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Wednesday, 2 November 2011
Page: 12652

Mr FITZGIBBON (HunterChief Government Whip) (17:44): I rise to join the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and all those who have contributed and will contribute to this very solemn and important condolence motion in memory of Corporal Ashley Birt, Captain Bryce Duffy and Lance Corporal Luke Gavin, all of whom died while on operation in Afghanistan on 29 October this year. Along with them, seven Australian soldiers were wounded, some very seriously.

This was Captain Bryce Duffy's second deployment to Afghanistan with the Mentoring Task Force. He also served on Operation Yasi Assist earlier this year. He was a Townsville based officer of the 4th Field Regiment, Royal Australian Artillery. Captain Duffy is survived by his wife, his mother and the broader family.

Corporal Ashley Birt was on his first deployment to Afghanistan. He had previously served in the Solomon Islands and was part of Operation Queensland Flood Assist in January of this year. Nambour born and Brisbane based, Corporal Birt is survived by his parents and brother.

Lance Corporal Luke Gavin served three tours in East Timor and was on his first deployment to Afghanistan. He was a skilled soldier and a valued member of his unit, 2nd Battalion, RAR, based in Townsville. Lance Corporal Gavin put duty first. He is survived by his wife and, very sadly and tragically, their three children.

These three soldiers and those who were wounded with them have many things in common, including bravery, courage, absolute commitment, selflessness—you name it. They were putting their lives on the line for their country. Another thing they have in common is that they are all volunteers. All the men and women of the Australian Defence Force give themselves voluntarily. They serve in active duty voluntarily. Another thing they would all have in common, I am sure, is a total belief in what they were doing in Afghanistan. That was certainly my experience as Minister for Defence. I am sure they all understood the risks involved in what they were doing and were more than prepared to run those risks. I suspect that also applies to their families. From my experience—and I do not know their families; I am making an assumption—I think it is fair to assume that their families understood that they were doing what they wanted to do. These soldiers would have had the full support of their families, as anxious as their families would have been as a result of their deployment to Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is a dangerous place. It is a dangerous mission, but we are there for good reason. We are prepared to play our role in a safer, more secure global community. They are there to protect Australians. There is a direct link between the capacity of jihadists to train and launch their ills from Afghanistan and the safety of Australians—there is no doubt about that. I was the defence minister when we reconfigured our operations there and established the Mentoring Task Force. Journalists immediately asked whether this would be more dangerous. I had no hesitation in being transparent and saying yes, it would be. It would be more dangerous because people would be out in the field patrolling alongside members of the Afghan National Army with little experience and training. The other risk, of course, was that we were sending our people to train alongside people we did not know all that well, people who may or may not have the same commitment as our own boys to the task at hand. While the first risk was a fairly obvious one, we are now, sadly, fully aware of the second risk. This is not the first occasion on which we have lost a soldier to a rogue member of the Afghan National Army. I experienced this myself when I travelled to a forward operating based in Afghanistan—I will not name the base. I very courteously asked the head of my personal security detachment whether I could remove my vest, given we were in the relative safety and security of the forward operating base. He reluctantly agreed—of course, I would not have done so if he had not agreed, because I was his responsibility—but not 10 minutes later he asked me to put the vest back on and pulled me aside to what he obviously thought was a safer place. It was not until later I learned that one of the Afghan National Army soldiers had threatened my life. It was not a distressing experience for me because I did not even know it had happened and I did not know what the soldier's intention was. Maybe it was benign and he was big-noting himself; maybe he was on drugs and had lost his composure—I do not know—but from that moment I fully understood the potential risk for our troops. Again, they understand that but they also fully appreciate now more than ever the possibility that one of those whom they serve beside is not loyal to them or to the task.

I cannot imagine how difficult that is. I cannot imagine what it is like to go out on patrol alongside soldiers who are supposedly on your side but who may at any time turn against you. That is one of the things we should be dwelling on this evening and throughout the course of this debate, because I am sure it is playing heavily on their minds. On that basis, our appreciation for what they are doing as volunteers should rise even higher, given the circumstances they face in Afghanistan.

Again, we are grateful to them for what they did and we are grateful to their fellow soldiers for what they continue to do in those very difficult circumstances. This is not the time to breach the trust and commitment they are giving us by bringing into question the worth of the mission there. I have made the connection between their work and our own national security—there is a very real one. We cannot blink. As difficult as it is we must stay the course and finish the job. We must remain there until the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police are in a position to maintain their own security so that, in partnership with the international community, we can get on with building a democracy, building a legal system, therefore building a rule of law and building an economy.

What will really fix Afghanistan in the end is an economy capable of producing the sort of growth we need to bring the Afghan people out of the 16th century and eventually into the 21st century. It is achievable. It is possible for the Afghan security forces to develop to the point where they are capable of taking care of their own security. It will take time and we must give that time. All of us in this place must at every opportunity reassure our boys there, and of course the female soldiers playing an important role in Afghanistan, that we are 100 per cent behind them. Again, I could not imagine going out on patrol next to ANA soldiers, taking all those risks and wondering whether it is going to be all for nil because, at some point, the politicians back in Canberra are going to give up and bring people home before the job is done. That is certainly not what the boys want to hear and it is certainly not the message we should be sending them. The only message we should be sending them is that we will do everything in our power to ensure that the 32 Australians who have given their lives in Afghanistan have not given their lives in vain. Lest we forget.