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Wednesday, 15 August 2012
Page: 8831

Dr MIKE KELLY (Eden-MonaroParliamentary Secretary for Defence) (11:33): We are again paying tribute to one of the proud and wonderful soldiers who have sacrificed their lives for our country in this difficult conflict in Afghanistan. It is one of the most important conflicts of the modern era and is in our national interest and the interests of our region. We have heard references to Sergeant Diddams's biography and background. He is a proud son of the ACT, born in the ACT in 1971. I served with Didds in Somalia. He was first and foremost a straight-legged infantryman who joined the Defence Force back in 1990, and his first posting was to 1st Battalion. He was deployed to Somalia with True Blue, 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment. He served there with great distinction, as did his comrades in 1RAR.

Even then, Didds was always known for his sense of humour. We take their military skills for granted—these are exceptional professionals—but if there is one quality that is extremely important in these types of environments it is the one Australians have long been known for and have long known: that sense of humour. He was an invaluable member of every unit, every subunit and every team he worked with because of that sense of humour.

Didds had an amazing career, serving not only in Somalia but in the Solomons and East Timor and in multiple deployments in Afghanistan. I have often thought when we have reflected on these lives that have been cut short, and when I have reflected on friends and colleagues that I myself have lost, that you do not judge the value of a life by its length. You judge the value of a life by how well it was lived, and by that standard Blaine Diddams lived a wonderful life, a life of great value. We should not believe that there was any waste to his life because it was cut short. On his last day he would have been able to say proudly to the world and to himself: 'I made a difference.' There is no more important thing you can say at end of a life than that.

There are many people alive today—men, women and children—in Somalia, in the Solomons, in Timor and in Afghanistan who all have cause to be grateful for the sacrifices, the effort and professional execution of his duties that Blaine Diddams managed to perform in all those environments. That is something that I think is not always greatly appreciated. We often see reports in the news of incidents in these places. You do not often see the effects, the results on the ground, that these service men and women are generating and have generated in those operations.

For Blaine, his time has ended. We know that the effect of these deaths on the families is huge, of course, and today we think of his wife, Toni-Ann, their daughter, Elle-Lou, and their son, Henry. Blaine was the eldest son of his parents, Pete and Cate, and a great brother to his siblings, Nikki, Sian, Christian and Luke. For them, the battle will just be beginning: to live with this loss.

We often neglect the side of the story about those who were wounded and did not lose their lives and about families who have to deal with that experience. I urge people to read a recent book written by David Finkel called The good soldiers, which really brings home the whole experience of the families and the wounded soldiers returning from, in that case, the Iraq war. It is something that motivates us to reach out to those families, to those members who have been wounded or who are suffering in other ways. In that sense I commend the work of a couple of fine young officers, John Bale and Cavin Wilson, who have set up a new venture called Soldier On, which is doing a wonderful job encouraging the community to reach out and play its part in supporting families and wounded soldiers to find endeavours they can engage in within the limits of their incapacities or injuries. It is doing a wonderful job, so I encourage all people to either donate to or get involved with this Soldier On venture.

But, as I say, Sergeant Blaine's family were proud of him and were able to say that Sergeant Blaine—Didds—died doing what he loved, what he believed in and in the company of those with whom he shared a special bond. I do not think there is any better way to go if you do meet your end. Certainly his comrades are going to struggle with his loss, but they are entirely motivated and dedicated to paying tribute to him by their continuing efforts in Afghanistan.

At this point in time I am the parliamentary secretary for the transition in Afghanistan, so I think it is important to reflect for a moment on the success that Sergeant Blaine Diddams and his colleagues, the men and women who are serving over there, have achieved. It is an incredibly difficult and challenging environment. It is challenging from the point of view of the physical environment and maintaining your basic health, but obviously there is also the challenge posed by the enemy, the Taliban, and the broader challenges of trying to stabilise a nation so that it will not be a threat to security in our region.

In that effort I have spent quite a bit of time on the ground in Afghanistan and in places like Washington, engaging with many experts and people who have been in the field, forming the best way forward not only to achieve success in Oruzgan but to make sure their efforts in Oruzgan and the immediate region that the special forces operate in is not wasted because of the deterioration of the national situation. We have often had this historical experience of Australians having provinces and doing a brilliant job, such as in Phuoc Tuy in Vietnam, in the Bay province that I was in in Somalia, in Al Muthanna in Iraq and now in Oruzgan in Afghanistan. We are determined to try to make sure that those sacrifices, those efforts, are not in vain.

In these environments we know that it is not just a question of security operations; it is very much a matter of social, economic and political issues as well. We have committed not only to support security sector capacity building in Afghanistan but also, in these critical other areas of that social, economic and political space, to engage in the things that will be critical to stabilising this nation: road building, building of governance and rule of law capacity and ensuring the 2014 election goes smoother than the 2009 election, to build faith in legitimacy. In key areas we will ensure that the aid and development contributions we make from here land well in Afghanistan and are not subject to distortion or corruption and the like. That is going to be a critical challenge moving forward.

Afghanistan is a country with great mineral wealth, worth between $1 trillion and $3 trillion, which will produce revenue to the government coming onstream in the next eight to 10 years. The challenge will be to help mentor them through that period to that point and also to make sure that the revenue that comes from those resources goes to the benefit of the Afghan people.

I have a degree of optimism about the progress that is being made in other areas. The Afghan National Army has been the most successful piece of the national central governance story. It is performing much better than I think a lot of people would have expected. It is not just in Oruzgan province that that is a good story; it is right across the country. Certainly there are major threats that still remain to destabilise the situation—not just the Taliban. I really do not think that in the future they will pose an existential threat. There are issues internally in Afghanistan that will have to be managed through actors that sit outside the formal structures, and how that evolves in the future will be critical.

There are quite a few success stories across the space of education, health and attitudes. When I was in Washington recently we were very fortunate at the Pentagon to get a briefing from the President of the Asia Foundation, David Arnold, who has produced the most extensive survey of Afghan attitudes ever undertaken—a face-to-face survey, approaching something like 7,000 Afghans. The interesting thing was that that survey of the population indicated that 82 per cent of respondents support the government's attempts to address the situation through negotiation. So they do support that effort. The level of sympathy for opposition groups has dramatically fallen over these last few years. Whereas there was some degree of sympathy, which amounted to something like 56 per cent in 2009, that has now fallen to about the 29 per cent mark, so the vast majority of the population have completely lost all sympathy for those who are opposing the government and ISAF. The majority of respondents are also very pleased and satisfied with the progress in areas of education for children and basic services—water for drinking, the ability to move safely in local areas, the availability of clinics and hospitals. But there are remaining concerns in relation to employment and levels of corruption.

It is interesting to note that 73 per cent of respondents say that the government is doing a good job. That is quite an amazing statistic in the circumstances. Eighty-five per cent of them say the government is doing a good job in education, 68 per cent say health care is going well and 62 per cent say security is going well. This is very important. It obviously remains for us to address these key economic areas of employment and corruption, and that is very much of concern to them. They are very happy with governance not only at the national level but at the provincial level, although their concerns remain in relation to the municipal level of governance.

So the challenge is there in that respect, but I think most pleasing were the attitudes revealed about women. Support for the principles of gender equality remains high, including equal rights under the law regardless of gender, ethnicity or religion—82 per cent was the figure there. Equal educational opportunities for women show 85 per cent support and there is 79 per cent support for women being allowed to stand up for their individual rights. While there are still pockets of conservatism, there has been great progress in human rights. I met with the Afghan head of their human rights organisation, Muhammad Musa, who has lived through the worst of things. He is a Hazara, and he is very pleased with the progress in that space and believes that Afghans really want to hang on to the gains they have made in human rights.

The only area where attitudes still lag in relation to women is in the employment of women. That is probably an attitude associated with the high levels of unemployment in Afghanistan. So there is a great deal to be satisfied with in the way things have evolved and matured in Afghanistan from the efforts of our outstanding soldiers, soldiers like Blaine Diddams.

Didds is someone who we are going to miss. There is no question about that. His skills and experience are not easily compensated in the value of what his career achieved on the ground. The motivation that he leaves behind for his colleagues will drive us to further success in Afghanistan. He now has contributed his own page to the most magnificent story that this nation has produced—the Anzac story. I am very pleased to see that the record of our SAS, which has long been unknown, has been the subject of a very extensive DVD production which we launched the other day over at the War Memorial. I think all Australians will be very proud, pleased and surprised at some of the information contained in there. It will be a great tribute to Didds and his colleagues in the regiment. We salute you, Didds. You will not be forgotten. We will take your example as a motivation for what we do from here.