Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Transcript of joint press conference: Joint Operations Command Centre, Carwoola: 4 March, 2015: building Partner Capacity in Iraq; Australian Defence Force pay; Australians facing execution in Indonesia



Download PDFDownload PDF

1

www.pm.gov.au

PRIME MINISTER

4 March 2015

TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRIME MINISTER THE HON. TONY ABBOTT MP JOINT PRESS CONFERENCE WITH THE HON. KEVIN ANDREWS MP, MINISTER FOR DEFENCE,

JOINT OPERATIONS COMMAND CENTRE, CARWOOLA

Subjects: Building Partner Capacity in Iraq; Australian Defence Force pay; Australians facing execution in Indonesia.

E&OE……………………….……………………………………………………………

PRIME MINISTER:

It’s good to be here at the Joint Operations Command Centre with the Minister, Kevin Andrews, with the local Member, Peter Hendy, with my distinguished colleagues Andrew Nikolic and Linda Reynolds, who of course are former brigadiers in the Australian Defence Force.

The Minister and myself have just received a very thorough briefing from the Vice Chief of the Defence Force and others on the Taji base where our Building Partner Capacity mission currently being prepared will be stationed. To repeat, this is a very important contribution by Australia and New Zealand to the operations of the Coalition to disrupt, degrade and ultimately destroy the ISIL or Daesh death cult which has promulgated this new dark age over so much of Iraq and Syria.

It is a training mission, not a combat mission. Nevertheless, our armed forces are going into a very dangerous place, so it will be a capable and well prepared force that can look after itself if necessary. Again, I stress it is a training mission; it is not a combat mission. The Iraqi government is absolutely explicit that it wants our help as trainers, not as combat soldiers. While we will continue to fly sorties on an intensive basis in conjunction with our allies that are having a heavy impact on the death cult, our ground forces are there as trainers, not as combat soldiers.

But I have to say that based on the briefing that the Minister and myself have received, our people are already well appraised of the situation on the ground. There are already some American forces at Taji also doing training operations there. It is a hazardous part of the world - a very hazardous part of the world - but we are well aware of the risks. We are well placed to deal with any threats and as I said, it is a very capable force and I think that the Australian people, as always, can be confident that whenever our defence forces are engaged to wherever our defence forces are involved, they are committed, they are professional, they are decent, they are humane and they will give a very good account of themselves and of the Australian nation.

2

www.pm.gov.au

So, I want to say thank you to the Vice Chief and his colleagues for the briefing that we have received today and I will now ask the Minister for Defence to make a further announcement.

DEFENCE MINISTER:

Thank you, Prime Minister, can I also indicate this morning that the Government is asking the Chief of the Defence Force to approach the Defence Tribunal in order to increase the pay amount to the defence forces - the military forces - from the current amount of 1.5 per cent to two per cent. Two per cent is slightly above the current rate of inflation of 1.7 per cent. We believe that there is a special compact between the Australian people and our military, the defence forces. This is an adequate and proper reflection of that. I would like to say this has been something which I have been in consultation with my colleagues, Andrew Nikolic and Linda Reynolds and a lot of backbenchers, including Peter Hendy, and indeed the Assistant Minister Stuart Robert. The CDF will go back to the tribunal with the Government's intention that that pay offer be increased over the three years to 2 per cent per annum.

PRIME MINISTER:

Ok, do we have any questions?

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, why the rethink on the two per cent? I believe that you only wanted to put it at 1.5 per cent before. Is it because you're redeploying 300 troops?

PRIME MINISTER:

Obviously, we ask a lot of our defence forces and the fact that we have deployed additional numbers of our defence forces into what is a difficult and dangerous mission, training mission, not a combat mission, but nevertheless difficult and dangerous. It does reinforce just how much we ask of our defence forces. It does reinforce the special status that our defence forces have. It does highlight the special compact that the Minister has referenced between the Australian people and those who wear our uniform. So, I think it’s appropriate that we do increase the offer from 1.5 per cent to two per cent. It is just above the current inflation rate, so it is still frugal Government, if I may say so. But it is frugal Government that acknowledges the special place that the defence forces have. If you actually look at what has happened to defence pay over the last few years, between 2008 and 2013, while Australian public service wages went up by 26 per cent, defence pay went up by just 21 per cent. So, this is a modest catch-up, if you like, as well as an acknowledgement of the special compact between the Australian people and those who wear our uniform.

QUESTION:

How much is this going to cost the budget?

PRIME MINISTER:

The advice I have from the CDF is that it will be about $200 million over the forward estimates and we believe that this is manageable and can be accommodated from efficiencies arising out of the defence First Principles Review.

QUESTION:

[inaudible] in their eyes, do you think two per cent will be enough?

3

www.pm.gov.au

PRIME MINISTER:

In the end, these are questions of judgement; these are questions of balance. Now, we appreciate that defence families in particular make significant sacrifices because their loved ones are away from home for long periods of time. Their loved ones are in dangerous, hazardous circumstances. They are in peril in a way that most people never are and given the pressures on defence families, we thought it was right and proper to give them something that was at or slightly above the current rate of inflation.

QUESTION:

The Defence Department civilians were given an offer - a pay offer - recently that deliberately undercuts what the uniform personnel are being offered. Will that now be reviewed? And if not is there a danger that too great a gulf is opening up between the uniformed and the bureaucrats?

PRIME MINISTER:

It’s interesting that you should raise that, because one of the differences between a uniform pay setting and public service pay setting is that uniform pay setting is simply done, it is a done deal by the Government, whereas Australian public service pay setting is a negotiated process which in the end goes before a tribunal for a decision. Now, the offer that has been made to defence civilians is two per cent or very close to two per cent in the first year. Admittedly there are productivity trade-offs that we aren't asking of our uniform personnel but by upping this uniform pay to two per cent, we are in fact reflecting the current offer to defence civilians, at least in year one.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, as with the GP co-payment, is this another example of the Government sticking by a bad policy position for too long?

PRIME MINISTER:

Obviously what we need to do is so manage the nation's finances that we can get us out of the difficulties that the former government left us in, but we’ve got to do it in ways which take the Australian people with us. Again, there is, if you like, a continuous conversation going on between the Government and the people of Australia and I have got to say there is a bit of give and take on both sides. Now, you all know that the Intergenerational Report is coming out tomorrow. It is a very interesting and instructive document. What the Intergenerational Report will show is that under the policies of the former government, we were going into a ruinous fiscal position, with the debt to GDP ratio heading to 120 per cent, with deficits heading to 12 per cent of GDP. We’ve made a very good start at budget repair. We have effectively halved the long term deficit position with the measures that we have already put in place. Had all of the structural changes that we proposed last year been put in place, Australia would have been set up for a generation. But as we know, some of the measures that the Government put forward last year have encountered some resistance from the public and in the Senate. As I said, what we are trying to do is what is fair and reasonable in the circumstances that we find ourselves, given that there is an ongoing budgetary challenge. But we’ve got to meet the budgetary challenge in a way that the Australian people accept as being fair and reasonable.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, since you did a doorstop at Parliament this morning the Bali Nine pair have since been transferred or are in the process of being transferred. Can I just get an update from you on that?

PRIME MINISTER:

Ok, let's finish dealing with defence issues.

4

www.pm.gov.au

QUESTION:

At the time, when the pay deal was announced, originally, a couple of your Ministers suggested this would send a strong signal to the public service generally that they shouldn't look for significant pay rises. Is there a message - basically your reconsideration of this matter that the public service might do better generally?

PRIME MINISTER:

What we have done is we have moved the increase from just below inflation to just above inflation - that’s what we have done. But, as I say, this increase to the defence forces is something which the Government can simply do by virtue of the different wage setting arrangements that apply to members of our armed forces. The arrangements that apply to the public service more generally are arbitrated arrangements, they’re negotiated outcomes and we are absolutely insistent that in return for any significant increase, there have to be productivity trade-offs and that remains the case.

QUESTION:

Your stubbornness on defence pay, Prime Minister, saw Jacqui Lambie refuse to support any of the Government's measures in the Senate. Have you done any deals with Jacqui Lambie? Have you spoken to her about this announcement today?

PRIME MINISTER:

The short answer is: no, I haven't. I obviously appreciate Senator Lambie's position. I respect Senator Lambie's position because as a former member of the Australian Defence Force, she obviously has a keen interest herself in the outcomes that are delivered by Government for our Defence Force personnel.

We have done this because we believe, under all the circumstances, it is the right thing to do. Obviously what Senator Lambie does is a matter for her. But, as I said, I do acknowledge the genuineness of her concerns but I also acknowledge the very, very urgent concerns of many members of parliament, particularly former Brigadiers Nikolic and Reynolds.

QUESTION:

[Inaudible] reviewing the in-theatre allowances for personnel being deployed to Iraq, I think there was a recent cut to that danger pay and also do you have a figure of what this deployment to Iraq is ultimately going to cost the taxpayer?

PRIME MINISTER:

As you know, there have been, if you like, two stages of our current deployment to Iraq. There was the deployment that we announced in September, the Air component and the Special Forces component and that is costing $250 million or thereabouts in the current financial year. This new deployment, this build partner capacity deployment is estimated to cost in the order of $100 million over a 12 month period. So, they are the additional costs of these deployments to Iraq. Now, there was another element to the question?

QUESTION:

Just on danger pay.

5

www.pm.gov.au

PRIME MINISTER:

Danger pay, yes. That ultimately is a matter for the CDF. It is the CDF who assesses the particular nature of the deployments and the standard allowances applied and they are determined by the particular judgement that the CDF makes as to the risks involved in the operation in question.

QUESTION:

PM, when the advise and assist forces were deployed there was a considerable delay in getting them actually into Iraq. It has been widely speculated but never actually denied that they are on diplomatic passports at the moment. Is there a danger that this could happen with the training forces as well and what steps are you taking to make sure that doesn't happen again?

PRIME MINISTER:

The important thing is that all our forces in Iraq have appropriate immunities and protections. That is the important thing. I’m not going to go into a whole lot of diplomatic detail as to exactly how that might be established but rest assured that it will be established so that our forces go in with appropriate recognition by the country that they are there to help.

QUESTION:

Mr Abbott, some time ago you mentioned that we would have a new person coordinating intelligence and security agencies. Have you formalised that or are you going to make an announcement on an appointment?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, Brendan, I think it was eight days ago that I made that announcement. You make it sound like it was weeks or months and we have been sitting on our hands. It will be a matter of weeks rather than months when that appointment is made.

QUESTION:

Do you have any hope that Indonesia will spare the lives of the Bali Nine duo?

PRIME MINISTER:

I will come back to this subject but are there any questions on defence matters?

QUESTION:

Just one more on the Shia militia forces around Taji base, PM. I mean they are clearly active in the area and they may even have some informal involvement through the base itself. How are we making sure we aren't actually dealing with people who may have dubious ideals?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, that’s a very good question. We will be occupying a part of the base that will be free of militia and we certainly don't intend having any training role whatsoever with these militia. Our job is to assist the people and the Government of Iraq. It is to ensure that the Government of Iraq has the most efficient and capable armed forces with which to liberate their country from the death cult which has spawned this new Dark Age. Let's never forget the horrors that we are seeing on a daily basis on our TV screens; the beheadings, the crucifixions, the mass executions and the burnings alive. This is gruesome beyond words - absolutely gruesome beyond words. The only way to tackle this is with disciplined and decent armed forces who

6

www.pm.gov.au

respect the fundamental human rights of the populations that they are dealing with and that is the kind of armed force we want to provide the Government of Iraq with.

QUESTION:

Just before Bali, sorry, pardon my ignorance, where will these troops be based? How far from the front line, if you like, is that? Just to get some kind of… you talk about it being dangerous.

PRIME MINISTER:

Because of the nature of this asymmetric conflict, there often is no such thing as a front line as such. There has been contact between Daesh and Iraqi forces quite close to the Taji military compound. My understanding is that at the moment the fighting has moved away from the compound. In fact, at the moment, the main fighting is closer to Tikrit which is some way up the main highway towards Mosul. This is a dangerous place - dangerous, dangerous place. That is why it is a highly capable armed force that we are sending there for this training mission.

QUESTION:

Mr Abbott, one of the main causes of the insurrection appears to have been the exclusion of the Sunnis by the Maliki Government. Now, it would seem that progress is being made, your defence leaders suggest that the progress of Daesh has been stopped and they are starting - the Iraqi Army is starting to roll them back. A big danger would appear to be if the Shiite militias then start behaving the same way as the Sunni militias behaved in retaliation. Have you had any assurances that that can be avoided?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think that this is a very fair point that you make, Brendan. I have been stressing in all of my discussions with Prime Minister al-Abadi of Iraq that it is vital that this be an inclusive national government - that the Iraqi Government is a government for the whole people of Iraq, for the Sunnis, the Kurds, for the Turkmen, for the Yazidis as well as for the Shiites, for the Christians. Iraq is a religiously diverse country and the Government needs to provide a focus of loyalty above and beyond tribe and that’s been part of the problem over the last few years; it hasn't been able to transcend tribal and religious affiliations.

Now, Prime Minister al-Abadi certainly is very conscious of the Australian position. After a number of lengthy conversations with him in person and on the phone, I have absolutely no doubt of his good will and sincerity. I have no doubt of his objectives and aspirations. I know it’s one thing to have an objective, it’s another thing to actually meet it, but I think there is no doubt that Prime Minister al-Abadi is a good man in a very difficult position who is doing his best to provide the best possible outcomes for all the people of Iraq.

QUESTION:

The CDF yesterday also expressed very real concerns about green on blue attacks; of course this is what we saw a lot of in Afghanistan. Were there any lessons learned there that are going to be applied this time around?

PRIME MINISTER:

For operational reasons, I’m not going to go into a whole lot of detail, but of course we are learning all the time. We are absolutely learning all the time. This is a different situation to Afghanistan. The people that we will be dealing with are different people with different levels of training, different orders of command, sophistication and so on. So, this will be different to Afghanistan, but nevertheless, the lessons learned will absolutely be applied because the last thing that we would want or tolerate for a second is any risk from the

7

www.pm.gov.au

forces that we are there to help, that if there is one thing that could damage this mission, it is any sense that the forces that we are there to help are not working with us, that they might in fact be working against us rather than with us. But I stress, while the risks are real, they have been properly considered and we believe that the force that’s going in there is more than capable of safeguarding itself as well as doing a very effective job on the ground.

Now, I will take one or two questions on what’s happening in Indonesia and then we will have to move on.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, have you spoken to President Joko Widodo last night or today, given the latest developments in relation to the Bali Nine?

PRIME MINISTER:

I have not, but when I spoke to President Widodo last week, I made it absolutely crystal clear what Australia's position was, is and always will be. We abhor drug crime but we abhor the death penalty. We think that these two Australians deserve to be punished, but they certainly don't deserve to be executed. That is our position. I think right now millions of Australians are feeling sick in their guts at the prospect of execution for these two. I have been saying again and again that this is contrary to Indonesia's national interests and it’s contrary to Indonesia's best values. The point is that Indonesia does have a serious drug problem - a very serious drug problem - but these two, because of their rehabilitation, were actually helping Indonesia in the fight against drug crime and it makes no sense whatsoever to kill people who are working for you and with you.

QUESTION:

The Supreme Court judge, Lex Lasry, has said that he will never again visit Indonesia. He seems to be echoing the thoughts of many Australians. What would you say to them?

PRIME MINISTER:

I can very much understand their position. I can very much understand their position and I think there are millions of Australians who feel quite angry at this time at what’s happening. But I’ve got to say, anger is not a very good basis on which to determine a nation's policy and in the long run anger is not a very good basis on which to determine your own conduct. So, let's see how things develop, let's maintain our values, let's maintain our respect for human life as a nation and as a society, but let's remember that a good relationship with Indonesia is very important to this country and whatever might happen in the next few days, the relationship with Indonesia must endure and, over time, it must grow stronger. But, obviously, this is a very difficult period for the relationship and I hope that even at this late hour, the better angels of the Indonesian peoples' nature will reassert themselves.

Thank you.

[ends]