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Thursday, 24 June 2010
Page: 6695

Mr FITZGIBBON (11:21 AM) —Madam Deputy Speaker Vale, I think it is very appropriate that you be in the chair at this time, given your previous roles in this place, your deep-seated interest in our military history and of course your support for the men and women of the Australian Defence Force. I know that you feel very keenly these very emotional debates.

The member for Paterson, at some length and in some detail, provided us with information about the three soldiers we pay tribute to this morning, so I will not go over that again. I apologise in advance, though, if I am a little bit repetitive, because, sadly and tragically, we were in this chamber only two days ago paying tribute to Sappers Moerland and Smith, and in many ways the issues we confront today are much the same.

I begin by extending my sympathy to the families of Private Tim Aplin, Private Ben Chuck and Private Scott Palmer. To all of their family members, to all of their friends, to all of their ADF colleagues, I say how sorry I am, as I am sure we all are, that they are no longer with us. They are no longer with us because they, like many who have gone before them, were prepared to give their lives in service to their nation. I knew none of these three fine soldiers, but there is an extraordinary level of consistency in these matters, and I do not need to have known them to know that they were highly skilled, courageous and dedicated. Just as importantly, they knew what they were doing, they knew the risks and they believed in what they were doing.

As I said two days ago, I hope that their family and friends draw some strength from that fact—that they really believed in what they were doing. As a former defence minister I have been to many repatriations and funerals for soldiers who have fallen in operations, and again it is very consistent that the family members do draw strength, I have found, from the fact that their boys knew the risks and believed in what they were doing. That is absolutely the case with respect to the three soldiers we pay tribute to and whom we thank this morning.

We have now lost 16 fine Australians in Afghanistan—17, if you include Rifleman Nash, a western suburbs boy who was serving with the UK force in Afghanistan. I think we should include him in that list. He was fighting for the same cause, albeit in a different uniform, and with the same dedication and the same courageous approach. I want to read their names into the record again, because I think we should do that regularly to ensure that these people are not forgotten. They are: Sergeant Andrew Russell, Trooper David ‘Poppy’ Pearce, Sergeant Matthew ‘Matty’ Locke, Private Luke Worsely, Lance Corporal Jason Marks, Signaller Shaun McCarthy, Lieutenant Michael Fussell, Private Gregory Sher, Corporal Matthew Hopkins, Sergeant Brett Till, Private Benjamin Ranaudo, Sapper Jacob Moerland, Sapper Darren Smith and, of course, again today, Private Aplin, Private Chuck and Private Palmer.

Afghanistan is a very, very dangerous place. The campaign we are part of there is a very challenging one. I said two days ago that, unfortunately, the longer we are there, the more people we lose and the more people who are injured—and I also refer to those who were injured in the same helicopter crash that took out these three fine soldiers—the harder it will be to maintain the support of the Australian electorate for this campaign. Again, I make an appeal to the broader Australian electorate to understand, first of all, that we are there for good reason. We are there to stabilise a country which previously provided a safe haven, a breeding ground and a launching pad for terrorists prepared to perpetrate their acts of terror right around the globe, including on our doorstep and even on our own homeland. It is a very, very important thing to play our role in ensuring that people are able to travel freely around the globe and enjoy a safe lifestyle in their own homeland without threat or any question about their freedom. That is why we are there.

How do we achieve that? We achieve that by ensuring that the democratically elected government of Afghanistan has the capacity to take care of its own security and therefore deny groups like al-Qaeda the opportunity to once again use their own country to launch those vicious terrorist attacks around the globe. We do so by building up their security forces—both their defence force and their police forces—helping them build an economy, helping them build a system of governance and assisting them in establishing a justice system. These are important initiatives. We are only a relatively small part of the global effort to achieve those aims but we play an important part.

It is important that we continue to make a contribution, not just because of what our contribution provides on the ground—and it is a significant one; we are certainly punching above our weight—but also because it is important to send a signal that the international community is working together in a common cause against a common foe and that it is not a conflict between the United States of America and one particular fundamentalist group, or one particular country, even. It is an international effort, and we are standing together and cooperating together to achieve those aims. That is a very, very important message to both those who we confront in Afghanistan and the global community more generally.

Of course, there are other implications. Afghanistan has implications for countries like Pakistan in particular, a nuclear capable state, a state so critical to maintaining stability in that part of the region. But there is another point. Imagine a precipitate withdrawal from Afghanistan now, after nine years of operations. Can you imagine the humanitarian disaster which would flow from that precipitate withdrawal, as retribution was sought against all those who have sided with the international security forces? It would probably be a humanitarian disaster on a scale we have not seen before. Again, of course, that has implications for countries like Pakistan, which was the destination for so many refugees who fled war-torn Afghanistan in the early to mid-eighties, and countries like Australia, which will undoubtedly be a destination for those who again flee the acts of terror perpetrated by fundamentalist groups like the Taliban and indeed others. These are very, very good reasons to stay the course.

Today we saw a momentous event in Parliament House. We saw a change of Prime Minister. We will be reading about it for some days, weeks and indeed months ahead. I cannot speak on behalf of the new Prime Minister. She will speak for herself. I speak merely as a humble backbencher, but I am confident that the government’s policy will not change on Afghanistan. I am confident that our commitment to Afghanistan will remain in place. Indeed, I would urge the new Prime Minister to ensure that we continue to maintain our commitment. It is not an open-ended commitment. The government have made it clear that we have a clearly defined mission, and that is to train the 4th Brigade of the Afghan National Army in Oruzgan province up to a capacity where it is able to play its important role in enforcing and maintaining local peace and security. While our Mentoring Task Force is doing so, our Special Forces soldiers continue to clear and deny the worst of the enemy. But we do have an end goal, and that is it. I remind the Australian people that the government under Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has clearly defined the mission now and has provided an end point for the mission, and I ask them to be very, very patient with us.

I remind that House that the three brave Australian soldiers we pay tribute to today were not conscripts; they were volunteers, highly professional soldiers, highly trained, highly skilled, highly committed and highly determined to do their bit for their country. They believed in what they were doing, and we as an international community should also believe in what they were doing and what those who are still serving in Afghanistan and other operations are doing. I will say it again: the most effective way in which we can express our appreciation to them and indeed support their families—I should be careful not to generalise on that, but I believe it would be a general view amongst the families and friends—is to stay the course and finish the job. Their families and friends would not want their sacrifice to have been in vain.

I know it is hard because from time to time decisions come out of Brussels and Kabul which leave us somewhat bewildered. There are countries in the partnership that from time to time do not seem to be pulling their weight, but that is no reason not to continue on that very important mission. Having said that, it is incumbent on the government to continually reassess the mission to ensure that success is achievable and of course to ensure that in those global councils, whether they be in Washington, Brussels or Kabul, the right decisions are being made and a strategy is in place to deliver the key objectives we seek to achieve.

Again, I pay tribute to Privates Tim Aplin, Ben Chuck and Scott Palmer and extend my sympathies to their families and friends. Having made a contribution now to two of these condolence motions in one week, I dearly hope that this will be my last.