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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