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General Peter Cosgrove’s Address To The National Press Club

The Chief of the Australian Defence Force, General Peter Cosgrove, has conceded that “in retrospect” Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War of the 1960s “was not going to be successful”.

Cosgrove Addressing the National Press Club in Canberra, Cosgrove said: “It was simply not going to work, and therefore with 20/20 hindsight we probably shouldn’t have gone.”

Cosgrove did not acknowledge that the war was immoral in any way, claiming simply that “at the time I’m very clear that the majority of Australians thought we should be there, and it was only as a very widespread public reaction started to persuade the government of the day that it was, and the alternative government, that we shouldn’t be there, that the mood changed.”

Cosgrove ignored the strong body of opinion, including the then Labor Opposition, that had been opposed to the war at the time Australia’s commitment was announced by the Menzies Government. He said: “The men and women who were there of course performed magnificently, and I think, felt, a little abandoned by such a sharp swing in the public opinion which was never really about them, but was about the overall political reasons why we were there in the first place.”

Cosgrove’s comments came during a wide-ranging speech about Australia’s defence capability.

Transcript of the address given to the Defence Media Watch Lunch at the National Press Club, Canberra, by the Chief of the Defence Force, General Peter Cosgrove AC MC.

CHAIR: …let me just give you a little bit of background. He’s obviously well known to all of us, but a little bit of background in terms of his history, for those of you who may not be aware of it.

He was in fact born into a military family, educated in Sydney at Waverley College. As you might have expected, chose to attend Royal Military College Duntroon. After graduation he served both in Malaysia and in South Vietnam as a platoon commander, and he was awarded the Military Cross there.

Now, among other posts, he’s served as Commandant of the Defence Warfare Centre at Williamtown outside Newcastle, and at RMC Duntroon here in Canberra. He’s also commanded 1RAR, which was the original regiment that you serve within Malaysia.

More recently he rose to the rank of Commander of First Division and the deployable Joint Force Headquarters at Enoggera in Brisbane. But, of course, he’s best known for his role as Commanding Officer of INTERFET, the international force in East Timor, a position he held until the force was withdrawn from East Timor in February 2000.

On his return to Australia he was appointed Chief of the Army and, of course, earlier this month assumed the position of Chief of the Defence Force.

He’s a Companion of the Order of Australia. Last year was named Australian of the Year. His official biography says he’s a passionate rugby supporter. He enjoys playing the occasional game of cricket and he owns – owns – a set of golf clubs. I’m not too sure what that means, but it probably has a message there somewhere, particularly for those of you engaged in corporate hospitality.

Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome General Peter Cosgrove. [Applause]

GENERAL PETER COSGROVE: There’s a certain predatory look about microphones, isn’t there? They look like they’re going to go for your throat. Good morning to you all, ladies and gentlemen. I’ve been looking forward to this opportunity to talk to you today and to answer your questions.

This is my first public appearance as Chief of the Defence Force, and we were especially keen that it did give an opportunity, for people who are vitally interested in Defence issues, to be able to hear what I had to say and to ask what will no doubt be quite insightful questions.

Yesterday the new team at the top of Defence had a recall day for Defence’s senior leadership group over at the Australian Defence Force Academy. It was a good day. We’ve had a number of these over the last several years and they’re a very good opportunity to feel the pulse of the organisation and to pass on new or reinforced themes and directions within Defence.

Some of what I say to you today in my formal remarks will be similar to what I told to our people yesterday during a couple of short prepared addresses.

I thought I would start with what you might expect from the Chief of the Defence Force – a review of the progress of the present operational commitments of the Australian Defence Force.

Advising the Government on these operations and commanding them, and the military activities which support them, are plainly my most important day to day duties.

In terms of numbers of troops committed and proximity, East Timor comes first. We continue to be delighted with the rehabilitation and development of the world’s newest independent state, in the secure environment maintained for it by a multinational peacekeeping force over the last several years.

Our own contribution to UNTAET, now UNMISET, has been a significant part of the United Nation’s success. Our contribution, which has hovered around 1250 people for quite a while, now can again reduce soon, in the most cogent demonstration that the overall security situation in East Timor continues to improve.

We do have plans to continue these deployments, in reducing numbers into 2003 and slightly longer if required. Noting the present UMMISET mandate runs until mid 2004.

Our program of cooperation with Portugal in training the new East Timor Defence Force is also proceeding satisfactorily and has no anticipated end date.

Our people in the ADF feel enormous pride and satisfaction about our role in helping the East Timorese.

In Bougainville, after a number of years of almost unnoticed but wonderfully effective service, the Peace Monitoring Group continues to be a most cogent factor in the social rehabilitation of the island and the move to an enduring solution to the causes of conflict.

We have progressively reduced the size of the group, in concert with our PMG partners, as levels of confidence and cooperation have improved on the island.

I’ve visited the Peace Monitoring Group several times now over the last two and a half years and, on each occasion, I’m reminded at how important the efforts of Australia, New Zealand, Vanuatu and Fiji have been to enabling a peace process and some substantial reconciliation.

Our men and women invariably have adapted very well to the unarmed nature of the mission and the cultural sensitivities necessary to be effective in that special environment.

When we at some time terminate that operation, there will be a large number of Aussies, uniformed and public service, with some abiding affectionate memories of a fundamentally humanitarian mission.

Our participation in the border control operation continues in concert with the men and women of other government departments. Thankfully, while our people of all departments have been vigilant, there has not been the recent need to react to any illegal incursions. I hope that continues, too.

You’re probably aware that we have quite a few of our people around the world on other United Nations missions – the former Yugoslavia, the Sinai, Israel, Syria, Lebanon, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, Eritrea. We keep in touch with them, occasionally visit them, and monitor their well-being very carefully. Notably, of course, those in the Middle East. You never otherwise hear of them, but they are doing a great job. They have a marvellous reputation with the United Nations, and we are very proud of them.

On now to the most challenging security issue of these times: the Coalition Against Terrorism. Both at home and abroad this receives Defence’s present sharpest focus. First at home: we have reconstituted the ad hoc arrangement we stood up for the 2000 Olympics, the Incident Response Regiment. This Army unit is designed to help detect and react to explosives and chemical, biological and radiological threats.

In putting it together for the Olympics, we necessarily gained a great deal of new technological expertise. We thought then, just for that specific global occasion.

What a pity we now have to perpetuate this protective capability. But it is and will continue to be world class. We have an investment and development program for it over the next few years, which will keep it at the leading edge.

In addition, of course, the Government decided to increase our military counter terrorist capability, which had hitherto been in our Special Air Service Regiment based on the west coast.

This new hostage rescue force was raised from our Commando unit based in Sydney: 4th Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment. The Royal Australian Navy also assists in manning of this CT force.

The force became operational on the 22nd of July. We therefore now have a counter terrorist force based on the east and west coast. Again we have some more developmental work to do for the east coast element, but I stress the capability is operational now.

Most Australians are keenly aware of what our servicemen and women are doing in Kyrgyzstan, in the Arabian Gulf and in Afghanistan. We have sent B707 air-to-air refuellers to Kyrgyzstan and our people have been doing a tremendous job keeping those older aircraft at extraordinarily high levels of serviceability.

This has been to the extent that they have offered a remarkably high level of mission availability, refuelling allied combat aircraft patrolling the skies above Afghanistan.

Now, those folks of ours come home at the end of their deployment in September.

In the Gulf our ships continue to do what they have been doing off and on for several years, participating in the smuggling blockade around Iraq. At the moment we have two warships on task there and, once again, an Australian senior naval officer is in command of the whole blockading naval task force.

Having visited the RAN ships on watch there on two occasions now, I can tell you first hand that our people are extremely well respected by their friends and allies for their hard work and professionalism.

I have also visited our SAS soldiers in Afghanistan, and our small element in Kuwait – again on two occasions. You might think, in typical Aussie fashion, that there is an element of over-the-top flattery in what our allies say about these young men. But they really do stand in the front nark of any soldiers in the world.

On a recent visit I made to the United States, General Tommy Franks, the Commander of Central Command, and the man responsible for conducting the operations against terrorism in Afghanistan, was intimately aware of what our soldiers are doing day to day. And very clear in his admiration for them.

I might observe that as the tempo of the focussed offensive military operations tails off, there remains a need to be vigilant and rigorous in guarding against any backsliding in the security situation in Afghanistan while the new government is finding its feet and aid programs start to bite.

Our troops are performing ceaseless reconnaissance and surveillance operations to keep tabs on one of the harshest operational environments in the world.

I was delighted to hear that the United States wanted to specially recognise the Commanding Officer of the SAS troops in Afghanistan over the last six months or so, Lieutenant Colonel Rohan Tink.

As you know, the government has agreed that the next rotation of SASR troops will deploy to Afghanistan in August. Expected to be there for around six months.

There has been some comment about the pressures on the Defence Force as a result of our high operational tempo and, consequently, our ability to cope. We are now months into this high plateau of operational work and while those particular assets we have most fully engaged are flat out, such as Navy’s warships and Army’s Special Forces and Air Force’s air-to-air refuellers, we can manage with careful planning and some respite for our people.

About our people and how they are coping. I find myself – and I’m told by my fellow Chiefs – that our men and women are naturally conscious of the hardship and emotional strain of separation from their loved ones.

But taking that into account, they are very gratified that they are doing the job for which they entered service and for which they have been trained, and they note that public support for the ADF is very high. They feel that they are making a difference, and that other Australians are noticing.

I don’t think morale has been as high across the board in the Australian Defence Force since the mid 60s.

You might be interested to reflect on our recruiting and retention statistics at the moment, which are healthier than many recent reports seem to believe. Of course there are one or two issues which have vexed us, and a very few commentators whose remarks are seen as most unfair. We tell our men and women to see them in their correct perspective, and we get on with the job.

While we are keenly aware of the security challenges to which we are responding far from home, we also remain focussed on what is happening in our own region. As some of you have noted in your own comments, we have to keep our fingers crossed and do what we can to help those states, large and small in our region, which have significant social and economic challenges. On none of them would Australia seek to impose a solution. We, the military, play whatever constructive role the Government desires with the militaries of these countries – to discuss, to train, to provide benign technical expertise at a tempo and of a type suitable to Australia and to the country in question.

In late 2000 the Government issued its White Paper on Defence, “Defence 2000 – Our Future Defence Force” in which our projected future circumstances and force modernisation structural and technical changes to meet those circumstances were described.

Government also committed to a level of funding to meet the need. Plainly, that is a blueprint for any senior commander in the ADF to guide his or her future work. To implement, during his or her tenure, the deliverables of the White Paper.

There are three parts of those deliverables, from my point of view. The first is to maintain the ADF at a preparedness, or at preparedness levels to meet predicted but unspecified Government needs for the deployment of forces on Defence tasks.

So this is as distinct from the forces actually deployed on operations. By and large, of course, those forces on operations come from the basket of capabilities that is broadly kept at high levels of preparedness.

Achieving that level of preparedness is an endless but necessary activity as you train, exercise, coordinate and compromise within parameters and produce viable forces ready to go.

There’s immense industry at all levels of the ADF in preparedness and operational terms. In many areas our men and women are over there, just back, or getting ready to go. The last time the ADF at large was as operationally experienced was probably just after World War II, when there those great veterans of the war thickly seeded through the ranks of the three services.

Now, young NCOs and officers with two or three separate tours of duty in different theatres, are not at all uncommon. If we can keep many of these young people for some time, it bodes well for the confidence, the competence and the maturity of the ADF into an uncertain future.

We find ourselves able to use some of our Army Reservists as very able and eager volunteers for service as a formed sub-unit in East Timor, and this will be a pointer for the future as we seek to get some near-term operational employment out of the available and appropriately skilled Reservists.

Next out of the White Paper comes that other part of the blueprint: those modernised or new capabilities the Government wants to see in our future force.

These are crucially important to get right, given the huge dollar investment, the lead times involved, and the human and security interest costs of making a bad call.

Not unnaturally, the Government, the media and the taxpayers are often keenly interested in this side of our activity. My job in this process is to advise Government on the sorts of acquisitions it might contemplate – with my senior military and civilian colleagues – to ensure that there is rigour and logic and balance and prioritisation in what we tell Government. And then to help juggle the resources, as inevitably in real life the resources and programming goalposts move.

This is an ongoing job, and part of my challenge is to obtain focus, collegiality and commitment from the disparate interests in the process.

Staying with acquisition issues, a few points might well be made. The proof of capability in platform or systems terms, comes from the satisfaction and competence of the users in exploiting it. By this yardstick, the Defence acquisition staff have a great record of delivering potent capabilities into the hands of our sailors, soldiers and air men and women.

We have world class equipment. You – some of you – sometimes apply the ‘lemon’ tag to our kit. Other defence forces would give their eyeteeth to have our ‘lemons’. You sometimes comment unfavourably on late deliveries and cost overruns, and seem invariably to direct your criticisms to the Defence acquisition staff.

I might mildly observe that such time and dollar blow-outs more than occasionally are down to the supplier. This is not to say that we should not be under constant scrutiny in our acquisition processes. I simply seek to inject some balance into an occasionally overblown debate.

A word on interoperability. We benchmark on the United States armed forces for obvious reasons, and we strongly lean their way on interoperability. On some recent acquisition decisions, we see some very substantial interoperability and technological advantages arising for us. There will be, often enough, occasions when the case will not be as strong.

Last on my list of major priorities, but no less important than anything else, is the lot of our people. This acknowledges the fact that the sophistication, the quality, the proliferation of our modern equipment is ultimately irrelevant if we do not have the right number of the right quality people when we need them.

The future Defence Force will only be as good as the people it has in uniform and as the civilians it has supporting its endeavours in the Department of the future.

There are some factors which are relevant. The future demographic is unfavourable in terms of the numbers of young people entering the work force age group. Next, as a government department we are unlikely to be competitive in raw cash remuneration terms for retaining our trained experienced people.

Finally, the Lieutenant Colonels and Navy and Air Force equivalents and the Warrant Officers of 20 years time are about to enter the Defence Force this year or next. So we plan for people strategically and we act powerfully and tactically on personnel issues today.

Therefore the main personnel goal I have is the issue of modernising and improving remuneration for our men and women in uniform. I think one of the primary responsibilities of any CDF or Service Chief is to attract, recruit, train, and retain the people we need, obviously for the short term, the here and now, but vitally for the future.

We must modernise our remuneration but in a way which convinces our people that they are better off, or at least no worse off. Retention is a key. Retention of young people to be the grizzled old professionals in a decade or so’s time. Retention of most of the present day grizzled old professionals to do the job and train the youngsters today and tomorrow.

There are some great ideas rattling around in Defence and we are not shy of plundering ideas from industry and corporate life in terms of proposing modern employment conditions.

The fundamental internal criteria we apply to changing ADF employment conditions are that whatever it is must be seen to comprehend the uniqueness of uniformed service. Secondly, I repeat, our people must see whatever it is that we propose is at least as good as the present paradigm or hopefully better.

Now a word on our Defence renewal agenda. Some have criticised it as being faddish, but I take a totally different line. There may be some out there who see me more as a field commander than a comfortable member of the bureaucracy, and therefore might think that I’m somewhat inclined to pay lip service to Defence’s organisational renewal agenda.

Well I am a field commander by background, and that’s why I see the need for our renewal program so clearly. Let me put this proposition to all of you. We would all immediately see the point if I asked you the question of what would be the fate of any Navy Army or Air Force which remained static, which didn’t modernise routinely, sometimes radically to meet the emerging security needs and the technological and social conditions of its present and likely future?

In the Department of Defence, our whole professional existence revolves around preparing the ADF in this way. Yet so important is the host structure – the enabler – the Department and all of its functions, processes and international organisations, that not to take a continual modernisation approach to it would be a dereliction of the most grotesque nature. Simply, we have to ceaselessly fine tune the way we do business.

Now my language of change may not be polished, but I am fully committed to imbuing a culture of restless innovation into those who operate at the high levels of Defence leadership.

You might expect me to speak in somewhat elevated terms about the office of CDF. Well of course I’m enormously conscious of the honour and the burden.

On the other hand, there’s no particular magic in doing the job, it works basically the same way in every military command job. Command, leadership, and management downwards, obedience and timely accurate advice upwards, loyalty in both directions.

I’m now in my 12th command job, which probably makes me the most experienced commander in the Australian Defence Force – let’s hope not like the Hapsburgs, of whom it was said ‘they forgot nothing and learned nothing’.

One thing that experience tells me is that at every more senior appointment, you need to rely ever more heavily on an increasing number of supporting experts and subordinate commanders. None more so than as CDF. There’s not a person in Defence’s senior leadership whose advice I don’t vitally need and rely on.

Of course, in the end I make the call on the military command and advice issues, and I take responsibility. But given the complexity of what we in Defence do, it will always be a collective effort.

Allan Hawke and I will be a good team because we have got a very good team. I will be looking for their information and advice to produce the best possible decisions and the best possible advice.

In conclusion, let me just reflect for another moment on how well, how effectively, how professionally and how honourably our men and women in uniform and our public servants in Defence are meeting their obligations to Australia. We are lucky to have such service from them in these uncertain times.

Thank you.

CHAIR: I thank the General. Time now for Questions. We’re going to start with questions from the media. We’ve got quite a few here but I don’t want to preclude questions from industry or anyone. We’ll take a round of questions from the media then open it up to industry as well, so I invite questions from the media and then industry a little later. Indicate if you would like a question, [inaudible] introduce yourself and your organisation.

QUESTION: Jeremy [indistinct]. Just on your description of this [indistinct] to date is overblown I’d just like to ask you how you can reassure taxpayers that the hundreds of millions of dollars that have been wasted in recent years on these equipment acquisitions will not be repeated in the future and given that representatives of some of these suppliers of this dodgy kit and the contract which led to the supply of this dodgy kit are in the room, I’d just like to get your comments on how you might guarantee that that won’t be repeated, and this is a second question, given that there’s new rotation in Afghanistan will you be allowing some more media access to the troops over there?

GENERAL COSGROVE: Thanks, Ian. I don’t accept your characterisation of the activities of the acquisition organisation in the past. I have to say that some of the capability investment programs have been of such enormous magnitude that the sums involved can be mind boggling.

What we get for that though, are capabilities which are absolutely cutting edge and put us in the front rank of those capabilities wherever they exist in the world.

Our submarine is plainly the best conventional submarine in the world and with shrewd updating will remain that way for the foreseeable future. I’ll just use that as one example.

On the other hand it is right that we are under significant scrutiny to ensure that we don’t waste, and that we have processes and contracts which stand up to scrutiny and do deliver on time on budget and value for money.

In that respect I think some of the more recent achievements by our acquisition folks point to a set of reform processes which should give everybody confidence that that value for money will exist.

The armed reconnaissance helicopter, quite a large project, is tracking along in a way which I think should attract attention and praise from all who give us scrutiny and I think from others in industry who would seek to do business in the same way.

This is not to say that the acquisition process has never stumbled. But I do think that the proof of the pudding, as I said during my remarks, rests in the sort of capabilities delivered to our fighting men and women who, after all, are the people who will take them in harm’s way.

For your second point – I’m glad you asked the question – the Minister has agreed that starting as soon as it can be arranged, media who wish to visit our troops on operation in Afghanistan might be able to do so by using space available on service aircraft, and will be fostered in-country by the public affairs officer we’ve been able to put in there.

It’s only recently, really, that we’ve established a routine of aircraft going across there and of course it’s been convenient to put the public affairs officer in there in anticipation so I think those interested folk from the media ought to contact our PAC [phonetic] staff to express interest and to start making arrangements.

QUESTION: Max Meakin [phonetic] from Australian Associated Press. [indistinct] special forces … [indistinct]

GENERAL COSGROVE: Thank you, yes, and I think that you pick up on some pretty good points. Let me just reassure you though that we will retain the counter terrorist capability inherent in the SAS Regiment – we’ll retain that in perpetuity, and it will be available for domestic or offshore terrorist or counter-terrorist resolution of incidents.

The issue out of Army 21 – it’s an interesting point that you make. It was correct in pointing generally to the utility of special forces. What I need to stress that for special forces to be at that right high end of capability the people in there have to be extraordinarily well trained and have to have extraordinary aptitude.

Now I have the utmost admiration for every man and woman in the Australian Defence Force, but when we trawl through the ranks of the Australian Defence Force, as we do routinely applying the most rigorous selection standards for our special forces folk, we can’t expect to proliferate the numbers who stand under the banner of special – by that I mean capable of being trained to that extremely high level that you are seeing from time to time displayed by our people say in Afghanistan and in other places.

So the Australian Defence Force as its size stands at the moment would probably not be able to generate, for example, yet another regiment of special air service, yet another commando regiment.

So Army 21 was right in so far as it goes – limited pragmatically by the recruiting pools so to speak from the Australian Defence Force and I need to add to that, in case people hearing these remarks further afield sit to attention in the civilian community, and to say that’s for me, I’ll help you out with your problem, we would always want our special forces to come from a solid military experience background so they understand the basics before going on to the more esoteric skills and capabilities represented in special forces.

QUESTION: Mark [indistinct] from The Age, General Cosgrove. You said that your main personal goal is to modernise and improve the numeration of that [indistinct] personnel. What precisely, what options are you looking at, what sort of models are you looking at and how may that change?

GENERAL COSGROVE: Okay. The issue with remuneration is we have to remain conscious that we can never totally disconnect from other public sector remuneration policies and schemes.

There is the uniqueness of military service but there is equally a need for some relativity if not equivalence within the broad terms of remuneration in the public sector.

That said, there’s much we can do to propose, to remind, to underscore to all the players in the remuneration cycle so to speak, the uniqueness of military service, the need for special conditions of services, the need for flexible and appropriate pay structures so that people who might leave the military scene for several years can return in a way which is both equitable and yet attractive for them.

We need to be able to have a combination of a market force approach which will say that particular people are highly desired by industry and the wider community for civilian employment, yet we also need to be able to recognise on work value there are some unique skills which are not replicated in the wider community therefore there may not be a market force, but which fundamentally are so valuable to the ADF we can’t afford to lose people of that ilk.

I’ll give you an example – a submarine captain – not a lot of call for submarine captains outside the military, but on the other hand these are some of the most highly trained skilful and talented people in the whole of the defence force.

The commanding officer of a special forces unit – nothing directly translatable into the corporate world although some of the executives here might have other views but certainly somebody whose skills we would want to retain.

The combination of work value, and market forces – now that’s something where we can, and I think will, gently move the pay structure in my tenure.

QUESTION: General Cosgrove, I’m [indistinct] 2UE. Today being the last day of the Senate Inquiry into certain maritime incidents, as you are aware. In all your knowledge can you honestly say that in regards to the children overboard affair, the Federal Government didn’t lie about what actually happened?

GENERAL COSGROVE: In all my knowledge I can honestly say that I’ve got no indication that anybody has actually lied. All the evidence I have seen, and heard, suggests to me that while there was confusion etc nobody has put their hand up or you people haven’t put the hand up on them to say that you think that they’ve lied. I’m quite persuaded that everybody in Defence has told the truth as they have seen it.

QUESTION: [Inaudible]

GENERAL COSGROVE: I don’t comment on things I don’t know about. I’ve told you that everything that I’ve seen that’s been produced in evidence in the Senate Inquiry that appears on the record, anywhere else suggests that what we have there is confusion, differing recollections, but it seems to me that nobody has appeared to have flagrantly lied.

QUESTION: [indistinct] your message here about the [indistinct] I wonder if you’d care to comment on the comments you made recently that much of our post war, post World War II [indistinct] soldiers rather than very expensive, you know, capability, and this of course is being [indistinct] ….

GENERAL COSGROVE: Well I need, I think to go to the heart of that question rather than answer it the way you’ve invited me to answer it, but to simply tell you how grateful all Australians ought to be that we do have a moderately powerful but hugely effective Royal Australian Navy and Royal Australian Air Force.

The penalties or the risks of not having those very professional capabilities to defend our sea lines of communication, and to give people confidence that Australian air space is safe, the penalties of not having those are unimaginable.

Royal Australian Air Force Pilots flying Wirraways against Japanese Zeros, which had swept the skies clean in the rest of the Pacific – that’s the sort of paradigm we’re getting into if we were to make a conscious effort to disinvest in the Royal Australian Navy or the Royal Australian Airforce.

There’s always issues around the margins and I expect the chiefs to propose their cases cogently and persuasively, but from my point of view it is hugely important that people see, as a very necessary insurance policy for our security, that we retain moderately powerful, certainly very modern and highly professional, maritime and air defence assets.

QUESTION: General Cosgrove, Mick Ryan from The Canberra Times. Just two quick questions – something personal first – as a former veteran of Vietnam I was wondering whether you think back to those days and whether you can comment on your view of the nature of the war there and your involvement, and do you have any regrets about involvement – do you think Australia’s involvement was wrong. A recent profile in The Herald, a group profile, didn’t sort of mention your political views of the war, and I was wondering if you could tell us a bit about what you think about it now?

And, secondly, you [indistinct] but you refused to comment because you hadn’t actually become CDF, can you tell us a little bit about how you see a possible role for Australia [indistinct] and what advice you might be giving to government today and [indistinct].

GENERAL COSGROVE: [Indistinct] Vietnam first, of course. It’s so long after the event I think it’s safe to say that on reflection I’d probably join the majority of Australians who thought in retrospect our involvement was not going to be successful. It was simply not going to work, and therefore with 20/20 hindsight we probably shouldn’t have gone.

But you can with the full weight of history and analysis and outcomes available to you make that judgement so long after the event and, as I said, so long after the event I think anybody’s entitled to have that view.

At the time I’m very clear that the majority of Australians thought we should be there, and it was only as a very widespread public reaction started to persuade the government of the day that it was, and the alternative government, that we shouldn’t be there, that the mood changed.

The men and women who were there of course performed magnificently, and I think, felt, a little abandoned by such a sharp swing in the public opinion which was never really about them, but was about the overall political reasons why we were there in the first place.

But I think that’s just part of history and certainly at no stage did it decrease my commitment to serve because after all in the end the military does the lawful bidding of the government and always will.

On to your second question. I think at the moment the public debate we see about whether or not the Coalition Against Terror moves in another direction, is entirely understandable. I think it’s happening vigorously at the moment on a number of different levels, and because that debate is now in progress it’s inappropriate for a public servant in this case, the Chief of the Defence Force, to be contributing to the public debate.

I think it’s in full swing and it should play out. It’s an important issue for the Australian people.

CHAIR: [indistinct]

QUESTION: General Cosgrove – Belinda Goldsmith from Roses [phonetic]. You’re meeting next week with Admiral [Indistinct]. Can you give us some details on the purpose of your talks and are they [indistinct]

GENERAL COSGROVE: Thank you, yes. The focus of our talks will always be those areas of military activity where we come together, will exchange views on a strategic situation in his particular area and ours where they overlap. We’ll look for those high level issues of coordination where in training our forces together we hope to get the maximum benefit, and of course we will exchange views on how the big ticket item, the Coalition against Terrorism, how that is expressed, or how it impacts into the Pacific area.

And all of those, of course, as you’d expect between officials, the prudent talks we engage in, they’re a subset of what takes place at ever higher levels between defence ministers and defence secretaries, and our foreign ministers, and our national leaders.

So we cascade off those sorts of talks, and confine ourselves to the military aspects. And, of course, I don’t share those – the detail of those talks – with anybody outside of the military group, and my Minister.

CHAIR: Right, I’ll take questions from the general floor now – I’ll certainly take more media questions if there are, but do we have any questions from our industry guests here today?

QUESTION: Ah, Ben [indistinct] from Tenix, General. General, over the years our relationship, our military relationship with Indonesia was very, very important to us. I note no incidence of that relationship in your speech today. Could you [indistinct]

GENERAL COSGROVE: The only reason I didn’t comment on it is that it remains a re-establish and growing relationship which has had no particular peaks or troughs in it in the last year or so.

You might say that it proceeds cautiously on grounds of mutual interest – I notice that the Minister was clear to say that we are collaborating with them as and when it is appropriate to talk about concerns on global terrorism, so if I could characterise it by saying it’s not just mutual feelings of warm regard, but more to do with what are the pragmatics of our immediate relationships and interaction, and I think that that’s an encouraging sign.

The Chief of the Air Force, Air Marshal Angus Houston, will visit Indonesia next week. And conduct talks with his counterpart. And convey good messages of esteem to me from my newly-installed counterpart, who’s the ex-Indonesian Chief of Army, General Sutarto. A fellow I know, and I’ve played golf with, very badly. [Laughter.]

He didn’t play that well either. [Laughter.]

Very diplomatic. Except, I was trying. I don’t know whether he was.

QUESTION: General, one of the features of the [indistinct] program, since the [indistinct] some previous [indistinct] there’s an assumption that cultural change will follow reorganisations. It’s my observation, reinforced by my time in the private sector, that the lack of willingness within the organisation – I’m referring more to the Canberra end – to make decisions that – in an appropriate method – and rather than to delegate up [indistinct] backing your comment about principles of command. Could I just ask you comment on that…

GENERAL COSGROVE: Sure. There probably is, or has been, a tendency to push things up. By engaging the – to the people at the band one level, and one star level, in Defence, who is that crucial layer of people who have functional responsibility, and authority to act. And getting them to understand that they can exercise their authority. They can innovate. They can create and propose policy frameworks which give them more elbow room.

And that we will be sympathetic, and that indeed we invite that. I mean, we’ve got to give accountability for the taxpayer’s dollar. And we’ve got to stay within certain broad parameters because it is the public service. But we can actually provide authority and elbow room to our people at that crucial level.

We’ve been engaging with them over the last two years, and surveying them, and talking to the individually, and writing to them, and charging them with telling us what on Earth they want to do, rather than simply, you know “I’m doing the same as I did last year.”

And I think we are seeing an air of – well, these people are fair dinkum. And we do sense this idea that the one-stars will be able to take charge of their work areas and innovate.

We recently – we started with the one stars and the band ones because there’s more of them. And if we thought we’d made an impact there, then it is going to spread, a sort of benign virus of innovation. We are now talking to our two stars, who are those crucial next managers up the line. The band twos and the two stars. And seeking to get them excited and invigorated, and absolutely on board with this sense of, as I’ve called it, a sense of restless innovation.

CHAIR: Do we have any further questions?

QUESTION: [Indistinct.] There’s a tragic story in the States about four Special Service soldiers at Fort Bragg who returned home and killed their wives or partners, and a couple killed themselves. Are you confident that we have things in place for our people returning from places like Afghanistan, where they had just come back from – that their mental health is okay? Are you happy with the level of commitment of the Government for things like compensation, for people injured or killed, and their families?

GENERAL COSGROVE: I’m very confident we’ve got pretty solid systems in place, but the moment I read that I said “I’m going to check that.” Okay. You – we’ve had systems in place. They’re never absolutely leak-proof, in terms of having a psychological casualty that might emerge notwithstanding all the debriefing, and counselling, and experts diagnosing whether or not there is trauma there that needs assistance.

So we have these systems in place. We’ll just be extra careful, because that’s an indicator. And I would like to think that we would not be blithe about that.

On the issue of compensation, you’d be well aware there’s a Government review on. No compensation scheme survives in terms of its modernity and its suitability – it doesn’t survive the drying of the ink on the paper of legislation. Simply because things always move along.

But I’m uplifted to see that there is a commitment from the Government to have a military compensation scheme which gives an opportunity to take every anomaly – anomalies emerge every time you have a compensation scheme. There’s always the other case which you didn’t think about, which needs to be addressed.

So this review will – should pick up all those anomalies. Hear from all these experts, and people who are personally in need, and factor that into the review. Now, we’re just an agent in this, I’m not backsliding out of your question, Ian.

But Defence is an agent in this, and really the people who need to be satisfied are plainly that – those raft of people who don’t have a big institution like the Department of Defence to plead their case.

I mean, we take care of the people in uniform. We tend to see more concern, and more anomalies emerging, from our veterans’ community. And of course, in the case of those people, we can advise Government, and we can look to see whether the anomalies they report are conditional upon their service, or simply part of their personal circumstances.

So, I’m delighted to see that the compensation scheme is going to be updated. And in that regard, going back to the earlier part of your question, it will of course address all aspects of health, including mental health.

QUESTION: [Inaudible] Defence and government, Defence and bureaucracy and that [inaudible] sort of intensity from the media [inaudible] and how you might go about that? Whether you think that’s the case? Where are Defence [inaudible] and how you might go about that?

GENERAL COSGROVE: Well, plainly it took place in the most supercharged political environment. Part of it springs from a great tragedy, the drowning of those people, in the loss at sea. It goes to the – in the plainly confused communications that were taking place at the time – into people’s differing recollections. And when I gave you that earlier answer, I wasn’t being tongue in cheek about differing recollections. I noticed, on the parliamentary television system today in examination of witnesses before the Senate Select Committee, again this issue of differing recollections comes about.

Now, I can recall vividly the pressure of the time, with the border control operation in full swing. And having incidents within it of vessels being arrested, et cetera, on every few days at the same time as we were coping with the first raft of reactions to September 11. So, it doesn’t surprise me people have different recollections.

What we have done and what we will progress forward now are some changes within Defence as to the way we do business.

Admiral Gates will have the input of his findings into the whole of Defence response to the Senate’s Report. Some of those, because they reach into other studies – the Eke and Smyth [phonetic] study, the Powell study and Brian study, being the one from PM&C which looked at whole of government processes – we pick up things like our relationship with and the way we respond to interdepartmental committees. We’ve got to make that more robust, and we are. Got to make sure our attendance is at an appropriately senior level, and has both officials and military where the subject is, you know, appropriately represented by officials and the military.

We’ve got to do better with our emails. Got to somehow know where they’re going and what accountability and reliability they have. Got to do better with our photographic evidence, and we’ve got protocols in place now to ensure that we control and know about photographic evidence rather better.

We’ve got to do better at managing the streams of communication that respond to incidents. And my predecessor, as one of his acts not long after Admiral Gates started his review of the other reports, instituted a new set of instructions concerning the way in which we would communicate in response to incidents.

I’m going to use the Vice Chief to help coordinate this across all of Defence, working closely in tandem with the Deputy Secretary’s strategic policy. So there’s a new subordinate diarchy in place with the Vice Chief and the Dep Sec, a strategic policy handling the immediate military cross-departmental coordination. That’s intra-departmental coordination of what Defence is doing and saying.

We’ve made some public affairs changes. We’ve now got a public affairs duty officer embedded into our Strategic Command Division.

We’re continuing to review all aspects of the way we do business. We’ve put some of these as the platform of what we do now, rather than the extent of it. And over the next six months, which seems, because of the operational tempo, likely to provide some good tests of our new arrangements, we’ll see how we’re going.

Relationships with the Minister’s Office and with the rest of government, well you work at that. You don’t write a piece of paper and say that’s the new arrangement. The new arrangement is the interpersonal confidence and trust you build up. And you do that exactly as it sounds, by being over there, by imbuing them with confidence, by making sure that when you tell them something it is spot on, accountable and verifiable.

With the rest of government, again you have senior people whose ability to produce the Defence view at interdepartmental committees is credible and at a level where it is persuasive.

QUESTION: [Inaudible] General, just in relation to the care of the Defence Force or personnel who may have been damaged in some way by their Services. Have you received any personal approaches regarding at least one soldier who came back from East Timor in a totally suicidal state [inaudible]. Are you confident, looking back at that issue and of those people who returned from East Timor, that the Defence Force has fulfilled its duty of care to look after those people [inaudible]?

GENERAL COSGROVE: Yes. First and foremost, let me say that every person who was in East Timor who found later on, or we found or they found, that they had some psychological after-effects, damaging after-effect, is a sad thing. And we would be wanting to pick that up early, and where we don’t we would want to do our very best to help them.

We had in place psychological counselling and debriefing available for every person who had been in Timor both at the outset during those INTERFET days and, of course, routinely after that. So we should have been able to pick up everybody.

And I’d like to be able to put my hand on my heart and say we got everybody. But just as some people snuck into Timor before their due birthday, and therefore had to be sent home for a few days; and just as some people snuck in there for reasons of just being there, so I expect some people might have snuck out. Not deliberately evading psychological debriefing, but missing it.

Everybody including the Force Commander, myself, was debriefed. When a psychologist asked me whether I was right to go back to Australia and I said, ‘Stand out of the way or I’ll run over the top of you.’ [Laughter]

But that was all right. I obviously passed that test. I don’t want to trivialise this. This is important stuff. And I’ve confident that we’ve got a system in place and we’ve got to work to make it leakproof so that people are detected as early as possible.

We even have those systems in place not just when you finish, but from time to time throughout a difficult deployment. Or any deployment where there is level of hazard and alienation different to that where you would have on ordinary work in Australia.

CHAIR: The General will take one more question.

QUESTION: General [inaudible], I just want to follow on this theme of trust. You talk about trust in your relationship between Defence and government. Allan Hawke, the Secretary of the Department, mentioned here in the same room several weeks ago that what had happened [inaudible] in the children overboard and Admiral Barrie resulted in the loss of trust within Defence in its own senior leadership group. What extent do you see that as a major challenge facing you? And what are some of the priorities you’ll be placing on solving the problem?

GENERAL COSGROVE: It’s interesting. We all thought that Chris Barrie did a very courageous thing when, having decided that he had a different point of view to that which he’s sustained for some time, he went to the Senate and he went to you folks. And people I spoke to thought it took a lot of guts, but it was the only right thing to do.

I don’t know the attitude of our senior leadership, the broad senior leadership – if you like people in Defence in Canberra – to the new very senior leadership team, we’ll find out. I’ve never taken anything for granted in any command job that I’ve had. I always operate as if I must win regard and trust every day. And I’ll just keep operating that way. I don’t know any other way to do it. Ask me next time we have one of these.

CHAIR: I think we’ll conclude on that point and certainly I’m sure that the [inaudible] have you back again. In fact, thank you very much for reserving your first major speech, your first speech in fact for Defence Force.

Ladies and gentlemen, please thank our guest today, General Cosgrove.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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