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Wednesday, 12 September 2012
Page: 10472

Dr MIKE KELLY (Eden-MonaroParliamentary Secretary for Defence) (10:17): It is another terribly sad occasion where we rise to commemorate and pass our condolences to these lost sons of Australia and their families. It was one of the most tragic days, as has been reflected upon, in the Australian Defence Force's history—certainly the largest loss of lives since Vietnam—in two separate incidents which we will reflect on in two separate motions. Three individuals, the subjects of this motion, were from three different units all based at Gallipoli Barracks—units that I have great familiarity with and also affection for from my time at Gallipoli Barracks, having played rugby in the 25th anniversary 6RAR rugby premiership winning team. I played often against 2nd/14 and worked with many of the soldiers and officers of them and 2CER as well. These three individuals encapsulate all that is fine and all that is the best of the traditions of those three units.

We heard a wonderful tribute by the member for Calare in relation to Private Robert Hugh Poate. Poate was a member of 6RAR. He mentioned the motto of that unit—'brothers by choice'—but the nickname is also 'blue dog'. The mascot of 6RAR is a blue cattle dog. They particularly chose a blue cattle dog because they wanted to focus people on the attributes that those dogs are known for: their tenacity, their faithfulness and their loyalty. Certainly, all of those qualities are encouraged, fostered and developed in 6RAR, and well exemplified by Private Poate.

The motto of the Royal Australian Regiment is 'Duty first', and no-one more exemplified that motto than Robert Poate. He was so focused on his career at that young age and performing extremely well. He was a protected mobility vehicle driver, driving one of those magnificent Australian Bushmaster vehicles which have protected and saved so many lives in Afghanistan and have been a tremendous tribute to Australian industry; the Bushmaster is also a weapons system and an asset that requires a great deal of skill to work with in an operational environment, and certainly Private Poate had that. As has been mentioned, one of the vehicles has been named 'Poatey'—that is painted on the side of the vehicle—and that is a tremendous tribute. His colleagues obviously will continue to and will always remember him for the wonderful member of the team that he was, and for his good humour and his professionalism, serving as he was on his first deployment. He was a young man who had not had time to build a life outside of the Army, but this was actually partly by choice. We know that he had said to his family that he was not particularly interested in trying to establish a long-term relationship at this point in time because he wanted to focus on the mission in Afghanistan, to focus on the job. He said to his father: 'I am not going to get emotionally involved because I don't want to take any baggage with me; I've got to be 100 per cent focused 100 per cent of the time because I am responsible for every person aboard that vehicle.' Nothing exemplifies this individual and the 'Duty first' motto better than those comments.

Interestingly, too, we are talking about a green-on-blue incident. It was revealed by the family that, in a phone call to his father, Private Poate actually described the ANA members that he was working with as a fantastic bunch of people—'They just love us Aussies. They play cricket with us. All you've got to do is respect their customs and there's no problems.' So Private Poate had had a very good experience of working with the ANA—until this point, of course. And there have been many thousands of ANA soldiers that our people have worked with, notwithstanding that we have had these incidents involving a couple of individuals. But I will come back to that point in a minute.

I turn now to Sapper James Martin, who was a member of the 2nd Combat Engineer Regiment, also based at Enoggera, as I mentioned. He was a very special person in many ways—a deep person; an intellectual soldier. The motto of the 2nd CER is 'The magnificent bastards', and certainly, in my experience of them, they were just that. Sapper Martin was magnificent in many ways as an individual, but it is important for all of us to understand the special role the sappers perform in Afghanistan. Their role requires nerves of steel: the daily tension and the daily risks that the sappers undertake in Afghanistan are extreme. I know many members, colleagues on both sides, who have been over to experience the parliamentary exchange program and have had the briefings about the improvised explosive devices and understand the daily test of these people's character, their nerves, their professionalism, and their ability to detect and defuse these weapons and protect our people. That requires very special skill, very special courage and very special nerves. Certainly, Sapper Martin had all of those things. He was a fine tribute to the traditions of the engineers, and there would be, no doubt, many members of the ADF who owe their protection, who owe their safety, who owe the fact that they are not injured and are still with us, to the work of Sapper Martin and what he was able to achieve in Afghanistan. We all send our best wishes to his family as well. I know that his regiment, a wonderful unit, will continue to preserve his memory.

Finally, I come to Lance Corporal Rick Milosevic, known as 'Milo' to the crew. Rick came to the Army late in life, at the age of 36, which was interesting and incredible in itself. He went through the whole recruit process at the age of 36, which is remarkable. And he was no slouch in that process, and was awarded most outstanding soldier at Kapooka and was presented with an award for the trainee of merit.

He had a family, of course, and he had been deployed in his short time in Iraq as well as Afghanistan. He also came from a very proud unit, the 2nd/14th Light Horse Regiment (Queensland Mounted Infantry), which has a history going back to 1860. It saw many proud campaigns in the Boer War and the First World War. It is a unit that proudly wears the emu feather, as Rick did.

Rick was a very keen participant in Army rugby. The Army is a family in itself, but certainly an even tighter family within that family is the Army rugby community, which I tremendously enjoyed being a part of. Rick will be closely remembered in that he was a classic forward build, a stocky chap—he had the right neck for it. Every year we play a curtain-raiser to the tri-service rugby competition between the Army rugby old boys and the Navy old salts. Before each game we toast the members of the rugby fraternity that we have lost in the preceding year through whatever cause. I can guarantee that next year our comrades and colleagues in Army rugby and Navy rugby will be toasting Rick Milosevic before the game. Well done, Rick, on a magnificent effort and a magnificent career. We are so proud of you. We extend our condolences to Rick's partner, Kelly; his daughters Sarah and Kate; and his mother, brothers and sisters. We will sadly miss Lance Corporal Rick Milosevic.

I did mention the issue of the green-on-blue situation, which has become deeply disturbing. I think a lot of Australians can accept combat casualties where men and women have their faces turned to the enemy, and they understand that that is part of the risk and sacrifice involved in a defence career. But it is hard to take situations where men and women have downed tools, effectively, and have taken off their combat body armour and are relaxing. Here they were, based in Patrol Base Wahab, relaxing with their colleagues when this incident occurred. That seems particularly cowardly to Australians and it is particularly hard to take in this context. If we are there to train and build the capacity of the Afghan National Army, then how is it that we would take casualties like this? Is it worth persevering with a mission to train these people if this is the way they are going to treat us? It is a natural instinct and it is also highly commendable that as Australians we continue to question whether we should be there and whether the sacrifices are worth it. That is entirely commendable and I would encourage Australians to continue to question. But, of course, in my role as Parliamentary Secretary for Defence I have responsibility for this Afghanistan transition. I have spent a lot of time there, as I have mentioned previously, and the mission is progressing well. The task of building the competency of the ANA is meeting the time lines and the criteria and is passing through the gateways that we have set.

There has been a big effort in creating comprehensive policies to try to mitigate these types of incidents. We are also conducting a cultural compatibility study, because the issue is that it is very hard to determine whether they are insurgent-inspired events or whether they are related to some other grievance, mental problem or cultural clash that has occurred. As far as we can eliminate these kinds of issues—any friction or cultural clashes that might feed these sorts of incidents, which are apparently a large part of what has happened in Afghanistan over recent months and years—then we will obviously make every effort to do that. We continually review force protection measures, all the time, and we have invested a great deal of money into trying to protect our people. I welcome the decision of the Afghan Ministry of Defence to remove many of those people who are suspect through their more rigorous vetting processes.

We do not know at this stage what was behind this individual attack on our people. But let us assume, for argument's sake, that it was an insurgent-inspired activity. What would be the consequence of changing our strategy of responding to an attack like this and pulling out in the face of such a strategy? All that it would do would be to encourage our enemy to pursue this strategy.

The best thing that we can do to fight a strategy like this is to not let it affect our approach to the mission in Afghanistan, to not let it affect us finishing this mission, which we are so close to. There are, effectively, only a few months left in the high-activity phase of our security operations for our own personnel as we are now seeking to intersect the situation where we reduce that security environment to a position where, as it was described to me, the grass is cut where the locals can maintain the lawn. That intersection is not far off and, once that occurs, we will be moving into an overwatch Ready Reaction Force type role. Our people will no longer be in the patrol bases. We will be much more secure in the main base at Tarin Kot and these risks will be fewer.

Here we are now, we can see that it is within our grasp to better secure our people to achieve that mission and to move on. So to bend to any kind of a strategy like this, if that were indeed what was at the heart of this, would only serve to encourage these kinds of attacks against our people, to only send a message to the world that yes, you can change Australia's policy, you can bend Australia to your will if you can set up incidents like this or conduct attacks like this and cause a certain level of casualty to achieve that objective. We need to send a message to our enemy, to our opponents, to those who wish us ill in the world that we will not bend to these tactics, if those were indeed the tactics that were employed in this event.

We will not do that; we will not change our strategy. We will stick with our course and we will honour the legacy of those who have served this country before, in uniform, through dire times—through the direst of times in World War II when this nation was under threat and when sacrifices were made such that in the order of 48,000 people were killed in that conflict. We have shown in the past that we have the steel to see things through, to honour the legacy of people like this who have served our nation so well, to finish this mission, which is within sight.

I commend the service of these men and I pass on my condolences to their family. I know that nothing can really be said to dull the intensity of the grief that they are experiencing. I also honour their resolve as they pass on to us the task to see these missions through. We salute the service of these three individuals.