Interview with Keiran Gilbert, Sky News
KIERAN GILBERT: Stephen Smith, thank you very much for your time this morning.
STEPHEN SMITH: Pleasure.
KIERAN GILBERT: The CDF, Angus Houston, says that the six reviews constitute a stock take. You say that it’s about effecting cultural change. Which is it, because a stock take doesn’t sound that serious?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, it’s both. Firstly, what I think is under-appreciated is the work that the Chief of the Defence Force and the Service Chiefs have done in recent years to try and instil cultural change, whether it’s at the Australian Defence Force Academy, whether it’s in the services themselves — the Navy, the Air Force or the Army. And that includes the broad range of issues — treatment of women, binge drinking and the like.
So a lot of good work has been done. But there are a number of things which I wanted to occur, as did the Chief of the Defence Force and the Vice Chief and the Secretary of the Department. One was we wanted to do a stock take of treatment of women at the Australian Defence Force Academy, where the Skype incident occurred.
There was a recent stock take done internally in the Department which showed that progress had been made from some very serious issues back in the 80s and 90s, but we wanted an external review and very pleased that the discrimination commission has done that. So it’s both and we both share that view.
KIERAN GILBERT: But, Minister, the CDF says these incidents are an exception rather than the rule, but you’ve launched six inquiries. So if it’s an exception rather than the rule, why do you need to carpet bomb this?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we want to make sure that women have a chance of a career path in the Defence Force. That’s why we need to very strongly stare down any areas where there’s inappropriate conduct, particularly so far as the treatment of women is concerned.
We’ve asked the Sex Discrimination Commissioner to look at, in the first instance, treatment of women at ADFA and, secondly, more generally, to do a stock take and look at the effect of the improvements that the chief of the Defence Force, instituting with his Women’s Advisory Group, have made over recent years. And we’re also opening up fully a combat role for women. That’s a sensible thing to do.
As well we’ve got other challenges: use of alcohol and binge drinking, the use of modern social media and technology. People need to understand that if they conduct themselves inappropriately and they’re on Skype or they’re on Facebook or they’re using their mobile phones to texting, there’s a chance that that can become public or be relayed by others.
KIERAN GILBERT: Serving officers — in fact I was reading a comment piece by the ex-Army Chief, Peter Leahy this morning and he says how can it be described as a cultural problem at ADFA, the events of the last week or so, given that the group at the centre of the allegations have been there two months, have been there two months. How is that a cultural military issue?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, firstly, they are cadets in the institution. That’s the first point. Secondly, we want to do a stock take of what is the cultural environment in the Defence Force Academy, particularly so far as treatment of women is concerned and use of alcohol and the like.
In the internal Defence review, which the Commander of the Defence Force Academy, Commodore Kafer, was involved in 2009, 2010, that drew attention to ongoing issues so far as sexual activity was concerned, so far as drinking was concerned and so far as military justice was concerned. So there’s clearly more work to be done.
But we also want to do that more broadly in the services. We know from the HMAS Success inquiry, we know from the recent Afghanistan Facebook inquiry, that we do get these instances.
I think there are two things that need to be said. Firstly, there’s no tolerance for any of that and, secondly, when we do see a public focus on these issues people tend to think that’s the only area of activity or the only conduct. That has to be matched, of course, with all of the good conduct we see every day of the week from Defence Force personnel.
KIERAN GILBERT: Peter Leahy, the Army Chief that I referred to — the ex-Army Chief — he says that — he’s actually suggested a review into ADFA, full stop. He says that ADFA’s not necessarily needed, that students could attend at local universities with their friends in a stable environment and then return to a specialist military college — Duntroon or whatever else — once they are more mature.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I haven’t read his article, that’s the first thing.
KIERAN GILBERT: Are you open to that?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I haven’t read his article, that’s the first point. Secondly, I don’t know whether he expressed these views when he was Chief of Army. That’s the first point.
But part of it, part of our audit, stock take, review, drive for cultural change, whatever, will include an examination by the sex discrimination commissioner and her team of recruitment into the Academy; also the curriculum, to see that we’ve got the curriculum right in terms of values, ethics et cetera as well.
KIERAN GILBERT: Are you open to any of that?
STEPHEN SMITH: As well — no I’m not — as well, as well, the Vice Chief of the Defence Force has played a very active role in making sure that there’s liaison and exchange of ideas between ADFA, which is not just effectively a university but also a residential college, with other universities and other residential colleges, because very many of the social issues also confront residential colleges as well.
KIERAN GILBERT: Did the CDF threaten to quit? Did the Chief of the Defence Force threaten to quit?
STEPHEN SMITH: Let me just-
KIERAN GILBERT: If you forced Bruce Kafer out-
STEPHEN SMITH: Let me just respond to you advisedly about this matter. I’ve seen that report in the paper today. Last night, late last night, a senior journalist from the paper — not one of the journalists with the by-line — contacted my office to make sure that I had had the opportunity to be aware of the story and respond, which to that point in time I hadn’t.
So I’ve had no contact, nor have my office, with the two journalists whose by-line is on the story. And I gave them the relevant paper a statement which said the response of the Minister for Defence and the Chief of the Defence Force is that this claim is entirely baseless, without foundation, and not worthy of the speculation from the senior journalist concerned.
The assertion is that Angus Houston threatened to resign in a meeting over the weekend. That is absolutely false. And the Chief of the Defence Force, Angus Houston, and I both make statement emphatically today. It is completely and entirely baseless.
The same journalist concerned yesterday had a story on the front page of his paper which said on Monday — yesterday — there’ll be a crisis meeting to determine the fate of Commodore Kafer. Well, that was entirely baseless too.
What had occurred over the weekend was that in meetings with the Chief of the Defence Force, the Vice Chief of the Defence Force, the Secretary of the Department and myself, the Vice Chief advised us on Saturday that he had effectively stood the commandant to one side, directing him to take leave.
We also agreed the sensible thing to do was to have an inquiry, which we’ve asked Mr Kirkham QC to effect. We also, over the weekend and yesterday, finalised the range of reviews that we have instituted, which have the full support of the Chief, the Vice Chief and the Service Chiefs themselves. It is a scurrilous, baseless, without foundation story, and it does no credit to the alleged senior journalist concerned.
KIERAN GILBERT: Is it — does this reflect a compromise, what we’ve seen, between you and the military chiefs?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well yesterday-
KIERAN GILBERT: And you had demanded Kafer gone full stop and now he’s gone on leave?
STEPHEN SMITH: No, no. Yesterday the Chief of the Defence Force and I stood up and said we have an outcome here which deals with the difficult and complex issues of the Defence Force Academy and the Skype incident and a range of proposals which deal with treatment of women generally, both at ADFA and in the Defence Forces.
KIERAN GILBERT: Did you want the Commander sacked?
STEPHEN SMITH: No, I-
KIERAN GILBERT: Did you want him sacked?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, what I wanted to occur was for this matter to be dealt with appropriately. People asked me in the past, you know, do you have confidence in the commandant, to which I refuse to be drawn because I wanted the facts to be dealt with properly.
But there’s a second point as well. He is not responsible to me in an employment or in a career sense. He is responsible to the Chief of the Defence Force and in the command line arrangement responsible directly to the Vice Chief of the Defence Force.
It was the Vice Chief of the Defence Force who decided to put him on leave. That had, when we were advised of that, the complete support of the Chief, of myself and the Secretary of the Department because we believed that was in his best interests, in the best interest of the Academy, in the best interest of the force because it would enable an inquiry to take place and to be done thoughtfully.
KIERAN GILBERT: But the perception is that you’ve been knocking heads with the military chiefs to-
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, this is-
KIERAN GILBERT: ‑to pull them in, to do something.
STEPHEN SMITH: Let me make this point-
KIERAN GILBERT: Is that a fair assessment of what’s been going on?
STEPHEN SMITH: I’ve seen this assertion made by people who are not currently serving officers or service chiefs. That’s the first point. Secondly, from the moment this matter arose, the Chief of the Defence Force, the Vice Chief of the Defence Force, the Secretary of the Department and I have effectively been meeting or hooking up on a daily basis, going through the complex and difficult issues.
And as the Chief said yesterday, everything that we announced yesterday has our complete and full support, as it should.
KIERAN GILBERT: So no stand-off? No stand-off there at all?
STEPHEN SMITH: Absolutely not. We were working through complex and difficult issues. The assertion by others that Angus Houston threatened to resign is entirely and completely baseless and not worthy of speculation by the newspaper or the journalist concerned. That was emphatically made clear in the statement that I gave to them on my behalf and on Angus Houston’s behalf last night.
KIERAN GILBERT: I’d better let you go. But I just want to ask you one last issue relating to all of this — that women in combat, you want that expedited, you want women to have access to combat roles. How realistic is that? You know, there are concerns from serving officers and so on that — how realistic is it that we will see women on the SAS for example?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, firstly, it’s very realistic. Currently women have access to about 93 per cent of roles in defence. They don’t effectively have access to infantry combat roles, some Air Force roles and some Navy roles and they don’t have access to Special Forces.
What the Government believes — on the recommendation of the Chief and on the recommendation of the Service Chiefs — and we’ve previously indicated this. We believe that the role you play in Defence, including in the services, should be determined entirely by your capacity, your physical capacity and your intellectual capacity; not on the basis of your gender. And what I’ve asked my colleague, the Minister for Defence, Science and Personnel, Warren Snowdon, to bring forward, with the full support of the Chief and the Service Chiefs, is the implementation of that. And what this also does-
KIERAN GILBERT: Will we see women in the Special Forces though, in the SAS?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well if they have, in due course, if they have the intellectual and the physical capability, yes, that will be open. That’ll be a decision that’ll be made on the basis of capacity, not on the basis of sex.
And what it will also do is essentially open up the pathway to all of the leadership roles in Defence and the Defence Force to women and that’s obviously a very good thing.
KIERAN GILBERT: Minister, appreciate your time, as always. Thanks.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thank you. Thanks very much.
Ministerial Support and Public Affairs,
Department of Defence,
More news and articles can be found on Facebook and Twitter.