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Transcript of interview with Lyndal Curtis: ABC: 16 August 2012: Afghanistan transition; Nauru and PNG; Malcolm Fraser

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Minister for Defence - Interview with Lyndal Curtis, ABC

16 August 2012



DATE: 16 AUGUST 2012

TOPICS: Afghanistan transition; Nauru and PNG; Malcolm Fraser.

LYNDAL CURTIS: Stephen Smith, welcome to News 24.


LYNDAL CURTIS: From your update to Afghanistan the process of the transition both to Afghan

authority and the eventual transition of Australian troops out of Afghanistan seems to be going to


STEPHEN SMITH: Yes it’s going well so far as the planning is concerned. We had the international

Summit in Chicago. What we’re doing is consistent with that. We will take the leadership in

Uruzgan province before the end of this year, and the formal transition process started in the

middle of July. So it’s on track, but there will be setbacks, and it continues to be difficult and

dangerous, so we can’t lull ourselves into a false sense of security but it’s progressing well.

LYNDAL CURTIS: Because one of the things that has been more apparent - not at the moment

affecting Australian forces - is what are called green on blue or insider attacks, attacks by

members of the Afghan National Army on either their own soldiers or soldiers working with them.

What the Australian forces has done since it suffered from an attack, better protected it and can

other nations learn from the Australian experience?

STEPHEN SMITH: Both of those things have occurred. We took additional so-called force

protection measures, not just in our own case, but in consultation with the Afghan authorities,

because when we suffered two terrible incidents with four fatalities in total, they were shock and

as appalled as we were.

So we introduced a range of measures. ISAF, the International Security Assistance Force, through

General Allen, was consulted about those measures. But he’s also instituted changes of his own,

because as I made clear to the Parliament today, whilst we fortunately have not been on the

receiving end in the course of this year, our International Security Assistance Force colleagues

have. So they’ve affectively adopted some of the procedures and mechanisms that we put in

place, and I don’t go into those in any detail for the obvious reasons. But we have in some

respects been at the vanguard, and we’re now at the same standard as our international partners.

LYNDAL CURTIS: You also told the Parliament that another former Defence employee has been

charged in connection with the falsification of documents, part of a team that manages detainees

in Afghanistan - exactly what sort of documents were involved?

STEPHEN SMITH: This has arisen essentially as a result of a documentary study of the files and to

put it at its lowest level the paper work wasn’t done properly. But I’m not going to go into more

detail, because three more people will be the subject of disciplinary hearings.

I think there are a couple of important points to make. We’ve gone down this path because we will

be assiduous about dotting every i and crossing every t when it comes to detainee management,

because that reflects Australia’s values and virtues, but it also reflects our domestic and

international legal obligations. And we don’t want to go down some of the paths where we’ve seen

other countries get into trouble for example in Iraq. So we’re being assiduous.

But secondly - the key point I’ve made to the Parliament - whilst there have been deficiencies,

there continues to be no allegation that any of these deficiencies have led to any mistreatment or

maltreatment of the detainees, and that, in very many respects, is the most important thing.

LYNDAL CURTIS: Now a Defence Force plane took off this morning going to take people to Nauru

and Manus Island. Defence will be involved in reconnaissance and setting up temporary facilities.

Do we know exactly the scope of the Defence Force involvement?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well firstly, a C-130 took off from Canberra this morning. It will land in Brisbane

later this morning, pick up some additional people in Brisbane and then fly to Port Moresby. It will

be in Port Moresby overnight and then tomorrow the reconnaissance teams will move to Manus

Island and Nauru. And it’s not just Defence - it’s a whole of government effort, obviously with

Immigration officials, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade officials and it will essentially do

the scoping study or the reconnaissance to firstly establish a temporary facility, but more

importantly, to establish a more permanent facility which will be as quickly as possible run under

the authority of the Department of Immigration.

LYNDAL CURTIS: And will it be Defence establishing that temporary facility, putting up the tents?

STEPHEN SMITH: We have to do the reconnaissance first, that’s obvious, but we’re proceeding on

the basis that in the first instance Defence will work very hard to establish a temporary facility

and then hand over that facility to Immigration and others as soon as possible. We think we’re

talking days and weeks, not weeks and months.

It’s appropriate for Defence to be used in this way. The very strong advice I have from the Chief

of the Defence Force is this is not going to have any adverse implications on any of our

operations, but we don’t regard it as a role for Defence to be engaged in an ongoing way. We’ll

help establish the temporary facilities, we’ll help do the reconnaissance, we’ll help give the advice

and then as quickly as possible leave it to the appropriate officials which will be Immigration.

LYNDAL CURTIS: But Defence will have a role in transporting asylum seekers from perhaps

Christmas Island to Nauru or when they are intercepted taking them to Nauru, will Defence have a

role in the early stages once the temporary facilities are established in managing the detainees in

the early stages at all?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well two things. From time to time in extremis, particularly when medical

circumstances arise, Defence have been used to transport asylum seekers or refugee applicants.

But as a general proposition, it’s not appropriate for Defence to be doing that, and so the starting

point that the Minister for Immigration and I have is that when it comes to the transportation of

asylum seekers to Nauru or Manus Island, that will be done by and under the authority of the

Department of Immigration.

From time to time we’ve done it in extremis, but that’s not our working or operating model.

LYNDAL CURTIS: And in the early stages of establishing the facilities on Nauru and Manus Island,

once those facilities have been established, if asylum seekers arrive then Defence has no further

role in looking after them?

STEPHEN SMITH: No it’s not our job, nor is it appropriate for us to be engaged in the

management of the asylum seekers, or the ongoing security arrangements, whatever they are.

LYNDAL CURTIS: One quick final question. There are some people including Malcolm Fraser, a

former Secretary of the Defence Department, Paul Barratt, and a former head of the Defence

Force pushing for an inquiry into the Iraq war. Is one warranted so long after it’s finished?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well no. The circumstances of the Iraq war have been gone through by any

number of parliamentary inquiries, particularly in the Senate. You always learn lessons from a

former or a previous conflict. One of the lessons we’ve learnt from Iraq for example is you’ve got

to be very careful if you are a detainee authority to manage that carefully. My political party, the

Labor Party, opposed going to Iraq and when we came to office we withdrew our combat troops.

So our longstanding view of Iraq is well known.

But you do learn things from previous conflicts. For example, Malcolm Fraser was the Minister for

Army when we were in Vietnam. We learnt from Vietnam that it’s not a sensible thing to send

people to a conflict as conscripts.

So, with the greatest of respect to Malcolm, he’s these days saying a range of things which I

didn’t hear him say when he was either Minister for the Army sending people to Vietnam or Prime

Minister. There’s no basis in our view for trailing over history. The lessons have been learnt, and

we are adopting and incorporating those in some of the things I have announced today.

LYNDAL CURTIS: Stephen Smith, thank you very much for your time.

STEPHEN SMITH: Thank you, thanks very much.