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Monday, 21 October 2002
Page: 5502

Senator FERGUSON (4:05 PM) —I present the report of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade entitled Visit to Australian forces deployed to the international coalition against terrorism. I seek leave to move a motion in relation to the report.

Leave granted.

Senator FERGUSON —I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

I am delighted to present this report on behalf of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade. Senator Payne and I were the only two senators involved. Senator Payne is currently chairing a session on peacekeeping at the International Conference of Women in Policing, so she will be unable to speak to the report today but intends to at the first possible opportunity in the adjournment debate. The report reports on a visit undertaken in July this year by a delegation of nine members from the committee to the Australian Defence Force personnel deployed on active service in the Middle East and Central Asia as part of Australia's contribution to the international coalition against terrorism. The delegation travelled by Defence Force aircraft and met with personnel deployed at the Australian National Command Element in Kuwait, Royal Australian Navy personnel enforcing UN sanctions against Iraq in the Persian Gulf, Royal Australian Air Force personnel conducting air-to-air refuelling operations from Kyrgyzstan and forces from the Special Air Service regiment conducting operations in Afghanistan.

The visit was part of a wider program of activities being undertaken by the committee to monitor Australia's ongoing commitment to the war on terrorism. Those members fortunate enough to participate in the visit now have a far more comprehensive understanding of the nature and the effectiveness of Australia's commitment than can be achieved by receiving briefings in Parliament House. This report is one of the ways in which we are seeking to make this experience available to a much wider audience. An equally important element of the visit was to demonstrate Australia's strong bipartisan support and the support of the Australian community for the Defence Force personnel deployed on these operations.

We were extremely impressed by the outstanding professionalism and dedication to duty displayed by our servicemen and servicewomen in demanding and at times hostile circumstances. They are performing with great distinction and have earned the respect and admiration of the international forces with whom they are working. All Australians should be immensely proud of their achievements and the contribution they are making to the success of the international coalition against terrorism. In our report, as well as describing the visit, we make a number of observations about Australia's forces commitment to the coalition. It was clear, for example, that each of the force elements deployed is making a highly relevant contribution and is displaying outstanding levels of professionalism and commitment.

The quality of the contribution is demonstrated by the extent to which Australian forces are directly engaged in the planning, conduct and coordination of operations. In Afghanistan, the special forces task group is fully integrated into the coalition effort and provides a niche capability built upon a unique mix of training, skills, tactics, temperament and equipment. In the Persian Gulf not only are our ships operating at a high tempo but also tactical control of the whole Maritime Interception Force is currently being exercised by an Australian commander and his staff. In Kyrgyzstan, the RAAF crew and ground crews were, until their recent return to Australia, achieving remarkably high levels of aircraft serviceability and mission success. In addition, an Australian officer was intimately involved in operational planning and coordination as the coalition air operations officer.

We were also interested to learn more about the complex command and control arrangements in place for the ADF contribution to the coalition. Although not implying that there are significant failings in the command structure, we have concluded that elements of the existing structure warrant careful consideration. We will, through our Defence Subcommittee, further examine the effectiveness of these arrangements and any other arrangements developed for similar deployments in the future. One matter on which we have made recommendations is the issuing of awards to deployed personnel to recognise their service. Our first recommendation is that the government and the Department of Defence take concerted action to overcome the evident delays in issuing the Australian active service medal to those personnel entitled to receive it. Ideally, this medal should be awarded immediately upon the completion of a tour of duty. A second recommendation is that, given the warlike nature of this deployment, the Minister for Defence should consider issuing an Australian campaign medal to those Australian Defence Force personnel who have served in operations in support of the international coalition.

There is no doubt that the international coalition's current operational tempo has diminished, especially in Afghanistan. It is widely accepted that the initial phase of the operation has passed and that the priority now is to help the Afghan government establish effective control within its territory. The recent return of the RAAF deployment and the public debate about the possible recall of the special forces contingent are evidence of a new phase of operations. It may, however, be premature to expect the imminent return of all Australian deployed forces. Continued vigilance is required in Afghanistan to prevent al-Qaeda and Taliban forces from regrouping before the Afghan government is able to exert security control. Moreover, the work of the Maritime Interception Force in the Persian Gulf seems unlikely to wind down in view of ongoing debates in the United Nations about the enforcement of UN resolutions against Iraq.

Of course, the terrible bombing in Bali reminds us all that the fight against terrorism is far from over. Whatever the future holds, the delegation's visit was a remarkable opportunity to meet with the soldiers, sailors, airmen and airwomen of all ranks involved in the war on terrorism, to better understand the nature of the operations in which they are engaged and to appreciate the circumstances and environments in which they are operating. The war on terrorism is a just cause and every Australian serving in support of the international coalition does so with the goodwill, gratitude and absolute support of the Australian community.

In conclusion, I would like to acknowledge some of the ADF personnel who made our visit such a success: Brigadier Gary Bornholt, the commander of the Australian national contingent, who hosted our visit and was on hand throughout the visit to provide us with expert advice; Commander Mike Noonan, from the Royal Australian Navy, the brigadier's chief of staff, who played a central role in developing and delivering the visit program; Squadron Leader Paul Baskin and his colleagues at Headquarters, Australian Theatre, who helped to coordinate the program from the Australian end; and, last but not least, Lieutenant Colonel Roger Noble, the committee's defence adviser, whose advice and assistance from beginning to end was invaluable, and we certainly appreciate the ongoing assistance that we receive from Lieutenant Colonel Roger Noble. Thank you to all of the abovementioned and also to the men and women of the ADF who received us warmly and briefed us professionally at every location, notwithstanding the fact that they were in the midst of a heavy operational schedule.

I would also like to place on record our appreciation for the secretary of the committee, Grant Harrison, who came with us on that visit and who was responsible, together with Lieutenant Colonel Noble, for putting together a program in a very short time, and we thank them for the work they did and the professional manner in which they conducted themselves. Particularly to Grant Harrison and the staff of the secretariat, we owe an ongoing thanks for not only the professional way in which they arranged for this visit to take place but also for their ongoing work in other aspects on the war on terrorism.

We visited the Middle East at a time when climatic conditions were at their worst. Every day we were in Kuwait it was over 53 degrees. We had tremendously high temperatures out on the Gulf during our nights on the Arunta and the Melbourne. The temperatures were not much cooler in Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan. To see the conditions that our troops are working under during their rotation staggers us both in the manner in which they are conducting their day-to-day work in the heat and in the fact that they are so professional in everything that they have done. They are very highly regarded by other international forces, particularly by the joint commander of operations, Lieutenant General Dan McNeil from the United States Army. We had a meeting with him and he spoke to us of the high regard in which he held our SAS troops, who are currently serving in Afghanistan. This was a very worthwhile visit and one of the most valuable delegations that I have ever been on in my 10 years in this parliament. I commend the report.