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Thursday, 24 June 2010
Page: 6703


Mr DANBY (12:04 PM) —It is with great sadness that I rise to speak again, as I have previously in this chamber, about the deaths of Australian soldiers in Afghanistan, particularly Private Timothy James Aplin, Private Benjamin Adam Chuck and Private Scott Travis Palmer, all special operations soldiers in 2nd Commando Regiment. They were killed in action just days ago. The three soldiers we are mourning today died in what seems to have been an accidental helicopter crash of one of our US ally’s military helicopters. These are deaths in active service, and we honour them as we have honoured the other 13 Australians who have died in active service over the past eight years, including Sappers Moerland and Smith, for whom we had a condolence motion just the other day. I join with all the political leaders and other parliamentarians who have spoken before me in sending my deepest condolences to the families of those who have died. I think of the families of those who have been wounded and, like all members of this House, pray for their rapid and complete recovery. I also think of our American, British and Afghan allies and the losses they have sustained.

Wars, particularly prolonged wars, are very difficult for democracies. It is easy to say, ‘We shall stay the course,’ but when we have months like this, with five deaths in rapid succession, we begin to realise what that means in practice. Questions begin to rise and pressure begins to mount on elected governments to find the best way to end the sacrifice of our best and bravest. We need to resist those calls. This is not a war that Australia or the democratic world as a whole can afford to lose. We need to win this war not for its own sake and not just to protect ourselves against terrorism. We also need to win it for the sake of the people of Afghanistan.

I thought that point was made very strongly by the member for Paterson, on the other side of the chamber, who talked about having attended the ramp ceremonies and funerals of soldiers killed in Afghanistan very recently. I can echo that experience, having represented the government on the death of a soldier from Melbourne from 2nd Commando Company, 1st Commando Regiment, Private Greg Sher. Private Sher was our first reservist to be killed in action since Vietnam, and I am in contact with his father, Felix Sher, and family. All parliamentarians from the various electorates of the families of these brave people who are killed should remain in contact with them as part of our continuing service to them. I think Felix was quoted in the papers just in the last few days saying very clearly that these three boys died in the service of Australia and would want our leadership, military including our arguing not to be dissuaded. He spoke as the father of a very precious son who died in Afghanistan, saying that we should not give up the struggle and the fight there.

The 28 million people in Afghanistan have suffered a great deal over the past 30 years: revolution, civil war, dictatorship, foreign invasion, political and religious fanaticism and savage repression. Millions have had to flee the country and spend years in refugee camps. At one stage, four million people had fled from the Taliban to Pakistan. Anyone who has seen the films of refugee camps teeming with millions of people can only have sympathy for those who have had to live under that dreadful regime.

Thanks to Australia and its allies, the lives of most people in Afghanistan have been improved, and that is particularly true for Afghan women and children. That is something of which we should be proud, and we should be particularly proud of the role that the young women and men of our defence forces have played in bringing security and safety to so many people. I think of the huge numbers of young girls in Kabul who can now attend education, who were barred from it literally under the threat of death—as some of them still are in regional areas in Afghanistan—by the Taliban regime.

The members for Cowan and Kennedy spoke very movingly about the nature of these servicemen—devoted to their mates, not over there with grand theories or ideological obsessions but representing Australia quietly and efficiently with their comrades in 2nd Commando Regiment and killed in action with their friends. They were fully devoted to each other and representing Australia, as Australian servicemen have been in recent conflicts, and we are so very proud of them.

Things are very far from perfect in Afghanistan. You only need to read some Kipling to realise the dreadful terrain and the longstanding nature of recriminations and interfactional fighting there. It goes back a long way. The British experienced it. The Soviets did as well. I hope and I pray that we are fighting in a different cause—for the people of Afghanistan, not against the people of Afghanistan.

In some ways things have deteriorated in recent times. No-one ever supposed that rescuing such a country from the depths to which it had sunk under the Taliban regime was going to be easy. I remember seeing a dreadful film of a public execution of a woman in Afghanistan who was stoned to death in a public stadium. The reporter—for a British television program, I think—asked the Taliban minister, outside the country, ‘How can you spend the money of the international community on a sports stadium where you kill people by public stoning?’ His contemptuous response was ‘Give us the money for another sports ground and we’ll play soccer there.’ This is the nature of the people that we are fighting against, in which cause these three brave men have laid down their lives.

The rehabilitation of Afghanistan is a massive task and many mistakes have been made. We have been too tolerant of corruption and warlordism there. I am pleased to see our friends in the American congress are getting very tough with some of the contractors and some of the transport convoys about the bribes being paid to some of the gunmen for the warlords. Frankly, the recent presidential election was a disgrace. Yet I remain optimistic. The United States troops surge has shown the strong commitment of the leading country in the coalition to give Afghanistan the help it needs to create a stable and defensible government and to give security to its population. That is, after all, the aim of Australia, the international force and the United States—to train the Afghan army into a position where eventually the allies can withdraw and leave the population of Afghanistan in some kind of security and safety. I think we have an obligation to assist in doing that, despite the price we are asking our men and women in uniform to pay.

The consequences of failure for the people of Afghanistan, for us and for all those who look to the democratic world for help would be very grave. Just the other day in New York—to connect all the dots—the would-be terrorist who left the huge bomb in Times Square boasted in confessing to the court that he was trained and paid by the Taliban. If we do not understand from that incident that the consequences of not confronting these people over there, rather than letting them have a secure base there, are that we will have them come to us, then we do not understand anything.

We cannot ask our defence forces and their families to make sacrifices like this unless we strongly believe in the justice of the cause for which we are fighting. I believe that the cause of helping the Afghan people to defeat those who want to return them to slavery is a just one. The member for Cowan had a very insightful comment when he talked about the nature of a regime that would take the ancient and beautiful statues carved into the stone hills of Bamiyan by another civilisation thousands of years earlier, those famous buddhas, and blow up them up in their total contempt and hatred for other people’s religions. That is an insight into the nature of the people that we are confronting there. That is why, despite our grief over these deaths, I believe it is right to maintain our commitment. To the parents, the partners, the children and the friends of these three incredibly brave servicemen who died in the helicopter accident, I say that I believe we are right to maintain that commitment. It is the best way can honour the last full measure of devotion to our country that these three brave commandos made for Australia.