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Wednesday, 10 October 2012
Page: 7899

Senator THISTLETHWAITE (New South Wales) (18:58): Two weeks ago I had the pleasure of welcoming an officer from the Australian Defence Force into my office as part of the Australian Defence Force Parliamentary Program. Wing Commander Jonathon Durden was seconded to my office from his home base of Amberley, in Queensland. His visit was the reciprocal half of an exchange which I commenced in August when I deployed to Afghanistan and was hosted by the ADF.

This evening, I would like to take the opportunity to briefly outline the background to the program and explain why it is such a valuable initiative for this parliament.

In order to illustrate the program, I will go on to discuss both my own experiences in Afghanistan and those of Wing Commander Durden whilst he was working here in Parliament House. I would also like to state that much of this speech has actually come from the pen of Wing Commander Durden. He prepared most of this speech whilst he was working in my office for that period.

In the period immediately following the Second World War, many members of parliament served in our armed forces and experienced the deprivations of war. This was a consequence of the time. In the post-war years it ensured that decisions made within this parliament pertaining to national security were informed by hard-won personal experience. Over the ensuing years, some of that firsthand knowledge of military experience has naturally declined, and that is why programs such as the Australian Defence Force exchange program are so valuable.

In 2001, the ADFPP was implemented to provide parliamentarians with the opportunity to work alongside the men and women of the ADF, to experience their daily routine, to deploy to places where they deploy, to walk a mile in their shoes and to gain an understanding of the immense challenges which they face. I was privileged and fortunate to do precisely that in early August of this year when I deployed to Afghanistan with three of my colleagues from this place and the House of Representatives. We were in the company of the extremely dedicated men and women of the ADF.

In July, I boarded the defence charter, which leaves every Wednesday from Sydney airport to Al Minhad Air Base, where Australia's main base for operations in Afghanistan is located. Then we boarded the C130 Hercules on to Kandahar and Tarin Kot. It is not until you actually touch down in that dust and heat that you can begin to realise the magnitude of the challenge that our defence personnel are facing in Afghanistan. Imagine a barren desert with very few trees, swept by dust storms and cloaked in searing heat in the middle of their summer. Consider a mission where we must train and mentor an army which is drawn from a population whose culture, language, beliefs and experience of the world could not be further from our own, and then realise that this mission is being conducted in the face of a determined, adaptive and hardened army that resides not only outside the razor wire perimeter but also sometimes, unfortunately, within.

These are the circumstances in which our personnel have been continuously operating for nearly a decade. But we also experienced the wonderful work that many aid agencies and the Australian Federal Police are doing. One story really hit home to me the value of the work that Australians are doing in Afghanistan. In Tarin Kot, we spoke to some surgeons working in the local hospital who said that six years ago the average number of babies born in the hospital in Tarin Kot per month was two. Women just did not come in to have babies. Consequently, Afghanistan had the highest rate of infant mortality in the world. If you go there today, because of the work of Australian doctors training locals in midwifery and training local nurses and doctors, about 100 babies a month are born in that local hospital. That demonstrates the value of the work that Australians are doing in Afghanistan, and they do it with professionalism, with humour and with compassion.

While I was in Afghanistan, our troops welcomed me and my colleagues with open arms, and after an eventful and edifying week and a half I returned to Australia with a new appreciation of our defence capabilities and the environment in which they are currently deployed.

Recently, Wing Commander Jonathon Durden, who spent six months in Afghanistan in 2009, volunteered to spend a week working with me here in Parliament House. Regular operational deployments have punctuated Wing Commander Durden's career. In 2003, he was deployed as the operations and force protection officer in Baghdad. In 2008 he was seconded to the Royal Air Force Regiment and spent six months training in Scotland before deploying to Kandahar as the wing influence officer. This job involved liaising with local tribal elders, district chiefs and police executives to win consent for operations at the Kandahar air base. In August 2010, Squadron Leader Durden, was deployed on Operation Pakistan Assist for a predominantly health-focused mission in the wake of the Pakistan flood disaster. He was awarded a Chief of Joint Operations Commendation for his work.

Whilst here, Jonathon accompanied me on a variety of activities and, of course, spent some time observing the work of this chamber and the senators. In the wake of that, towards the end of his work experience here, he explained to me that the experience gave him an entirely new perspective on the business of government, the mechanics of our legislature and the day-to-day work of senators. More importantly, Jonathon said that the experience gave him a much greater understanding of the relationship between his part in Australia's ongoing progress and our own. In his future role as the Commanding Officer of 1 Airfield Defence Squadron, Jonathon said he would carry with him a much deeper understanding of how parliament shapes the democracy which he and his colleagues are charged with defending.

I have found both my deployment to Afghanistan and my hosting duties as part of the Australian Defence Force Parliamentary Program to be thoroughly rewarding and worthwhile. I now have a much greater perception of the realties which face our defence personnel. Additionally, I have contributed to the professional development of one of our military officers, and that is a satisfying experience. In my experience, through my engagement with Wing Commander Durden, I believe the ADF parliamentary exchange program is achieving the aims for which it was conceived.

It is a wonderful opportunity for senators and members of parliament to experience the work and lives of our very talented Defence Force personnel and for us to reciprocate with that obligation to provide an understanding to Defence Force personnel about how our democracy works and the work of members of parliament. I commend this program to all parliamentarians.