Australian Minister for Defence on Afghanistan, Hungry Beast, HMAS Success

TOPICS: HMAS Suc­cess Chief of Navy Address; Hun­gry Beast; Afghanistan Min­is­te­r­i­al State­ment
LYNDAL CURTIS: Stephen Smith, wel­come to News 24.
STEPHEN SMITH: Plea­sure.
LYNDAL CURTIS: The Chief of the Navy is giv­ing a state­ment to his troops on the cul­ture of drink­ing in the navy. He says it’s everyone’s respon­si­bil­i­ty. He’s talk­ing about breath test­ing a hun­dred per cent and ban­ning con­sump­tion of alco­hol at least in some ports.

Are these mea­sures necessary?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I strong­ly sup­port what the Chief of Navy is doing.

The gen­e­sis of his address today is the ter­ri­ble episode we saw with HMAS Suc­cess, where we had very bad exam­ples of per­son­al con­duct, both drink­ing onshore and off­shore, sex­u­al harass­ment both onshore and offshore.

And he, as Chief of Navy, and has — he has my full sup­port — wants to make it clear that we have a zero tol­er­ance for abuse of alco­hol, zero tol­er­ance for abuse of your work­mates either onshore or offshore.

Now, hope­ful­ly, some of those mea­sures won’t be required, but what is required first is a change of con­duct, a change of atti­tude, and a change of culture.

And if it means that some ports have to be declared dry, if there has to be greater amounts of alco­hol and drug test­ing, then so be it.

But we have to see a change of cul­ture, and the Chief of Navy is doing a very good job in this respect.

LYNDAL CURTIS: Isn’t it real­i­ty though that sailors can be away from home for months at a time? When they’re in port, they’re effec­tive­ly off duty, isn’t it? Most people’s work­places don’t con­trol what they do off duty, do they?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, they may well be off duty, but let’s just take it step by step.

First­ly, if a ship’s on oper­a­tions, there’s no alco­hol. The com­man­der of a ship can autho­rise use of mod­est amounts of alco­hol if he or she choos­es when the ship is not on operation.

And on shore leave or off­shore in a port, the gen­er­al approach has been that peo­ple go onshore and do what they like. But in the course of doing what they like, they are ambas­sadors for the Navy, ambas­sadors for Aus­tralia, and they have to con­duct them­selves responsibly.

We saw with HMAS Suc­cess very bad exam­ples of peo­ple onshore con­duct­ing them­selves irre­spon­si­bly. And what the Chief of Navy has said is that if we don’t get a change of atti­tude, we may well have to use these measures.

Of course, as Defence Min­is­ter, what I would like to see is the capac­i­ty for peo­ple when they go onshore to relax, enjoy them­selves, have a bit of fun and get some respite from oper­a­tional duties. But they have to do that in a respon­si­ble way, and we’ve seen ter­ri­bly bad exam­ples of where that con­duct has been irre­spon­si­ble and it has to stop, and that’s what the Chief of Navy is doing.

LYNDAL CURTIS: On anoth­er issue, the ABC pro­gram the Hun­gry Beast last night detailed the process it tried to go through to get footage of an oper­a­tion, a suc­cess­ful oper­a­tion in Afghanistan involv­ing Australians.

You’ve told Par­lia­ment today you did­n’t give a yes or no to the air­ing of that footage. Hun­gry Beast says it was cleared by the troops in Afghanistan. Was the hold up at Rus­sell Hill, at Defence head­quar­ters in Canberra?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, there are two aspects about the ABC, and let me start by say­ing I’m a strong sup­port­er of the ABC, so it’s unusu­al for me to make such a point.

But I did on this occa­sion because what the ABC aired last night both on at sev­en o’clock news on ABC1 and sub­se­quent­ly in Hun­gry Beast was the entire­ly fal­la­cious asser­tion that footage of an oper­a­tion in Afghanistan had not gone to air or been made avail­able pub­licly because it had been held up in my office for months. That’s com­plete­ly false. There’s no basis for that sug­ges­tion, there’s no evidence.

The pro­ce­dure is quite straight­for­ward; it’s applied for many years. Deci­sions about whether footage is — of oper­a­tions in Afghanistan is released is entire­ly a mat­ter for Defence, whether it’s offi­cers on the ground in Afghanistan or offi­cers in Russell. 

And the essen­tial cri­te­ria for release is whether it might prej­u­dice oper­a­tional secu­ri­ty. They are appro­pri­ate­ly mat­ters for Defence, its offi­cers and its offi­cials, and not for me.

The first…

LYNDAL CURTIS: [Inter­rupts] Do you ever…

STEPHEN SMITH: The first time I saw this video was when I saw it online this morning.

LYNDAL CURTIS: Do you ever have a say over footage that, or issues that Defence releas­es, or inter­views that are done par­tic­u­lar­ly by the senior com­man­ders of Defence?

STEPHEN SMITH: Whether it’s com­ments that Defence make, whether it’s inter­views by their offi­cers, the gen­er­al approach is that they’re mat­ters for Defence.

There’s a long-stand­ing sys­tem where Defence sen­si­bly draws the atten­tion of my office to sen­si­tive mat­ters or inter­views by lead­ing offi­cers in Defence.

LYNDAL CURTIS: Do you get to veto them?

STEPHEN SMITH: I leave it to their judge­ment. It’s, of course, a sen­si­ble mat­ter to make sure that the min­is­ter of the day knows what senior offi­cers in Defence are doing.

And of course there’s exchanges and con­ver­sa­tions about whether it’s a sen­si­ble thing to do from Defence’s per­spec­tive or from the gen­er­al nation­al secu­ri­ty perspective.

But on this par­tic­u­lar mat­ter, the asser­tion was essen­tial­ly this: that this video had not been made pub­lic because it had been kept in my office for months. That is a com­plete false­hood, it has no basis to it, and peo­ple who asso­ciate them­selves with that sto­ry should frankly be ashamed of themselves.

LYNDAL CURTIS: You gave a state­ment on Afghanistan to the Par­lia­ment yes­ter­day. You expressed some opti­mism about the train­ing of Afghan troops.

When do you think the Afghan troops that Aus­tralians are train­ing will be ready to take over oper­a­tions by themselves?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, as you know, the Lis­bon sum­mit last year autho­rised the gen­er­al tran­si­tion strat­e­gy. NATO and ISAF defence min­is­ters met in Brus­sels recent­ly, and Pres­i­dent Karzai ear­li­er this week announced the first tranche of tran­si­tion. Uruz­gan Province is not in that tranche, and there was nev­er any expectation.

We believe we’re on track to hand over to the Fourth Brigade of the Afghan Nation­al Army over the next three years, some­where between 2012 and 2014. In oth­er words, on track to meet the inter­na­tion­al community’s aspi­ra­tion of giv­ing the Afghan secu­ri­ty forces respon­si­bil­i­ty for secu­ri­ty mat­ters by the end of 2014.

And I detailed yes­ter­day, we’ve seen improve­ments. They are capa­ble and effec­tive with ongo­ing super­vi­sion. We’re also now train­ing, or in June — from June, we’ll train an addi­tion­al Kan­dak that the US forces are cur­rent­ly train­ing in Uruzgan.

And we’ve been able to do that because we’ve been tak­ing and hold­ing more ground and then as the secu­ri­ty sit­u­a­tion in Afghanistan — in Uruz­gan Province sta­bilis­es, we’re able to hand that over to either the Afghan Nation­al Army or the Afghan Nation­al Police, and that frees us up for more training. 

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

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