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Monday, 21 November 2011
Page: 13112


Mr SNOWDON (LingiariMinister for Veterans' Affairs, Minister for Defence Science and Personnel and Minister for Indigenous Health) (17:38): As I stand here before the parliament to make a statement on Afghanistan, it would be remiss of me not to reflect on what has been a very challenging time. Sadly, this year, on three separate occasions, shooting incidents have resulted in the death of four Australian soldiers and the wounding of 10 others at the hands of Afghan National Army soldiers.

These attacks, which claimed the lives of Captain Bryce Duffy, Corporal Ashley Birt, Lance Corporal Luke Gavin and Lance Corporal Andrew Jones, have been extremely difficult to comprehend and to overcome. But, as the Prime Minister reflected today, it is right that in hard moments our hearts ache for all that is lost and all there is still to lose. But, as we know, Australians are reasonable and realistic people. We have always known that sending our men and women in uniform to war brings days of sorrow and sadness, as well as days of progress. While the losses in Afghanistan are a tragedy, it is in our nature that we do all that we can, with all that we have, to defend Australia and its national interests. That is what we have done; that is what we will continue to do. Australian forces remain committed to their mission, recognising that the actions of these assailants are not reflective of the Afghan National Security Forces as a whole and should not diminish the great successes our mission continues to achieve.

It is in our national interest for us to be in Afghanistan. We must ensure it is no safe haven for terrorists. We must stand firmly by our ally, the United States. As the Prime Minister reaffirmed in parliament today, the international strategy in which we take our part is sound. It is focused on counterinsurgency and designed to deliver transition. We are protecting the Afghan people, training the Afghan security forces and building the government's capacity. It is aligned with our enduring commitment to the United States under the ANZUS treaty.

Our military contribution to the International Security Assistance Force, ISAF, includes an average of around 1,550 ADF personnel deployed within Afghanistan. We are, as has been said on numerous occasions, the largest non-NATO troop contribution country to the ISAF. In Oruzgan province, where the majority of Australian forces are based, we are working to train the Afghan National Army's 4th Brigade. More broadly, our Special Forces contribute to the ISAF campaign across southern Afghanistan. We are also contributing to institutional training as the lead partner nation for the combined arms artillery school in Kabul. In Oruzgan, our forces are focused on achieving their mission, which is to put the ANSF in a position to take lead responsibility for security matters in the province by the end of 2014. Our mission of training and transition has not changed, and progress is being made, despite the awful events we have experienced recently.

As a government we are asking a lot of our service men and women in Afghanistan and as a nation we need to contemplate precisely what we do ask. It is right that my highest priority as a minister is to look after our forces and their families, both during and after their service. It is something I am personally committed to and which I care deeply about because we intuitively know that working in the ADF is a tough and very dangerous job. Our people are exposed to difficult situations in Afghanistan and, as I have mentioned, recent weeks have been especially tough.

In recognition of this, Defence has temporarily increased its support to deployed personnel, with the arrival of two further psychologists to Afghanistan to support the troops affected by these tragic events. This is in addition to the already deployed team that is dedicated to providing quality mental, pastoral and welfare care to our troops in the Middle East. An Army psychologist was also deployed to Germany to assist our wounded soldiers who were evacuated there for emergency treatment. The government takes the mental health and wellbeing of our serving men and women very seriously.

In 2008, I was involved with initiating the commissioning of an independent review by Professor David Dunt to look at the effectiveness of the ADF's mental health strategy, mental health services and programs. Professor Dunt made 52 recommendations to reform and enhance the delivery of ADF mental health programs and Defence and Veterans' Affairs transition services. As a direct result of this review, Defence is implementing a comprehensive mental health reform program. A total of more than $93 million has been invested by this government in new initiatives supporting the mental health of our service men and women and veterans.

Recently, we launched world-leading research into the prevalence of mental health disorders in the Australian Defence Force. The 2010 ADF mental health prevalence and wellbeing study is the first comprehensive assessment of the overall mental health of the ADF's serving population. It surveyed about half of the ADF workforce between April of last year and July of this year. The research has been described by independent experts, most specifically Professor Ian Hickie of the Brain and Mind Research Institute, as 'world's best practice'. Professor Hickie said that defence will set the national standard for mental health reform and that, through its leadership and this type of research, defence has shown that it is serious about addressing major challenges and has chosen gutsy, smart, collective and informed strategies to address them. He also said that defence leads the world in emphasising prevention, early intervention, use of e-health strategies, easy access to care, peer and family support and, most importantly, collective action.

The study has already helped the ADF tailor its mental health support to suit the needs of its service men and women. The study provided the foundations for the development of the 2011 Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy. This strategy focuses on both strengthening resilience and enabling recovery. It is specifically aimed at providing a solid foundation for good health and well-being within the ADF and ensuring that services targeting mental heath care are promoted and available. With the strategy, defence is developing the 2012-15 Mental Health and Wellbeing Action Plan.

Findings of the 2010 ADF Mental Health Prevalence and Wellbeing Study have highlighted some initiatives that warrant our immediate attention. These eight priorities include: a communication strategy to address stigma and barriers to care; enhanced service delivery; delivery of e-mental health tools; mental health upskilling for health providers; improving pathways to care; strengthening the mental health screening continuum; and implementation of a comprehensive Keep Your Mates Safe peer network.

Defence is also committed to providing comprehensive health care to serving members from enlistment to discharge. The priority of this health care system is to maintain ADF capacity by ensuring its personnel are fit to deploy and by providing high quality rehabilitation services for those that should require it. The ADF is committed to ensuring that personnel who are wounded, injured or ill have access to high quality health care and that their recovery, rehabilitation and return to work is the focus of our health practitioners—and this is a first priority of mine. High quality medical and specialist treatment and rehabilitation services are available from garrison health services and programs such as the ADF Rehabilitation Program.

We have an obligation to support not only our troops but also their families, and we want to do this because we think it is important. Being a spouse or family member of one of our service men or women is a tough job, particularly for those who are deployed. Deployment, postings and long absences from home combine to disrupt partners' careers and children's education and sever families' community support networks. For this reason, we are committed to supporting the families of ADF members and helping them to make the most of the challenges and opportunities provided by the military way of life. Ann we are there to support them.

The Defence Community Organisation is integral to this process. It offers a broad range of programs and services to support defence families. The Defence Community Organisation's local teams include social workers, military support officers, regional education liaison officers, community development officers, family liaison officers and administrative staff. DCO's programs have a very real and positive impact on the lives of ADF families.

I recently launched a suite of training programs called FamilySMART, which aim to empower defence families to build their wellbeing and psychological health. This program aims to foster resilience amongst defence families and will help them manage the challenges of the ADF lifestyle. FamilySMART is part of defence's overarching strategy of supporting the mental and physical wellbeing of ADF members and their families through prevention-based training. FamilySMART will help defence families to further develop their resilience, providing them with the psychological resources to manage stressful situations such as deployment, parental absence from home, moving houses or a partner returning from a long time overseas. I want to mention Defence Families of Australia, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. It was originally set up by the then responsible minister, and now Australian Ambassador to the United States, Kim Beazley, and is a very important organisation.

Finally, let me refer briefly to DSTO and its role in supporting operations in Afghanistan. In outlining the support provided to our military personnel, it is right that I acknowledge the considerable efforts of the Defence Science and Technology Organisation. DSTO's highest priority is supporting ADF operations in Afghanistan, providing direct technical advice, technology insertion and operational analysis support to our personnel in theatre. DSTO analysts are deployed in Afghanistan providing direct support to military operations. DSTO has established a science and technology fly-away team capability that Australian commanders can call on. This technology insertion capability is deployed strategically on operationally urgent issues. As part of this capability, DSTO scientists provide ADF personnel with expert advice and assistance in the introduction of new technology. DSTO is a very important element of our support for our personnel in so many different ways.

As the Prime Minister noted today in parliament, we are asking much of our deployed personnel in Afghanistan—often maybe too much. We are proud of the courageous work our soldiers are carrying out in very difficult circumstances, and they are extremely difficult. Because of their bravery and their service, we are making progress in our mission. But it is a difficult mission. There will continue to be challenges and no doubt we will need to think about the way in which we support our Defence Force personnel on an ongoing basis. But we must applaud their service and they need to know that they continue to receive our full support, and providing this support is an absolute priority of this government. I commend the motion to the House.