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.
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