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Monday, 30 October 2006
Page: 62

Dr SOUTHCOTT (4:29 PM) —In July I was able to travel to the Middle East area of operations as part of the Australian Defence Force Parliamentary Program. This program is designed to give members of parliament exposure to the work that the ADF does. Having the opportunity to visit the ADF on deployment was a great honour, and I thank Flight Lieutenant Doug Hogg and Joe Nyhan from the office of Senator Sandy Macdonald, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Defence, for their help in facilitating this visit. I was able to spend three days on HMAS Ballarat, an Anzac class frigate, which was tasked with providing security in the Persian Gulf and protecting Iraq’s oil platforms, which provide over 90 per cent of Iraq’s export income. I then spent three days with the RAAF AP-3C Orion detachment, which conducts maritime patrol operations with two Orions in support of the reconstruction of Iraq. I saw first-hand the sterling work that the men and women of the Australian Defence Force do.

My grievance today is on the Labor Party’s policy on Iraq. In recent times the Leader of the Opposition has made several statements about bringing Australian soldiers out of Iraq. At a doorstop on 9 October 2006 he said:

We will withdraw the Australian forces now operating in southern Iraq on our election to office.

Similarly, at a doorstop on 23 October 2006:

We need to bring the Australian soldiers out and get them to concentrate in our region in areas where we are dealing with direct threats to us.

We have 1,400 members of the Australian Defence Force deployed in support of the rebuilding of Iraq. The deployment is balanced and well thought through. Casual listeners may think that the Labor Party are withdrawing the troops from Iraq, but that would be wrong. Let us see what Labor are proposing. Labor are proposing that the Australian Joint Task Force headquarters in Baghdad of 63 personnel stays. They are proposing that the Royal Australian Navy commodore and 21 specialist RAN personnel who are with Task Force 158, a coalition task force of around 10 warships, stay. Labor are proposing that the SECDET, or security detachment, of 110 personnel, including the ASLAVs, stays in Baghdad. Labor are proposing that the Hercules detachment of 150 personnel stays. Labor are proposing that the AP-3C Orion detachment of 180 personnel and two Orions stay. The Anzac frigates working in Iraqi waters and patrolling Iraqi oil platforms will stay. The Force Level Logistics Asset, communications element and movement control group of 80 personnel will stay. The Australian Army training team of 30 instructors, who are currently training the Iraqi army near Tallil, will stay but will be redeployed. So, of the 1,400 personnel working in and around Iraq, Labor’s bold policy withdraws 500.

Let us have a look at what these 500 soldiers are doing. They are part of Overwatch Battle Group (West). They were previously called the Al Muthanna Task Group. They previously had a role of protecting Japanese engineers and training Iraqi soldiers in Al Muthanna province in southern Iraq. They were successful in that, and security in Al Muthanna was handed over to the Iraqi military in July this year. They are now based in Dhi Qar. There is a headquarters, a cavalry squadron, an infantry company, Australian light armoured vehicles and a number of Bushmasters. They are based at Tallil Air Base and they have a security overwatch role in two provinces: Al Muthanna and Dhi Qar. They are continuing to mentor and train Iraqi security forces. They are also involved in reconstruction activities and, in the event of a security crisis in Al Muthanna that is beyond the capability of Iraqi security forces, Overwatch Battle Group (West) may be tasked to intervene and restore order. This information is from a question on notice. The security crisis would have to be one which the national Iraqi forces were unable to deal with. So the soldiers now in Iraq’s south and south-west are very much in a back-seat role. They are training and mentoring Iraqi security forces, but they are now in the back seat and it is the Iraqi military that has responsibility for security.

In October 2005 the Defence Subcommittee of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade travelled to the Middle East area of operations and to Iraq, and in a bipartisan report they made a number of observations about the Al Muthanna Task Group. They said:

  • The AMTG has made a very positive contribution to the security of the Al Muthanna Province.

The subcommittee also said that it had ‘a determined and well considered presence throughout the province’. Talking of the training team, it said:

The Australian team has been a significant factor in the successful development of the Iraqi Brigade capability ...

That was a report signed off by Liberal members, by Labor members and by National Party members.

How long is this group of 500 likely to be there anyway? General George Casey has said that Iraq’s own forces could take over the country’s security within 12 to 18 months. Brigadier Mick Moon, in a Sydney Morning Herald interview of 26 October, noted that the two Iraqi provinces of Al Muthanna and Dhi Qar had been handed over to provincial control and said:

The plan from the coalition point of view is to continually hand those provinces back.

The article reports that seven or eight of Iraq’s 18 provinces are expected to be handed to Iraqi military and security forces by the end of the year.

General Cosgrove, when asked about this, has said that the worst thing Australia could do at the moment is leave Iraq to its own devices. This would be seen as a victory for the terrorists, there is no intention of maintaining a military presence in Iraq any longer than is needed, and when the Iraqi government believes it can handle security we will go.

None of this is to say that there may not be a change in strategy in Iraq. The Iraq Study Group in the United States has been commissioned to deliver an independent assessment. It is co-chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker III and Lee Hamilton. It will report after the November 2006 mid-term elections in the United States. Some of the things that they may look at include a phased withdrawal of US forces from Iraq and US dialogue with Syria and Iran. Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution, in a February 2006 article in Atlantic Monthly entitled ‘A Switch in Time’, talked of the ‘ink spot’ policy. This was used by the French in Morocco and the British in Malaya in dealing with insurgencies. The notion is that counterinsurgency strategy requires providing security in places like Iraq’s south.

This is where the ADF contingent is. It is actually the provinces where the ADF are that are the ones that have been handed over to the Iraqi military. This has been a successful operation and my proposition is that the time for them to withdraw is when the Iraqi government decide that their own security can handle it and then they can return.

The problem with the Labor Party policy is that they want to do it because they are pandering to a certain section. They are trying to play party politics with our national security. Labor want to have it both ways on Iraq. This is a policy tailored so that they can say different things to different groups. They appear to accept that withdrawing all troops from the Middle East area of operations would damage our relations with our ally the United States and would give the insurgency a victory in Iraq. This is a halfway house that is neither here nor there. It is another demonstration that the Labor Party is soft on national security.

There is an important message here: all the messages are that this deployment in southern Iraq may not be required much longer. Labor are prepared to make a symbolic commitment to withdraw a contingent which has been in Iraq since April or May last year and which may be leaving in the near future. The problem with their policy is that they will make it regardless of the situation in Iraq in 12 months time. The problem is the signal it gives. It is another demonstration that Labor is soft on national security and that they will play party politics with national security. Rather than basing national security on Australia’s national interest, they will say anything to win a vote. So we have the Leader of the Opposition on the one hand saying, ‘We will withdraw our troops from Iraq,’ and on the other hand proposing to leave 900 in place.

Our commitment to Iraq is not open-ended. The issue with the Labor Party’s policy on Iraq is that they are making it for all the wrong reasons. Australian troops should depart when the Iraqi military is ready to take over. That day is not far off. We are in the back seat, in the home straight. Labor are giving out all the wrong messages as to their resolve, as to the war on terror, as to the war against Islamists. The problem with the Labor approach is that they give out the message that Australia will not go the distance with jihadists or Islamists.