TRANSCRIPT: RESPONSE TO QUESTION WITHOUT NOTICE IN THE HOUSE OF RERESENTATIVES
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 13 March 2012
STUART ROBERT, MEMBER FOR FADDEN: My question is to the Minister for Defence. Will the Minister confirm the accuracy of the account of his visit to Afghanistan relayed by Major General-Cantwell in the Sydney Morning Herald last Saturday, in which Major-General Cantwell said that at the official briefing from Australian commanders he had no questions to ask, that at the official briefing on the joint US-Australian operations he had no questions to ask other than, 'what's next?' and that at a gathering of our soldiers in one of our forward operating bases he was reluctant to take their questions?
STEPHEN SMITH, MINISTER FOR DEFENCE: I thank the Member for Fadden for his question. It gives me an opportunity to deal with this matter at question time rather than by way of personal explanation.
Let me say, Mr Speaker, that when I saw the article by Major General Cantwell I was surprised, I was disappointed and I was saddened by his contribution. I did not believe that it was either an accurate or fair depiction of either that trip or of my commitment to Australian forces in the field. So I repeat: I was disappointed, surprised and saddened by that contribution.
I have made four trips to Afghanistan. These things have never been said in any other context other than the contribution by Major-General Cantwell over the weekend. I reject absolutely any criticism or questioning of my commitment to our forces in the field.
There is no evidence to the contrary.
There are words and there are actions. The ultimate test of a commitment to our forces in the field is what a Minister and what a Government do so far as providing the kit and resources required to carry out the job. In Afghanistan our forces have not been left wanting by me or the Government so far as resources and kit is concerned, whether it has been upgraded Bushmasters or more Bushmasters; whether it has been better and more powerful rifles; whether it has been the work that we do in anti-IED or roadside bomb protections, including the work we are now doing together with the Canadians for trucks with ground based radar to detect the IEDs.
Let us be frank about where this has come from. This has come because I absolutely refuse—
CHRISTOPHER PYNE, MEMBER FOR STURT: Mr Speaker, I rise on a point of order. The Minister was simply asked to confirm or not confirm the accuracy of the story. Clearly, he is not doing that, and you should ask him to return to the substance of the question.
SPEAKER: The Honourable Member for Sturt will resume his seat, as he no longer has the call. This is a very serious question asked of the Minister. He is entitled to answer it. I call the Minister.
STEPHEN SMITH: Let us be under no doubt as to why this question has come and the context. I make no apology for standing up for an 18-year-old member of the ADF when she was vulnerable and in distress. I make no apology for making very strongly the point in principle that it is wrong to bring into play the conduct of the innocent victim of an alleged sexual assault.
SPEAKER: The Minister will resume his seat. Bearing in mind that a point of order has already been taken, I am interested to see why the Member for Fadden is seeking the call. The Member for Fadden.
STUART ROBERT: Thank you, Mr Speaker. I rise on a point of order. Respectfully, the question deals specifically with combat operations in Afghanistan, and I request the Minister restrain his answer to combat operations.
SPEAKER: The Member will resume his seat. The Minister has 25 seconds left and he will be directly relevant to the question. The Minister has the call.
STEPHEN SMITH: I will conclude my answer where I started: I was surprised, disappointed and saddened by Major-General Cantwell's contribution. I believed it was a wrong and unfair depiction of my visit to Afghanistan and my commitment to our forces in the field. My commitment to our forces in the field will not be trampled upon. It is there for all to see.
TONY ABBOTT: MEMBER FOR WARRINGAH: Mr Speaker, I ask a supplementary question. Can the Minister confirm the accuracy of Major-General Cantwell's account of his response to the briefings? Did he have no questions after the joint US-Australian operations briefing other than, 'What's next?', and did—
The SPEAKER: The honourable leader's time has expired and the leader no longer has the call. The Minister will answer the supplementary question. The Minister for Defence now has the call.
STEPHEN SMITH: Major-General Cantwell is a respected former member of the Australian Defence Force. He has made his own substantial contribution. I am not proposing to get into a running commentary about who said what to whom; I simply make the point that I was surprised, disappointed and saddened by the contribution that he made. It was a wrong and unfair depiction of my visit to Afghanistan and a wrong and unfair depiction of my contribution to our forces in the field.