Australian Minister for Defence on Libya, Facebook and Afghanistan, C‑17 assistance to Japan

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: We’re joined now in the stu­dio by the Defence Min­is­ter Stephen Smith. Stephen Smith, good morn­ing.
STEPHEN SMITH: Good morn­ing.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: In fact, we’ve been hear­ing from Ban Ki-moon and also from the Pen­ta­gon today about the adverse strat­e­gy at the moment. It would seem like­ly — at least accord­ing to Turkey — that NATO forces will take over com­mand of that oper­a­tion around about next Tues­day. Is that what you’re hear­ing too?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I said yes­ter­day that [indis­tinct] thought that would occur, a tran­si­tion effec­tive­ly over the week­end. UK For­eign Sec­re­tary Hague and my UK coun­ter­part, Liam Fox were hav­ing dis­cus­sions with their coun­ter­parts in Lon­don over the week­end.

And so, it’s in some respects a nat­ur­al tran­si­tion. We always believed — Aus­tralia always believed that if the Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil did resolve for a no-fly zone, the appro­pri­ate enforce­ment agent was NATO or con­stituent coun­tries. And I expect we’ll see Unit­ed King­dom, France tak­ing a lead in that respect.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: Does it con­cern you that after sev­en days, there — of airstrikes — com­pre­hen­sive airstrikes both on air defence sys­tems and ground forces, Colonel Qaddafi’s forces are still very much in play in some of the key cities there?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I was­n’t’ the only per­son who before the Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil resolved for a no-fly zone who said peo­ple need to under­stand this may not be a mag­ic solu­tion to all of the prob­lems on the ground in Libya.

The Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil res­o­lu­tion itself has as its cen­tre­piece pro­tec­tion of civil­ians; and that’s why you’ve seen enforce­ment action, not just to secure a no-fly zone but also enforce­ment action against on-the-ground assets to stop ongo­ing attacks on civil­ians.

But we do have the poten­tial for a stale­mate which is why, as we speak, the Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil is mov­ing again, the Secretary-General’s call to the Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil and to Colonel Qaddafi has been to effect a cease­fire. And there are sug­ges­tions that Colonel Qaddafi’s rep­re­sen­ta­tives and the Opposition’s rep­re­sen­ta­tives may be get­ting togeth­er with the African Union over the week­end. So there is per­haps some small prospect of also some nego­ti­at­ed arrange­ment.

But the prospect of a stale­mate was always there and that’s what we’re see­ing. I don’t think there’s going to be a solu­tion, you know, instant­ly. But we’re pleased that the no-fly zone has been pret­ty effec­tive­ly enforced in a small num­ber of days.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Now, turn­ing to this Face­book issue and the behav­iour of some sol­diers in Afghanistan in the insult­ing and the offen­sive com­ments that they’ve made on Face­book Pages; what is it with the cul­ture that seems to be per­me­at­ing not just the Navy, it would seem now, but also the Army as well?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, first point’s the impor­tant one; we should­n’t assume that because we see some bad inci­dents in Navy and some bad inci­dents in the case of Army, that that reflects all of the cul­ture of our defence forces.

Let me deal express­ly with the appalling Face­book episode. I rang Afghan Defence Min­is­ter War­dak last night. I apol­o­gised to him on behalf of Aus­tralia and I made the point to him that the Chief of the Defence Force and the Chief of Army was inves­ti­gat­ing this mat­ter and in all like­li­hood, dis­ci­pli­nary pro­ceed­ings would fol­low. I also made the point to him that I regard­ed this as very much a very regret­table small minor­i­ty.

He respond­ed as I expect­ed he would, which was that Aus­tralia Defence Force per­son­nel and our dig­gers in Afghanistan are held in the high­est regard and high­est esteem, not just for their fight­ing capa­bil­i­ty, but because of the way in which they engage with the local com­mu­ni­ty.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: But did he go on to say that this might low­er them in the way they’re held in high esteem?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, that was the point I made to him. I said, I’m ring­ing you, Min­is­ter, because I don’t want this to low­er our stand­ing. He said that in his mind, in his own view, it would not, because he appre­ci­at­ed very much and respect­ed very much the way that Aus­tralian sol­diers con­duct them­selves, both in terms of stick­ing to sen­si­ble rules of engage­ment, engag­ing with the local peo­ple, and when things go wrong, fes­s­ing up to them and tak­ing reme­di­al action.

But this action by a small num­ber of peo­ple is appalling; I con­demn it absolute­ly and every­one should be in no uncer­tain terms that the Chief of Army, Army senior offi­cers in Afghanistan and the Chief of the Defence Force will pur­sue this to the end. And that includes the pos­si­bil­i­ty of dis­ci­pli­nary pro­ceed­ings. It also includes the pos­si­bil­i­ty of peo­ple who are asso­ci­at­ed or involved with this, if they are in Afghanistan, being returned home.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: Dis­ci­pli­nary action is one thing, but there are many peo­ple call­ing for much stronger action than that — these peo­ple involved being drummed out of the Army. Is that some­thing on the table?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we have to take this step by step. First­ly, as soon as you start talk­ing about dis­ci­pli­nary pro­ce­dures, peo­ple have rights. So there is a prop­er process to go through; there is an inves­ti­ga­tion under way. But in advance of that inves­ti­ga­tion, it’s open to a local com­man­der if he believes that con­duct has occurred — pri­ma facie con­duct has occurred which would war­rant action, he can take it on the ground.

My own view is that we have on its face con­duct of the most appalling kind that brings Army into dis­re­pute and has the poten­tial to bring Aus­tralia itself into dis­re­pute. And as the Chief of Army said overnight — and in my dis­cus­sions with the Defence Force overnight and this morn­ing — it does­n’t reflect the atti­tude of Army, it does­n’t reflect the sorts of atti­tudes, approach­es and response that we want to see from the mod­ern Aus­tralian Army. And I very strong­ly under­line this point; in the main, it absolute­ly does not. One of the rea­sons Army is so appalled is that it flies in the face of very good con­duct by Army and its per­son­nel in Afghanistan and else­where over a long peri­od of time.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Now, Aus­tralia has been close­ly involved in pro­vid­ing sup­port and aid to Japan, of course, through the earth­quake and tsuna­mi cri­sis. What hard­ware do we have there at the moment and when’s it com­ing home?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, in the course of this week we’ve var­i­ous­ly had three C‑17s there; two of them flew out from Pearce Air­base in Perth, my own home­town and deliv­ered essen­tial­ly some water equip­ment, very heavy water equip­ment for use in the cool­ing of the nuclear reac­tor. Both of those C‑17s are now back in Amber­ley. The C‑17 that we’ve had from the first moment, which deliv­ered the search and res­cue team, is wrap­ping up its activ­i­ties today and will fly back to Aus­tralia in the course of today and tomor­row. And one of the C‑17s that took the water equip­ment, when it returned, brought back with it the kit from the emer­gency res­cue team. So, by the week­end, all of the C‑17s will be back from Japan.

And I spoke dur­ing the week to my Japan­ese coun­ter­part, Defence Min­is­ter Kitaza­wa, and he was most grate­ful for the effort that we had put in; oth­er than the Unit­ed States, we’re the only one there who had such a heavy air­lift capa­bil­i­ty.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: [Indis­tinct] We do have that heavy air­lift capa­bil­i­ty and Japan has its own prob­lems now with some irra­di­at­ed food; has Japan asked for any assis­tance in that respect to have, per­haps, food­stuffs and the like flown in by Aus­tralia?

STEPHEN SMITH: Not that I am aware.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Does it sur­prise you, they’ve not asked? It sur­pris­es me. It seems like [indis­tinct] need a bit of help here and maybe they’re not-

STEPHEN SMITH: Well-

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Extend­ing a hand-

STEPHEN SMITH: Well-

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: That would be hap­pi­ly received.

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, in terms of help, I mean, the Prime Min­is­ter, the For­eign Min­is­ter have made it clear that as a gen­er­al propo­si­tion that we stand ready-

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Of course.

STEPHEN SMITH: Will­ing and able to give Japan what­ev­er assis­tance it wants. As you’d expect, I’ve been focussing on how we can assist in terms of defence assets; but the Prime Minister’s made it clear that what­ev­er Japan asks for, we’re ready, will­ing and able to help a coun­try in Asia who in very many respects has been our clos­est friend for a long peri­od of time.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: We’ll just wait for the ques­tion to be asked.

STEPHEN SMITH: Yes.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Stephen Smith, good to see you; thank you.

STEPHEN SMITH: Thank you. Thanks very much.

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

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