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Wednesday, 4 February 2009
Page: 467

Mr DANBY (12:54 PM) —It is only a little over two months since I spoke in this chamber on the death of Lieutenant Michael Fussell on active service in Afghanistan. It is with great sadness that I rise again to record the death of another brave Australian soldier. This time, however, the sadness I feel is a bit more personal because the death of Private Greg Sher in Afghanistan on 4 January struck very close to home for me.

The minister asked me to participate in the ramp ceremony, which I cannot say I appreciated or enjoyed doing, but it was my sacred duty that I did. It was an important thing to do on behalf of the family, but it is the hardest duty I have ever done since being elected, standing opposite that family as the body came back from the C17 through that group of his colleagues, the commandos with their green berets on. Standing opposite Felix and Yvonne as their son was returned in a casket was very hard for all of us who participated in it, but one can only imagine what the family has suffered and will continue to suffer through all the years with the loss of their precious eldest son, Greg Sher.

Greg had the honour of being a member of 2nd Commando Company, which is a subunit of 1st Commando Regiment, based in Sydney. It is the first reserve unit to have the honour of being included in formations eligible to go on active service in Afghanistan.

I want to thank the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition for their remarks about Greg in the House yesterday and the defence minister and the parliamentary secretary, the member for Eden-Monaro, for their comments here this morning, as well as members of the opposition. I want to thank them on behalf of the family, because they have really appreciated their input and the sensitive way that particularly the minister, who has regularly been in contact with the family personally, has treated them. I also want to thank all of those people who participated in that enormous and moving funeral at Lyndhurst on that blistering hot day in Melbourne, including the Deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard; the Leader of the Opposition; the Prime Minister; and the Minister for Defence. We also had a couple of very senior military leaders present there: the Chief of Army, Lieutenant General Ken Gillespie, and the Vice Chief of the Defence Force, Lieutenant General David Hurley. I know this mark of respect by the country’s political and military leaders was deeply appreciated by the Sher family and indeed by the 2,000 people who attended the funeral.

I join with the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in expressing my deepest condolences to Felix and Yvonne Sher, to Greg’s partner, Karen Goldschlager, to his brothers, Steven and Barry Sher, to all his family and to his colleagues in 2nd Commando and the Community Security Group, which he professionally worked in for some years. There were busloads of proud, leathered, former commandos who attended the masterfully organised funeral service, along with Deputy Premier Rob Hulls and, very interestingly, former signaller in 2nd Commando Minister Tim Holding, who is the local member. He was there with a bevy of orthodox rabbis. I want to record their names, because I want the family to know what honour was done to them. They were Rabbi Chaim Tzvi Groner, Rabbi Dovid Rubinfeld, Rabbi Meir Schlomo Kluwgant, Rabbi Sholom Mendel Kluwgant, Rabbi Mendel Groner, Rabbi Stephen Boroda, Rabbi Stephen Link and Rabbi Faitel Levin, and of course Rabbi Philip Heilbrunn officiated at the ceremony.

Greg Sher, as was said, was born in South Africa in 1978 and came to Australia with his family as a child. He joined the Army Reserve in 1998 and later trained to be a commando, a particularly skilled branch of the Army but also one with a high level of risk, as he knew. He was deployed to East Timor in 2002. For his service there he received several awards, including the Australian Active Service Medal, the UN Transitional Authority in East Timor Medal and the Infantry Combat Badge. In Afghanistan he was awarded the Afghanistan Campaign Medal, the NATO Medal and the Australian Defence Medal. Greg Sher was the first member of the reserves to be killed in Afghanistan. He is the first Jewish member of the Australian defence forces to be killed in action, I think, since the Second World War. I think he is the first reservist to die since Vietnam.

His friends and his family are also very proud. They are proud to have given Australia such a fine young man, willing to risk and ultimately lose his life for his adopted country’s service. They are also proud that he died working to free other people from tyranny and oppression. They are proud that a first generation immigrant family could participate in such an elite unit as the 2nd Commando.

I have spoken in the House before about Sir John Monash, regarded by many historians as Australia’s greatest military commander. Like Greg Sher, John Monash was the son of Jewish immigrants, this time from Prussia, not from South Africa, who came to Australia in search of a better life and who valued above all the freedom, equality and opportunity that they found in this most fortunate of countries. In the First World War, as today, all members of Australian forces were volunteers. History has taught us many hard lessons, and one of them is that freedom is fragile and can never be taken for granted. Both John Monash and Greg Sher willingly volunteered to serve Australia because they knew Australia was worth fighting for and because they wanted other people to enjoy the same freedoms that we enjoy here.

There is a certain irony in the fact that the people whose freedom Greg Sher died for were Muslim Afghans, the long-suffering people of Afghanistan. As the member for Eden-Monaro alluded to, a very small number of people in Australia have sought to foment conflict between Jews and Muslims here based on hatreds imported from other parts of the world. Greg Sher’s life and death show that such efforts have not succeeded. He was a soldier who went where he was ordered to go but he was also a citizen, a very intelligent and very well-read citizen, who knew exactly what he was fighting for and why. For him, the right of Muslim people in Afghanistan to live in freedom and security was just as important as the right of people in Australia or any other country to do so.

As I said in my speech on the death of Lieutenant Fussell, we in this place have no right to send young Australian men and women to risk their lives in foreign fields unless we are certain that the cause for which we are sending them to fight is a just one and that our objectives are clear and attainable. That was not the case, for example, in Vietnam, but I believe that it was very clearly the case in East Timor, where Greg Sher served with our peacekeeping forces. I also believe that this is the case in Afghanistan, although, as the Minister for Defence has explained to many people and as our military chief says, the task is a much tougher one. The defeat of multinational terrorism based in Afghanistan is vital for our own national security as well as for the people of Afghanistan. We are fighting in Afghanistan to give its people the chance of a better future free from violence, oppression, corruption and extremism. None of our boys who have died there died in vain—not Private Greg Sher, not Lieutenant Michael Fussell, not any one of the honoured eight. Counterinsurgency fights are often long and bitter, but I believe that we and our allies can achieve our objectives if we persist and that the sacrifices we are asking of our service personnel and their families will, in the long run, be worth while. That is certainly what Greg Sher believed, and we should honour his memory by ensuring that we do not fail in our mission.

As the member for Eden-Monaro said, I salute Greg Sher and his family. He would probably describe himself by the line in the poem Invictus, which he kept with him all the time and that is noted by all of his military colleagues as something that was very dear to his heart: captain of his soul, master of his fate.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Ms AE Burke)—I understand it is the wish of honourable members to signify at this stage their respect and sympathy by rising in their places.

Honourable members having stood in their places—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —I thank the Committee.