Minister for Defence Stephen Smith MP in Interview with Kieran Gilbert

KIERAN GILBERT: The 43rd Par­lia­ment is now under­way and we’re expect­ing a fiery Ques­tion Time today, Julia Gillard’s first as an elect­ed Prime Min­is­ter. The ques­tions and answers will be short­er, but will any­thing else be dif­fer­ent? Join­ing me to look at the pol­i­tics of the day and the oth­er issues around, the Defence Min­is­ter Stephen Smith.

Good morn­ing Mr Smith. 

STEPHEN SMITH: Good morning. 

KIERAN GILBERT: First of all, a new ter­ror alert. Two extrem­ist groups are plan­ning attacks in Del­hi. What’s the lat­est the Gov­ern­ment has on that? 

STEPHEN SMITH: The ini­tial assess­ment is that there is no basis for these reports, but we’re, as we always do, pro­fes­sion­al­ly and very care­ful­ly assess­ing those. 

So the pre­lim­i­nary assess­ment is that it does­n’t add to any­thing that we already know. And our trav­el advice for India has for some time been that there is a high risk of ter­ror­ist attacks. 

KIERAN GILBERT: Julie Bish­op says you need to be more aggres­sive in your brief­in­gs of ath­letes to pro­vide them with brief­in­gs, per­son­al brief­in­gs from the Government. 

Why does­n’t the Gov­ern­ment do that and take that on board? 

STEPHEN SMITH: I’m not sure that that’s right. That’s the first point. Sec­ond­ly, I think there are two aspects to it, one is the ath­letes and the sport­ing asso­ci­a­tions, and there has been very good and exhaus­tive con­sul­ta­tion with the Com­mon­wealth Games Fed­er­a­tion, but also with the indi­vid­ual sport­ing bod­ies, pro­vid­ing to the ath­letes all the infor­ma­tion they need to make their own judg­ment. But sec­ond­ly, there’s the Aus­tralian trav­el­ling pub­lic who may be inter­est­ed in going to the Games and the point we’ve always made, they should very care­ful­ly read our trav­el advisory. 

But we’ve put in a big effort in terms of the run up to the Com­mon­wealth Games to make sure that all of the avail­able secu­ri­ty and trav­el advice is there, both for the trav­el­ling pub­lic, but also for the athletes. 

KIERAN GILBERT: But the Shad­ow For­eign Min­is­ter is say­ing that you need to pro­vide that direct­ly to the ath­letes to give them brief­in­gs on what you know, that you get the best advice, and that you need to be more direct in the process, not just telling the ath­letes to rely on the trav­el advice. 

STEPHEN SMITH: Well the lead-line agency is, of course, the Depart­ment of For­eign Affairs and Trade. And I’m sure all of that is occurring. 

I know from my own expe­ri­ence that when it comes, for exam­ple, to Aus­tralian crick­et teams tour­ing or, for exam­ple, the recent Hock­ey World Cup, that all of that has been done in the past, and con­tin­ues to be done. 

KIERAN GILBERT: Through the sport­ing agencies. 

STEPHEN SMITH: Yes. That’s my understanding. 

KIERAN GILBERT: All right, Aus­tralian troops now. In your role as Defence Min­is­ter, the spe­cial forces are train­ing Indone­sian spe­cial forces, the noto­ri­ous Kopas­sus. They’ve been impli­cat­ed in terms of human rights vio­la­tions in the past. Are you com­fort­able with what’s happening? 

STEPHEN SMITH: I think we do need to look at this both in a his­tor­i­cal sense, but also in a mod­ern sense. We know that in the past there have been human rights breach­es by peo­ple asso­ci­at­ed with Kopas­sus and we have been very care­ful. And this has been the prac­tice of Aus­tralian Gov­ern­ments for a long peri­od of time, to min­imise con­tact with any­one in Kopas­sus who is sub­ject to human rights breach alle­ga­tions or accusations. 

But Indone­sia and Kopas­sus have come a long way. We’re now deal­ing with the mod­ern Indone­sia. It’s very impor­tant for us to have defence and secu­ri­ty coop­er­a­tion with Indone­sia. Indone­sia is one of our clos­est friends when it comes to tak­ing action to pre­vent ter­ror­ist attacks occur­ring. And we know that Indone­sia has been very suc­cess­ful in the face of a lot of activ­i­ty, and we’ve been on the receiv­ing end in both Bali and Jakarta. 

KIERAN GILBERT: But Indone­sian human rights groups are say­ing that there are still ques­tion marks, big ques­tion marks over Kopassus. 

STEPHEN SMITH: We, as a mat­ter of course, min­imise con­tact with Kopas­sus indi­vid­u­als who have been sub­ject to human rights accu­sa­tions. That’s our cur­rent prac­tice. That’s been the prac­tice in the past. 

But I think peo­ple do need to look at the mod­ern Indone­sia and the mod­ern Kopas­sus. We have worked very hard over the pre­ced­ing peri­od to ensure that asso­ci­a­tions we have with oth­er organ­i­sa­tions under­stand the very strong and high stan­dards that Aus­tralia has so far as human rights are concerned. 

KIERAN GILBERT: Okay, you vis­it­ed a new Aus­tralian-run deten­tion facil­i­ty in Tarin Kowt, Afghanistan just a few days ago now. You appar­ent­ly saw pris­on­ers sit­ting hand­cuffed, blind­fold­ed, and with ear­muffs. Are you com­fort­able with that sort of sen­so­ry deprivation? 

STEPHEN SMITH: First­ly, in any con­flict — and this is a con­flict, this is a war-like con­flict — there are issues of detainee man­age­ment. And with the with­draw­al of the Dutch, we have had to take a greater role, and a greater respon­si­bil­i­ty so far as detainee man­age­ment is concerned. 

This was a new facil­i­ty which I inspect­ed with Aus­tralian media present. So this was open and trans­par­ent. That’s the first point. Sec­ond­ly, a good thing about the facil­i­ty is that essen­tial­ly it is impos­si­ble to be in that facil­i­ty with­out all of the activ­i­ty being on cam­era, which can sub­se­quent­ly be reviewed. Third­ly, I was told when I was there that Inter­na­tion­al Red Cross inspect­ed the facil­i­ty on a reg­u­lar basis. 

So we demand very high standards. 

When peo­ple are detained, they are assessed and processed. Some are released after the ini­tial inves­ti­ga­tion and some are hand­ed over to the Afghan author­i­ties. But we have always, when it comes to detainee man­age­ment, had very high stan­dards, and I’m very pleased that that facil­i­ty ensures that noth­ing can occur in that facil­i­ty which is not record­ed, by audio or video or both, which can be sub­se­quent­ly assessed and exam­ined if required. 

KIERAN GILBERT: There’ll be anoth­er par­lia­men­tary debate on the Afghan oper­a­tion in this new par­lia­men­tary land­scape. But you’ve just returned from there as we said.

What’s the morale like giv­en the recent string of fatal­i­ties there for the Aus­tralian forces? 

STEPHEN SMITH: The forces there have been through a tough time. I went to Kab­ul, spoke to Afghan Min­is­ters, to Gen­er­al Petraeus, also to our own Aus­tralian offi­cials who are in the ISAF head­quar­ters itself, embed­ded with the Inter­na­tion­al Secu­ri­ty Assis­tance Force, but also to Tarin Kowt, Uruz­gan Province. And we have had 10 fatal­i­ties in the space of the last three or four months. 

So since our engage­ment in Afghanistan, since 2001, over near­ly a decade, we’ve had 21 casu­al­ties, near­ly half of those in the last few months. 

In some respects we were lulled into a false sense of secu­ri­ty. We did­n’t have a fatal­i­ty from July of 2009 until June of this year. So they’ve gone through a very tough time, as have the fam­i­lies back home. 

But my dis­cus­sions with the offi­cers and with the troops on the ground, they’ve been through a tough time, but morale is good. They’re very focused on their mission. 

And all of the advice I get, whether it’s from Afghan Min­is­ters, whether it’s from Afghan offi­cials in Uruz­gan or from Gen­er­al Petraeus him­self, is that peo­ple very high­ly val­ue the pro­fes­sion­al­ism and the good work in a secu­ri­ty and mil­i­tary sense of our sol­diers there. But also very much val­ue the way in which they go about their busi­ness in coop­er­a­tion with the local Afghans. And the Act­ing Gov­er­nor of Uruz­gan was very com­pli­men­ta­ry in his remarks to me about the way in which our sol­diers, both men and women, mix and work well with the local community. 

KIERAN GILBERT: You’ve just been, as I under­stand it, you’ve spo­ken to Robert Gates, the US Defence Sec­re­tary as well as your UK coun­ter­part. Have you got any­thing to report on that front par­tic­u­lar when it comes to the Afghan deployment?

STEPHEN SMITH: When I returned from Afghanistan, the last cou­ple of days, I’ve spo­ken to Sec­re­tary of Defence Gates and also to Liam Fox, the UK Defence Sec­re­tary. Of course on both occa­sions we spoke about Afghanistan. 

In the case of Sec­re­tary Gates, we also spoke about the pend­ing AUSMIN meet­ing, the Aus­tralia US Min­is­te­r­i­al Meet­ing which will take place in Aus­tralia in Novem­ber. And so we also spoke about the strength of the Alliance. 

But Sec­re­tary Gates was also high­ly com­pli­men­ta­ry of the role that Aus­tralia plays in Afghanistan. We know that we have a dif­fi­cult mis­sion to con­tin­ue with, but we are very focused on the train­ing of the Afghan Nation­al Army in Uruz­gan Province. And one of the very strong and good impres­sions I came away with was the com­mit­ment that the Afghan Min­is­ters have to the tran­si­tion of secu­ri­ty arrange­ments to the Afghan Secu­ri­ty Forces them­selves, which the recent Kab­ul Con­fer­ence had a timetable for, 2014. 

KIERAN GILBERT: Well just one last ques­tion on Afghanistan, the Mil­i­tary Pros­e­cu­tor has announced that three Aus­tralian sol­diers will be charged over an inci­dent in Uruz­gan Province, Feb­ru­ary last year. Why has this dragged on so long?

STEPHEN SMITH: I’m going to be very care­ful about what I say because this is pri­mar­i­ly, if not exclu­sive­ly, a legal mat­ter. The three con­cerned will now be the sub­ject of a judi­cial process and I don’t want to say any­thing which reflects either on the inci­dent, on the forth­com­ing legal processes. 

But in gen­er­al terms, Aus­tralian forces have always been sub­ject to very high stan­dards so far as rules of engage­ment and con­duct is con­cerned. They have a very well earned rep­u­ta­tion, both in terms of domes­tic rep­u­ta­tion and inter­na­tion­al rep­u­ta­tion, of hav­ing very high stan­dards when it comes to these matters. 

But we do need to allow these legal process­es to take their course and the Mil­i­tary Pros­e­cu­tor has rec­om­mend­ed charges, and that will now take place. And I’m not propos­ing to reflect on the time­li­ness or oth­er­wise of that. These are inde­pen­dent legal and judi­cial processes. 

KIERAN GILBERT: All right. One final ques­tion, the Oppo­si­tion has said that the Gov­ern­ment is going to be kept to a high­er stan­dard when it comes to Min­is­te­r­i­al vis­its and so on, that they won’t be pro­vid­ing pairs for votes flippantly. 

Could this be a bless­ing in dis­guise for the way that Par­lia­ment works, and will Min­is­ters have to change the way they oper­ate to ensure you’re here more often?

STEPHEN SMITH: I just hope that com­mon­sense pre­vails. The Lib­er­al Par­ty signed up to an agree­ment which includ­ed a sen­si­ble approach to pair­ing arrange­ments. They’ve now effec­tive­ly spat the dummy. 

Let’s just hope in the forth­com­ing days and weeks that com­mon­sense pre­vails and the sorts of oblig­a­tions which Mem­bers of Par­lia­ment and Min­is­ters need to dis­charge are catered for. And it can be as sim­ple as a Mem­ber of Par­lia­ment need­ing to go back home quick­ly because there’s an ill­ness or a dif­fi­cul­ty in the fam­i­ly to a Min­is­ter or a Shad­ow Min­is­ter need­ing to sen­si­bly dis­charge an oblig­a­tion out­side of the House. I just hope they get through the anger at not form­ing a Gov­ern­ment, that com­mon­sense pre­vails. KIERAN GILBERT: Stephen Smith, appre­ci­ate your time. 

STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks very much. 

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

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