Senate debates

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers

Minister for Defence

3:01 pm

Photo of David JohnstonDavid Johnston (WA, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Defence) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research (Senator Evans) to a question without notice asked by Senator Johnston today relating to the Minister for Defence (Mr Smith).

I want to make the point that there is only one portfolio in government where those representing the Commonwealth within that portfolio actually commit their own personal safety, and sometimes their lives—that is, the Defence portfolio. The parliament, its members and senators adhere universally to one tenet—that is, each one of us, or so I thought, supports the troops. Many of us go further and admire our men and women in uniform and we enjoyed their company.

It is distressing for me to read major General Cantwell's op-ed piece in the Sydney Morning Herald last Saturday. I find his account of Minister Smith's attitude when touring the battlefields of Afghanistan most unacceptable. I contrast that with his description of Senator Faulkner:

First, Faulkner was genuinely concerned about the soldiers he met in Afghanistan. He spoke sincerely to them of his gratitude for the sacrifices they were making.

He went on to say:

Second, he took the deaths of Australian soldiers very personally. When I briefed him on the circumstances of the deaths of two of our soldiers, killed by a roadside bomb, he was visibly pained …

Major General Cantwell went on to describe the attitude of a minister who was a successful Minister for Defence, albeit a Labor minister, Senator Faulkner. I commend him for the words Major General Cantwell delivered in the public domain. In stark contrast he said of Minister Smith:

I provided a frank assessment of the quality of Afghanistan security forces we were training. Throughout, Smith sat immobile, taking no notes, making no comment. At the conclusion of this briefing, to which the then chief of the Defence Force Angus Houston added his insights, I asked if he had any questions. There were none. It must have been a cracking brief.

He goes on to say that later in the tour, in front of 20 or 30 Australian and American officers, having received a briefing of the daily battles, the ordeals, the fights, the brawls being conducted in life-and-death combat with the Taliban, the Australian and American officers looked to Minister Smith for:

… comments, questions, words of encouragement. His response? ''No, thank you'', followed by a glance at me with the question, ''What's next?''

He goes on to say:

… I escorted Smith to one of our forward patrol bases, which were established when we expanded our operations into an area previously covered by Dutch and French troops, who had recently departed. The CO of the mentoring taskforce had sensibly rebalanced his force to cover the new territory. But the Australian and Afghan troops there had been in constant and occasionally heavy contact with the enemy. They were under the pump.

We gathered the dirty, tired Diggers together at the end of Smith's tour. Media crews travelling with the minister turned on their cameras and he made a lacklustre speech clearly pitched at the audience back home. He talked ''at'' the soldiers, not to them. He then turned to walk back to the helicopter pad. ''Minister,'' I said, ''perhaps you might take a couple of questions from the soldiers before you go?'' The look I got in response was poisonous. ''Well, are there any questions?'' he asked the soldiers.

''Yes, sir,'' one said. ''We got moved out here earlier than we were supposed to and we're spread a bit thin on the ground. Can we get some additional troops sent out from Australia?'' It was a reasonable question, at least from the perspective of a soldier fighting in a scrubby valley in Afghanistan. Smith launched into a long spiel about supporting the coalition and fighting terrorism and building capacity in the Afghan security forces and making a contribution and all the phrases that work well in Canberra. It didn't work so well when delivered to blokes who would soon start another patrol along paths hiding improvised bombs designed to kill them. There were no other questions.

Walking towards the helicopter for the ride back to Tarin Kowt, Smith said to me, ''Don't set me up with unscheduled questions like that again''. He was not happy.

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. I cast around in my mind for the element that seemed to be missing in his dealings with the men and women of the ADF who I led. Then I had it: respect. Smith had no respect for those who chose to serve in uniform for their country. It was an uncomfortable insight.

This is one of the saddest, most unacceptable articles I have read in my 10 years in the Senate. It is disgraceful and the minister should be moved. (Time expired)

3:06 pm

Photo of David FeeneyDavid Feeney (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Parliamentary Secretary for Defence) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to take note of the answers given by Senator Chris Evans regarding Minister Stephen Smith. Firstly, there is at least one point that we agree on, and that is that this is indeed a sad and unfortunate set of circumstances. I have had the privilege in my capacity as Parliamentary Secretary for Defence to work with Major General Cantwell and meet with him on a number of occasions, and I would only ever say, publicly and privately, that he is a distinguished former officer of the ADF, that he has given exemplary service to his country and that he is a person of outstanding record. That is the basis upon which I think all of us should reflect upon him.

Major General Cantwell has obviously written a long piece that has appeared in the newspapers, and I am sure all of us have read it. For those us who have not read it, the shadow minister for defence just managed to spend 2½ of his three minutes rereading it to us. That offers us no insights above and beyond the fact that Major General Cantwell wrote an article which is deeply regrettable and, I guess, offers a set of reflections on the Minister for Defence which I say are unfortunate and regrettable. Let us be clear here about the context.

Opposition Senators:

Opposition senators interjecting

Photo of David FeeneyDavid Feeney (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Parliamentary Secretary for Defence) Share this | | Hansard source

I will take that interjection, Mr Deputy President. The interjection is: why are they regrettable? They are regrettable because they make reflections upon the Minister for Defence which are unfair, untrue and indefensible.

We are obviously at a point where there is a great public controversy around the circumstances of the Kirkham report and events at ADFA. Those events and those circumstances are well known to all of us. The Minister for Defence at the time of the so-called ADFA Skype scandal made clear his view that it was an error of judgment, inappropriate and unhelpful for a young woman, who was then the subject of certain allegations and certain concerns around the Skype incident which were being publicly ventilated, to concurrently be subjected to various disciplinary hearings. The minister put that on the record then and he has made it plain since that he does not resile from that opinion.

I think it is fair to say that the Kirkham report had some areas in it which made clear the fact that that was a controversial element of what transpired at ADFA.

Photo of Gary HumphriesGary Humphries (ACT, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Materiel) Share this | | Hansard source

That wasn't what Kirkham said.

Photo of David FeeneyDavid Feeney (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Parliamentary Secretary for Defence) Share this | | Hansard source

Again, I will take that interjection, Mr Deputy President. I think that if you look at what Kirkham said you will see very clearly that that was an area of concern and Kirkham made it clear that there were several ways that matter could have been handled.

Photo of Gary HumphriesGary Humphries (ACT, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Materiel) Share this | | Hansard source

He also made clear that Kafer did nothing wrong.

Photo of David FeeneyDavid Feeney (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Parliamentary Secretary for Defence) Share this | | Hansard source

Again, I will take that interjection, Mr Deputy President: he also made it clear that Kafer had done nothing wrong. Again, in my capacity I have had the opportunity to meet with Commodore Kafer on several occasions. He is a fine and distinguished officer who has indeed been reinstated to his position.

Is it helpful or appropriate to have the partisan opposition—particularly in the defence space, where they struggle to ever say anything of interest or concern—climb into these issues of great sensitivity? Of course it is not, but it is going to happen. That is politics; that is the politics of no, as personified by the opposition. But let us be clear: Stephen Smith, in the conduct of his duties, deserves nothing but our highest acclaim and praise. He has done a fine and outstanding job not only in defending the interests of Defence when that is required but also in making sure that the public of this country have absolute confidence in the ADF and the institutions that sustain the ADF. We on this side are very proud and pleased that not only have we supported our Defence and ADF men and women in their work and in the dangerous things they do on our behalf but we also believe that the values they espouse must be supported and consistently backed. That is what the Minister for Defence has done here.

The Minister for Defence is not going to be railroaded into any kind of apology or any kind of backdown on the back of all of you on the other side suggesting that he owes this country an apology because he has defended the rights of a victim. These matters are complex. We on this side are not interested in finding any senior officer or any other person as a scapegoat. We on this side are not interested in bringing the world of partisan politics into defence. That is a matter for you. But what we on this side are clear about is that we are not going to attack any of the senior officers who have entered this debate. (Time expired)

3:11 pm

Photo of Gary HumphriesGary Humphries (ACT, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Materiel) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Feeney is right to suggest that these are quite exceptional circumstances, but they are circumstances that are entirely appropriately raised by the opposition in the Senate today, because we face a most extraordinary situation. It is a situation where a very senior member, recently retired, of the Australian Defence Force, General John Cantwell, has criticised very directly the Minister for Defence for not just his competency but also the lack of respect that he has engendered from members of the Australian Defence Force. He is joined in that criticism by a host of other senior figures within the defence space, particularly General Peter Leahy, former Chief of the Army, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald on Friday; General Jim Molan, a very highly respected member of the Defence Force who has also made criticisms of the performance of the minister; and, in effect, the present Chief of the Defence Force, General Hurley, who saw fit when the Kirkham report was brought down to immediately reinstate Commodore Kafer to his role of Commandant of ADFA, notwithstanding the fact that the minister said, 'I stand by my criticisms'. In effect, General Hurley indicated his disagreement with the approach the minister was taking.

So we have here several key figures within the Defence Force, or at least recently part of the Defence Force, making criticisms, and the point that the government needs to get—which it obviously has not got to this point—is that General Cantwell, General Leahy, General Molan and, to the extent that I have attributed his remarks in the same direction, General Hurley, speak for the Defence Force. They speak for the members of the Defence Force, the men and women in uniform who do not have confidence in this minister. It is not a pleasant thing to have to say that those people who are in the field, who serve in uniform across this country and beyond its shores, have reached a serious point where they do not have support for or confidence in their minister, but I know from conversations I have had with many members of the Defence Force that that is true. I ask members of the government, if they believe that Mr Smith enjoys the support of members in uniform in this country, to go and talk to some of them and ask them what they think, because I do not think they will have any doubt about the answers they will receive. Earlier today Minister Ludwig lectured us in question time on how we must respect the independent investigation being conducted by Fair Work Australia. Well, we have another independent investigation, the Kirkham report. It was exhaustive and it went on for a long period of time. It sat on the minister's desk for three months, but the minister saw fit not to release that report, leaving the tarnish on Commodore Kafer's reputation while he did so, and eventually released the report when it was obvious he was not going to get shifted out of the portfolio. He could not shovel this responsibility onto somebody else, so he decided that he had to release it himself—a report which extensively exonerates Commodore Kafer in respect of the Skype affair. And where is the apology to Commodore Kafer? It is not forthcoming. It is behaviour like that which makes the minister so on the nose within the Australian Defence Force.

It is not just in this area, however, where he deserves condemnation. He has now been sitting on a decision about replacement with Australia's future submarines for several years. He is like a rabbit caught in the headlights, unable to make this big decision about what we do to replace the Collins class submarines, which are ageing. This minister needs to make that decision, but he seems incapable of doing that. It is for reasons like that that the minister needs to go.

The minister clearly does not want to be in the Defence portfolio. He made that very clear, not just—presumably—to the Prime Minister but to all who would listen before the recent reshuffle. It is equally clear from the field evidence that the Defence Force do not want him to be their minister. The fact that he, in the words of Senator Feeney, 'defended the rights of a victim' is not the point. That is not the issue on which Mr Smith is currently being condemned. It is his failure to acknowledge that in that process he did the wrong thing by Commodore Kafer, who handled himself well, dealt with the issue appropriately within ADFA and got no credit for it from the minister. That kind of behaviour simply cannot be tolerated. That kind of behaviour has brought the minister to this low point, and he ought to read the signs and do something about it.

3:16 pm

Photo of Mark BishopMark Bishop (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I must say that I was quite intrigued that the shadow minister for defence, Senator Johnston, spent four minutes and 27 seconds of his five minutes reading from a newspaper article. He left himself 33 seconds out of five minutes to think about it, to analyse it, to draw a conclusion and to offer a comment. It was so important to the shadow minister for defence that all he could do was refer to an article in the Sydney Morning Herald and, for four minutes and 27 seconds, read out from it. I have never seen such a poor attack on a minister of the Crown in my entire life.

But, having said that, let us give some consideration to the article referred to by Senator Johnston. I was amazed when I read it over the weekend. Let me say here on the public record that the article and the report were vicious, they were contrived, they were equally vacuous and they had no point. In an attack on a minister of the Crown, making those sorts of remarks, the writer and the newspaper operators knew that no minister of the Crown would descend into the gutter and respond to that sort of commentary coming from a former two-star or three-star general—who, I might posit the proposition, never, ever thought to make a complaint to his line commanders when he was a serving officer and never thought to make a memo up the line to the Chief of Defence Force or the Chief of Army on what he thought he saw in Afghanistan and other places, but now, some two years after the event, is put up to make some sort of set of allegations against a minister of the Crown in a context where the minister cannot defend himself.

Let us now, having dismissed that nonsense article from a former officer in the Defence Force, turn to the incident at ADFA. No other person in this place has more familiarity with the arguments, debates and history of military justice than I. There is no other person. I have been intimately involved in the discussions, debates and reports for 10 years—firstly under Minister Hill for a good five years, and then subsequently under a set of Labor Party ministers. Each of those men put a lot of effort and a lot of heart into reforming what is generally recognised as a then poor culture in Defence which resulted in a large number of public and Senate inquiries into unnecessary deaths and a series of assaults, cases of sexual malfeasance against women and other high-level offences. Those matters were the subject of public inquiry. They have been the subject of public report. They have been the subject of efforts by successive governments, successive capability managers within the Defence Force and successive ministers of defence to remedy them.

Let me tell you something in the context of the ADFA report and the ADFA complaint: in the last four years—since this government came into power, but the trend line started in the last 12 months of the previous government—the incidence of reports of the nature I referred to a minute ago has gone right down. Once upon a time there were dozens and dozens of reports every year to the offices of members of parliament by writing, by email, by texts or by phone conversations. I lost count of the number of parents who came to see me in my office in Perth and here, crying over a range of incidents. It has stopped completely. It stopped completely under previous ministers of defence, starting with Senator Hill and then Mr Fitzgibbon, Senator Faulkner and Mr Smith. All of the issues that were the subject of serious address were reformed. The incident that occurred at ADFA at best can be described as now an aberration, which is a reflection of the good work that is being done.

So is there confidence in Mr Smith as Minister for Defence from this government and the wider defence community? Yes. I have not received one text, one email or one letter complaining about his behaviour from members of the Defence Force. (Time expired)

3:21 pm

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Northern and Remote Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

The arrogance and disrespect shown to our fighting men and women in uniform, displayed by Mr Smith in his recent activities, was repeated by Senator Bishop in this debate this afternoon. The very personal attack Senator Bishop has just made on a distinguished, courageous and competent former officer, Major General Cantwell, is very typical of how some in the Labor Party view our men and women in uniform. I enter this debate, I shadow Senator Feeney and I am also a Queensland senator. Senators would know that Queensland is a state where there is a large number of serving people. My office is in Townsville, the home of Australia's largest Army base.

The disrespect shown by Minister Smith to the Defence Force, generally, which has been noted increasingly by senior officers, is also being commented upon by the diggers on the ground. As I travel around North Queensland—around Townsville where there are a lot of diggers, around Cairns which is the home of Australia's second largest naval base on the east coast, around Brisbane where there are a great number of soldiers at Enoggera—I hear a general distrust of Minister Smith. My colleagues in Queensland are well in tune with the thoughts, aspirations and feelings of the troops on the ground as well as with the officers. The feeling is coming through that Mr Smith has no respect for people in uniform. The publicised accounts of how Mr Smith showed no respect when he was in Afghanistan is being reflected at all levels.

I know people in the Defence Material area. I dare not mention their names lest they befall the same fate as Major General Cantwell who, because he dares to say what he believes to be the truth, is personally attacked by the likes of Senator Bishop in this chamber where he has parliamentary privilege. Who would dare to criticise anyone in the Labor Party? It is the same in my state of Queensland. With anything that involves the Labor government in Queensland, if you dare raise your head and criticise the clear mismanagement—mismanagement that borders on corruption in Queensland—you get the whole force of the Labor Party turned upon you. I think it is a terrible day for the bipartisan control and support for the Defence Force that you have Senator Bishop going on with that quite disgraceful, personal attack on a distinguished officer and former commander of our armed forces.

My colleagues have mentioned Mr Smith's ill-considered and hasty comments on the ADFA chief, Commodore Kafer. They have said, which I will repeat, what Mr Kirkham QC found:

... in the circumstances it was reasonable for ADFA staff, including Commodore Kafer and the Deputy Commandant, to reach the conclusion that it was appropriate to proceed with and conclude the two disciplinary charges against the female Officer Cadet.

Commodore Kafer was completely exonerated by that independent inquiry, yet Mr Smith cannot see it within his being to apologise for the slur that he cast on the career, future and past, of a distinguished soldier.

Mr Smith clearly did not want this job. He wanted to be foreign minister. Ms Gillard thought he was incapable and incompetent to be foreign minister so she brought in someone from outside. I think Ms Gillard should look a bit more closely—not only is Mr Smith incapable of being foreign minister, he is incapable of being the defence minister. (Time expired)

Question agreed to.