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Thursday, 23 September 1999
Page: 10390

Mr LINDSAY —My question is also addressed to the Minister for Defence. With the first week of the Australian Defence Force's deployment to East Timor coming to a close, could the minister inform the House of the progress of Operation Stabilise?

Mr MOORE (Defence) —I would like to thank the member for Lindsay for his question. As the member for his particular seat, he has responsibility for the Lavarack base—

Opposition members —Herbert.

Mr MOORE —I said his seat.

Mr SPEAKER —The minister will not respond to the quite unnecessary interjections.

Mr MOORE —I will rephrase that. I thank the member for Herbert for his contribution in asking the question. He does represent the Lavarack base, which is one of the main contributors to INTERFET—International Force East Timor—that is currently being deployed in East Timor. Therefore, his particular contribution has proved very much welcome.

I am able to inform the House today that we have deployed 2,468 ADF personnel to East Timor and another 987 are serving in ships in the operation. The speed and smoothness of the build-up of these forces, along with the very welcome contributions of our coalition partners, is most heartening. I am particularly pleased to be able to report that the current level of deployment includes 282 personnel from our coalition partners. As I said before, I think the people of Australia should be very proud of the way in which we have been able in three weeks to put together a coalition force, to land them in East Timor and to be operating in that country today.

The situation in East Timor remains very dangerous. We have been tragically reminded of this by the death of a Dutch journalist there in the last couple of days. I want to take this opportunity to convey to journalists and to their editors that East Timor is, and will remain for some time, a very dangerous place. INTERFET cannot provide protection for all individuals who travel to East Timor. Its priority is the safety and security of the people of East Timor themselves. INTERFET is able to provide protection and support for a small number of accredited journalists chosen on a pool basis. Others travel strictly at their own risk. I urge non-accredited journalists, and especially their editors, who should take responsibility for their safety, to stay out of East Timor at this time.

Clearly the scale of the deployment to East Timor is posing a major challenge for the ADF. However, because of the decision we took in February this year to raise the readiness of a second brigade, we have now available to us sufficient forces to deploy and maintain on East Timor a contingent of up to 4,500 personnel for about a year. This includes sufficient forces to allow for rotation of units. The government has been advised by the ADF that they will spend no more than nine months on deployment, and if possible less. These are operational matters, and the government is in very close contact with the leadership of ADF and will naturally act on its advice on these important matters. We are also conscious of the families at home of our troops in East Timor and, within the bounds of the operational requirements, we will try to provide as much certainty to these families as possible in regard to the duration of the deployment.

Our present force will also allow us at the same time to maintain significant forces to deal with other contingencies that may arise and to ensure that we have the forces for critical national tasks such as a counter-terrorism response for the Olympics. That is most important. We hope that within a year the situation in East Timor will have improved to the point that our forces can be withdrawn or at least significantly reduced, and we are certainly working with the United Nations to ensure that this occurs. But the government recognises that there is a possibility that they may need to sustain deployment for longer than that. We are therefore developing plans to provide the extra forces that would be needed to sustain a deployment of 4½ thousand personnel beyond the initial 12 months. That will involve raising the readiness of a number of additional battalions.

The government will be taking decisions in the near future about the ways in which this can be best done to ensure that the preparation of these forces can begin early so they can be as well prepared as those currently there. At present reserves are not required to meet our main personnel needs for the deployment in East Timor, although we will seek reservist volunteers for some specialist areas, such as dental and engineering services, as we have often done in other deployments. We have not yet decided what call there will be on the reserves to help provide the extra battalions we will be preparing to support the longer term commitment. This is one of the issues that will be considered over the next week.

I reject totally the scaremongering of the opposition on this matter. We do have sufficient forces to deploy and maintain a contingent of 4½ thousand in East Timor for at least a year. That includes sufficient forces for rotation of units. The government is working closely with the leadership of the ADF to ensure our deployment to East Timor is adequately resourced. That is the case at the moment and will continue to be the case. The government is committed very much to the forces of the ADF.