Minister for Defence Stephen Smith on Queensland flood, Afghanistan, Australia-United Kingdom Ministerial Consultation

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. 

QUESTION: [Inaudi­ble]

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. 

Press release
Min­is­te­r­i­al Sup­port and Pub­lic Affairs,
Depart­ment of Defence,
Can­ber­ra, Australia 

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