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Tuesday, 22 June 2010
Page: 6218

Dr KELLY (Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Support and Parliamentary Secretary for Water) (6:29 PM) —I thank my colleague the Minister for Defence Material and Science for his comments and I thank those who contributed before me. We gather again in unity in what has been a very heavy week in the life and history of this nation, where we have farewelled yet more proud sons of the Australian Army and of this country. Sapper Darren Smith and Sapper Jacob Moerland are the 13th and 14th fatalities respectively whom we commemorate and farewell tonight, and we offer our condolences to their families. These were two proud Australian soldiers, two proud engineers, sappers, who were members of a proud unit, the 2nd Combat Engineer Regiment, which I was privileged to work with in my time with the 1st Division at Gallipoli Barracks, Enoggera, and I know that you, Mr Deputy Speaker Bevis, know that unit very well and the life at that barracks very well.

We also farewell Sapper Smith’s explosives detection dog, Herbie. It is important to recognise what a close bond the sappers form with those dogs. In my own region, we have the experience of Sapper Peter Lawlis, who lives in Bredbo, who lost his dog, Merlin, over in Afghanistan. Just recently we were able to bring back the remains of Merlin, which formed a very important part of giving peace of mind to Sapper Lawlis. It is important to note just how close a bond they form in performing the dangerous work that they do.

We have heard the biographies of the two proud ADF members and about their families, so I do not propose to go back over those details. I am proud to note that Sapper Smith commenced his military service in the reserves, though, and went on to the regulars. We do have a wonderful record of people moving in and out of the regulars and reserves and rendering their service, and there have been members from the reserves lost in the conflict in Afghanistan. Their records of service were exemplary and they were doing incredibly important work—and I will come back to that.

I think members on both sides of the House do experience what the costs of these operations are when they attend the ramp ceremonies and the funerals and meet the families of ADF members. Neither side of this chamber runs away from the responsibility and the cost of these conflicts. What has struck me so much in these experiences has been the universal comments that we get from the families—that these members were passionate about their careers, passionate about the Australian Army and the Australian Defence Force and passionate about the work they were doing in Afghanistan, and that they had a firm belief in what they were doing in Afghanistan. The support that the families gave to those members and continue to give in their memory shows that they understand that their passion was for their job, and they understood that commitment, and none of them have resiled from that in the conversations that I have had with them or that they have had with other members of the chamber at those services or in subsequent contact with them. I think that is an important thing to note.

All of the members of the Defence Force that I talk to on a regular basis who are deploying to, coming back from or even redeploying to our theatres of operation in Afghanistan do remain 100 per cent committed. I have not heard a single person voice any concern about that commitment. They do feel that we need to see the job through there. It is an important point to note, I think, because whenever these casualties occur we do re-examine the nature of this conflict and our continuing commitment to it, and it is right that we do so. As we pay this cost, we need to re-examine whether it is worth that cost.

As I mentioned, we have heard in great detail about the character of these two ADF members, and fine members they were. We know that they were from the proud 2nd Combat Engineer Regiment, which has an incredible history itself. Its members having served as field companies through the First and Second World Wars and then gradually evolved into squadrons, they are now a combat engineer regiment. It is the 2nd Combat Engineer Regiment that gave us the Joint Incident Response Unit as well, which helps us to respond to incidents of chemical, biological or radiological threat.

The work of our engineers is quite diverse, and people need to know, I think, just how incredibly professional you have to be to follow a career as an engineer—a combat engineer in particular. These are people who do incredibly difficult, dangerous, strenuous and risky work, and the training leading up to this is also incredibly risky, strenuous and dangerous. Their main roles of course are to provide mobility and clear the way for the Australian Defence Force; to deny mobility to the enemy; to prepare field fortifications; to assault enemy field fortifications; and to deal with the modern risks emerging from chemical, biological and radiological threats. So they do perform incredible work. It requires nerves of steel to do some of the tasks that they do. In particular, this explosives detection work with dogs clears the way for their colleagues and clears the way for the civilians in Afghanistan and other people and agencies performing such great work there.

I guess people recently have had access to some of the nature of the work that is involved in dealing with these insidious improvised explosive devices through the portrayal in the film The Hurt Locker. But it is as well to note that that film portrays those who deal with devices that have already been discovered, and that the work of these sappers is to actually go out there to find those devices. That is incredibly strenuous and dangerous work.

Our 2CER, and engineer personnel generally that have served in Afghanistan as part of the engineering task unit in the 1st Mentoring Task Force, perform a number of tasks. It is important that we note those tasks. As part of the overall mobility and survivability support, they do route clearance; predominantly, as we have seen, in the case of this explosive ordnance, they search for and detect but also dispose of these devices. They also do limited construction tasks including maintenance at patrol bases. They have also been involved in the establishment of the trade-training school in Oruzgan province and provide training as part of that school. Also they are involved in the mentoring of the Afghan National Army’s engineering capability. So they do perform a broad range of tasks that aid both our security mission and also the capacity building in Afghanistan that is so important as the focus of this government’s strategy in Afghanistan.

It is important to note that we do have a strategy in Afghanistan. That strategy is to train the 4th Brigade of the Afghan National Army to a high standard, and then to hand over to that brigade. That will then be the trigger for the withdrawal of our own military component. Obviously, Afghanistan is a long work in progress. It is probably not ever going to look to us like a Jeffersonian or Westminster democracy, but we do need to continue to endure, to work towards an acceptable state of affairs there where we have a reasonable state of rule of law and good governance, and that will take many, many years of engagement on different levels. But our military engagement is pegged, clearly and distinctly, to this strategy of creating the Afghan capacity.

One of the threats, of course, that we face is these improvised explosive devices. They have been an insidious threat which has been indiscriminate and has caused many, many civilian casualties—in fact, more civilian casualties than military. And it is important to note that we have our own Counter Improvised Explosive Devices Task Force, which has done such great work over the years. We will leave no stone unturned in research and development, cooperating with other countries that are dealing with these threats, our allies and close friends, to find ways to counter these devices. We have also learned to use these situations to learn more about the threat elements and the enemy through our weapons technical intelligence teams that analyse these situations in great detail.

The situation in Afghanistan, though, is a complex and difficult one, and it is one that I know gives grave concern to the public. But it is important to stick with this task. We face a threat from these Islamist extremists. I know we have the member for Wentworth here with us today, and he understands this full well and has been very strong in his confrontation of, and support for causes countering, Islamist extremism. If we were not to fight this threat in Afghanistan then we would have to fight it closer to home. We were fighting it closer to home. We were suffering casualties as a result of what was emanating from that ungoverned space in Afghanistan.

The Islamist extremists are like some very virulent, parasitic pestilence that seeks out ailing states or ungoverned spaces to exploit, from which to launch their operations against the West, against democracies, and against the voices of tolerance, reason and moderation, even within their own religion. And it is worth noting that the overwhelming number of casualties of Islamist extremists have, in fact, been Muslims—Muslims that they wage war on, on a daily basis, in places like Kashmir, and in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But we are committed to this task to deny them that safe space—to deny them that ungoverned space in Afghanistan—and we will stick to that task. I know that the Australian steel spirit of sticking to a long-range task which carries some pain and some sacrifice will see us through to that point. We will stick by the international community, which is of a like mind in adhering to this, but we will also leave no stone unturned to try and find methods to better protect our people. In the budget we have committed a further $1 billion to that effort, so further research and development will go on towards looking for protective technologies and protective equipment for our personnel.

Tonight we say goodbye to these two, to Darren and to Jacob. Darren and Jacob understood extremely well the nature of their tasks and what they were contributing to Afghanistan and to our effort there. They have written in their own way very special pages in a proud, proud history of this Australian Army and this Australian Defence Force. Having written those pages, they will long endure in our memories and in the history of this country. I salute their service. I salute their families’ support of and goodwill towards the other members of the unit and the nation’s commitment. The commitment of those families is also something that we should continuously remember. We look forward now also to dealing with the further improvements that we seek to achieve in Afghanistan and to building on the sacrifices that have been made by these wonderful members of our Defence Force.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. AR Bevis)—I understand that it is the wish of honourable members to signify at this stage their respect and sympathy by rising in their places.

Honourable members having stood in their places—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —I thank the Committee.