Press Conference with Minister for Defence, Stephen Smith

TOPICS: Coronial inquest; Labor leadership

STEPHEN SMITH: 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 recommendations.

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 Island.

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 interests.

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 is.

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 Minister?


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 for.

So, get this sorted out and sorted out Monday.

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

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 numbers?

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 speculations.

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.