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Tuesday, 7 December 2004
Page: 27

Senator FERGUSON (2:09 PM) —My question is to the Leader of the Government in the Senate and the Minister for Defence, Senator Hill. Would the minister inform the Senate of progress being made in Iraq in the lead-up to next year's democratic elections? How is the Australian Defence Force contributing to this progress? Is the minister aware of any alternative policies?

Senator HILL (Minister for Defence) —I thank Senator Ferguson for his question. I know he, as Chair of the Parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, has a deep interest in these matters. The task of building a new Iraq, politically, economically and socially, after the overthrow of the tyrant Saddam Hussein is enormously complex and challenging. A new political structure, a new system of administration, new instruments for national security—external and internal—and a new economic infrastructure are necessary, and that is just a start. Saddam left little that could be built upon. In so many ways, it has meant building a new nation. The vast majority of the Iraqi people have relished the opportunity for democracy, security, freedom from oppression and economic opportunity. They deserve the support of the international community. They do have the support of the UN Security Council, and many billions of dollars have been internationally pledged to assist with reconstruction.

These tasks would be difficult enough without the opposition of a violent and cruel insurgency determined to defeat these reasonable aspirations of the Iraqi people, an insurgency particularly targeting those Iraqis taking public positions in building the new Iraq—politicians, judges, policemen, government workers and the like—and an insurgency which is also fighting to undermine the 30 January election, that expression of democratic choice, particularly through violent intimidation of the process and participants and through cruelly attacking the families of those Iraqis taking a lead.

Australia is part of a multinational force not only approved by the United Nations Security Council but encouraged by the Security Council to assist the Iraqi people with their task. It is dangerous and difficult work but greatly appreciated by the broader Iraqi community. The Australian contribution is also greatly appreciated by others in the multinational force, particularly those such as the United States, which has committed so much in personnel and funding and has suffered great pain in terms of lives lost and injuries.

The Australian forces continue to be outstanding in their work, whether it is defending our officials, who are so critical to the political process, training the new Iraqi Army, providing health personnel—and our medical team at Balad received many of the wounded, military and civilian, from Fallujah and did a brilliant job—helping air traffic control at Balad, providing air transport including medical evacuation, maritime surveillance and interception and in so many other ways. Not only is their work of the highest professional standard but their good spirited and cooperative approach is appreciated by all. I was pleased last Friday to meet many of them and to convey the appreciation of the government and the Australian people and the best wishes of all of us. I realise that, particularly at Christmas time, this is a tough time for them and their families.

The Iraqi people are determined to press on with their election, despite the dangers and difficulties. I am told some 240 political parties have registered interest. Candidates' lists are being prepared, registration of voters—including Iraqis outside the country—is proceeding, polling booths will be based on the school system and plans for printing the ballot papers are in place. I am told the independent electoral commission is doing a great job.

Lastly, I was asked about alternative policies. Apparently the new opposition defence spokesperson, Mr McClelland—the third in three years—and Mr Rudd are going to discuss these issues over Christmas. I also invite Mr Latham to take up the briefing that has been offered to him. (Time expired)