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Wednesday, 23 October 2002
Page: 5801

Senator PAYNE (7:48 PM) —I rise this evening to make some reference to a report—another report— which was also tabled this week, on this occasion by the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade on the visit to Australian forces deployed to the International Coalition Against Terrorism in July and August of this year. That visit included Kuwait, the Gulf, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan and Dubai. The report was tabled in the Senate by the chair of the joint committee and in fact the leader of the delegation, my colleague Senator Alan Ferguson. I want to thank Senator Ferguson particularly for noting at the time of the tabling that I was absent from the chamber because I was chairing a session of the Women and Policing Globally 2002 conference, that session being on peacekeeping, the timeliness of which in many ways was interesting.

Other speakers both in this chamber and in the other place have indicated that this visit was extraordinarily valuable to all members of the delegation to enable us to appreciate—and in some cases that appreciation was felt quite acutely—the extreme conditions in which our defence personnel are serving in the region. The committee is undertaking a range of activities as part of our watching brief, as it is described, on the war on terrorism. This visit was particularly important to that in terms of monitoring, considering and reporting on Australia's ongoing commitment to this effort. Its particular purposes were to give the committee a comprehensive understanding of the nature and effectiveness of our commitment, an understanding that then enables us to report that to the Australian community. This report, its tabling and members' responses to it in this place and in the other place are very fundamental to that process, most particularly to demonstrate the parliament's bipartisan support for the Australian defence forces currently deployed in the area.

It is particularly important to acknowledge the extraordinary work of the Army, Navy and Air Force personnel deployed in the region. They work under very onerous physical and climatic conditions, never more so than at the height of summer when this visit took place. Australians, as we all know, are normally used to extremes of temperature, but temperatures in excess of 50 degrees Celsius in Kuwait and in the Gulf test even the hardiest soul. Our soldiers and sailors in those two instances carry out their roles without complaint, notwithstanding those conditions.

This particular delegation gave senators and members a chance to see our troops on active deployment. It is an opportunity that is not often available to members and senators of this place, so I regard it as both an honour and a privilege to have participated. It is particularly not easily available in a key region such as this, such an enormous distance from our own nation, and particularly not at a time of such heated debate on Australia's role in any future involvement in the area. On a personal basis, I really feel that this is an opportunity that enabled me to see with much greater clarity the aspects of this debate. I have used this experience in discussions with the many experts, academics and defence personnel that one talks to on these issues.

As the report notes, and as I am sure my colleagues did not miss the opportunity to also note, the delegation travelled as our forces do: from Perth to Kuwait in an Ilyushin 76 Defence resupply aircraft, between Kuwait and Kyrgyzstan, Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan and Afghanistan and Dubai on a Hercules C130 and on Seahawk helicopters. We also had the occasional very real-life experience of climbing ladders up and down the sides of the USS Hopper and the Australian frigates the Melbourne and the Arunta. The delegation made the effort to travel as our troops do, rather than choosing the alternative of first-class commercial flights— something for which parliamentarians are often derided—and I think those decisions were well received by the troops that we visited. In fact, I venture to say that in some cases they just stood there in horror and disbelief saying, `You can't be serious; you came here on an Ilyushin 76!' But we did indeed and we all survived the journey.

I want to comment briefly on some of the key aspects of the delegation's visit, starting with our time in Kuwait. The delegation made official calls on both the Speaker and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, and they are well recorded in the report. But most particularly in relation to our troops we visited Camp Doha in Kuwait City, where the presence of an Army logistics support element and the Australian national command headquarters enabled us to make some very valuable inspections. Initial briefings provided to us by Brigadier Garry Bornholt and his team noted, amongst other things, the very good impression that Australian personnel have made, and the report notes particularly their reliability and their competence. They were comments that were echoed throughout the delegation's entire visit, not just by the Australian national command representatives but most particularly by representatives of the United States and other forces present in the international coalition.

We had initial discussions in Camp Doha on command and control elements, which are referred to more broadly in the report itself. I want to record my appreciation of the assistance of the United States in the visit to and inspection of the US helicopter flight line, the AH64 Apache attack helicopter and the terrain flight that they provided to members of the delegation on US Army Black Hawks. It was an absolutely unforgettable experience—indescribable in the extremes of heat and those climatic difficulties that I referred to earlier.

I want to thank the Australians at Camp Doha who looked after us so well on this initial meeting. I can only imagine how difficult it is to sustain, entertain and brief nine parliamentarians who drop into, if you like, a high level of operational activity and seek briefings and information. It cannot be easy to interrupt very important daily activities, but in every single instance, in every single aspect of our visit, that was done by Australian troops deployed in this area. We have much to thank them for. The report notes the very clear sense of purpose and strong commitment to duties of these troops and, most importantly, their high morale, which was evidenced in every activity we enjoyed.

In relation to the Gulf, the Maritime Interception Force has been in operation since August 1990. Australia has been involved since its inception. These are the patrol and boarding operations in the central and northern Persian Gulf and in the Gulf of Oman. We began with a visit to the USS Hopper, a US Navy guided missile destroyer. It is notable for one particularly interesting reason, I thought. It is not just an extraordinary ship; the USS Hopper carries the largest percentage of female naval crew in the United States Navy. It was in fact named after Admiral Gladys Hopper, who was the first female admiral in the US Navy. Her formidable visage surveys the wardroom, and I feel that all those who are viewed by Admiral Hopper would be reasonably intimidated. We received very high level and, in some cases, classified briefings on the Hopper, and an Australian crew is embarked there. It was quite clear to us that the Australian crew and the crew of the American guided missile destroyer are working together very well.

We observed a particularly interesting boarding at the time, and I commented to the intelligence officer of the Hopper that technology has made amazing advances for troops deployed in such instances. For example, to see a naval crew board a suspect illegal ship, a dhow, and bring back to the Hopper by an inflatable boat the documents from the suspect dhow, have those scanned and registered on the Hopper and return the original documents to the suspect boat in a matter of minutes is quite an extraordinary performance in that environment, and I was very impressed by that.

We transferred in two groups to the Melbourne and the Arunta Australian frigates deployed in the Gulf as part of the Maritime Interception Force. I was in the small group that overnighted on the Melbourne. We took the opportunity to do a full tour of the ship and to talk to the crew and observe their high morale and the very positive experience they were able to relate to us. Our 3 a.m. transfers from the Melbourne to the Arunta by RHIB gave us another equally valuable experience on the Arunta, and I want to thank the captains on both of those ships.

In Kyrgyzstan we met relatively briefly with the RAAF 84 Wing Detachment—in fact, from Richmond RAAF Base in my own constituency—at Manus International Airport near Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan. Those valuable briefings that we had there on air operations were ones which I will certainly never forget. The support of the air operations from the RAAF 707s were absolutely extraordinary. I will not have time to finish my remarks this evening, so I will continue them on another occasion.