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Thursday, 21 August 2003
Page: 19255


Mr FARMER (9:43 AM) —Members in this House are often accused of being out of touch with ordinary Australians and failing to understand their needs. We are told that when we are working here in this House and in our electorate offices that we have no idea of the challenges faced by ordinary working Australians. That is why I was honoured last month to take part in the Australian Defence Force Parliamentary Program. This program was launched three years ago by the Howard government—the member for Wannon's idea—to show politicians the ADF first-hand by letting us live and work alongside those who serve in the ADF.

The NORFORCE unit is located in the Northern Territory and was my home for five days last month. We slept on the ground and in trees and lived off the land. The NORFORCE unit is, to most, a ghost that moves undetected and has surveillance responsibility for Australia's northern borders. It plays a vital role in protecting our borders from the illegalities of island-hopping drugs and arms runners and illegal immigration. It provides vital surveillance to authorities like the Australian Federal Police; since 1997, literally tonnes of illegal drugs and arms have been stopped at the border. The NORFORCE unit has played an integral part in making this happen.

My experience at NORFORCE was a challenge. NORFORCE has the largest operation of any military unit in the world today. It works in an area covering 1.8 million square kilometres, which is equal to one-quarter of Australia's landmass. It is a rugged environment in the Top End. The unit relies on the commitment and knowledge of the local population of the Northern Territory. They are information gatherers. The Indigenous soldiers play a vital role in teaching survival skills and gathering information. They are completely undetectable and camouflaged to suit their environment. Our diet varied from green ants to long bums—a type of shellfish.

Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders are well represented in the regular Army and the Army Reserve. The ADF is one of the biggest employers of Indigenous people in this country. Between 25 and 30 per cent of the NORFORCE unit are Indigenous. They play a vital role in the smooth operation of the unit and provide training and guidance to many of their colleagues. They form part of the hardworking and dedicated team that I would like to congratulate. After spending five days with them, I have a deep respect and admiration for them and the job that they do. They are completely mobile on land, in the air and on the ocean, and they are always ready. It is a tough job in a tough environment. It is a job which the whole country should be grateful is being done. The Australian Defence Force are the eyes, the ears and the protectors of our nation. I can say from first-hand experience that, while ever we have surveillance units such as NORFORCE, this country is being well and truly protected, especially on our northern border. These people are completely dedicated to their job. We are very happy to be served by them.