Stephen Smith MP
Minister for Defence
TOPICS: Australian soldier killed in Afghanistan; United States Stryker Battalion rotation in Uruzgan Province; the 2010 ALP National Review Report
FRAN KELLY: Well, a blow to the nation, and another tragedy for an Australian family. That's how Defence Minister Stephen Smith described the latest death of an Australian soldier in Afghanistan.
Sapper Jamie Larcombe was killed, along with his Afghan interpreter, when insurgents opened fire on a patrol in Uruzgan Province. Sapper Larcombe was just 21 years old.
A statement released by his family says Jamie was a fun-loving individual, who loved life, loved to give where he could. He's the 23rd Australian soldier to be killed in Afghanistan since 2002.
Stephen Smith is the Defence Minister, who joins us in our Parliament House studio now. Minister, welcome back to Breakfast.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thank you, Fran. Good morning.
FRAN KELLY: Sapper Larcombe was the 23rd Australian soldier to be killed in Afghanistan, and you say he died pursuing Australia's national interest. Can you just remind listeners what that is in Afghanistan?
STEPHEN SMITH: We're in Afghanistan under a United Nations mandate, with 48 nations as part of the International Security Assistance Force, to bring stability to Afghanistan so that Afghanistan can't again become a breeding ground for international terrorists.
And regrettably, just as Australia and Australians have been on the receiving end of terrible casualties in Afghanistan, so we've been on the receiving end of terrible terrorist atrocities, whether that's been in our own part of the world, in Jakarta or Bali, or in Europe or in the United States.
So it's part of our effort to help stamp out international terrorism, that's clearly in Australia's national interests, it's also in the international communities' interests.
FRAN KELLY: Does it get harder and harder to remain convinced about that, maintain your convictions there, you know, one soldier killed, a 22 year old soldier killed a couple of weeks ago; Jamie Larcombe, 21 years old. It must give you pause for thought?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, it always gives you pause for thought when a terrible tragedy occurs for a family, and a terrible tragedy occurs for a nation. And coming so soon after the death of Corporal Richard Atkinson, it does send a shudder through the nation. It'll send a shudder through the Kangaroo Island community, and Sapper Larcombe's family. This will be a terrible time for them.
But if I wasn't of the view that what we were doing was right, if I wasn't of the view that what we were doing was in our national interests, then of course that would cause you to really stop. Every time this occurs, we do think and reflect upon what we're doing. But we come to the same conclusion, which is we are acting, pursuant to the United Nations mandate, as part of an international community force to bring stability to Afghanistan. That's the right thing to do for that region. It's the right thing to do for the international community, and I'm very strongly of the view it's the right thing to do for Australia, and our national security and long term national interests.
FRAN KELLY: You've reminded us again that we have to “steel ourselves for further fatalities and casualties”, yet at the same time we read that the US troops that are there in a sense to give cover to the Australian Mentoring Task Force that's in place, and the engineers in place, 300 of them are being relocated from Uruzgan Province to Kandahar. I mean, can you guarantee Australians that there is enough and adequate protection there for the forces on the ground?
STEPHEN SMITH: There's a rotation of United States forces. As you know, when the Dutch left in August last year, we're now working under the banner of what's called Combined Team Uruzgan, with essentially the United States and Australia in the lead.
The current United States force is a so-called Stryker Force that's rotating with the 4th Battalion of the 70th Armoured Regiment. On paper, people assert that there's a 300 troop on the ground difference. That's not right. There are two points to be made about that: firstly the current Stryker US force operates not just in Uruzgan, but also in Kandahar. Its replacement will only operate in Uruzgan Province.
I'm told by the Chief of the Defence Force, Angus Houston, that the net difference will be less than 100 on the ground. But most importantly, what the United States provides, the key enablers, the fixed-wing air support, helicopters, artillery and the like, there'll be no effective change there. So these changes have been done in very close consultation with Australian Defence Force personnel, both in Canberra and on the ground in Kabul.
And indeed I've spoken myself to Colonel Creighton, who heads up the team in Uruzgan about these changes. And the advice I've got, and I've satisfied myself, is that this will effectively continue to provide the same cooperation, the same enablers, and the same cover that we have at the moment.
FRAN KELLY: It's a delicate point, isn't it? I mean it's not that many months ago there was one soldier anonymously emailed the press saying that one Australian soldier was killed because there was not enough air support, and that issue was raised directly with the commanders, and they refuted that. But also the Prime Minister was told when she was there, I think you've probably also been told by some Australian soldiers, that they feel they're spread too thin on the ground?
STEPHEN SMITH: I've seen those remarks and the email that you refer to is part of an official investigation into the death of one of our soldiers, and that'll be exhaustively considered publicly in due course.
But I think the key point to make there, often you see analysis or assertions which in the end don't stack up, as against the formal advice. And you would have seen in recent times our then commander on the ground, Major General Cantwell, and also Colonel Creighton himself, making the point publicly that they were very strongly of the view that sufficient enablers, sufficient support was on the ground.
But in the fog of war, often terrible things happen. So of course we apply ourselves very assiduously towards these issues, we look very carefully in an ongoing way on force protection, and the support that is there. And the advice that I continue to get, and as I say, I've spoken to Colonel Creighton myself, is that this rotation by US forces leaves our combined International Security Assistance Force in Uruzgan with effectively the same capacity on the ground, and the same cover so far as the enablers, helicopters, artillery and the like, are concerned.
FRANK KELLY: It's 12 minutes to eight on Radio National Breakfast, our guest this morning is Defence Minister Stephen Smith.
Minister, some of our soldiers in Afghanistan are involved directly in detainee management and there's been an allegation by a soldier that some ADF members may not have complied with procedures relating to the management and administrative processing of detainees. Is there an investigation into that and what is it finding?
STEPHEN SMITH: Yes there is an investigation. You might recall at the end of last year I announced publicly what our new detainee management arrangements would be. Again prior to the Dutch leaving in August of last year, they were responsible for detainee management. We've now taken over that task and I made the point at the time that I would give regular public and Parliamentary updates. And last week I drew attention to a couple of very important matters, one of which was allegations against some of our personnel working in our centre in Tarin Kowt, that they weren't following appropriate procedures.
That's been the subject and is the subject of an investigation. It's being treated very seriously by the investigating body and also by the ADF, the Australian Defence Force itself. I'm being updated on a regular basis by the Chief of the Defence Force about that investigation.
When I was advised about the investigation, I was also advised of some technical problems with our CCTV arrangements in that holding centre in Tarin Kowt. So we're treating these issues very seriously, as we should. But the results of the investigation we won't know for some time yet and it's not appropriate for me to go into any of the detail until that exhaustive investigation has been done. But I've already indicated I'll make the substance of that investigation and the outcomes publicly known as I should.
FRANK KELLY: Minister, can I switch to another topic now, the ALP review from John Faulkner, Bob Carr and Steve Bracks was released on Friday, a couple of parts weren't released. One recommendation we know that is out in the open though is that it finds that when Caucus change the rules to allow the leader, the Parliamentary leader to choose the front bench, this was in breach of the Labor Party Principles of Organisation which says the front bench has to be elected and this needs to be fixed up at the National Conference.
What do you think should happen here? Are you for the Parliamentary leader to be able to directly choose their front bench?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well in the end it will be a matter for the National Conference.
FRANK KELLY: What's you view?
STEPHEN SMITH: My own view is that I think in the modern day it's perfectly appropriate for the leader of the day, for the Prime Minister of the day, to choose his or her Ministry. I think there's a reality which is that if a Minister loses the confidence of the Prime Minister, whether that Minister has become a Minister because of a vote of the caucus or because of selection by the Prime Minister, if a Minister loses the confidence of the Prime Minister, that's either it for the Minister or it's it for the Prime Minister. Generally it's it for the Minister.
So I don't have any difficulty with the way in which we've moved on this matter. In the end Ministers and Prime Ministers are accountable and responsible to the Parliament and to the public, but in the modern day I don't have any difficulty with the way in which we've moved in this area.
FRANK KELLY: The Faulkner-Carr-Bracks Review also recommends that rank-and-file members be given a lot more direct say in things, including the right to elect State Party Presidents. At the moment most who are appointed seems to be by the Right faction unions. As a former State Secretary of WA, do you support a change like that?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well a couple of things. I think as a modern political party we have had increasing difficulty over the years in continuing to have a large active membership which is well based and reflective of the community.
Modern society is not geared well to people turning up traditionally to branch meetings. You get more information from the ABC than you do from a branch meeting. You get more information from emails and internet than you do from a branch meeting. So there's a big challenge there.
I have for some time been attracted very much to the notion of giving registered ALP supporters in the community a role and that's part of the recommendations that we've seen, the notion of some rough equivalent to a US primary. But we do have a challenge and it's not just the challenge for the Australian Labor Party, it's a challenge for modern Australia's politics and democracy of having people active and interested, taking part in the management and the affairs of a political party and the nation generally. And anything we can do to make the work and the contribution of branch members more real and more viable, I think, is a very good thing.
But we also have to accept the reality that in the modern world people these days get their information from a wide variety of sources and we have to tap into that and tap into the millions of people who support Labor through thick and thin at State and Federal level on an ongoing basis, but playing no real role in the affairs of the Party itself.
FRANK KELLY: Stephen Smith thank you very much for joining us on Breakfast.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks Fran, thanks very much.