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Wednesday, 22 October 2008
Page: 9927

Mr SYMON (3:17 PM) —My question is to the Minister for Defence. Will the minister update the House on progress in East Timor and on any changes in our commitment?

Mr FITZGIBBON (Minister for Defence) —I thank the member for Deakin for his question. He has a not insignificant Defence Force presence in his electorate and I know, thanks to his representations, he is a great supporter of them and their work. Australia has a longstanding and deep interest in a stable, secure and prosperous East Timor. Like the member for Deakin, and I am sure all members of the House, the government is very pleased with the progress of our near neighbour.

East Timor’s emergence as a new independent nation has not been a smooth one. Our troop presence there goes back to 1999, when, under the banner of INTERFET, we lead a coalition of nation states in responding to post independence referendum violence. Our current deployment was a response to a re-emergence of that violence back in May 2006. This time as the International Stabilisation Force, Australian troops partnered with New Zealand troops to restore law and order in East Timor. Their very good work of course continues today. The mission of our troops is to provide a security presence as a back-up to the United Nations police force and the police and military forces of East Timor. It has been a very successful mission. The men and women of the Australian Defence Force and the New Zealand Defence Force are entitled to be very, very proud of their efforts and their work.

Our mission is by no means complete. The peace in East Timor remains fragile, as was demonstrated just in February this year when an assassination attempt was made against President Horta, and Prime Minister Gusmao’s car also came under attack. That is why the government expects to maintain a presence in East Timor for some time to come. That also is the express wish of the democratically elected government of East Timor.

While I am pleased to say that the East Timor police and military forces have made great strides in their development as national institutions, they still have some way to go before the full mantle of security can be assumed by them. However, good progress has been made and as a result, and after very careful consideration, the government has decided that the time is right to reduce our total force in East Timor under Operation Astute to approximately 650 personnel from early next year. This constitutes a reduction of about 100 soldiers and reflects the situation on the ground today, our optimism about future stability in East Timor and the development of institutions there.

I said the decision to draw down some of our troops was taken after very careful consideration and assessment of the security situation in East Timor. The government was very mindful of the premature decision of the former government to draw down troops in 2005, a decision which by necessity was followed by a decision to restore troops in 2006. This is partly why on this occasion our drawdown at this stage is a very modest one and a very cautious one. Following the drawdown, the International Stabilisation Force will still number 790 Australian and New Zealand personnel. But the reduction in the number of deployed Australian troops recognises the ongoing calm security environment in East Timor and Dili’s resolve towards an ability to take care of its own security. Despite the limited drawdown, the mission of the International Stabilisation Force will remain unchanged. Our troops will continue to provide security support to the government of East Timor and to the United Nations mission in East Timor. The force will also focus on community assistance and other development of East Timorese security forces.

The Australian government will not leave East Timor in the lurch without adequate institutions to manage their own security. Our Defence Cooperation Program is delivering around $8.2 million worth of assistance to the East Timorese defence force to further build its capacity. Examples include the development of a specialist training wing, which I visited earlier this year, and the ongoing operation of the English language school. We will continue to work with the government of East Timor, the United Nations and our international partners to help East Timor move down the path of stability and prosperity. On behalf of all Australians and all members of the House, I pay tribute to and thank the men and women of the Australian Defence Force who have done and continue to do very good work in East Timor.