Minister for Defence Stephen Smith on US Stryker Battalion rotation in Uruzgan Province

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 Hus­ton, 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.

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)

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