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Transcript of joint press conference: 23 February 2012: Coronial inquest; Labor leadership

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Minister for Defence - Press Conference with Minister for Home Affairs and Justice, Jason Clare

23 February 2012




DATE: 23 February 2012

TOPICS: Coronial inquest; Labor leadership

STEPHEN SMITH: [audio break] in response to the coronial inquiry into the Christmas Island

tragedy of December 2010.

This of course was a great tragedy; 50 lives lost, and this will be a tragic reminder for the

friends and families of those who died at the time. It will also be a terrible reminder for the

men and women of the Australian Navy and the Australian Customs Service who put their

own lives at risk in the course of a rescue operation.

Mr. Hope, the Coroner, has released his inquiry findings this morning and they will now be

the subject of exhaustive consideration by the Commonwealth.

This is the fourth inquiry into this terrible tragedy. The day after the tragedy in December

2010, Customs and Border Protection, effected a review that was made public in July of last

year. We’ve also seen a Select Committee of the Parliament examine this matter in detail and

there’s also been a Christmas Island Emergency Management Committee review.

Can I start by saying we thank, very much, the Coroner Mr. Hope for his exhaustive work, his

exhaustive analysis, and the 14 recommendations he has made will now be the subject of

exhaustive consideration by the Commonwealth. Some of those recommendations crossover

and overlap with some of the recommendations of those earlier reviews that I have referred

to, and Jason will deal with some of that detail.

As Minister for Defence there were two points I want to make.

On the day, the men and women of HMAS Pirie had a choice- they could put themselves at

risk and save lives, or they could not put themselves at risk. At every step in the process

they put themselves at risk to save lives. I’m very pleased that the Coroner has underlined

and reinforced the great feats and efforts of bravery and sacrifice that occurred on that day.

My own judgment from the outset and I’ve said this before, is that the men and women of

HMAS Pirie showed great bravery on that day - putting the rescue effort above their own

safety. I’m very pleased that the Coroner has underlined and reinforced that. At every step in

the process where there was a choice of putting themselves at risk and saving lives, they put

themselves at risk and saved lives.

Secondly, I am also pleased to see that the Coroner reinforces the point about the Jindalee

over the horizon radar or JORN, as it is known. This is not a capability which is aimed at

wooden boats. This is a capability which is used to provide a radar capability for Australia’s

approaches, aimed at large metal ships and large metal planes, and the bigger and faster and

more metal there is, the more effective it is. It is not a radar system which is suitable for, or

aimed at finding wooden boats, particularly wooden boats in very extreme weather and the

Coroner has made a point today that the system was not in operation, but it is not aimed at

that purpose.

So, in conclusion, a terrible tragedy; A terrible reminder to families but I’m very pleased as

Minister for Defence that the bravery of the men and women of HMAS Pirie has been

underlined on this occasion.

I’ll hand over to Jason- he’ll make some remarks in further detail about previous

recommendations and the Coroner’s recommendations. We then fully understand that you’ll

want to ask us about this matter but also about general political matters and we’re very

happy to respond to your questions on both fronts after Jason has made his contribution.

Thank you - Jason.

JASON CLARE: Well thanks Stephen. This is an important reminder of what was a terrible and

tragic day. 50 people died and if not for the bravery of Customs and Border Protection

officials as well as naval personnel, other government personnel and very importantly the

men and women of Christmas Island then more people would have died. And like Stephen,

I’m very glad that the Coroner has recognised the bravery of all those people and the work

that they did on that day.

We thank the Coroner for his report. It’s a very serious report. It includes 14

recommendations and we’ll treat them very seriously, we’ll consider them very carefully and

very thoroughly in the days and weeks ahead.

The recommendations go to things like surveillance and surveillance equipment, both

airborne surveillance and maritime surveillance equipment as well as radar equipment on the

island. It also deals with the sort of search and rescue equipment that the Australian Federal

Police and volunteer agencies have on the ground in Christmas Island, as well as equipment

on the island itself; so, for example, buoys and improvements to the boat ramp there at

Christmas Island. Some of those things have already been picked up in the recommendations

of other reviews, others haven’t, and we’ll be carefully and thoroughly considering all of those


As Stephen said, this is the fourth and final review that’s been commissioned into this terrible

tragedy. The first was commissioned by the Prime Minister the day after the event, the

second was a Parliamentary inquiry and a third was an inquiry led by the Emergency

Management Committee on the island. Most of the recommendations of those reviews have

now been implemented or are underway and we’ll adopt the same seriousness of purpose to

considering and reviewing these recommendations and implementing these recommendations

as we have to the other recommendations of those reviews.

So we can do that, but we do need to do more, much more, if we’re going to reduce the risk

of people dying at sea. This is not the only case in the last 12 or 15 months of people dying

at sea. Just before Christmas 200 people died when a vessel capsised off the coast of

Indonesia. Only a couple of weeks ago 11 people died when a boat capsised off the coast of

Malaysia and around the same time a couple of weeks ago 47 people fell into the water, went

into the water off the coast of Indonesia.

On that occasion the search and rescue team from Indonesia fortunately saved the lives of all

of those individuals. But that, of itself, must be a reminder about how dangerous these

journeys are and the work that we need to do together to stop people dying at sea. These

aren’t just numbers; their people. They’re mums, they’re dads, they’re children, they’re

young people and they’re old people and it is incumbent upon all of us, the Labor Party and

the Liberal Party, to work together to do everything that we possibly can to reduce the risk of

people dying sea.

Thanks very much.

STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks Jason. We are happy to respond to your questions.

JOURNALIST: [indistinct] equipped to Christmas Island to respond to emergencies

particularly in bad weather. Has that [indistinct]

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I think in terms of the Coroner’s recommendation, that is the most

substantive of the recommendations looking to the future. Obviously we’ll give that very

serious consideration. My own personal response to that is that we want to be positively

disposed to it. Some improvements have already occurred at Christmas Island and indeed the

trial of the land-based radar on Christmas Island is an illustration of that but obviously that is

a recommendation that we are very sympathetic to, but Jason can give some more detail on

work to date.

JASON CLARE: Subsequent to the tragedy Customs have increased the number of vessels

available during the monsoon season. They’ve also increased the amount of aerial

surveillance in the area based, in part, of information they get on where they think boats will

be and the likelihood of them being at sea in difficult and rough circumstances.

As Stephen said we’re also now trialling a land-based radar system. That’s been a consistent

theme of a lot of the reviews into this matter. A radar system of itself is no guarantee that

you’re going to pick up every single boat but we’ve been trailing a number of different types

of radars, both low-frequency and high-frequency. That work is ongoing and will help guide

us in a determination about the best radar system to permanently deploy at Christmas


JOURNALIST: Will the AFP [indistinct] search and rescue [indistinct]?

JASON CLARE: I’m determined to make sure that we’ve got the equipment we need, whether

it’s vessels or whether it’s equipment on land, to make sure that we do everything we

possibly can to protect against a repeat of these events. So one of these things that I’ll do is

hand a copy of the report to the Australian Federal Police and ask them for their advice on

the recommendations, just as I will to Customs and Border Protection. Stephen - I’m sure in

turn will with Defence - and regional development agencies, will need to seek their advice on

that as well. And based on their expert advice we’ll be able to respond thoroughly and

properly to all of the recommendations that we’ve received from the Coroner today.

JOURNALIST: The Coroner’s [indistinct] AFP [indistinct] months prior to the tragedy there’s

no rescue boat. Do you think [indistinct]?

JASON CLARE: That’s not what the Coroner said, we’ve got to be very careful not to verbal

the Coroner. In an event like this we’ve got very high sea states and terrible conditions, I

don’t think anyone would say that it ever possible to insure against the total loss of life. What

happened on that day was awful beyond belief. The question I will ask the Federal Police is

the one I just mentioned a moment ago. What more do you think you could do to assist to in

the event a repeat of that type of event occurring again, and I’ll be seeking their advice as a

matter of urgency.

JOURNALIST: One [indistinct] recommendation is that Border Command increased

surveillance on the island and increase their ability to [indistinct]?

JASON CLARE: I think that’s recommendation one, if I’m correct and to that point they’ve

done three things. So, there’s the trial of the land-based radar, there’s the doubling of the

number of boats that are based at Christmas Island, the Custom and Border Protection

Service boats that are based Christmas Island during the monsoon season; and in addition to

that an increase in the amount of aerial surveillance, they’re those Dash 8 aircraft that

Customs and Border Protection Service operate off the coast of Christmas Island to detect

vessels - not when they’re just on the coastline, over the horizon, but way beyond - so that

we can identify vessels before they get near Christmas Island.

STEPHEN SMITH: Alright. We’re finished on that- we are happy to respond to matters

general, if you’re interested?


STEPHEN SMITH: Okay, Channel 7 Perth, how are you?

JOURNALIST: Very well thank you. Minister, what’s your summary of the state of play now

with Ms. Gillard and Mr. Rudd?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we’ll have a ballot on Monday morning at 10 o’clock. I think that is

very important because we need to resolve this issue and put it behind us. The most effective

way of doing that is a ballot.

It’s probably the case that we’ve been heading in this direction for some time and one would

never know the precise way in which events will unfold. But we have a ballot on Monday,

there will be two candidates for that ballot, and as the Prime Minister said this morning, the

loser of that ballot needs to effectively go to the backbench and renounce any future

leadership aspirations to enable the Government to get on with the job of governing.

We have done- in my view, no government is perfect- but we have done a good job in

managing the national security interests of the Commonwealth, we have done a good job in

managing our economic security interests and managing the economy well, but because of

leadership speculation we’ve done a very bad job at looking after the Government’s political


Now you can’t enhance your political interests if you’re not governing well. If you are

governing well you’ve got to put speculation about leadership behind you so the most

important thing about Monday in my view is that we now have a vehicle to resolve this

matter and when it is resolved on Monday it needs to be resolved with finality; so that we can

get on with our jobs, get on with managing the economy, managing our national security

interests but also putting the Government in a better position for the election in 2013.

JOURNALIST: You’ve been in Parliament for along time. Have you ever seen the level of

bitterness between members of the Labor Party at the level that it is now?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well you and I have both been around long enough to remember a number

of leadership ballots on both sides of the Parliament, State and Federal. Whether we like it or

not, invariably, they get down to the sharp exchange of views because you are making a

judgment about who is best placed to run the country, run a government, run the state.

Now one of the reasons why I think there has been a fair amount of commentary in this

particular run-up to a ballot, is because people have said, and I’ve heard it the question

asked by journalists, by members of the community, when Prime Minister Rudd was replaced

by now Prime Minister Gillard, there was no conversation or explanation as to why this

occurred. That explanation is now being put forward.

Earlier today I said myself if you wanted to summarise it in one sentence it was because

members of the Cabinet and members of the Caucus came to the conclusion that if you’re

trying to work difficult issues through, difficult policy issues, difficult political issues, the vast

majority of members of the Government and Caucus came to the conclusion that you could

not work those through effectively with former Prime Minister Rudd. That’s my analysis and

you’re now saying that played out.

But this is not the first time in a leadership contest - Labor or Liberal - where there’s been

sharp exchange of views. The most important thing for the Government and also for the

country is that when this matter is resolved on Monday, that that’s the end of it.

JOURNALIST: [indistinct] have you ever seen at this ugly?

STEPHEN SMITH: I’ve seen a number of leadership ballots - State and Federal. There are

always sharp exchanges of views.

One of the things that I think makes this one a bit more in people’s faces is we’ve got now to

24-hour TV news channels, where as in the past people’s comments may be made to

newspapers, either anonymously or attributed, now everyone is out there on a 24-hour news

channel putting forward their point of view. That is part of the modern day.

I think it’s also the case that the general public, the community understand that when there

is a leadership fight in a political party you expect a sharp exchange of views, the most

important thing is that when it over, to move on, and to get behind the leader whoever that


Now I’ve made it clear that today and repeatedly in the past that I strongly support the Prime

Minister and in the ballot on Monday I will be voting for her, and arguing to my colleagues

that that is the best outcome for the Party, the best outcome for the Government, and the

best outcome for our nation.

JOURNALIST: How damaging is this the Labor Party in the lead up to an election?

STEPHEN SMITH: The election, in the normal course of events, and I’ve always been

confident that this Parliament would go effectively at full-term to September, October,

November, of 2013. In the normal course of events that’s when the election will be.

As we get closer to their election the community will start to make the comparison between

the Government and the Liberal Party, between Prime Minister Gillard and Opposition Leader

Abbott, and I remain of the view that in that contest the Opposition Leader will be found

wanting in terms of judgment; Judgment about the economy and judgment about national

security issues.

In terms of damage there will be ongoing damage to the Government if after Monday this

matter is not put behind us. And that’s why whatever the outcome is on Monday, and I’m

confident that the Prime Minister will prevail, whatever the outcome is on Monday, that’s

where it needs to end.

JOURNALIST: It could cost you a seat but [indistinct] not just sit in the backbench?

STEPHEN SMITH: All that is entirely a matter for him. He’s resigned as Foreign Minister, as a

consequence of that he’ll be on the backbench. It’s entirely matter for the judgment of

individual members of the Parliament whether they stay in the Parliament.

My own view of that would be that any one who caused a by-election when the Government it

is a minority Government would be viewed rather dimly, and I’m not expecting that Mr. Rudd

would take that course of action.

JOURNALIST: [indistinct] the damage that is cause the party now down to the [indistinct] of

Kevin Rudd?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well I’m not going to get into a running commentary. I’ve been asked

earlier today to give illustrations of this sort, or illustrations of that.

I’m very happy to put out into the public arena my analysis as to why the Cabinet and the

Caucus moved away from former Prime Minister Rudd. I’m also happy to say that in very

difficult circumstances I think the Prime Minister has done a very good job if getting

traditional Labor reform through the Parliament in the face of a minority House and a

minority Senate - and I repeat that analysis.

People came to the conclusion that they could not work the difficult issues through with the

former Prime Minister. Now the key thing is to resolve this matter on Monday and to resolve

with finality.

JOURNALIST: Do you see a scenario at all where it is possible that you end up as the Prime



JOURNALIST: Not at all?

STEPHEN SMITH: There will be two candidates on Monday - one will prevail.

My own judgment is but that will be Prime Minister Gillard and she will then be the leader

from now until the next election and that will be, in my view, the strong view of the Caucus

on Monday; In other words; once people have exercised their right in a ballot to vote for

whoever they want to we then move on. [indistinct]

[Audio Break]

STEPHEN SMITH: [indistinct] All members of the Caucus and the Party need to get behind

that. Not just in the interests of the Party, not just in the interests of the Government, but

also in the interests of the nation.

JOURNALIST: [indistinct]

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I’ve always taken the view that when the majority of the Caucus

makes its decision you then get behind the Prime Minister of the day.

I’ve served both Prime Ministers; if Mr. Rudd prevails it’s entirely a matter of him who he

wants to serve for him or with him. But that hypothetical is not one which I think I or other

Members of the Government will be presented with.

JOURNALIST: The removal of Kevin Rudd [indistinct] The conversation that you’re having

now about how he was like [indistinct] ?

STEPHEN SMITH: That’s not so much a hypothetical as a matter of history, and there’s no

point the last election campaign the last leadership contest. People can make their own

judgments about that. What I simply say is that after that contest a number of journalists

and a number of members of the community have asked publicly the question, why did that

occur? Well I think that you’re seeing in the course of the last 24 hours or so and earlier,

people’s reasons as to why that change was supported by the vast bulk of the Caucus was

effected. And I’ve given my analysis as to why I think that occurred.

JOURNALIST: [indistinct] yourself so much pain of being the minority Government right now

if you had that conversation [indistinct]?

STEPHEN SMITH: These are matters of history.

JOURNALIST: [indistinct] return to the foreign affairs portfolio?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well I’ve always said that whatever portfolio by serving is entirely a matter

the Prime Minister of the day. I served as Foreign Minister both with Mr. Rudd and Prime

Minister Gillard. I asked Prime Minister Gillard if I could serve as Defence Minister because I

wanted to stay in the national security space, or within the national security policy area. But

whatever portfolio I am in after Monday will be entirely a matter for the Prime Minister.

JOURNALIST: Mr. Clare could I ask you, and forgive me, not sure with you on the record but

can I get you on the record, whose camp are you in?

JASON CLARE: I was waiting for this question. I was wondering if it was going to come up.

Well like Stephen I’m a strong supporter of the Prime Minister so I’m behind her one hundred

percent, always have been and will be voting for her when the ballot comes on Monday.

Politics is all about working together and there’s an old saying division is death and it’s very

true in politics. That’s why it’s important that this is the final decisions on the leadership of

the Labor Party, because if it isn’t if this continues after the Caucus makes a decision on

Monday then it will destroy the Government and will hurt the Labor party for generation.

So, in a sense I’m glad that there is an opportunity for myself and my colleagues to make a

decision on Monday, and it’s very important regardless of who wins, that that is it; that it’s all

over and done with and that we sort this out.

Because ultimately there are Labor Party voters, people who voted for us who are members

of the Labor Party who depend on us to work hard in Canberra, to do the things that only a

Labor Government can do. And if we don’t do that than what you’re going to see are

increases in income tax, cuts in the pension, no budget surplus, no National Broadband

Network, no national disability insurance scheme, because that’s what Tony Abbott stands


So, get this sorted out and sorted out Monday.

JOURNALIST: And if Mr. Rudd does not repudiate [indistinct] on Monday is a disaster for


JASON CLARE: I think I answered that question. This is got be it - once and for all.

I come from New South Wales. So I can tell you for a bit of experience from New South

Wales that the leadership merry-go-round always ends badly.

JOURNALIST: [indistinct] the future by [indistinct] Mr. Rudd doesn’t repudiate any further

wish to be Prime Minister after Monday [indistinct] with Labor Government?

JASON CLARE: Well I think if you asked any member of the Labor Party Caucus if division

goes on it ends badly. This is as I said; politics requires everybody in the same party to work

together with the same objective. And if we don’t do that it will end very badly. So it’s very

important regardless of which person you support, I think all members of the Caucus would

agree with me that whatever the outcome on Monday, that’s it. That’s the Prime Minister that

leads us to the next election.

JOURNALIST: You both seem confident that Ms Gillard will be returned. Does she have the


JASON CLARE: I’m very confident that the Prime Minister will be returned. I think that she

has the overwhelming support but the members of the Government.

STEPHEN SMITH: I’ve seen supporters of Mr. Rudd in the course of this week say that he’s

got 40 votes. I’ve always thought that the best way to determine the amount of support that

someone has is to have a ballot, and so I don’t think that there’s much point in these


Mr. Rudd’s supporters say that he’s got 40 votes; well there is only really one way of testing

that, that’s turn up on Monday and have about. Once you’ve had the ballot and you know

where the support is, or is not, then as Jason and I have just both underlined definitively, you

then need to move on. And I think the irrespective of who people vote for, there will be a

very strong view out of the Caucus on Monday that any failure to getting fully behind the

Prime Minister and the Cabinet, the Government and the Party will be viewed very, very

poorly by caucus members and party members.

JOURNALIST: [indistinct]

STEPHEN SMITH: Irrespective of the number of votes that the loser gets that has to be the

end of it and if it’s not the end of it I think that the Caucus will come down like a ton of bricks

on those people who seek to take a different view.

Okay? Thanks very much.