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Thursday, 21 October 2010
Page: 1096


Mr SNOWDON (Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, Minister for Defence Science and Personnel and Minister for Indigenous Health) (11:17 AM) —I want to thank the member for Bowman for his contribution. I have been in this place for more than 20 years and in the course of that time I have participated in three debates over whether or not Australia should be involved in conflict. The first was in 1991 when we had a debate in this parliament about the Hawke government’s decision to send troops to the Gulf. I was privileged to be involved in the debate and happy to support the government’s position. The second was in 2003 when we debated here in this place whether or not we should be in Iraq. I am happy to say that I opposed that war.

Today, we are debating Afghanistan and whether or not we should withdraw our troops. Let me make it very clear from the outset that I think it is in our national interest that we maintain our mission in Afghanistan until we have completed the job. People who have listened to this debate will have heard the Prime Minister, the Minister for Defence and the Minister for Foreign Affairs outline very comprehensively the rationale for Australia’s ongoing presence in this conflict. It is absolutely imperative and in our national interest that we continue.

It is very important that the people of Australia understand what we are doing here and the privilege that sits in the hands of every member of this parliament to stand up here and debate whether or not we should be involved in this conflict. After all, we live in a democracy which, I think, is the envy of much of the world for our capacity to be able to have these debates in a sensitive and appropriate way without taking to the streets. We need to comprehend how important that is.

When we commit ourselves to an engagement like that in Afghanistan, the Australian government—and I include the Howard government, when it committed our troops to Iraq, against the wishes of many—has a commitment to the Australian Defence Force, to their families and to the nation to see that our soldiers will have everything they need to give them the best chance of success and the support they require when returning home. Importantly, while our defence platforms and assets may be becoming increasingly mechanised, complex and machine oriented, it is the people of the ADF and their exceptional performance that gained the ADF the international reputation and respect for which it is renowned. In the end they are responsible for enduring the tough work of fighting the war, for risking and in some cases, sadly, dying—sacrificing their lives so that we here in Australia can sleep soundly in our beds at night. I have been to Tarin Kowt and met our soldiers on the ground and I continue to be impressed by their professionalism, their bravery and their commitment. Our service men and women are wonderful people who, on our behalf, go out and lay their lives on the line. There can be no doubt that our people are our most vital asset.

It is not difficult to understand the ongoing public debate on our role in Afghanistan. It is clear that many people are asking, ‘Is this our war?’ I think the Prime Minister, the Defence Minister and the Foreign Minister have all laid out the rationale as to why we should be engaged in this conflict and that rationale is comprehensive and logical. It is my judgment, too, that it is in our national interest to continue this mission. In this place we might disagree on policy; however, the people who are fighting this war on our behalf should be left in no doubt that, despite the different views in this place about the appropriateness of their mission, our troops on the ground have our total support in carrying out their tasks.

There should be no doubt about why we are involved in Afghanistan and why we should stay the course. After September 11 we committed to support our ally the United States to pursue al-Qaeda and rout out the terrorists from their safe haven in Afghanistan. This was a course supported by the United Nations, as explained comprehensively by the Minister for Foreign Affairs earlier this morning. As the Prime Minister has said, our mission in Afghanistan is not yet complete; our job is not yet done.

Yet there are positive signs in Afghanistan. International efforts have dealt a serious blow to al-Qaeda and its affiliates in Afghanistan. We are creating a situation where the ordinary Afghan citizen can be confident that the International Security Assistance Force and the Afghan national security forces are making headway. We know that the Taliban suppressed free speech. There are now 400 print media publications, 150 radio stations and 26 television stations in Afghanistan. In the past nine years we have seen more than two million girls enrolled in schools. We have seen basic health care being extended from 10 per cent to 85 per cent of the population. Progress is clearly being made. Our mission is to put the Afghan government in the best position to provide its own security.

But we must remember, as the member for Bowman pointed out, that the world is not perfect. The Afghanistan administration is wanting in areas. There is absolutely no question or doubt that President Karzai and the government must deliver on commitments made at the London conference on Afghanistan held in January this year. Unfortunately, the knowledge that thousands of votes in the recent Afghan election have been disallowed because of questions over their legitimacy will inevitably undermine the confidence of many. Yet while we continue to put the lives of young Australians at risk it is vital that the Afghan government delivers on its promise, roots out corruption and achieves the reforms it has signed up for.

Since the commencement of our operations in Afghanistan, approximately 21,000 Australian Defence Force members have been deployed in support of operations in Afghanistan. Many have now undertaken multiple deployments in support of these operations. Sadly, 10 members of the ADF have been killed in action in Afghanistan this year. Over the life of the conflict, 21 ADF members have been killed in action in Afghanistan—such a sacrifice made on behalf of our nation. I know that every combat death is felt by all Australians, but particularly by the Defence Force family. I recently visited 1 Brigade at Robertson Barracks in the Northern Territory, where I was welcomed by Brigadier Gus McLachlan and his team. 1 Brigade is currently generating forces to support operations in the Middle East and East Timor. A key priority of 1 Brigade, and indeed of the rest of the ADF, is the support it provides to families whilst ADF members are on operations. In addition to the support provided by units, the Defence Community Organisation provides a wide range of support services to the families of members to help them cope with the demands of the military lifestyle.

Supporting the recovery and rehabilitation of wounded personnel is a very high priority for this government. As a result of our election commitment, we will invest $21.2 million over four years to enhance rehabilitation and recovery services as part of the new Simpson assistance program. This program, while in the very early planning stages, will look at the feasibility of setting up a rehabilitation centre of excellence using similar systems and programs used by our military allies. The focus of this centre will be the provision of holistic rehabilitation care and support for ADF personnel and their families in an environment tailored and suited to the young, active adult workforce. The program builds on the current support services, which include providing families with advice on how best to support their loved ones and linking them with the most appropriate services. Sadly, in previous generations a lack of understanding by the entire community meant that many veterans who required treatment for mental health conditions often did not receive assistance or the understanding that was required. In recent decades, this situation has, thankfully, changed, and there have been dramatic improvements. There is now comprehensive provision of mental health support services, but there is still more work to do.

The government is aware that physical injuries are not the only type of injuries that may occur as a result of a deployment. We are focused on understanding and supporting those with mental health issues. In partnership with the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and the Department of Defence, the Centre for Military Veterans Health has been commissioned to undertake a series of studies to assist in identifying potential health impacts of deployment. We also have a rigorous process to ensure that we monitor the mental health of those we deploy. I would have thought that these things would be self-evident. They are things we must do.

Another area for which I have some responsibility and which plays a crucial role in improving protection, saving lives and reducing injuries for Australian troops and equipment and operations in Afghanistan is science and technology. I will ensure as far as I can that support to ADF operations in Afghanistan remains the highest priority for the Defence Science and Technology Organisation. DSTO supports military operations by providing direct technical advice, technology insertion and operational analysis support to the ADF in-theatre. Many of the measures announced as part of the force protection review involved the rapid introduction of new technology to assist Australian forces in Afghanistan. In particular, DSTO has been deeply involved across the spectrum of counterimprovised explosive device initiatives. DSTO has also enhanced its support to operations by establishing a science and technology fly-away team that Defence Force commanders call on. DSTO scientists are available to provide the Defence Force with expert advice and assistance in introducing a new technology or assisting in the conduct of field trials both in Australia and in Afghanistan.

In the past 12 months, DSTO has deployed seven fly-away teams that have addressed a range of critical issues to support commanders in the field. Providing force protection and scientific support to the men and women of the Defence Force who are deployed in operations is a critical element of our approach to Afghanistan, and I am extremely proud of our defence scientists and the leading-edge scientific support they provide to our troops in the field. Australians rightly hold our servicemen in the highest regard, and I share that high regard. In the finest traditions of those who fought in previous conflicts, today’s veterans have a reputation for tenacity, courage and spirit. Recent losses, though, remind us all of the terrible price that comes with such a reputation. In our grief we must not forget the profound responsibility for caring for those who remain.

The face of the Australian veteran is changing. The high operational tempo in Iraq and Afghanistan has resulted in service men and women as young as 21 needing the support of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. Our veterans are increasingly fathers and mothers of young children. They are sons, daughters, sisters, brothers and friends. The Department of Veterans’ Affairs currently supports almost 1,500 veterans with disabilities sustained in Iraq and Afghanistan. Almost 1,300 of these men and women are under the age of 50. Almost 30 children of those who have died in Afghanistan or Iraq in recent years are now assisted by the government, along with 20 widows.

This is the face of war. It is imperative that measures are in place for a lifetime of support. It is an obligation the nation owes to this community. To that end, we are working hard to ensure that the delivery of services to those who are serving or have recently completed service is as seamless as possible across government. We are reviewing existing programs for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder and working hard to support those at risk. Mental health issues often arise some time after a potentially traumatic event. The government is investing heavily in reducing stigma and delivering self-help. Early intervention is a key focus. Our objective is to give those injured in service the best outcome available—rehabilitation to return to active service or, if they are separating from the forces, transition to a quality and healthy civilian life. We need to make better use of the opportunities that technology provides, be more responsive to individual needs and ensure fast and fair decisions with benefits and support delivered in a timely manner.

It goes without doubt that I, along with every member of this House, have a great respect for all of Australia’s veteran community—for what they have endured for the service of this country, for the price their families pay and for the impact of their experiences on their health. I see the impact on individuals and families of our involvement in Afghanistan. That is why this debate is so important. We need to understand the human impact of what we are doing. Our mission in Afghanistan is critical to our national security. There are others in this place who have different views on our commitment. I respect their views, but I do not agree with them. I take comfort from the fact, as I said earlier, that in our country such disagreements are conducted here in this place. We have a responsibility to ensure the best possible support for those who need it as part of their service. We are obligated to provide it. We also have a responsibility to stay the course in this important mission. We need to see this job through.