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Wednesday, 12 September 2012
Page: 10469

Mr FITZGIBBON (HunterChief Government Whip) (10:01): I rise to join with the Acting Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, the Minister for Defence and all members that have and will contribute to this very important and sad condolence debate. I rise therefore to pay tribute to Lance Corporal Stjepan 'Rick' Milosevic, Sapper James Thomas Martin, and Private Robert Hugh Frederick Poate.

We have now lost 38 very brave Australian people in Afghanistan, and collectively today we gather to speak about that bravery and their selfless contribution to our country. Thirty-eight lives lost is 38 too many. Indeed, the campaign in Afghanistan has become a very expensive one in human terms. For a country our size, 38 is a large loss. Later this morning or this afternoon we will also be speaking about Lance Corporal Mervyn John McDonald and Private Nathanael John Aubrey Galagher, who tragically lost their lives within 24 hours of the loss of these three fine soldiers.

These debates are always difficult for all of us in this place because it is us collectively who take the decision to send these young people to war, but I stand here today still very confident that we went to Afghanistan for the right reason, we remain in Afghanistan for the right reason and we are determined that we should finish our campaign in Afghanistan. We went there to make the world a safer place for all people, including of course Australians. We saw the carnage that can be set upon our people in places like Bali and Jakarta by people who were trained or had some association with Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Afghanistan had became a lawless state—a state prepared to host and provide a training field and a launching pad for those prepared to perpetrate their acts of terror right around the globe, again including on Australians. It was the right thing to do to intervene on that lawlessness and everything that flows from it.

I believe we are making progress in Afghanistan—I have no doubt about that. We are not only building capacity to enforce the local rule of law but building a democracy, an economy, a health system, schools and a society, and therefore, hopefully, we are putting in place a setting for good things rather than bad things. It is hard. No-one said it would be easy. We were always going to lose lives, but there is one thing I am very confident about: all of our volunteers who go to Afghanistan go with enthusiasm and know all of the risks involved, but they do so very willingly and very keenly. I do not think I knew any of the three men—it is possible that I may have met them at some point as defence minister—but I do know that the local rule of law will also have applied to them. Having met many families on the occasion of earlier losses, I am confident that the families of these brave soldiers also knew the risk but supported their decision to take that risk. I would be very surprised if, like the soldiers themselves, the parents did not believe and do not believe in the mission and what their loved ones, friends and mates were doing.

Last night I had the pleasure of speaking at the reception to mark both the 93rd anniversary of the independence of Afghanistan and the 10th anniversary of the formal diplomatic relationship between Australia and Afghanistan. We were partly celebrating Afghanistan's progress—progress from a lawless state, as I said, towards what I am very confident will become a thriving society. It does have a potential economic base. It boasted, in the past, of being a land sitting on the Silk Route and flourishing, and I believe it will flourish again. We need to stay the course and help them through the next steps. It would be a terrible thing if we allowed 38 fine Australians to give their life in vain—in other words, if we do not finish what we are doing in Afghanistan. I think a precipitous withdrawal would be an enormous mistake. It would be a bit like not paying the final two payments on your mortgage. We have made the big investment, it has been costly, but that is all the more reason to finish the job. To walk away now before the Afghan National Security Forces are ready to enforce that country's own rule of law would be a very big mistake.

I hear so often people say: 'You cannot win in Afghanistan. Alexander the Great was not able to win in Afghanistan. The Russians were not able to win in Afghanistan. The English did not have much success in Afghanistan.' Historically that might be true, but in this campaign we are working with the democratically elected government of the day in Afghanistan against a common foe. Sometimes the lines become blurred as to who is friend and who is enemy, and very sadly in the case of these three soldiers we have learned just how blurred those lines can be. It must be very hard for our troops to deal with the green on blue dynamic. I can think of nothing worse—as if it is not hard enough—than going to war without being absolutely sure that the guy who is marching alongside you is your friend. So this is difficult, and it is a challenge for the government and everyone participating in the campaign in Afghanistan. But it is another thing that we just need to manage, and I am sure that manage it we will.

I join with others in extending my deepest sympathies to Lance Corporal Milosevic's wife Kelly, his young daughters Sarah and Kate—it is so sad that there are such young people involved here—his mother Heather and his brother Milan and sister Danica; to Sapper Martin's mother Suzanne, sister Holly, step-brother Angus and grandparents Ralph and Lucille Thomas; and to Private Poate's parents Hugh and Janny and sister Nicola. Like others who have spoken, I also extend my sympathies to those in the 2nd/14th Light Horse Regiment (Queensland Mounted Infantry), the 2nd Combat Engineer Regiment and the 6th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, and to all those who trained and served alongside these very fine Australians.