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Tuesday, 8 March 2005
Page: 112

Senator SCULLION (8:18 PM) —Without diminishing the role of the Defence Force personnel from other parts of Australia, I rise tonight to highlight the key role being played by Northern Territory based soldiers in Australia’s defence commitments on foreign shores. The soldiers from the Top End have travelled to a number of countries to act on Australia’s behalf in strategic operations overseas. We have 114 Territory based soldiers of the 1st Brigade serving in Malaysia as part of Rifle Company Butterworth. We also have 67 soldiers in Iraq taking part in Operation Catalyst.

Closer to home, I would like to specially welcome back from Banda Aceh 100 combat engineers from the Darwin based 1st Combat Engineering Regiment, who have been providing humanitarian assistance in Banda Aceh. I understand they are due to return home today from tsunami relief efforts in that heavily impacted area. By all accounts, the soldiers involved in Operation Sumatra Assist have performed their duty in an exemplary fashion. I am sure the way they have performed their duties will make both previous and future generations of Australian diggers proud. In fact, all Australians should be very proud of the task they have performed.

This was not a task that was performed in normal circumstances. You can imagine the horror these young men and women walked into. We have seen some evidence on the television, and we have read about and seen photos in the media of the sorts of circumstances they would have been working in. Coming from Darwin, I am used to working in the hot tropics. They would have worked in very difficult circumstances. There were huge amounts of debris. Communities that they were assisting effectively would have had no access to sewerage, septic facilities or fresh water. Fresh water was one of the most important aspects. Because they are a combat engineering division, they would have had the capacity to put in place water purification plants and the like to alleviate some of the most important concerns. Having purified water when there is no other water available is a critical issue. The temptation to drink from other sources of water can lead to the spread of diseases, such as cholera, and those sorts of issues. Some 4.7 million litres of clean water was created over the period of time that the engineering regiment was in Banda Aceh.

There was 9,000 cubic metres of debris. Some quick maths will tell you that that is about 3,000 tonnes of debris. Much of this debris was not shifted with bulldozers. When these people first went there, this was pick and shovel work, carried out in the sun and in the most horrific conditions. These men and women have done an absolutely outstanding job. The efforts of the Territory based Army engineers embody the spirit—born of Anzac—of pushing on in the face of adversity. It did not matter how bad the conditions got; these brave men and women put their shoulders to the wheel. They should make every single Australian proud. I welcome the diggers home and congratulate them on a job well done.

I have had some concerns recently about those who have questioned the readiness of 1st Brigade—again, from the Northern Territory—to deploy a 450-strong task force to Al Muthanna in Iraq. Those questions are clearly misinformed. I have some concerns about the source of some of that information. I know Kim Beazley said something on this today. This man has form. As I recall, he had a fair bit to do with defence in previous iterations. He was the Minister for Defence for a large number of years. One would think that he would understand very clearly the capacity of 1st Brigade and their capacity in an operational area. He should not be making the sorts of outrageous comments that were attributed to him.

Mr Beazley said this morning that he has a real concern about the way in which troops are being equipped and supported to undertake the mission that they have been asked to undertake. I would like to put the Leader of the Opposition’s mind at ease. Before he made these derogatory comments about our brave young men and women who go to service Australia’s concerns overseas, he should have made the effort to travel to Robertson Barracks to talk to the brigadier, to meet these men and women, to have a look at the sorts of circumstances in which they operate and to then consider their state of readiness. If a journey to the most beautiful place in the world, the Northern Territory, is a bit much for him, he could simply seek a brief from the minister’s office, because that is readily available to both sides of parliament.

When I visited 2RAR, 2nd Cavalry Regiment, I watched these soldiers train. I have spoken to them about their state of readiness. I have spoken to the officers that are leading the task force. Not only is the task force well on track and ready to deploy; their training is the very best in the world. I am absolutely certain that they will make all Australians extremely proud with the wonderful job that they are going to do and the wonderful contribution that they are going to make. In a matter of weeks now, 1st Brigade will be leaving for the Al Muthanna region and is going to be as well prepared as any military unit can be.

The soldiers I spoke to told me: ‘I have come back from Iraq. I have some language skills; I have some good cultural connectivity.’ Most importantly, they are about to go into a cycle at the combat training centre. I have participated as part of the Australian Defence Force parliamentary program in that excellent process. They are put on country. There are no surprises for these people. When they go into the cycle of the combat training centre, the expectations are that people will speak English, that people will not steal their gear and that the centre will provide opportunities for experiential learning that they would not get anywhere else except in an operational sphere. The soldiers that come out of that process are second to none. There is no higher state of readiness.

Reading what was said by the Leader of the Opposition, I am supposed to assume that we are ill equipped. Perhaps he is referring to the 40-odd ASLAVs that will go with those men in the deployment. They have shown their metal on the battlefield in action in recent times and have been shown to be the very finest. We continue to work at upgrading those systems. We now have turret-down, cap-down services whereby the .50 calibre or the 20 millimetre gun can be brought to bear and activated without having someone’s scone sticking out of the top of the ASLAV. These are great innovations. We are continuing to improve that. We have ballistic vests around the inside of all the ASLAVs. They are being fitted prior to being deployed. We are providing them with the very best. I think it is an absolute shame that the Leader of the Opposition should have so little concern for the men, women and soldiers that are going over there and their families as to make such an outrageous, misinformed statement about the process.

The Australian government do not send the sons of this nation into potential harm unless we are absolutely sure that they have the very best equipment and the very best training. We are in a position to help, and it is our responsibility to lend a hand. I, like every other Australian, was absolutely thrilled to bits to see the birth of the world’s youngest democracy. I am so proud of the role that Australian soldiers played in that. Can you imagine going to the election when 30 of your mates get shot on the way there? Sixty per cent of Iraq turned out, under fire, to go and create that democracy.

It is difficult in Iraq. Nobody resiles from that. But, just because it gets tough, we are not going to cut and run—despite the suggestions of those on the other side. We have a responsibility at this critical time—and the Prime Minister referred to it as the tipping point—to provide the assistance. It is not just helping someone out. It is not a handout; it is a hand up. We are helping people with critical training so that they can take their affairs in hand. That is the sort of help we are providing. I say to the newest democracy: ‘When you’re mates with Australians, you’re mates whether the going gets tough or otherwise. We’ll be there through thick and thin, as we have been since the formation of Anzac. We are not going to back off on this, despite the criticism from others.’

This deployment is particularly important because it looks after one of our key allies in the Asian region. Looking after the Japanese and looking after that region is an investment in developing that regional partnership. I am very proud to have fine young people living in the Northern Territory and I want them to know that their families have my full support and that of this government for the duration of this deployment and beyond.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Lightfoot)—Thank you for your words. I was the only politician in Iraq during the momentous occasion of the election.