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Tuesday, 13 March 2012
Page: 1520

Senator JOHNSTON (Western Australia) (15:01): 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)