Tuesday, 13 March 2012
Questions without Notice
Minister for Defence
My question is to the Minister representing the Prime Minister and the Minister representing the Minister for Defence, Senator Evans. Given that the Prime Minister has now on two occasions made it very clear that she does not consider Minister Smith fit to serve as the foreign minister and that it is now very clear that he is not up to it as Minister for Defence, why is a man who is not in the Prime Minister's view adequate to be foreign minister good enough to be the defence minister?
I have great pleasure in rejecting the assertions made in Senator Johnston's question. It is just an attempt to slur up a very hardworking, dedicated and competent minister.
Minister Smith did an excellent job serving the government as foreign affairs minister. He was well regarded throughout the international community as being highly competent, and since taking on the defence job he has again proved to be a diligent and hardworking minister. So the government and the Prime Minister have complete confidence in Minister Smith in his role as Minister for Defence. I work very closely with him, being a fellow Western Australian minister, and I understand how dedicated he is to the job at hand and to the very complex issues confronting Australia, and particularly to the real challenge that supporting our troops in Afghanistan provides.
We all understand the terrible circumstances in Afghanistan. We accept that we are making progress but we know also that our troops are under constant threat and that we have had some very sad losses of personnel and some terrible injuries incurred by others in recent years. Minister Smith is absolutely focused on the task of the coalition effort in Afghanistan. He is very much focused on ensuring protection for our troops and on making sure they have the support they need to do their vital work.
I think that Mr Smith is doing an excellent job as defence minister. He has the support of the Prime Minister and the government—very strong support. I think that the attempt to slur the minister up, as was undertaken in Senator Johnston's question, does him no credit and does not advance the interests of political debate in Australia, nor the interest of the defence forces.
Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I refer the minister to the public comments made by Major-General Cantwell, who said very publicly:
After 38 years as a soldier and as a commander, I'd learned to read people, quickly and accurately. Reflecting on Smith's visit, the abiding impression I was left with was that he merely tolerated people like me and the troops I commanded.
In light of Major-General Cantwell's damning appraisal of the minister's performance, is it not time that the Prime Minister appointed someone who is capable of respecting and supporting our uniformed personnel?
Honourable senators interjecting—
I read Major-General Cantwell's commentary, and I think it was unfortunate and wrong. It is absolutely wrong. Minister Smith has great belief in our troops. He provides enormous support and commitment to those troops and he has always respected the role that they play. As I said, I have discussed with Minister Smith on many occasions issues relating to defence and deployment of our troops and I know for a fact that he feels very deeply when we have had the loss of a soldier serving in Afghanistan or when we have had serious injuries to our serving personnel. I know he feels that very deeply and feels the responsibilities very deeply. So I absolutely reject the accusations made.
Minister Smith is very committed to supporting our troops, very respectful of the role they play and is doing everything he can to advance their and Australia's national interests.
Mr President, I ask a further supplementary question. Will the Prime Minister put to rest the deep community concern with this minister's performance and the fact that he clearly does not want this important job, and move him on?
I do not know which members of the community Senator Johnston is talking to, but they are not the ones that have been giving me the feedback.
Senator Abetz interjecting—
What the Australian community wants is a defence minister who stands up for the right thing, who not only respects and supports our troops but ensures that a young woman who has been subject of a terrible assault has her rights protected. He stood up very strongly for those rights. I think he did it as a lawyer, as a father and as a minister, and I am very proud of the stand he took. It reflected his very firm views and his strong response to what he thought was an error of judgment. He stands by that judgement he took. He stands by those views. He has my full support in making them. If you talk to any parent of ADF serving personnel, they strongly support the stance he took, too, because they want a minister who stands up for the rights of their children while they are serving in the ADF.