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Transcript of interview: Sky News PM Agenda with David Speers: 27 September 2011: removal of combat restrictions

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Minister for Defence - Interview with David Speers, SKY News PM Agenda

27 September 2011



TOPICS: Removal of combat restrictions.

DAVID SPEERS: First we’re joined by Defence Minister, Stephen Smith who has of course

driven this change within the Government. Minister, welcome to the program.


DAVID SPEERS: Why is the Government doing this? Is it about the effectiveness of the

Australian Defence Force or is this about ending discrimination?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well it’s two. Firstly it’s about ending discrimination because we don’t

believe that it’s right that we should be making judgements about people’s capabilities and

their capacity, and excluding them from roles simply on the basis of their sex.

Secondly it’s about making sure we’ve got the best available people. So our approach,

strongly supported by the Chief of the Defence Force and the Service Chiefs, is if you’re a

woman, and you are physically, intellectually, psychologically capable of doing a task, then

that task should not be excluded from you simply on the basis of your sex.

DAVID SPEERS: So are you saying that this, putting women in these roles, and it is only 7

per cent, we should point out, of Defence roles that are currently off limits, the things like

Navy clearance diving, some of the Special Forces roles - is this going to improve the quality

of the Australian Defence Force?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well we certainly won’t allow it to reduce the quality. If we were arguing for

a reduction of standards or a reduction of the requirements then we would be rightly

criticised, but we’re not.

DAVID SPEERS: So none of the physical or fitness, strength, endurance, marksmanship,

those sort of standards, none of that will be lowered.

STEPHEN SMITH: If you’re a man, if you’re a bloke at the moment, and you want to get into

the SAS, you want to get into Commandos, you want to be a sniper, and you fail to meet the

physical, psychological tests and requirements, then you don’t get in.

Currently if you’re a woman you may well be able to pass those requirements - you can’t get

in because you’re a woman. So the reason we want to break the back of this is to open up all

roles for women - there’s a point of principle there, firstly. Secondly, we don’t want to

exclude people who might be the best at their task or the best at their role.

Also, this will open up finally to women all of the roles including the most senior leadership

roles and that’s a sensible thing to do.

DAVID SPEERS: So none of those standards are being reduced at all.

STEPHEN SMITH: No. And that’s why we’re giving ourselves plenty of time for the

implementation. But your point about - we’re dealing here with 7 per cent of current roles

excluded from women. Navy clearance divers, Air Force defence guards, and essentially

infantry and artillery in the Army.

But it’s 7 per cent of employment opportunities, and that’s largely because the bulk of the

numbers are infantry and artillery. So you’ve got more numbers in Army, effectively. So it’s

still a significant point of principle. But it is nearly 20 per cent of the employment possibilities

in Defence.

DAVID SPEERS: But getting back to that original question - it’s not about improving the

effectiveness of the ADF, this is about the principle.

STEPHEN SMITH: Well the argument has to be if you’ve currently got a woman who has got

the skills to perform a role from which she’s currently excluded from then you’re not going to

all of the people who could make your performance better. So we’re certainly not going to

allow a diminution, but it will open up a wider range of people from whom Army, Navy and

Air Force can chose.

DAVID SPEERS: One of the roles that’s currently off limits is the Navy clearance diving. One

of the issues often cited is the biomechanical difference between men and women, that men

can more easily breathe compressed gas than women. That’s one of the arguments put.

Do you see an issue there?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well if a woman is capable of doing the underwater work, she will be

eligible to apply, eligible to train, eligible to do it. I’m not an expert on the physiological

differences between men and women in terms of either holding their breath underwater - or

taking compressed air. But-

DAVID SPEERS: But the point is they might be able to pass a physical test but if there is a

biomechanical difference between men and women-

STEPHEN SMITH: What I can absolutely assure you of, just as you don’t walk through an SAS

training force and qualify to become a member of the SAS Regiment in Swanbourne in Perth,

nor do you walk or swim through the Navy clearance diver’s regime. So the point that we’re

making is that this-

DAVID SPEERS: That they’re not going to get in lightly.


DAVID SPEERS: Now, you know the various arguments that have been put over the years,

traditionally, against this sort of change. I just want to put one to you, this is - the Australian

Defence Association says that during training exercises the ratio of incapacitating injuries

runs about five to one, women to men; that’s during training exercises. And it’s saying - the

Association’s saying the risk of disproportionate female casualties does have obvious

operational, leadership, practical, equity, fairness, moral implications.

STEPHEN SMITH: Well I just don’t agree with any of that. What we are saying is currently, as

we’ve just agreed, there’s 7 per cent of roles excluded to women; and that’s less than 20 per

cent of the employment opportunities. We’re saying on the basis that an individual woman

has got the physical, the mental, the psychological capacity to do a job, then if they can do

the job on merit, pass the same standards that a man passes, qualify in the same way that a

man does then she should not be excluded.

DAVID SPEERS: But if there’s a higher casualty rate, is there a responsibility on government


STEPHEN SMITH: We currently don’t have higher casualty rates in the areas that we’re

talking about because women are excluded. The casualty rate for women in the SAS, the

casualty rate for women in infantry, the casualty rate for women who are mine clearance

divers is zero per cent.

DAVID SPEERS: What about this argument that women, if they’re captured in a battle zone,

are more likely to be sexually abused than man.

STEPHEN SMITH: Well this is not compulsory, it’s not conscription, that’s the first point.

Secondly, women will only do this if they want to. And whilst Australia is a country which

says we treat our prisoners of war and people we detain in accordance with international law,

in accordance with human rights standards, we have had in the past examples in times of

conflict when both men and women have been treated badly; treated in a degrading and

inhumane way.

Regrettably, I suspect that’ll occur into the future, in some instances, whether it’s a man or a

woman. The solution to that is to have countries abide by the laws of armed conflict.

DAVID SPEERS: Doesn’t always happen, of course.

STEPHEN SMITH: It doesn’t always happen, but we pride ourselves on setting those

standards for ourselves and expect other countries to abide by them.

DAVID SPEERS: Why, if this is going to be a positive, is there a need for a five year phase in?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well because we want to make sure that we get it right, that’s the first

point. Secondly, I’ve made it clear it’s a maximum, it’s up to five years, that’s the outer limit.

Because we’re dealing with different categories with different tasks we’re fully expecting that

there will be a phased implementation process. The Chief of the Defence Force is confident

that we can get it done within five years, but we’d rather set ourselves five years and meet

the task properly than to set ourselves a shorter period and not meet it.

DAVID SPEERS: And what do you say to some of those in the RSL and others who can’t cop

this, who do think it’s going to see a pretty strong community backlash against Defence.

STEPHEN SMITH: Well time will tell. I don’t believe that is right. I mean, individuals in

Australian society, whatever walk of life they come from or whatever their age, whatever

their occupation will form a view about this.

My own judgement is that the vast bulk of the Australian community will see this as a

sensible thing to do. A sensible thing to do because it’s right in principle, but a sensible thing

to do because we’re implementing it in a sensible way with the very strong support of the

current military leadership and the previous military leadership.

And we are - whilst this is an historic reform, and it’s taken Navy, Army and Air Force on

average a hundred years to get here, we are going to the last pieces of discrimination. We’re

removing the last barriers, in principle that’s a good thing to do, but the way in which we are

implementing that - we’re doing that in a way in which standards won’t fall, the capacity and

the capability of the Australian Defence Force will continue to be at the highest levels. But

we’ll also I think in time discover, when we look back at this in years to come that this was a

sensible thing to do, and ask the question: why didn’t we do it earlier?

DAVID SPEERS: Defence Minister, Stephen Smith, thank you.

STEPHEN SMITH: Thank you, thanks very much.