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Wednesday, 27 October 2010
Page: 909


Senator WONG (Minister for Finance and Deregulation) (2:22 PM) —I rise to speak in this debate on Afghanistan. Can I first record my thanks to this place, those in the other place and the Prime Minister for this debate. I think it is a worthy debate. It is an important debate that is occurring not just in Australia but also in other robust democracies. There can be no graver decision of a government than to send Australian troops to a war. Once this decision has been made, diligent consideration of our progress and or our objectives should continue. The debate we have been having this fortnight entails the parliament doing precisely that.

We have lost 21 Australians soldiers in Afghanistan, and many more have been injured. These fatalities, these casualties, weigh upon the nation. Our soldiers and deployed Australian personnel face difficult challenges in a dangerous environment in the course of carrying out their duty. We know this. We also know that Afghan civilians have also suffered immense loss. It is an awful thing to hear of any casualty or any fatality from a mission like this. It is awful to hear about the loss of a young soldier’s life and to think about the impact this will have on that person’s family and friends—on children who will grow up without a parent and on parents who farewell a child. It is legitimate for Australians to keep asking questions, to ask: ‘Why are we in Afghanistan? Is this in our national interest? Are there other ways to achieve the same objectives?’ The government believes we must continue our mission in Afghanistan and that it is a mission firmly in our national and broader global interests. Given the gravity of the effects of this conflict, it is however understandable that there are a range of views and that some Australians have voiced concerns about this position.

Australia joined the international mission in Afghanistan following the al-Qaeda attacks on the United States of September 2001. We did so under a UN mandate, which has been renewed many times since, including unanimously by the Security Council in October of this year. Australia also formally invoked the ANZUS treaty after this attack on our longstanding alliance partner the United States. This decision and its international context is critical. Let us recall that this is a mission involving a diverse coalition of 47 nations in the International Security Assistance Force taking place under a UN mandate.

If we want to benefit from international rules and international resolutions renounce terrorism and violent extremism which adversely affect our national security and which mandate international action to combat them, then Australia must play our part. While we need to acknowledge our original reasons for engaging in this conflict, we also know we cannot pretend that we are back at square one, because the debate that is currently occurring is not a theoretical one. It is not an abstract debate. It is not a debate about entering into a conflict in Afghanistan; we are in Afghanistan and we have been there for some time. We must assess in this discussion our ongoing engagement recognising that fact and on that basis. In doing so, we must consider the alternative. Those who oppose Australia’s involvement in this mission may cite the long list of challenges in Afghanistan as a justification to leave, but that is not good enough. We must always consider the alternative and what impact it would have. If we are concerned about security, if we are concerned about governance, if we are concerned about development in Afghanistan, as imperfect as these might be currently, the question is: would they be better served by Australia’s departure?

The coalition mission in Afghanistan aims to enable the Afghan government and people to take responsibility for their security and their economic and social development in a way which does not provide safe haven to terrorists and which reduces the risks of Afghanistan ever doing that again. For Australia, our efforts are focussed on doing this in Oruzgan province. The strategy in Afghanistan is both civilian and military. Australia’s military, civilian and development efforts contribute to this. But we know that the solution in Afghanistan cannot be simply a military one. It also requires an ongoing political solution, with reconciliation between the peoples of Afghanistan. The international community, including Afghanistan’s neighbours, such as Pakistan, have key roles to play in supporting such efforts.

Many have spoken about why this mission is in our national interests. There are three reasons I believe it is in our interests. It is clearly in our national interests to minimise the risks to Australians and to our allies from terrorism, and Afghanistan is an important element in countering the threat of terrorism. We know that Afghanistan remains vulnerable to reverting to being a safe haven for terrorists. The international community’s efforts in Afghanistan are of course not the only activities in the global challenge of countering violent extremism and terrorism. This nation and the international community recognise that this is a major long-term problem on a global scale and it needs to be addressed recognising the scale of that challenge. It is a problem being tackled differently in different locations as circumstances dictate. No-one pretends that a threat as complex as terrorism can be overcome through one conflict or in one country alone. Our strategy in Afghanistan and our policies in relation to counterterrorism acknowledge this fact, because we have an extensive and comprehensive approach to countering terrorism. In Afghanistan the fact remains that Australia and the ISAF coalition’s efforts to support stability and security in that country will help reduce the risk from terrorism more so than would our departure.

The second key national interest for Australia is to stand firm in our alliance with the United States. As others have said, this government, nor this party, have ever regarded this alliance as a blank cheque for our dealings with the United States, but our alliance is a fundamental part of Australia’s national security and of critical strategic importance. It is a legitimate and important element in our consideration of Australia’s continued involvement in the Afghanistan mission.

The third reason is that this mission reflects a broader collective approach to global security that is important for our nation. We are a middle power. We benefit from collective approaches to issues which cannot be managed solely by one country. Whether those issues be climate change, transnational crime, people smuggling or counterterrorism, we understand that any tenable approach to such issues will only come through the countries of the world working together to establish and maintain an international order which does not tolerate these threats and which actively combats them. We have long recognised this and the Australian Labor Party has a proud history of support for multilateralism and for broad international solutions. This is because we recognise it is a key part of Australia’s national security and an important part of Australia’s global role.

The international community is rightly focused on the transition of security responsibilities to the Afghan government as well as supporting a broader political settlement and economic and social development. Clearly, significant security, governance and development challenges remain for us and for the Afghan government and people. We do not, and we must not, underestimate these challenges. There have been important developments. The Afghan National Army is improving its capability and the Afghan government is building its capacity to provide services to its people. The increase in primary education enrolments and the improvement in infant mortality rates and people’s access to infrastructure are encouraging developments in this context.

As I said earlier, no harder decision can be taken than one which calls upon our young men and women to enter the field of war—in particular, those in our armed forces but also those civilians who now put themselves at risk to support political and development progress and objectives in Afghanistan. No-one in this government takes those decisions lightly. We also know we cannot guarantee particular outcomes in this or in any complex and difficult conflict. But what we can demonstrate is that the government will undertake its considerations and take decisions firmly based on the national interest.

I will close with the words of President Obama which were referenced by my colleague in the other place and which I think remind us again about what we are doing and why. He said:

In many countries there is a disconnect between the efforts of those who serve and the ambivalence of the broader public. I understand why war is not popular but I also know this: the belief that peace is desirable is rarely enough to achieve it. Peace requires responsibility. Peace entails sacrifice.