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Wednesday, 11 December 2013
Page: 1393

Senator CONROY (VictoriaDeputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) (09:47): by leave—I firstly thank the chamber for granting leave for me to speak and I thank Senator Faulkner for filling in. I was chairing a committee upstairs. I start by thanking, as Senator Faulkner has done, Minister Johnston for providing the Senate with this update, his first update as a minister. I appreciate his commitment to keeping the Senate and the Australian public informed on the war in Afghanistan.

Minister Johnston is the seventh defence minister who has overseen our involvement in the war in Afghanistan. The role of Minister for Defence is one of the most solemn responsibilities which any member of our parliament can hold, and never more so than when Australian servicemen and -women are fighting in a war. The minister has inherited a strong legacy of bipartisan support for our deployment in Afghanistan, something which continues today.

Twenty-six thousand, five hundred Australian Defence Force personnel have conducted and supported operations in Afghanistan and the Middle East. They have been wonderful ambassadors for our country and they have made a real and lasting difference to the lives of millions of people across the region. I would like to acknowledge the 40 Australian soldiers who have lost their lives in Afghanistan. Each and every one of them will be remembered by their nation, as they are by their family and friends. I acknowledge their service and their sacrifice. The professionalism and skill of our servicemen and -women across the services does us all proud.

I also want to thank our Defence families. They should never be overlooked when it comes to the ADF's achievements. The sacrifices they make are immense and I acknowledge them today. I was heartened to hear the minister express the government's commitment to looking after our returned troops and their families, including the 261 personnel injured in Afghanistan. As the minister acknowledged, we have made substantial progress in recent years but this important work is never finished. We must continually strive to improve the way we look after ADF members and their families. I am sure the minister knows that he enjoys universal support for this endeavour.

For more than a decade, the ADF and our ISAF partners have been involved in the fight to remove the Taliban government, degrade the military capability of the Taliban and create a stable and secure environment to allow the Afghan government to establish itself. In recent years, the ADF has worked closely with the Afghan National Army to improve their capability so that they can take on the responsibility for protecting their people and their government. In both of these missions, we have been remarkably successful. The Afghans can now field effective combat forces and, while there will no doubt be setbacks in the future, I am confident that our troops have given the Afghans every chance to build a stable and prosperous country.

While there is still much work to do, Afghanistan has improved significantly in recent years. Australian personnel have built or reconstructed schools, hospitals, medical centres and more than 200 kilometres of roads near Oruzgan province. This is part of a reconstruction effort across Afghanistan, which has transformed the country. As the minister mentioned, school enrolments have gone from 1.2 million to 10 million, including 40 per cent of school-aged girls. Life expectancy has gone from 37 in 2000 to 56 now. And much of the important infrastructure is improving, from airports and bridges to internet and mobile phone coverage. So, as announced by the Labor government in March, the time is right for us to transition into a new phase of our mission in Afghanistan. This decision is in line with an agreement in Lisbon in 2010 between ISAF countries and the Afghan government to adopt a conditioned based approach to transition.

But our important work in Afghanistan is not complete. As agreed in Chicago in May 2012, Australia and other ISAF countries will continue to support the Afghan National Army with training and support after the transition period. To support this agreement, Australia will continue to base 400 ADF personnel in Afghanistan after the transition. Seventy of those troops will be based at the Afghan National Army Officer Academy, where they will continue to pass on their professionalism, skill and anti-insurgency knowledge to our Afghan counterparts. This is an important contribution that we can make now and into the future.

Strong and competent leadership of the ANA will ensure that they remain a vital link in the global effort to stamp out militant extremism around the world. It is also important that Australia and our allies continue to support the Afghan-led peace and reconciliation process. This process will be long and complex, but it will be a core component of a lasting peace in Afghanistan.

As the ADF transitions out of Afghanistan, it gives us an opportunity to look to the future. I recently read comments made by General Hurley in his address to the 125th anniversary of the Royal United Services Institute of New South Wales held here, in Parliament House. He stressed the importance of training 'hard' and training 'excellently' when our personnel are not deployed. He noted that, despite not being deployed between 1975 and 1990, we had a defence force that could perform with the best of them when they were called upon to serve in Somalia and Rwanda in the nineties. It is now time for Defence to reset itself and remain vigilant for future challenges. We must always be ready for what is next. I have every faith that the Australian Defence Force has the people, the equipment, the know-how and the spirit to make that happen.

Before I conclude, it is important to reflect on what our deployment in Afghanistan has meant for our alliance with the United States. I believe that our joint deployment in Afghanistan reflects our ongoing commitment to work closely with the United States, to further the interests of democracy, freedom and human rights around the globe. We must ensure that our shared values continue to shape our great friendship—a friendship which has underpinned the stability of our region for decades. The minister was absolutely right to highlight the support provided by the United States to our troops in Afghanistan and the key role that it played in our success. Working side by side with US troops in Afghanistan and across the region has had some very tangible benefits for our service men and women, and it is something I know the ADF is looking to build on in the future.

Again, I thank the minister for taking this opportunity to update the Senate.