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Thursday, 28 October 2010
Page: 2124

Dr SOUTHCOTT (11:47 AM) —I am pleased to speak in this parliamentary debate on Afghanistan. We had an important parliamentary debate following the events of 11 September 2001. We also had an important parliamentary debate on Iraq. While in the Australian system there is no requirement for legislative approval for the Australian Defence Force to be deployed overseas, it is important that the parliament have their say on this. No government should ever take lightly the deployment of Australian personnel overseas, especially in a conflict zone.

I remember the events of 11 September 2001 and the circumstances which led us initially to be in Afghanistan. My recollection is that it happened during the 2001 election campaign and that, while the caretaker conventions were operating, the commitment was made with the full agreement of the then Leader of the Opposition, Kim Beazley. In 2001 I supported the invocation of ANZUS treaty following the September 11 attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. I also supported the commitment to Afghanistan, as it was very clear that, under the Taliban government, Afghanistan had become a haven for international terrorists and fundamentalist Islamic terrorism.

This is a commitment which I supported then and support now. I think it is important that, as members of parliament, we support the work of the Australian Defence Force. We ask a lot of the men and women of the Australian Defence Force; we ask them to put their lives on the line to do their important work. As I said earlier, no government should ever take lightly sending our Australian troops into places where they may be in harm’s way.

I also think that in the conduct of any war, counterinsurgency operation or peacekeeping operation it is very important to get clear the different responsibilities. It is the job of government to set the goals and the overarching strategy, but it is really the job of the Australian Defence Force to be responsible for tactics and the methods of how to achieve that. I do not support micromanagement by government. I do not support micromanagement by any politician. I think history shows that that never works. What you do is give the Defence Force a job to do with very clear goals. They are the experts in getting on with it.

Like many members of parliament, I took the opportunity in 2006 to see firsthand the work service personnel were doing in the Middle East area of operations. I took up an ADF Parliamentary Program position which enabled me to spend three days with a frigate in the Persian Gulf and also three days with our Orion crews. Whilst the focus of the mission then was very much on Iraq, I was aware that these same crews did surveillance work in Afghanistan and were part of the overall Middle East area of operations. While I was there, I was aware that Canada were suffering increasing casualties, because they would return through the same base where the RAAF were. It was not an uncommon occurrence to have a ramp ceremony for a Canadian soldier who had been killed in Kandahar province. Since 2007 that has become a more common occurrence for us as well, as we have seen more Australian soldiers killed and wounded in Afghanistan.

The role in Afghanistan has changed over the nine years. Originally it was very much a role for special forces—the SAS. Then it primarily had a focus on reconstruction. Now the focus is very much on training up the Afghan National Army. It is a role which I think the Australian Army are very good at. There is a lot of corporate memory and experience to do with counterinsurgency operations. From the Malayan Emergency to the Vietnam War, this is something which is embedded in the training of the Australian Army and it is something that I think they are particularly well set up for. It is something they will do very well.

One of the features of the commitment in Afghanistan is that it has enabled a deeper engagement for Australia with NATO. I think it will be good for the professionalism of all the ADF to be operating with similar countries but also countries that we normally would not have a deep engagement with. We have been working closely with the Dutch, the United States and a lot of the NATO countries in Afghanistan.

I would like to talk about the risk of post-traumatic stress disorder. Of the 50,000 Australians who served in Vietnam, there are 20,000 who have had mental health problems and the incidence of PTSD is very high amongst them. Before I went to the Middle East I saw the predeployment unit in Randwick. While I know that the Australian Defence Force spends a lot of time on preparing people beforehand, making sure they keep diaries and monitor themselves while they are in theatre and also afterwards, I think it is very clear, because of the nature of the service in Iraq and Afghanistan, that we are going to see a much higher incidence of PTSD than we have seen since the Vietnam War. The RAND Corporation, in looking at figures from the United States, found that 20 per cent of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan have symptoms of PTSD. Disturbingly, only half of them have sought treatment. The thing with PTSD is that early diagnosis and treatment provide the best chance of recovery. That is something for which Australia and the Australian government of whatever colour will have an ongoing duty of care to the service personnel who have served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. It is very important that they are seen early.

In conclusion, it is important that we honour the memory of the 21 soldiers who have died in Afghanistan. We also remain thankful to the more than 150 soldiers who have been wounded in Afghanistan. It is a reminder of how dangerous their service is. I take this opportunity to say that I support our ongoing role. I do not see it as a mission without end, but I think our mission will wind down when the Afghan National Army is in a position to take control of the security in Oruzgan province.