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Transcript of joint press conference with Robert McClelland, MP: Commonwealth Parliamentary Offices, Sydney: 27 April 2006: Private Jake Kovco; Tasmanian miners tragedy; Bali Nine; Port Arthur 10 year anniversary; AWB scandal; Smart Card.
LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION THE HON KIM C BEAZLEY MP
TRANSCRIPT OF JOINT PRESS CONFERENCE WITH ROBERT McCLELLAND, COMMONWEALTH PARLIAMENTARY OFFICES, SYDNEY, 27 APRIL 2006
E & O E - PROOF ONLY
Subjects: Private Jake Kovco; Tasmanian miners tragedy; Bali Nine; Port Arthur 10 year anniversary; AWB scandal; Smart Card
BEAZLEY: This is a dreadful mistake which should never have happened. It should never have happened. Now, I’m not going to seek to politicise this. All any Australian feels is just simply the utmost sympathy for Shelley Kovco and her family in these circumstances.
It is a situation that is beyond the imagining of most of us Australians in contemplating their sorrow, augmented by what has occurred. But I want to say this very directly: Those who pay the ultimate price for the defence of the interests of their nation are entitled to be brought home and having their remains handled in that process exclusively by the Service for which they’ve fought.
The handling of the remains of Private Kovco should have been with the Australian Military from the time of his removal from the battlefield or from the Barracks in this case, to hospital and then ultimately home. This simply has to be the policy. And this simply has to happen.
In regard to the miners in Tasmania I had an opportunity to speak a short while ago to Deputy Premier Bryan Green who was actually at the site or the vicinity of the site at the time I spoke to him. Miners around this country have a strong brotherhood that arises from the difficult circumstances in which they work and the dangerous circumstances in which they work.
I want to express on behalf of the Opposition our deepest concern and sympathy with the families who are waiting for news of their loved ones. And deepest sympathy for the families of the miner who was confirmed as having died.
I know from my conversations with the Tasmanian Government that they have all the circumstances of this tragedy under active review and are going to learn from it to provide solutions in the future to minimise the difficulties associated with the mining industry in the area where this tragedy has occurred. As coincidence would have it, the Tasmanian authorities are in fact working on their mining legislation at this moment and their response to what needs to happen to their
legislation will certainly by guided by the product of the inquiry into this unfolding tragedy.
We, of course, as I said earlier, we exercise the greatest of hopes for the two men not yet accounted for and the greatest of sorrows for the man who has been lost. I’m aware on the many occasions I visited mines and visited mining communities how much they live with a sense of danger. How much, how important Occupational Health and Safety issues are to miners. How vital it is that those of us responsible for Government keep to the forefront of our thinking the necessity of maintaining an appropriate inspectorate, maintaining safety standards.
One of the things about trade unions, and the mining trade unions are among the strongest trade unions in the country, is that they keep a very careful watch on these issues and they must be listened to.
Now, I’m going to ask Robert [McClelland] to say a word or two to you about the Jake Kovco circumstances.
McCLELLAND: Certainly we believe there needs to be an inquiry as to how this tragic error occurred. But Australians would have been outraged to know, I believe, that private contractors were involved in transporting either an injured or a deceased serviceman or woman. It’s a practice that must be stopped. It must be stopped now for all kinds of reasons. In particular, in this case, there being questions regarding cause of death. Clearly there needed to be a chain of evidence in place for any coronial inquiry.
There must now be questions as to whether that chain has been kept in place. It seems to have been flawed by this tragic error. Our hearts can only go out to the family clearly entitled to be distressed and outraged by what has occurred. It simply can’t happen again and that’s a lesson that has to come out of this, and has to be announced and acknowledged by the Government that this practice of private contracting is going to end now.
JOURNALIST: Mr Beazley just a few minutes ago four of the Bali Nine have had their sentence reduced from life to twenty years. What’s your reaction to that?
BEAZLEY: It’s a matter for the Indonesian legal system. They put in an appropriate appeal process - the Indonesian legal system had deliberated on that and we note the determination they’ve arrived at.
JOURNALIST: Are you happy with it?
BEAZLEY: I’m not going to express a view on it one way or another frankly. I think it is an indication to us of the increasingly effective democratic practices in Indonesia and it’s noteworthy from that point of view.
JOURNALIST: (inaudible) widows of ex-Servicemen there was that case of the SAS in Afghanistan and his widow thought she wasn’t treated properly and all the focus on this case at the moment. What about afterwards when all the
publicity dies down?
BEAZLEY: Yes, that’s a test of all of us. Mrs Russell’s case, which is the one to which you’re referring to, and certainly as a West Australian, has touched the hearts of a lot of us and touched our concerns. She’s been a very strong advocate for the widows of Defence Personnel and she has made a difference. At the moment now, the appropriate response for us I believe is to express the sympathy that all Australians feel to Shelley Kovco and her family and to say with absolute conviction and firmness never again must any
Australian casualty be handled by private contractors.
Never again must circumstances occur where our honoured dead are brought home by anyone other than the Services for whom they fought. That simply has to be, from the Prime Minister today, a firm statement that this is not going to occur again. Of course, also, a firm statement that these processes will be thoroughly investigated. And that there should be no comment on the processes of those investigations until they’re completed.
JOURNALIST: Why do you think private contractors have been used? Is it a money thing?
BEAZLEY: I assume so. I would assume that at the time when the commitment was made to Iraq that plans were put in place to handle the injured and the deceased as there would have had to have been an anticipation by the Government at the time that these were possibilities that would emerge from the
conflict. Thankfully, not as many as we assumed would occur.
But I note that in relation to the British and the Americans who are removed from the battlefield because they’ve been killed or injured, those affairs are handled entirely by the Services and the same should have happened in the case of ours. I can only assume that in the plans that were put forward at the time the
commitment was made that this private process had been identified as the way we’d go. It wasn’t the right way.
JOURNALIST: Is there too much privatisation going on in general?
BEAZLEY: Whatever the rights and wrongs of privatisation are, in the question of the handling of the honoured dead of our nation, there is only one
way to handle it and that is to handle them appropriately through the Service process.
JOURNALIST: The Defence Minister has said that Jake Kovco wasn’t cleaning his gun, are you aware of that?
BEAZLEY: My strong advice to the Defence Minister is this: Say nothing about the circumstances of this death, until you have the results of your investigation. Don’t feed it. I can understand why the media would be interested in knowing the details as they come to hand that is your job. It is the job of the Defence Minister, to say to the public that a thorough going investigation is taking place and when that investigation is completed we will lay the results out for you. There is a huge risk here of hurtful things being put about the place and false speculation just making the life of the family more of an agony.
JOURNALIST: Mr Beazley, on another issue, tomorrow is the ten year anniversary of the Port Arthur massacre. Are Australians doing enough in terms of gun control?
BEAZLEY: That’s a situation we always have to keep under review. I think that the response at the time the Port Arthur massacre occurred reflected well on the political process of this country. There was a very good bi-partisan response to the question of handling of weapons in this country and obligations and responsibilities on those who are in possession of weapons. I thought at the time it was a good response. I haven’t seen reasons since then to change the response that was put in place at that point of time. I can recollect those terrible circumstances well. Both the Prime Minister and myself made absolutely certain that on a bi-partisan basis strong laws were put in place. I think those laws have stood the test of time.
JOURNALIST: The Prime Minister has said the States and Territories should be doing more to restrict gun use. Do you agree?
BEAZLEY: Now I think as I’ve said this is a situation that we ought to keep under constant review and good laws have been put in place, good practices have been put in place. The States would say to the Prime Minster, I suspect, that the Commonwealth could do more in customs arrangements in relation to the entry of weapons into this country. But by and large I think both the States and the Commonwealth have done reasonably well in this area and in the time since then. If the Prime Minister has further issues that he has with the way in which the States handle it, the appropriate thing for him to do is put it on the agenda at COAG and talk it through with them.
JOURNALIST: Mr Beazley, AWB’s lawyers have lodged a complaint to Terence Cole that Mr Howard’s remarks that AWB misled the Government. Do you believe those comments at will prejudice the inquiry?
BEAZLEY: That is for Commissioner Cole to determine whether or not the Prime Minister’s comments have prejudiced the inquiry. What I’d say is the Australian people do not believe the Prime Minister on this matter. They do not believe the Prime Minister when he says that he did not know that these dreadful events were occurring. The Australian people believe the Prime Minister turned a blind eye to all of this and that the Prime Minister and his colleagues are guilty of gross incompetence. I agree with the Australian people.
JOURNALIST: So you’re not prepared to say it’s prejudicial?
BEAZLEY: I’m not the Commissioner and what I do say about the Prime Minister and I’m sure the AWB lawyers would agree with this is he’s found every single way he possibly can to deflect blame away from his Ministers and his Government and put it on other people, when if he was halfway decent, he’d be taking responsibility for this and his gross neglect and doing something about it. But this exercise has part of its purpose: the deflection of the attention away from
the Prime Minister and that’s a disgrace.
JOURNALIST: Do you think the Smart Card effectively amounts to a de facto national ID card?
BEAZLEY: Look can I say we actually have no objection in principle to the idea of a Smart Card but we have a massive concern about the competence of this Government to implement it. Now recollect that just about every major issue this Government handles is handled incompetently. The introduction of something like this absolutely must be handled competently.
We have other questions as well. We have questions about the amount of savings they’re supposed to get from this and the actual cost of it to Government. If this is a costly exercise it’s not a sensible thing to do. So, we want to see the report, the KPMG report, on which the Government’s decision was based.
The Government’s going to do something like this they owe it to the Australian people to display that. That will tell us more accurately about what the cost of it’s likely to be to the taxpayer and what savings there may well be from it.
And the final concern we have in this regard is the issue of privacy. Not that it’s in principle wrong to do something like a Smart Card. But the question arises when you’re replacing 17 other cards with one, the security issues rise because the stakes rise of protecting the security of the card and the privacy of the people concerned.
When you’ve got a Government that routinely bungles everything that it handles, the idea that you’d place that much of your information in their hands and trust
their protection of it, must be one that’s disconcerting to many Australians and it’s disconcerting to me.
So in principle, it’s a good idea. What else could I say as a member of a Government who proposed an Australia Card? In principle it’s a good idea, but you have to have a competent Government to implement it and we don’t.