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Monday, 25 October 2010
Page: 1278

Mr WINDSOR (1:21 PM) —I noticed that the member for North Sydney made a comment towards the end of his speech that Australia must stay in Afghanistan until the job is done. One of the difficulties of this debate has been to define what that job is. A number of people in my electorate—I do not know if it is a majority or not—have questioned some of the words that have been used in this building over the last week, such as what ‘staying the course’ means and what the job is that apparently needs to be done. I am sure the member for North Sydney has a view of what that means, but it probably would be useful if the parliament, when we attempt to explain our presence in Afghanistan, explain what the job is and when we believe it will be completed. Many people in this place are presenting fairly open-ended arguments at the moment about the course and the job. As politicians, we create open-ended arguments from time to time so that, when we do make a political decision to adjust our policy positions, we can fabricate a design around a job or a course that has been completed.

Many of us would attach some significance to some of the utterances coming out of Afghanistan and out of Australia, the US and other parts of the world that discussions may well take place between the Taliban and traditional enemies the Afghan government and the Americans—and the Australians, I presume—to see if there is a way of solving this particular dilemma that the Russians spent so many years trying to solve and to see if talk rather than bullets can actually solve the problem. In that case, ‘staying the course’ may well be a political course rather than a combative course, and one would hope that it does have some legs. Personally, I am a bit sceptical about that. Dealing with some of the people whom we are dealing with over there, and looking at the terrain they are in and the tribal backgrounds that many people have mentioned, is going to make it very, very difficult to superimpose some sort of American or Australian democracy over a nation where tribal backgrounds, hatreds and various positions go back hundreds and hundreds of years. Nonetheless, we are attempting to resolve some of the issues there.

One of the saddest things I have had to do as a member of parliament was to attend a ceremony in Sydney which was a memorial service to recognise the death of a constituent, Michael Fussell. I also attended his funeral in Armidale, which was a very sad experience. I got to see the camaraderie between the people he served with and the way they regarded his parents, his family and the man himself. In a sense, even though it was a tragic death and obviously everyone was very upset about it, it was a celebration of his life and something I will always remember. Michael Fussell died in Afghanistan. He is one of 21 Australians now who have died there. He died supporting his mates, defending what he believed was the right thing to do. He served where his nation asked him to serve.

I would like to pay honour and my great respect to his parents, Ken and Madeline—and I am sure on behalf of all the people in the electorate who still feel for them—on the loss of their son. I would also like to compliment the former Prime Minister and the former Leader of the Opposition—Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull—for the way in which they conducted themselves, particularly when they met Michael’s parents and some of his comrades. The general public tends to be critical of our leaders from time to time—and occasionally they probably need it—and critical of politicians, and we probably all deserve it from time to time too. But those people conducted themselves in a very sincere way in recognising the tragic loss of a young person who had served this nation, and I compliment both of them for the way in which they acted on that occasion. I am sure that the current Prime Minister and the current opposition leader have conducted themselves in the same fashion at the various funerals that they have had to attend.

I am pleased that there is a debate on this war, because I was one of those who felt that the Australian public should have had a greater engagement in the declaration of the last war, the Iraq conflict. As you would remember, Mr Deputy Speaker, Australia declared war in Iraq prior to the debate about whether we should participate in the Iraq war had even taken place. I think that debate was just starting when we declared war and a lot of people resented that a declaration had taken place before the people’s representatives had had anything to say on the issue. The former Prime Minister, John Howard, used as a precedent the fact that Bob Hawke had not consulted the parliament over the first Iraq conflict. That is all very well. Though I do not agree with that process, it is as it may be. But I think it is appropriate that we have a debate. I have listened to a lot of the contributions in this debate because it is important that the Australian people have their representatives voice their views in the parliament about this particular conflict.

The issue in my electorate revolves around whether people believe we should stay the course in Afghanistan or not. As the representative of the people of New England—and I have not had an enormous amount of mail on this particular issue—I would have to say that the majority of people who have actually taken the time to communicate with me or my office believe that we should not be in Afghanistan for some great period, and some believe that we should be removing our troops from Afghanistan as quickly as possible. Staying the course may well mean that we do have an early exit in some shape or other, particularly if political negotiations actually do start to make some progress. I may well get more communication from people within my electorate after having just made that comment, but by far the majority of people in the electorate who have taken the time to comment on this issue, who have great regard, as I think we all should, for the troops who have served and are currently serving there, believe—and some quite strongly—that, on balance, we are better out of Afghanistan and should not remain there for some great period.

So, in some ways I disagree with the Prime Minister’s comments that put a decade time line on participation, with not a lot of substance to how that time line was arrived at. I know that a number of speakers have spoken about the non-military side of assistance in Afghanistan. As someone who has farmed in dry areas and has given a little bit of technical assistance to some very dry parts of the world in the past, I think there are a number of things we can do. A number of speakers have spoken about health care. Showing that we actually do care for the people is a good thing, but we can assist with their agriculture—particularly in Afghanistan, a very harsh and rugged environment. Obviously a lot of the historical conflict has involved various warlords and tribal leaders and access to various products and markets that make some wealthy and others poor. In a lot of cases the traditional farmer, in some parts of Afghanistan, if not all, has been at the lower end of the wealth spectrum and has been terrorised to a certain degree by certain warlords from time to time.

So I would support agricultural assistance and other forms of assistance into the future. However, I would argue that if there is a way to avoid a convoluted conflict that drags on and on and on, as has occurred in other parts of the world in recent memory, we as a nation will have to really explain, in a much better way, why we persist in being involved in this conflict.

I will conclude my remarks—and I know there are a number of people who want to speak before question time—by saying that if anybody in the electorate is interested in this topic, I would be very interested in receiving their messages. But by far the majority of people who have contacted me would argue that the quicker we are out of Afghanistan the better.