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Thursday, 20 August 2009
Page: 8538

Mr SYMON (2:02 PM) —My question is to the Prime Minister. Will the Prime Minister update the House on developments in Afghanistan surrounding their elections?

Mr RUDD (Prime Minister) —I thank the honourable member for his question. Today marks an important milestone for the people of Afghanistan with the holding of the first Afghan-led presidential and provincial council elections in 30 years—an opportunity for the people of Afghanistan, brutally oppressed under the Taliban regime until 2001, to have their voices heard. Credible elections are critical to strengthening Afghanistan’s democratic process and institutions and consolidating the progress made since the 2004 elections. There will be something like 6½ thousand polling stations, including dedicated polling stations for women, across Afghanistan, which should give access to about 85 per cent of Afghanistan’s 16 million registered voters. I note recent comments by the UN Secretary-General’s special representative, Kai Eide, that the vigorous election campaign represents a milestone in the political maturity of Afghanistan. The government and, I am sure, all members of this place condemn the acts of violence that we have seen by the Taliban and others across Afghanistan in recent times seeking to disrupt this election process—in particular, Tuesday’s suicide bombing in Kabul which claimed the lives of both UN and ISAF personnel as well as Afghan civilians.

Australia, along with other coalition partners and our partners in Afghanistan itself, has worked hard over many months now in preparation for these elections. They are among the most complex and difficult to conduct anywhere in the world, simply because of the terrain of Afghanistan, the challenging geography, and the security environment. Australia has provided extensive assistance to support these elections—including some 120 troops to assist with election security and $9 million in funding for voter registration, education and public outreach activities—and has established the independent Electoral Complaints Commission of Afghanistan. The government is supporting a regional election observer mission, which will see 50 men and women from countries of the immediate region serving as observers throughout the electoral process. We have also supported the training of some 200 female Afghan election observers to allow women to participate more easily in the election process. The government is deploying a small team of Australian civilian observers, the precise role and deployment of which, of course, will be determined according to the security situation.

Australia’s mission in Afghanistan remains clear: firstly, strategic denial of Afghanistan as a training ground and operating base for global terrorist organisations; secondly, stabilisation of Afghanistan through a combination of military, police, civilian and economic efforts; and, thirdly, to work with our partners in Oruzgan Province to strengthen the capability of the Afghan security forces so that they can in turn ultimately assume responsibility for their own security. The Australian government has a clear-eyed view in terms of the challenges which lie ahead, as do our coalition partners, and in this place and across the nation at large we must always be prepared for our nation to suffer further losses of our men and women in the field. This is a difficult, dangerous and bloody operating environment, as I know all members in this place are aware.

It is critical that the international community remain engaged in Afghanistan. The events of recent years, starting with the attacks in the United States on September 11 and the subsequent attacks in Bali, Jakarta and Mumbai, highlight the absolute importance of continuing to tackle the threat of terrorism worldwide and, wherever we can, denying terrorists a training base such as historically they have had in Afghanistan. I also, on behalf of all members of this place and all right-thinking Australians, wish the people of Afghanistan every success on this historic day.