MAJGEN John Cantwell on Smith

The Defence Minister appears to merely tolerate those in the armed forces, writes John Cantwell. It’s all about respect. Does the Defence Minister, Stephen Smith, respect the men and women of the Australian Defence Force? Regrettably, the answer appears to be ”no”. In recent years, I’ve found myself in the company of several defence ministers for extended periods. In 2008, as the senior military officer running the force structure review as part of the present defence white paper, I spent long hours over many sessions briefing the then minister, Joel Fitzgibbon. It was a painful process. Fitzgibbon was out of his depth. He simply didn’t get it. Not only could he not understand what we were trying to tell him, he didn’t put in the time to try to get across his brief. When he was required to sell the concepts and costs to his cabinet colleagues, I found myself having to prepare additional PowerPoint charts to explain to him the briefing that had already been simplified to the point of banality. He was an auto-electrician in a suit. But at least Fitzgibbon occasionally expressed a desire to do the right thing by the service personnel who delivered our military capability. There was a sigh of relief around the Defence precinct on Canberra’s Russell Hill when Fitzgibbon was forced to resign and was replaced by the vastly experienced and influential John Faulkner. I spent several days with Faulkner when I was commander of forces serving in Afghanistan and the wider Middle East area of operations. Two things struck me about his attitude towards our Diggers and the risks they take every day. First, Faulkner was genuinely concerned about the soldiers he met in Afghanistan. He spoke sincerely to them of his gratitude for the sacrifices they were making. I admired the way he was able to distinguish between his personal abhorrence of war and the necessity, as Defence Minister, to make the people we send to war understand that he supported them unreservedly. Second, he took the deaths of Australian soldiers very personally. When I briefed him on the circumstances of the deaths of two of our soldiers, killed by a roadside bomb, he was visibly pained by the description of what had happened. He sat for long moments grim-faced, then said, in an uncharacteristically quiet voice, ”That’s the most appalling thing that anyone has ever briefed me on.” Towards the end of his tour, Faulkner told me, ”I want you to know that if there is anything, anything, that you need here, you only have to ask.” I believed him. Faulkner spent only a little over a year as Defence Minister before returning to the backbench. When his replacement, Stephen Smith, made his first visit to the troops in Afghanistan I made sure he understood what was going well and what wasn’t. I warned him of potential problems. I briefed him on the nuanced, often sensitive relationships with our coalition partners in Afghanistan. I provided a frank assessment of the quality of Afghanistan security forces we were training. Throughout, Smith sat immobile, taking no notes, making no comment. At the conclusion of this briefing, to which the then chief of the Defence Force Angus Houston added his insights, I asked if he had any questions. There were none. It must have been a cracking brief. Later in the tour, in the joint US-Australian headquarters at Tarin Kowt in Uruzgan province, I saw the same stony-faced response to similar briefings. At one stage the commanding officer of the taskforce charged with mentoring the Afghan 4th Brigade provided a detailed, honest appraisal of his troops’ daily battles with insurgents, the progress of the local soldiers and prospects for the future. The CO asked if the minister had any questions. The 20 or 30 Australian and American officers in the room looked to Smith for comments, questions, words of encouragement. His response? ”No, thank you”, followed by a glance at me with the question, ”What’s next?” Inspirational, it wasn’t. That same day I escorted Smith to one of our forward patrol bases, which were established when we expanded our operations into an area previously covered by Dutch and French troops, who had recently departed. The CO of the mentoring taskforce had sensibly rebalanced his force to cover the new territory. But the Australian and Afghan troops there had been in constant and occasionally heavy contact with the enemy. They were under the pump. We gathered the dirty, tired Diggers together at the end of Smith’s tour. Media crews travelling with the minister turned on their cameras and he made a lacklustre speech clearly pitched at the audience back home. He talked ”at” the soldiers, not to them. He then turned to walk back to the helicopter pad. ”Minister,” I said, ”perhaps you might take a couple of questions from the soldiers before you go?” The look I got in response was poisonous. ”Well, are there any questions?” he asked the soldiers. ”Yes, sir,” one said. ”We got moved out here earlier than we were supposed to and we’re spread a bit thin on the ground. Can we get some additional troops sent out from Australia?” It was a reasonable question, at least from the perspective of a soldier fighting in a scrubby valley in Afghanistan. Smith launched into a long spiel about supporting the coalition and fighting terrorism and building capacity in the Afghan security forces and making a contribution and all the phrases that work well in Canberra. It didn’t work so well when delivered to blokes who would soon start another patrol along paths hiding improvised bombs designed to kill them. There were no other questions. Walking towards the helicopter for the ride back to Tarin Kowt, Smith said to me, ”Don’t set me up with unscheduled questions like that again”. He was not happy. After 38 years as a soldier and as a commander, I’d learned to read people, quickly and accurately. Reflecting on Smith’s visit, the abiding impression I was left with was that he merely tolerated people like me and the troops I commanded. I cast around in my mind for the element that seemed to be missing in his dealings with the men and women of the ADF who I led. Then I had it: respect. Smith had no respect for those who chose to serve in uniform for their country. It was an uncomfortable insight. Based on the utterances of Smith, both last year and this week, in relation to the commandant of the Australian Defence Force Academy and the inexcusable Skype scandal, I sense that the judgment I formed in 2010 was on the money. There’s no respect, and it works both ways.

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