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.
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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