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Tuesday, 22 June 2010
Page: 6210

Mr FITZGIBBON (5:43 PM) —I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for your intervention, and I know your thoughts will be very much appreciated by the families, friends and comrades of those who we pay tribute to this evening. It is possible that I might have met Sapper Smith and Sapper Moerland. As defence minister, I of course had the privilege to meet literally hundreds of fine young Australians, so committed to their country as to be prepared to give their lives for their nation. Of course, I do not remember every face and name; that would be impossible. But it is certainly possible, having visited Enoggera Barracks on a number of occasions, that I did meet them. Of course, I do not have to remember their faces or their names to come to the conclusion that they certainly were very fine and brave Australians—their deeds speak for themselves.

I join with other speakers in extending my sympathies and thoughts to the family, friends and ADF colleagues of both Sapper Smith and Sapper Moerland. It is a very, very tragic time for the families and all who were close to these two brave Australians. I hope the fact that they died in service to their country somehow, at least over time, helps to alleviate the very great pain they are feeling today.

Yesterday we lost three more very brave Australians, this time not combat engineers but members of 2 Commando Company based at Holsworthy. Seven others were wounded in the same incident, some of them very badly.

While small when compared with the losses and injuries suffered by countries such as the US, the UK and Canada, the cost of the war in Afghanistan has been very significant for Australia. What always struck me as minister when I spoke with grieving family, friends and other serving personnel, but in particular parents, was that they found some comfort in the fact that their sons, brothers or husbands really believed in what they were doing, understood very clearly the risks involved and really believed they were making a difference.

I too believe they were making a difference. Indeed, I believe every serving member of the ADF in Afghanistan is making a real difference, in partnership with the members of the AFP and the civilian workers who are assisting. There should be no doubt in our minds that the longer we are in Afghanistan, and the more people we lose, the more difficult it will become to maintain the support for this campaign amongst the Australian electorate. So tonight I would like to remind the broader electorate of a couple of key points.

The 16 brave Australians who have given their lives in Afghanistan were not conscripts; they were volunteers. They were professional soldiers; indeed, they were very, very professional soldiers. I can confidently claim that every one of them wanted to deploy. They wanted an opportunity to serve their country. They wanted an opportunity to give effect to their training and the skills they had developed when doing that training. We should be in no doubt about that. They wanted to give effect to that training and to use those skills to make Australia and the globe a safer place in which to live and to work and to travel. They were conscious of the fact, and those who are still serving or might be about to serve are also conscious of the fact, that Australians died at the hands of fundamental terrorists. And they understand that there is a very direct link between what we are doing in Afghanistan and keeping Australians safe.

So I say: grieve for them, yes. Be grateful for them, yes. But understand that the greatest gift of appreciation we can give them is to finish the job, to see the mission through. What is that mission? That is my second message to the Australian people. We are in Afghanistan to play our part in an international effort to stabilise the war-torn country, to prevent it from again being a breeding ground and a launching pad for terrorists prepared to perpetrate their acts of terror right around the globe, including on our own doorstep and, indeed, including in our own country.

It is not a task that the US can or should shoulder alone, for many reasons. First, obviously that would not be fair. This is an international problem, the burden of which should be shared internationally. Second, even the US lacks the resources to undertake this task alone. Sure, the US has enormous resources which can be put to use in state-on-state conflicts, but not the resources necessary to deal with an insurgency and with asymmetric warfare such as we are facing in a place like Afghanistan, so large in its geography and so challenging in its landscape. Third, the ideological nature of this conflict insists that we have a united effort. It is so important that this be and continue to be an international effort—not the US versus the Taliban but the international community trying to make the world a safer place.

Our relatively small role—it is not unimportant; it is very important, but relatively small—is to assist in the training of the Afghan National Army in Oruzgan province. This is the very specific task the government has now given the ADF, for many reasons—in part to determine our end point in this campaign. While members of the Mentoring and Reconstruction Task Force are building an effective Afghan army, the Special Operations Task Group is disrupting and denying the enemy. Meanwhile, our people in uniform and our civilians alike help to build an economy, a justice system and, of course, a system of governance.

Sadly, the effectiveness of the work our people do will make only a relatively small difference in Afghanistan when compared to the critical decisions that are made and will be made in places like Washington, Brussels and, of course, Kabul. One right decision in those places and in those councils, of course, can be far more effective than any number of armies in their collective effort. I think that from time to time Australians and, indeed, members of the global community are entitled to be disappointed with some of those decisions, particularly some of the decisions that come out of Kabul itself. They are entitled to at times question the will and the determination of the Afghan government. I do not doubt or question the complexity of the issues faced by the government based in Kabul—there is no doubt that their task is a very, very difficult one—but Australians everywhere, I think, should focus their efforts more on doing what they can in a democratic process to put pressure on both us and other decision makers elsewhere to ensure that we have a strategy and a will to win. Of course, the definition of ‘win’ in this case is to be able to leave Afghanistan safe in the knowledge that there is a stable system of governance, that there is a justice system, that there are at least the beginnings of an economy—which is so critical to this outcome—and that the government there is sufficiently stable to resist any future attempts by organisations such as the Taliban to take back control of that country.

I also ask Australians to ask themselves: what would be the outcome of the international community suddenly withdrawing from Afghanistan? I suggest to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, to the parliament and to anyone else listening that it would lead to the greatest humanitarian disaster in the history of the globe as retribution is sought against those who decided to, if you like, side with the international community in its efforts to stabilise the war-torn country.

We saw the refugee flow into Pakistan during the conflict between the Russians and the Afghanis and, if you like, by proxy the United States of America. My belief is that that flow would look very small when compared with what you would see if the international community decided to suddenly withdraw from Afghanistan and the atrocities which would take place in that country would be potentially worse than anything we have seen in the past. So I say to the Australian people, even if you believe we should never have been in Afghanistan—and there is a good case, I am always happy to hear those arguments—we are in Afghanistan, the international community is in Afghanistan. If we do not finish what we began then there would be a terrible humanitarian disaster. In addition, there would be implications for places like Pakistan in particular which is, I remind people, a nuclear state, and it would embolden fundamentalists right around the globe. This idea of suddenly pulling out of Afghanistan would have very grave consequences.

On a similar theme, I would like to touch on something that has become part of the public debate in recent weeks—that is, the idea that the Australian legislature should play a greater role in determining when we go to war and how long we remain at war. This is an idea I absolutely reject for a number of reasons but two stand out fairly obviously. The first is that I am not sure what the technical definition of ‘war’ would be for the purposes of such legislation. War can stretch from a very fast intervention by special forces in, say, an unstable situation in the South Pacific, through to a short-term intervention—and when I say ‘short-term’ I mean something that escalates and de-escalates in a number of hours such as a maritime incident somewhere in our waters or beyond—through to the insurgency we are battling in places like Afghanistan and previously Iraq and right through to state-on-state conflict, God forbid. So there is a very key definitional issue and the reality is that in the majority of those cases there is no time for the legislature to gather and to deliberate on these very, very critical questions.

Secondly, and to me more importantly, is the folly of having such a debate in the legislature. When the National Security Committee of the Cabinet is considering putting people into harm’s way, there are a number of things it considers. First and foremost is the morality and necessity of the intervention. Another is the proportionate risk to our people—is the intervention worthwhile given the gravity or otherwise of the risks? Also very importantly is the prospect of success. There is not always a choice in existential threat situations when some of those choices are not with the National Security Committee of the Cabinet, but generally speaking they are. When assessing those things, a security committee does rely on some very sensitive information—information that is both critical to the decision-making process and that cannot be shared with the broader Australian community nor indeed the international community for obvious reasons. You cannot have a debate in the legislature without that information and you cannot have a debate in the legislature without therefore making that information known to the broader Australian community. It is unfortunate we cannot make that information available to the broader Australian community, but to do so would be to undermine and put at risk our efforts and indeed put at risk the lives of those who serve in the Australian Defence Force.

Some will say that many governments in Europe already have debates in their legislatures which determine these issues. Of course, some countries even have constitutional constraints upon them when making decisions about what they do or what they do not do in terms of military intervention. I acknowledge that, but I also ask people who put that argument to look at how effective that system has been in the conflict we are reflecting on this evening, Afghanistan, where European partners have been very constrained in the contributions they are able to make.

I have spoken with ministers from some of those countries. One minister even appealed to me in international forums to assist him to persuade his constituency of the merit of his country maintaining the course, maintaining its involvement in Afghanistan. That is an unfortunate situation, and I think the Westminster system has it right. It is a big ask, but it is appropriate for the Australian people and even the Australian parliament to put its faith in those who carry the very heavy burden of making these decisions. Of course, our Westminster system has a certain way of dealing with the people who make those decisions if they get them wrong.

I close by again extending my sympathies to the families of Sappers Smith and Moerland and reminding the families of all those who have gone before them, in Afghanistan and elsewhere, that we have not forgotten the deeds of their loved ones and, as a parliament and as a broader Australian community, we never will.