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Monday, 19 March 2012
Page: 3299

Dr JENSEN (Tangney) (17:55): On behalf of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, I present the committee's report entitled Defence Sub-Committee visit to the Middle East Area of Operations: report of the delegation to the MEAO 14 to 18 May 2011.

In accordance with standing order 39(f) the report was made a parliamentary paper.

Dr JENSEN: by leave—On behalf of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, I have pleasure in presenting the report of the committee's delegation to the Middle East Area of Operations.

However, before I speak to this report, firstly let me state how saddened I was to hear of the recent deaths of 16 Afghan civilians, including nine young children. Such loss of innocent life is tragic and unthinkable. Having met Afghan leaders during our delegation's visit, I know how close these small communities are and I express my deepest sympathies for the surviving family and village members at this time. It is my fervent wish that the actions of one person will not undermine the excellent work that has been done to date in enabling Afghan, Australian and other country personnel to work together in the interests of a positive future.

The report I table today presents the findings of the committee's delegation to the Middle East Area of Operations—also called the MEAO—which took place from 14 to 18 May 2011. The delegation consisted of Senator Mark Furner as leader, me, Ms Gai Brodtmann, the member for Canberra, and Mr Stuart Robert, the member for Fadden. We were accompanied by the committee's defence adviser, then Lieutenant-Colonel, now Colonel, Stuart Kenny, CSC.

The aim of the delegation was threefold:

First, to demonstrate the parliament's strong bipartisan support for Australian personnel deployed on these demanding operations;

Second, to meet with key ADF personnel, Australian government agency personnel, and key Afghan leaders in order to review the current situation in Afghanistan; and,

Third, to enable committee members to be better positioned to review Australian defence and foreign policy.

The delegation undertook a comprehensive itinerary which enabled us to visit many of the locations where ADF and other Australian personnel are operating.

The delegation notes that, despite the demanding operational tempo faced by all Australians working in this region, we were warmly received and professionally briefed at each location.

The delegation also had the privilege of attending a Shura with local Afghan leaders and a roundtable with Afghan members of parliament. Of note, this was the first formal meeting between Afghan parliamentarians and an Australian parliamentary delegation.

The delegation concluded the visit optimistic about the prospects for the success of the mission in the MEAO, particularly in Afghanistan. The delegation observed that significant progress has been achieved for the Afghan people as a direct result of operations in this country over the past decade. I would like to mention a few concrete examples of the progress that has been achieved:

First, school enrolment has grown from 900,000 in 2002 to 7.3 million in 2009, with the percentage of girls attending school increasing from virtually nil to 37 per cent over this period;

Second, the number of teachers has increased eightfold from 2002 to 2008, and 29 per cent of teachers are now female;

Third, more than 4,480 schools have been established since 2002 and around 85 per cent of the Afghan people now have a healthcare facility in their local area. This contrasts with only 10 per cent having had a local healthcare facility in 2002;

Fourth, 1.6 million Afghans who now have access to safe drinking water and 130,000 Afghans can now access power;

Fifth, 1,231 kilometres of roads have been constructed, connecting literally hundreds of villages to district centres and markets;

Sixth, 3.7 million employment days have been provided to local skilled and unskilled Afghans during the construction of infrastructure projects; and

Seventh, the country as a whole is becoming less dependent on growing poppies, which now constitutes just five per cent of the legal economy.

Australia has been integral to these improvements, and it is essential we continue this support.

Afghan leaders have expressed concern for the future, particularly during the transition period as Australia and other countries draw down and eventually depart. The impact of this transition on the ability to continue to develop civil capacity and the progress made to date for women were identified as specific concerns by local leaders. These issues will need to be closely managed during the transition period.

Finally, I would like to note the delegation was very impressed by the dedication, pride and professionalism of the Australian personnel in the MEAO, many of whom are working in challenging environmental and social conditions.

I particularly wish to express my thanks to Mr Paul Foley, the Australian Ambassador to Afghanistan; Major General Angus Campbell AM, then the Australian National Commander in the MEAO; Colonel Andrew Maclean, then Chief of Staff, Headquarters Joint Task Force 633; Lieutenant Colonel (now Colonel) Stuart Kenny, then Defence Adviser to the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade; and the personal security detail from 2 Commando Regiment who ensured our safety during the visit.

I commend the report to the House.

I move:

That the House take note of the report.