Stephen Smith MP
Minister for Defence
TOPICS: Australian Defence Force support to Queensland flood relief and recovery effort; Afghanistan; Australia-United Kingdom Ministerial Consultation; Substance use within the ADF
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks very much for turning up. I just wanted to make some remarks today about the ongoing Australian Defence Force assistance for the Queensland floods.
Firstly, can I indicate that today there has been a change of command in the Queensland Flood Assist Taskforce. Can I start by thanking and complimenting Colonel Luke Foster very much for the terrific work that he has done over the last couple of weeks. Colonel Foster will return to his ongoing duties at Enoggera Barracks in Brisbane which include very substantial and senior involvement in our preparation for operations overseas, in particular Afghanistan.
As a result of the announcement that the Prime Minister and I made last week, namely increasing and substantially changing the ADF contribution in Queensland, the command will now from today, from this morning, be taken over by Brigadier Paul McLachlan. Brigadier McLachlan is in command of 7th Brigade in Enoggera Barracks, Brisbane. He's a very experienced and senior officer and very experienced from work particularly in Iraq.
I've spoken, of course, to both Colonel Foster to thank him for his terrific work and also spoken in the course of the day to Brigadier McLachlan wishing him well for the ongoing work.
Today, of course, the primary work continues. That is, cleaning up, helping to clean up in Brisbane and in Ipswich. And in Brisbane we find regular soldiers from Enoggera Barracks but also reservists from Brisbane. In Ipswich we find Defence personnel, RAAF personnel, but also Army personnel from the Amberley Base near Ipswich.
As well, the search and rescue and recovery in the Lockyer Valley continues, including through the use of helicopters, water purification, and delivery of water is now becoming more important. And in recent days that contribution has been enhanced.
Very importantly, you might recall that late last week the Premier of Queensland, the Prime Minister and I indicated that the Defence Force would assist the Queensland Government in effectively the clearing or testing of the waters approaching Moreton Bay, making sure that the areas around the Port of Brisbane are clear. As a consequence of that, HMAS Huon, one of our mine hunters, is due to arrive in Brisbane tonight. And tomorrow, together with two of our hydrological survey ships, it will start a survey of the Brisbane River in the area around Moreton Bay close to the Port of Brisbane to ensure that the waterway itself is clear from underwater obstructions.
In mentioning the work that Colonel Foster has been doing, I indicated that he now returns to his regular duties, which include preparing for operations overseas, including Afghanistan. In that context, can I make some remarks about Afghanistan.
Most of the focus, of course, in the course of this year so far as Australian Defence Force personnel has been concerned is their contribution on the flood relief in Queensland. But of course, we have an ongoing, very difficult and dangerous operation in Afghanistan. In that context, can I indicate that, as we've announced publicly, in the course of this year since 1 January, we've had two Australian soldiers wounded, both of them requiring quite serious medical treatment, and that just reflects and underlines the ongoing danger and difficulty in Afghanistan.
So our thoughts are with the two wounded Australian soldiers and their families, the two wounded this year, bringing to a total of over 160 wounded Australian service personnel since the conflict began in Afghanistan.
As well over the break, early this year we've seen a change in command in Afghanistan. Major General Cantwell has finished his tour of duty and command in Afghanistan. He is being replaced by Major General Angus Campbell.
Can I firstly take this opportunity of thanking Major General Cantwell for the very good work that he has done in Afghanistan. In my first visit to Afghanistan, to Tarin Kowt and to Kabul earlier this year, I had the opportunity of speaking at length with Major General Cantwell, and I want to place on record the Government's thanks and appreciation for the very fine work that he has done in Afghanistan.
Finally, can I make some remarks about the Australian-United Kingdom Ministerial Consultations which take place tomorrow, or AUKMIN, as they are known. This sees Australia's Foreign Affairs Minister and Defence Minister meeting with the United Kingdom Foreign Secretary and Secretary of State for Defence. This is the third AUKMIN that is taking place, the first in London in 2006, the second in Leeds in 2008, which I took part in. But this is the first AUKMIN meeting that we've had in Australia. And so we welcome very much the arrival tonight and tomorrow of Defence Secretary Liam Fox and Foreign Secretary William Hague.
This is an important meeting for a range of reasons. Firstly, it is the first visit to Australia by Ministers of the new Cameron Government, and we welcome that very much.
Secondly, it's the first AUKMIN that we've held in Australia, and we appreciate that very much. It is also the first visit to Australia by a United Kingdom Foreign Secretary or Defence Secretary since Douglas Hurd visited Australia in 1994. So we appreciate very much the effort that Defence Secretary Fox and Foreign Secretary Hague have made.
Australia conducts the so-called 2+2 when Foreign Secretaries or Foreign Ministers and Defence Ministers get together with a small number of countries. Recently in Melbourne you might recall at the end of last year we held our AUSMIN talks. We also conduct 2+2 consultations with Japan, and we are proposing in the course of this year to have our first 2+2 consultation with Indonesia.
The fact that we have a Foreign and Defence Secretaries Consultation with the United Kingdom reflects a number of things. It reflects the longstanding relationship between Australia and the United Kingdom. Everyone appreciates the historical, the community, the economic, commercial and investment ties. But perhaps under-appreciated is the defence, security and intelligence relationship and links between Australia and the United Kingdom.
We very often have common and shared views about challenges. So in the course of our consultations tomorrow, which will take place at HMAS Watson, we will consider some of those challenges. Afghanistan and Pakistan will be foremost, but also changing dynamics in the Asia-Pacific region. This is the century of the Asia-Pacific where military, economic and political influence is moving to our part of the world. But also some of our current challenges - the Korean Peninsula, Iran - both where there are significant concerns so far as nuclear non-proliferation are concerned.
So this is a most important meeting, and the Foreign Minister, Mr Rudd, and I are looking very much forward tomorrow to having these significant consultations with our United Kingdom counterparts.
I'm happy to respond to questions on AUKMIN or on the other matters that I've raised.
QUESTION: What will you be saying to Great Britain about our position in Afghanistan?
STEPHEN SMITH: Our position in Afghanistan, I think - and it's not for me to put words into the mouth of Defence Secretary Fox or Foreign Secretary Hague - but our position very much is in accord with the United Kingdom position.
The international community is in Afghanistan under a United Nations mandate as part of an International Security Assistance Force because we want to help stare down international terrorism. Both Australia and the United Kingdom strongly support the international community, the NATO and ISAF meetings, most recently for example in Lisbon, where the international community agreed to the transition strategy to place the Afghan Government and the Afghan security forces in a position of managing security arrangements and leading security arrangements by 2014.
And so we will be talking about the progress that we believe we've made in the last six months of last year, but the difficulties ahead. And Afghanistan remains a very significant challenge so far as international terrorism is concerned. I'm looking forward to that discussion with Defence Secretary Fox. This won't be the first occasion that I've met Defence Secretary Fox. We had a substantial meeting at the NATO-ISAF meeting in Lisbon towards the end of last year.
QUESTION: Minister, can you elaborate on what you will be talking about in terms of the Asia-Pacific challenges and will you be announcing any new Defence contracts tomorrow?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I'll leave tomorrow's announcements for tomorrow. There will, of course, be a range of communication statements.
But in terms of the Asia Pacific, you may have seen remarks by Foreign Secretary Hague which indicate that one of the reasons he and Defence Secretary Fox have come to Australia is to make the point that the world is more than Europe. That the world is not just Europe and the northern hemisphere so far as Europe is concerned.
We all know that the rise of China, the rise of India, the ongoing rise of the ASEAN economies combined, the emerging economic strength of the Republic of Korea, is seeing economic and political and military influence move to our part of the world. And that, of course, also is very significantly bolstered by the ongoing great strength of the United States. And the United States has the intention to very much continue and enhance its engagement in the Asia Pacific region.
So influence is moving to our part of the world, and the world needs to adjust to that. Very many people refer to the rise of China. But as I say, it's not just the rise of China, it's also the rise of India as well. So influence is moving to our part of the world and the international community, our region and Australia, needs to adjust to that and to be positive and constructive about it.
QUESTION: You mentioned earlier that the operations in Afghanistan are still seriously dangerous. Are you confident that any unsuccessful asylum seekers sent back there will still be safe?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, the two issues are, of course, different. Anyone who comes to Australia from Afghanistan seeking asylum has to satisfy the requirements of the Refugee Convention, which is a well-grounded fear of persecution. That's a different issue from security arrangements in Afghanistan itself. And I know that my colleague, the Minister for Immigration, has made announcements about that earlier in the day.
Of course, Australia has a longstanding position and I'll leave the detail of this appropriately to Immigration. But Australia has a longstanding position that we do not return failed asylum seekers to their country of origin unless it is safe to do so. But I welcome very much the fact that today the Immigration Minister has signed a returns agreement to the Memorandum of Understanding with the Government of Afghanistan and also with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
QUESTION: With regards to Queensland, how many Defence Force personnel are on the ground, and what are they doing?
STEPHEN SMITH: Overnight we had nearly 1500 people on the ground, and that's because we are seeing our contribution go through a spate of transition. Up until the last few days it has very much been a search and rescue and recovery operation that continues in the Lockyer Valley. It's also seen, through our C-130s, our Hercules C-130s and also our C-17s, the dropping of supplies to the north which until recently had been entirely cut off from access, road access from the south.
But as the emergency situation moved to the initial stages of clean up and recovery, we made a commitment to effectively put 1200 Defence personnel on the ground helping with that clean up and the initial recovery. And we will see over time the number of personnel engaged in search and rescue activities through helicopters and food and essential items delivered through C-130, C-17s scale down. And we will see the 1200 Defence personnel which the Prime Minister and I have referred to out there on the ground in all parts of Queensland.
So over the course of the next week or so I expect that we will see that number settle at 1200. It'll go up and down on a daily basis, but our commitment is to continue to make that contribution. Those numbers, of course, also include some of the things that I've referred to which we're going to do on the River and in Moreton Bay near the port, making sure that there are no dangerous submerged items, water purifications and water delivery. But the precise nature of the tasks that we'd do is very much done at the request of the Queensland authorities.
QUESTION: And is it also [indistinct] Victoria?
STEPHEN SMITH: There's no proposal for a deployment, no request for a deployment in Victoria. But what I do know is that local area commanders can, in the face of an emergency or in the face of fast-moving events, allocate resources on the ground to assist. And both in Carnarvon recently where there was a flood, in my own state, and in the last couple of days in Victoria when the flood waters have been rising, local commanders have authorised some of their assets to assist. And that's been done in conjunction with the police and with the emergency services.
So for example, Carnarvon in my state of Western Australia [indistinct] and comparable assistance has occurred in rural Victoria with the use of trucks and the like.
That occurs as a result of local area command decisions. The only reason, of course, we are helping out in the substantial way that we are in Brisbane is because of the enormous scale of the disaster, both in Brisbane and Ipswich in the Lockyer Valley, and also in the north of the state. Because of the enormous scale of the disaster, the Queensland Government requested that ADF assets and personnel be made available to assist.
And no such request has been received by Western Australia, or Victoria or the other states where flooding is occurring, largely because of the scale.
As a starting point, it is state-based civilian authorities who in the first instance are responsible for disaster relief and response. But from time to time where we see large scale terrible tragic disasters, whether it's floods in Brisbane currently, whether it's Victorian bushfires, or in the past, the 1974 floods in Brisbane, or Cyclone Tracy, the ADF, at the request of a State and Territory Government, will assist, as we should.
But there's nothing that we're doing at the moment in Brisbane which cuts away from our core capacity, or our core operations in the first instance. The Australian Defence Force personnel are there to protect and defend the nation's national security interests.
But we do have a very fine record of helping out in disaster relief.
STEPHEN SMITH: The Defence Force has a zero-tolerance approach so far as alcohol and other drugs is concerned, but when it comes to a general approach to alcohol, it, of course, like a good employer wants to be responsible, wants to educate its employees about responsible use of alcohol.
So that's what we're doing in terms of our approach to alcohol. It's not in any specific or particular area or occupational area of concern. As a general proposition, Defence has a zero tolerance for alcohol so far as operational activity and work is concerned, but outside of work hours we want to be a responsible employer by educating our employees about responsible use of alcohol.
Okay. Thanks. Thanks very much.
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