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Thursday, 1 November 2012
Page: 13049

Mrs PRENTICE (Ryan) (10:43): I rise to support the Prime Minister's statement on Afghanistan. I welcome the opportunity to acknowledge another year of military operations in Afghanistan and to honour the difficult and dangerous job that Australian forces are undertaking there. I thank the Prime Minister for updating the House on the many aspects of Australia's successful contribution to Afghanistan's progress to transition, particularly in the Uruzgan province, where transition began this year on 17 July. Australia's 4th Brigade has been taking the lead on security operations in that area, and more recently Australia assumed command, on 18 October, of Combined Team—Uruzgan.

In 2010, the countries in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and the International Security Assistance Force, in conjunction with the government of Afghanistan, came to the agreement for Afghanistan to become solely responsible for its security by the end of 2014. In terms of Australia's withdrawal from the region, I understand that the Prime Minister expects that transition should take between 12 to 18 months to occur, after which the vast majority of Australian troops will return home. Now after three months since the commencement of the transition period this expectation remains the case.

I echo the comments of the Leader of the Opposition, who noted that:

Australia went to Afghanistan with our allies and we will leave with our allies.

By committing to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014, we are not abandoning them but we will leave knowing that our training, anti-terror role and capacity-building projects made a difference for Afghanistan and its people. A worrying development is the continuing increase in green-on-blue attacks by Afghan soldiers and police when conducting joint operations. Regretfully, Australians have been the victims of this ruthless tactic by the Taliban which aims to reduce the effectiveness of Australia's relationship with the Afghan military. As a result, NATO has suspended joint operations with Afghan military personnel, and I understand that NATO is continuing to vet personnel and monitor the situation more broadly. These attacks do not, however, affect Australia's commitment to a safe and secure Afghanistan.

In August, I was fortunate to be involved with the Australian Defence Force Parliamentary Program to visit Afghanistan and experience the conditions firsthand. When Australia does leave Afghanistan, our Defence forces will leave with their heads held high. I point to the many key contributions Australia is undertaking in Oruzgan province, including the construction and opening of many infrastructure projects: roads, schools, health and education facilities, and river crossings. These projects greatly improve the lives of, and capability for, the local people and assist in the delivery of the Afghanistan International Security Assistance Force's counterinsurgency strategy.

I have spoken on many occasions in this place about the enormous contribution our servicemen and women make, from my maiden speech to the many condolence motions—sadly, far too many—to the simple recognition of the debt and obligation that we as a nation owe to so many brave Australians. I speak as someone with strong personal connections and commitment to our Defence forces. Most importantly, I speak as the federal member for the electorate of Ryan, which includes Gallipoli Barracks at Enoggera which recently welcomed home another 300 soldiers from the 7th Brigade on 24 October and previously welcomed home around 1,000 soldiers from Afghanistan, including the 7th Brigade. I was honoured to acknowledge our troops at both of these welcome home parades, most recently with the Chief of Army, Lieutenant General David Morrison AO, and Brigadier Greg Bilton CSC ADC, Commander of the 7th Brigade.

On 25 September, I was also honoured to represent the shadow minister for defence, Senator the Hon. David Johnston, at the farewell parade hosted by the 1st Brigade at Robertson Barracks in Darwin. On that day, we farewelled 400 personnel from 1st Brigade, including my son, who were deployed to Afghanistan on Operation Slipper. This marked an important opportunity for family, friends and the wider community to formally farewell their troops.

We welcome those days when our troops return to Australia alive and well. However, we have also observed in this place the deaths of the 39 Australians who have lost their lives during Australia's fight in Afghanistan and, importantly, the many who have suffered physical and mental injuries. An obligation to these fine Australians and their families is an enduring one. They must know that when they go into battle on behalf of our nation we are with them, and our support thereafter will be steadfast and strong. It is the least our nation can do.

Most recently, fallen combat engineer Corporal Scott James Smith returned home to his family and comrades in Australia—another proud Australian who the Chief of Army, Lieutenant General David Morrison, recognised as, 'a fine young man and a great soldier' and who recognised his sacrifice in serving his country.

If we take a step back from Afghanistan, as we look both to the present and future of the Defence Force, and particularly the domestic Defence Force industry, we see many worrying signs. Over the weekend, the Australian government released the Asia white paper, which stated that:

The effective management of a number of regional flashpoints will become increasingly urgent …


Managing competing maritime and territorial claims will be particularly important

In that context, I worry that we are not funding the Defence Force appropriately to deal with future security challenges in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond. This year alone the government cut $5.5 billion and, since coming to government, has cut $25 billion from the Defence budget. The government's cuts mean that Defence spending is at its lowest level since 1938—at 1.56 per cent of gross domestic product—and next year it will drop even further to 1.49 per cent. These are shameful figures from this government. If we look at the present situation, those in the military have taken the very rare move of speaking directly to the public about what those defence cuts mean. Recently, the Chief of Army, Lieutenant General David Morrison AO said:

We are approaching a point where doing more with less risks becoming a cavalier disregard for the ability of forces to survive against credible peer competition.

We do not want to send our troops on operations if they are not properly equipped and supported by the Australian government to do the job. I remind the House that these cuts will have an impact not just today but in 30 years time. Prior to the 1999 East Timor crisis, Australia realised that Defence had been seriously neglected and required a substantial increase in investment. Today, however, there is no doubt that recent cuts will have serious ramifications for the future readiness of our military forces and that the cuts are creating a growing capability gap.

One of the primary reasons why we must look long term is because procurement projects can take decades from first consideration to final delivery. As Lieutenant General Morrison noted, the capability of the army:

… can be relinquished disturbingly rapidly if it is not carefully developed and sustained …

At the same time, when we discuss the cost of procurement for submarines to the tune of $40 billion—or $16 billion for the Joint Strike Fighter—we are only talking in terms of delivery, not including the ongoing costs of maintenance. In many instances, the initial outlay might cover only one third of a project's cost over its lifetime.

When I talk to those within the Defence industry, they tell me that they are extremely worried about what the future might hold. Already 5,000 Australian jobs have been lost in the Defence industry. They are fully aware that during recent Senate estimates the Defence minister admitted that out of $230 billion outlined in the 2009 Defence White Paper, $200 billion of that total is still unfunded. As a result, in three years time, there could be a complete shutdown of naval ship building to name just one area of Defence industry. There is no surprise at the anxiety that exists within the industry as a result of this government's lack of commitment to Defence. It is therefore incumbent upon any future Australian government to recommit to Defence, and I continue to make that commitment.

To conclude, I say to the families and friends of Defence personnel serving in Afghanistan, Iraq, Solomon Islands and elsewhere in the world that they have every reason to be incredibly proud of the outstanding commitment to their mission of defending the security of Australia and the globe. Afghanistan has a complicated past, but I know that all Australians hope for a successful future in that nation and I commend Australia's ongoing contribution to that goal.

Finally, let me say this: any cabinet that fails to properly equip our troops at war must accept, as a cabinet and individually, the cost of that failure. I do not say that is the situation today, but the failure to properly fund our Defence forces today must resonate in the immediate future and must inevitably increase the risks and challenges that our troops will then face.