAUL BONGIORNO: Minister, it’s the Budget season and the defence usually escapes the sharper edge of the Treasurer’s axe. The Prime Minister’s razor-sharp rhetoric though, tougher than usual. Here she is.
PM AUDIO: We will be making hard decisions in this Budget to prevent greater pain in the long term.
NICK BUTTERLY: Minister, both Labor and the Howard Government quarantined Defence from budget cuts for many years. We are about to see harsh cuts across a range of budget portfolios. Isn’t it time we had a tougher look at the Defence Department in terms of making cuts?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, a number of comments. Firstly, it is very important that we meet our economic commitment to return the Budget to surplus. That is our highest priority in terms of economic management and that remains central to our focus. In addition to being Minister for Defence, I am also a member of the expenditure review committee, so I would not be drawn on the budget speculation. You need to judge the outcome. But two points about Defence.
Firstly, all of our operational commitments, Afghanistan, East Timor, the Solomon Islands, we will continue to ensure that our troops there are adequately and appropriately resourced. Secondly, we are looking at Defence to make a contribution to our budget outcomes consistent with our strategic reform program approach which sees $20 billion worth of efficiency savings over the next period. Defence will make a contribution but it will be consistent with meeting, continuing to meet our operational commitments but also consistent with our strategic reform program.
PAUL BONGIORNO: Thank you very much for being with us this morning, Stephen Smith, the Defence Minister.
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