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Wednesday, 27 October 2010
Page: 979


Senator FIELDING (Leader of the Family First Party) (6:40 PM) —Firstly, I support our troops in Afghanistan because I believe it is still possible to ensure Afghanistan does not once again become a safe haven for terrorists. I believe that to pull our troops out of Afghanistan now would be an act of great betrayal. It would betray the lives of the 21 soldiers who have been killed in action. It would betray all those diggers who have been injured in action. It would betray the families and friends of those 21 soldiers who have been killed in action. It would betray the people of Afghanistan, who we have made a commitment to—to help them govern their country on their own. It would betray our close ally the United States, who we have committed to stand beside.

Does this mean that we can never withdraw our troops from Afghanistan? No. What is does mean is that we should be very careful about what we promise and about the scope of our commitment. Currently, we have committed to help the people in Afghanistan by strengthening their security and defence forces in Oruzgan province so eventually the Afghans can look after themselves. Yes, I know there are other commitments but that is the one that I will focus on.

Obviously, we cannot stay in Afghanistan forever, but to walk out now while the job is half done would be crazy. It would be an act of great betrayal. But obviously all Australians are concerned about the casualties arising from this war. Losing one Australian soldier is horrific and hard to take, and as the death toll rises, more and more Australians are becoming uneasy about our involvement in Afghanistan. In fact, as the death toll of Australian soldiers rises, along with the government stating it is only going to get worse, more and more Australians continue to question: ‘Why don’t we just pull out?’ especially when there is also a growing feeling we just cannot win this war.

I admit that I too had started to grow more and more uneasy with our involvement in Afghanistan. That was when I decided it was time to do what I have always done before reaching a conclusion on a significant issue: get out of my office and go to the coalface and find out firsthand what is going on. So I requested a trip to Afghanistan. Even though I was very unhappy about how long it took the government to arrange for me to visit Afghanistan, I am thankful to the government for finally arranging a visit for me three months ago.

My objective for the visit was to see firsthand the conditions and hear from soldiers and their commanders their views on two big questions. The first question was: is it realistic to expect that once Australia completes its training and mentoring role that the Afghan army and security forces will be capable of operating effectively on their own? The second big question is: are we supporting our soldiers enough and ensuring we are not putting their lives at risk unnecessarily?

With regard to the first question, after talking with our soldiers, the Australian command, the US command, the Dutch command and the Afghan command, I do believe it is still realistic to conclude that our efforts in the training and mentoring of the Afghan army and security forces will allow the Afghan army and security forces eventually to operate effectively on their own. But I also acknowledge that the next two years is critical in determining whether Afghan army and security forces will eventually be able to operate effectively on their own. I believe they will, but the next two years is absolutely critical, and to pull out now would be crazy and a gross act of betrayal.

The second question, about support for our soldiers, is very tough because I was only with our troops in Afghanistan for a few days, but I do believe we can and should do more to support our soldiers and I will outline some specific recommendations that I hope the government will action with some priority. I am mindful that some may say it is inappropriate for me to make recommendations as I am not a defence expert and I have never served in the defence forces. I can understand those views. However, I make these recommendations based on personal observations, along with discussions with our soldiers and others. Before moving onto my recommendations, I would like to emphasise how impressed I was with the professionalism and commitment our soldiers have towards their task—especially given the extremely tough environment and the life-threatening intensity of operations.

My first recommendation is that the government should implement a comprehensive, ongoing plan that engages and informs the general public on why Australia needs to be involved in Afghanistan. I will say that again: the government should implement a comprehensive, ongoing plan that engages and informs the general public on why Australia needs to be involved in Afghanistan. The rationale for this recommendation is that our soldiers on the front line are burdened by the growing sentiment from the public that they should not be in Afghanistan. I feel the government could do more to keep the public more supportive of our involvement in Afghanistan. It is heart wrenching to think what it would be like to be on that front line. I know we pay them, but it causes them heartache to know that back in Australia there is growing public sentiment that does not support what they are doing there.

Even back in July this year the government conceded they did need to do more when they stated:

… 55 per cent of Australians were “not confident Australia has clear aims in Afghanistan”.

How can the Australian public be supportive of what our troops are doing if 55 per cent of Australians are not confident Australia has clear aims in Afghanistan? How could it be that 90 per cent of politicians are out of step with the community? Because what I have heard throughout this debate is, I would estimate, 90 per cent of MPs saying, without a doubt, ‘We’re doing the right thing,’ but in the community we have allowed it to prevail that 55 per cent of Australians are not confident Australia has clear aims in Afghanistan. That clearly is a responsibility of the government and it is very important. I know the government is doing a lot, but I make this first recommendation because I am burdened from what I saw over there talking to some of our soldiers.

Recommendation 2 is that the government should secure additional rotary wing capacity to adequately support our troops in Oruzgan province. The rationale for this recommendation is that we are placing our soldiers’ lives at an unnecessarily greater risk because tasks that should be performed by rotary wing support are being carried out by road or delayed because of lack of rotary wing support.

My final recommendation, recommendation 3, is that the government should implement a 12-month trial appointment of an independent soldiers advocate that has the responsibility to make direct recommendations to the regional commander of the operations. The rationale for this recommendation is that I detected that some soldiers felt that their concerns were not taken seriously or actioned adequately or in a timely manner. The soldiers advocate would ensure confidentiality for soldiers at all times as they work with the command on resolutions. I am not saying that the command has to do what is recommended by the soldiers advocate, but it would at least assure our soldiers on the front line that the top level has heard directly from them about significant issues. I think it is worth a pilot. I detected quite seriously that some soldiers felt their concerns were not taken seriously enough, and that burdens me greatly.

So where to from here? This Afghanistan debate is important, but its value will be short-lived unless the government is prepared to take action on these and other worthy recommendations. It is worth stressing that again: this Afghanistan debate is important, but its value will be short-lived unless the government is prepared to take action on these and other worthy recommendations from this debate.

I conclude by sharing how much admiration I have for our soldiers, especially those who work outside the wire. We have seen the pictures, we have seen the conditions and we know what it is like to have a 40-plus degree day, but I did not realise how harsh the conditions are in Afghanistan. Your body has to operate in stinking hot temperatures of 40-plus degrees and a dusty environment not just for a few days but for months. Your life is at risk not just for a few days but for 24 hours a day, seven days a week for months. You are always on the edge and alert, not just while you are awake but also while you sleep. You are subconsciously aware that it is not safe and your life is still at risk.

Your emotions are numb. Death and injury are all around you, no matter where you look. You hear that another one of your fellow diggers has lost their life or been injured. This tugs at every human’s heart, and I cannot say how humbling it was to talk to our soldiers on the front line. I thank them for allowing me into their world. I remember standing on the training ground where the combat engineers train the troops in the finding of improvised explosive devices, and I was nearly in tears—one step and you are gone.

People in this Senate know me. I have not made these recommendations lightly, and I urge the government to think about whether we can support our troops more. I believe that we can, and I have made these three recommendations because my heart was torn. We need to do more and we should do more. I do not want to take anything away from the support that the government gives our defence forces, but there are questions that have to be answered, and the implementation of the three recommendations I have made would go a long way with our defence forces.

There is one other issue that I will raise. When you come back to civilian life after months outside the wire, it must be nearly impossible to feel like a human being again. From what I understand from talking to people, some soldiers would probably use some of the services that we offer a lot more, but they are worried about what would go on their record if they used some of those services. I do not know how to solve that one, and that is why I have not put a recommendation down, but it is something that I think the government also needs to look at. I thank the Senate.

Question agreed to.