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Thursday, 17 October 2002
Page: 5405

Senator McGAURAN (3:09 PM) —My question is to the Minister for Defence, Senator Hill. Is the minister aware of calls for the squadron of SAS troops currently operating in Afghanistan as part of the war against terrorism to return to Australia? What steps have been taken to strengthen the ability of the Australian Defence Force to respond to domestic terrorist threats?

Senator HILL (Minister for Defence) —I am aware of that call being made by one member of the House of Representatives in the immediate aftermath of the Bali bombing. I think it is important that the public are reassured that we have the capacity to defend our nation and respond to any terrorist threat within our own borders, even without the SAS troops currently deployed overseas. But, first, I remind the Senate that the very reason our forces are operating so far from home is to confront the threat of terrorism at its source through a coalition of nations deployed to Afghanistan to destroy the infrastructure and training camps of the al-Qaeda terrorist organisation and to remove the Taliban regime that had supported this organisation.

Australia has about 150 special forces troops in Afghanistan, which is a small but highly effective presence. These forces have performed magnificently, and their efforts have justifiably earned the praise of our coalition partners. They continue to do important work as part of the coalition's effort to mop up the remnants of the al-Qaeda network in Afghanistan and try to prevent their members from slipping out of the country undetected. Failure to complete this work will only allow al-Qaeda to re-establish elsewhere and remain a lethal threat to innocent civilians everywhere.

Our presence in Afghanistan, however, does not mean that we have left Australia unprotected, nor does it leave us short if we need to respond to any immediate threat in our region. The ADF has six deployable full-time special forces elements, of which five are in Australia and available for tasking. Two special forces elements are dedicated to specialist counter-terrorism operations. Both are in Australia and are maintained at the highest level of readiness to counter terrorist threats in Australia and abroad. Three special forces elements, one SAS squadron and two commando companies are currently maintained at short notice for contingency and other operational tasking.

This government has also established an incident response regiment to support those forces in Australia and overseas, as well as to provide support to state governments if called upon. It is capable of rendering safe chemical, biological or radiological agents or materials and conducting decontamination and treatment of casualties. The second tactical assault group established by this government doubled the existing counter-terrorism capabilities of the ADF. Defence also maintains a reserve commando regiment that collectively or through individual augmentation can provide special forces capabilities at short notice. Therefore, the Australian public can rest assured that, while we do have forces deployed overseas, the ADF retains a significant special forces capability able to respond to new threats within Australia, our region or further afield.