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Thursday, 7 February 2013
Page: 383

Mr ROBERT (Fadden) (09:20): I thank the Minister for Defence for his updates and his commitment to regular updates to the House. I take the time to reinforce the coalition's bipartisan support for our combat operations in Afghanistan and bipartisan support for the care of our veterans wounded subsequent to those operations and their families. The minister's update is timely as we enter the spring and summer fighting season, literally as the snow thaws on the mountains of Afghanistan, except this time the legendary Royal Australian Regiment will not be mentoring or, indeed, fighting on joint operations with the Afghan National Army; they will instead be advising. It will be the ANA's greatest test. Independent operations will be advised by the Royal Australian Regiment against a determined and reasonably well-equipped enemy. It will be a testing time. There will be successes but, as the minister quite rightly said, there will be setbacks.

Major General Cantwell's words in 2010, when he was commander JTF633, our national commander in Afghanistan, ring as true now as they did then. He called on the government and the nation not to get the 'wobbles', to hold the course; it is testing, but the end is nigh. The coalition backs the path to ANA providing their own security within Afghanistan, in league with the Afghan National Police, and ultimately our soldiers coming home.

I join the minister in thanking General Allen for his service to the world community. He has shown himself to be a true friend to Australia. We join the minister in welcoming General Dunford as the new Commander ISAF. Likewise, we join the minister in acknowledging the terrible loss of 39 Australians and the wounding in action of 249 of our personnel. Ours has been an exacting price.

I am very pleased to see the 7th Battalion has rotated smoothly into theatre in its new role of assisting and advising the Afghan National Army 4th Brigade to conduct independent operations, ostensibly through working through their headquarter elements at the brigade, with some at the kandak level and, of course, the logistic support levels. They will be called on heavily as this year's fighting season starts to ramp up. I am very confident that the men and women from the 7th Battalion will rise to the challenge. I also note that, as at the end of last year, Afghan security forces are now controlling or at least leading 87 per cent of the Afghan population and are providing that leadership in 23 of the 34 Afghan provinces.

Challenges remain. The task ahead may be clear, but it will not be easy. As the minister noted, the assessment of the ability of Australian and other ISAF forces to transition out of Afghanistan is based on the ability of the Afghan forces to rise to the challenge and maintain the security environment that has been established to date. This will not be a normal year in Afghanistan. This is the testing year. Can the Afghan National Army and the security forces stand on their own feet? I join the minister in expressing great confidence that they have been trained by the finest fighting force on the planet: the Australian Army, Navy and Air Force combined in the task force elements. I remain confident that they can indeed rise to that challenge.

I thank the minister for his update on detainee management and I note that our enemy continue to lodge complaints at the point of capture. I note that all continue to be investigated and that no complaints have been substantiated. This is testimony to good procedures and discipline within our processes, good oversight and good reporting. I also note that our enemy have adapted their tactics to throwing themselves to the floor to indicate that they may well have been injured during questioning. This reinforces the judicious use of our CCTV cameras. It also demonstrates the humanity of our approach to our enemies' capture compared to the barbarity and sickening violence of our enemies' behaviour when ISAF personnel are captured.

We are a First World nation and we will continue to act like it, but let us never forget our enemy are violent, they are ruthless, they are barbaric and they are cruel. Whipping and executing their citizens for going to a dance, or the real misogyny of shooting a girl in the head for having the temerity to try to go to school—that is the behaviour of the enemy we fight. The nation should never forget the rightness of our cause and the barbarity of theirs.

Minister, I note that post-2013 the government's intent is to retain an SOTG, a special ops element, with an appropriate mandate, and we support that wholeheartedly. We also understand that this will be almost completely determinant upon US special forces' footprint, the logistics support and the locations—and I trust you will keep the House informed as those negotiations continue. We understand the challenges when it comes to the US working out their footprint first, and we, of course, with our allies will come lockstep in line with that. The parliament would also benefit, Minister, from some greater certainty on the further elements that would exist post-withdrawal, such as 'Duntroon in the desert'—and, Minister, don't give the Poms an inch when they try and call it 'Sandhurst in the sand'; it is unacceptable! Duntroon in the desert should be supported. I acknowledge that your intent is to do so. Some further information in due course would be helpful.

We further note that the gunnery school commanded by Australians has been a great success and, if there is an opportunity for Australians to continue their involvement in the Afghan school of gunnery, we should look at it. It would be good to know details of the number of embeds that we would leave behind in terms of our professional officer staff within various headquarter elements, as headquarter elements of the US will remain in location. If there are opportunities for our commanders to embed with them, we should continue to look at that. Also, I gather that the wider Middle East area of operations around the Horn of Africa will continue as it has—we are now in our 30th ship rotation. Some wider comment in due course would be appreciated.

Minister, whilst you enjoy the coalition's bipartisan support on a range of areas of combat operations, we have some concerns. In the great spirit of our robust bipartisanship, I wish to raise with you four concerns around logistics, ministerial oversight, the defence budget and instant reporting. I remain concerned regarding the use of defence resources for Op Resolute when we may well need all of our logistics effort to pull over $3 billion worth of equipment out of Afghanistan. In the last month of last year, two C17s and one KC30 tanker were used to ferry asylum seekers from Australia to Colombo. Whilst I understand existing resources may be incredibly stretched, I find it difficult to accept the extant use of military heavy-lift resources to alleviate what is a border protection failure. I would enjoy, Minister, your assurance that we have all the resources we need to maintain what will be a significant lift out of Afghanistan.

Now is the time of the logistician. The 'loggie' will rise to the challenge now, as we transition from the combat era to assistance in the Afghan National Army to the loggies doing the lifting out of an enormous amount of equipment—including 1,300 armoured accommodation modules, 600 shipping containers, almost 300 armoured vehicles as well as the whole plethora of loggie stuff they need to move. I accept, Minister, that there are some constraints upon us. If we cannot leave equipment behind for either US forces or allies to use, or for the Afghans to use safely and maintain, it may have to be destroyed in location. We accept that, otherwise it needs to either be flown out or travel a precarious land route. On the subject of infrastructure, I am very pleased that as much as possible will be left behind for the Afghan forces to use where appropriate.

Secondly, regarding the ministerial reshuffle, we welcome the appointment of the member for Eden Monaro as a minister and we look forward to working with him where possible. I have known the good minister for quite a while. It will prove to be an interesting year, Minister, and it is good to see you in the House. But I am concerned that in the ministerial reshuffle the member for Eden Monaro's previous position of Parliamentary Secretary for Defence has not been refilled. Your ministerial team has lost 25 per cent of ministerial capacity.

Mr Stephen Smith: Two for the price of one!

Mr ROBERT: And two for the price of one, while sounding eloquent, Minister, surely does not cut it.

I am also a little concerned that the parliamentary secretary that has not been replaced is the parliamentary secretary for the Afghanistan withdrawal. If it was important to have a parliamentary secretary for Afghanistan withdrawal last year and we are now at the most crucial stage of withdrawing our combat force, surely the argument holds that we would have a parliamentary secretary for Afghanistan withdrawal now. I accept that that responsibility will now move to the Minister for Defence and, Minister, we will continue to work with you in that space.

Minister, we remain desperately concerned over the impact of budget cuts. I note your commitment, which I accept at face value, that this will not affect current combat operations. I am more concerned in terms of budgetary aspects about future operations—our capacity to mount the next force or our capacity to mount multiple forces in multiple jurisdictions. Notwithstanding your interesting press release yesterday and its attempt to associate the coalition with your cumulative $25 billion in budget cuts, can I say the coalition's position on this could not be clearer. We will not cut the defence budget. It will be quarantined, guaranteed. Any savings identified in the defence budget will be quarantined for use within defence, guaranteed. We will rebuild defence in this country like the last coalition government did.

Minister, I am concerned about the impact of cuts to projects, especially in Minister Mike Kelly's area. I will be speaking to Minister Kelly and putting a formal request to get a brief on why JP154 Phase 2, the counter IED fourth protection ECM and weapons technical intelligence capability, has been slipped by one year in this year's budget due entirely to budget impacts. I would have thought that of all the projects that one should not cut, JP154 Phase 2 counter IED would be one that should have been quarantined.

I remain concerned that the reports for five incidents that resulted unfortunately in eight Australians killed in action from 30 May 2011 to 21 October 2012 are still outstanding. Minister, if 30 May 2011 is correct from your statement, it is up to 20 months. The US takes approximately 60 days to do their incident reporting. You indicated in previous responses that you would address this with more resources. With the greatest of respect, five instances outstanding over 20 months is not addressing the issue; it is unacceptable. Let me clearly put the Department of Defence on notice that, should the Australian people elect a coalition government, we will not accept such a delay. If it is good enough for the US to conclude inquiries within 60 days, it is not good enough for us to take 20 months.

Minister, I am very pleased with the announcement of the resettlement policy. I called for it last year and I am very pleased that in response to the community and other areas that you have announced what seems fair and reasonable and have followed the path that has happened in previous conflicts. I also acknowledge the signing of the MOU yesterday between the Department of Veterans' Affairs and the Department of Defence. We welcome and support that wholeheartedly. The care of our veterans is front and centre in the minds of all Australians and we will stand shoulder to shoulder with you in caring for our veterans and caring for our wounded. I acknowledge the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, which I sit on, is conducting its Inquiry into the Care of ADF Personnel Wounded and Injured on Operations for the parliament to build its body of knowledge in this area, and I think the parliamentary committee is doing a very good job on that.

We are all committed to the care and support of veterans and especially to destigmatising and addressing issues of mental health. It will not come as a surprise to the nation that we ask our soldiers to do some terrible and dreadful things in their service to our country—things that in a world where swords are turned to ploughshares should never be asked but such a world does not yet exist. Swords still exist, so rough men must remain ready to visit violence on those who would do us harm. It is naive at best to think that this does not impact upon soldiers—it does, it will, it has and it will continue to. We ask our soldiers to prosecute violence in the name of our diplomatic and national objectives. It has an impact. The coalition wholeheartedly supports the government and the military with the work they are doing in assisting wounded veterans and those with mental health challenges and problems. We pledge the coalition's continued support in this area. It will be a tough road ahead. We have had over 600 to 700 cases of PTSD recognised by Veterans' Affairs out of East Timor. The number of people presenting with mental health challenges out of Afghanistan will increase. I thank Major General Cantwell for his seminal work in his book Exit Wounds and for his raising the national profile on the issue of mental health and mental scars from combat operations.

Let me conclude as I started by saying this will not be a normal year for combat operations in Afghanistan. By year's end we will know the mettle of the Afghan National Army and whether they have stood up and fought against an enemy that will try and retake the high ground this year. By year's end, we will know what the outcome will be, and I join the minister in expressing confidence. The 4th Brigade of the Afghan National Army has been trained by the finest fighting force in the world, the Australian Army. I have great hope that the Afghan National Army under such training and guided by the assistance of the 7th Battalion task group and its associated forces will rise to the challenge. By year's end, we will have withdrawn much of our assistance force as well as much of our gear and we will be playing a much reduced combat role if anything apart from our kinetic elements within the Special Operations Task Group. The ANA will have to step up. They will have to prove their mettle during the spring and summer fighting season that will literally start in a matter of a week's time. Our enemy will test them. The Afghan National Army is well trained but now is the time for them to own their own security. Now is the time for Afghanistan as a country to realise its hopes and its dreams of maintaining its own integrity in terms of its borders with that first command of any government: the sovereign security of its state. Our path to withdrawal is set. It has bipartisan support. We welcome the advance of the Afghan National Army's performance and we look forward to the coming year ahead.