MINISTERIAL STATEMENTS – AFGHANISTAN
October 27, 2010
Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (4.42 pm) — I would like to begin by commending the member for Maribyrnong on his contribution as one of the most thoughtful and, I believe, heartfelt contributions we have heard in this debate. I would also like to begin my contribution, like so many others in this place, by recognising the 1,550 Australian men and women currently serving in Afghanistan. There is no greater service than to put on the uniform of your country and be prepared to put yourself in harm’s way. We must respect them for the service they provide for our community.
I grew up in Sale and my electorate now includes the community of Sale, which is home to the East Sale RAAF base. I have met a lot of people over the years who have served or are continuing to serve in uniform. I believe they are the true patriots of our nation. Their willingness to put themselves at personal risk for a greater cause is something that I have always admired. It is dangerous and difficult work and I would like to commend the men and women in our forces for their bravery and for the compassion that the Australian service personnel are renowned for in the field. I wish them all a safe return at the completion of their mission. To their families, friends and loved ones: my thoughts are with you at this extraordinarily difficult time in your lives.
I think it is fair to say that the thoughts of all members of the House are with the families as they await the safe return of their loved ones. Naturally, my thoughts and prayers are also with the family and friends of the 21 men who have lost their lives in this conflict. It is a terrible price to pay, and our nation is forever indebted to the men for that service. The honour roll in the War Memorial just down the road from here in Parliament House tells the tale of the thousands of young lives that have been lost in conflict in the relatively short history of our nation. That human capital that has been lost from our nation gives one pause to think exactly what those people could have achieved had they have been able to return to our nation and reach old age. What great achievements and discoveries might their lives have led to? The loss of human capital is one of the things I often reflect on when we have such young and brave people put in harm’s way. So we honour their memory and we must never forget their service.
It is also critical, whatever happens in this debate over the days, weeks and months ahead, that there be no condemnation of or any sense of alienation for the men and women who are currently serving in Afghanistan. Our nation made that mistake once in the past, as we have just heard from the member for Maribyrnong, in relation to the conflict in Vietnam. We made that mistake once in the past; it must never be repeated. The men and women on the front line have my enduring respect and they must be supported when they return. I take up the contribution from the member for Maribyrnong where he rightly raised concerns about the support for the troops on their return. Like him, I want to be able to look the soldiers in the eye and know that we supported them while they were in Afghanistan and also for them to know that we will support them as they readjust to peacetime, and also support their families. The promises that are made in this place and the fine words that have been spoken must result in deeds in our community.
I believe that the conflict in Afghanistan, although it has divided public opinion, has great support in our wider community and there is an acknowledgment of the tremendous service of our personnel. I want to reflect briefly on a lady in my own community who contacted my office in the wake of the deaths of two soldiers, Sappers Darren Smith and Jacob Moreland, in June this year. Jean Hey has two children serving in the Army herself. She wanted, as a mark of respect, to show their families that people cared beyond their immediate circle of family and friends. She initiated in our local community a campaign called ‘Leave a light on.’ The idea was to leave a porch light on until the soldiers were repatriated home. We hope that we do not have to do that again, but the Prime Minister has obviously made it very clear to us in her address to the nation that we are there for the long haul and we can expect more casualties. I believe that is something symbolic we can all do for our soldiers if we do have more casualties—leave a light on until the soldiers are repatriated back to our homeland. I congratulate Jean Hey in South Gippsland for that initiative.
This is an emotionally charged debate, and I agree that it is long overdue. We as members of parliament do owe it to the Australian people to explain our position on this particular issue and also to explain our role in Afghanistan and to publicly state our views. I welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment that there will be regular updates. I think she said there would be an annual update. I would suggest that a more frequent update may be appropriate. Perhaps every three to six months would keep the Australian public better informed.
I believe that over the past decade we have failed to make the case in a public sense, and I am not surprised that opinion polls reflect a waning of support in the wider community, particularly in the aftermath of any casualties. As much as it is an emotional debate, it is also a very complex debate and there are no simple answers. The decision for us to engage in armed conflict must always be taken with the utmost seriousness and after consideration of all the alternatives. I believe that was the case on this occasion. On balance, I am convinced that its involvement in Afghanistan was an appropriate step by the Australian government. It is an issue that I have thought very deeply about. I have no hesitation in telling the House that from time to time I have had some grave doubts and some serious reservations about our role in Afghanistan. With each death—like most MPs, I would think—I have asked myself, ‘Why? Why are we there and what are we achieving?’ I think that is only fair in the circumstances.
Like many others in this place, I have been moved to tears when our party leaders have spoken about lives lost in Afghanistan and the House has stood to attention as a mark of respect. It is for that reason that I must express my extreme dismay at one section of the contribution made in this debate by the member for Denison. I believe that the member made a very valuable contribution. He expressed a view which is contrary to many others and he expressed it with passion and all the energy he could muster. He was right to ask questions. He was right to raise his concerns and he was right to come to his own conclusions and forcefully argue that case. But his reference to other MPs sacrificing their souls for their party’s political self-interest was an appalling slight. It was the wrong thing to do and I am offended, and the House should be offended. We can argue our positions with all the determination we like, but we must demonstrate respect for each other. The member for Denison has been in this place for about five minutes and his lecturing and hectoring of others is unwarranted, unfounded and beneath contempt. He should apologise to all members at the first available opportunity.
The first member he should apologise to is the member for Eden-Monaro. In his contribution to the debate, Dr Kelly gave some insights from a man whose courage has actually been tested under fire. Dr Kelly told of watching men die in conflict, of losing friends and of washing their blood from his uniform. I say to the member for Denison: do not come in here and lecture other MPs about sacrificing their souls. Show us the respect that we have shown you.
Dr Kelly also referred to the contribution that previous generations of Australians have made on battlefields throughout the world, and I would like to quote from his speech:
Those generations did not succumb, they did not shirk; they kept faith with those who were asked and who volunteered to assume the greatest risks, and they did their bit to support the national effort. We venerate their fortitude and salute their service. But are we worthy of them? Are we made of the same stuff? Are we prepared to carry the torch they have passed to us with the same courage? This generation is facing tests that are forcing us to ask these questions. One of these tests is the threat of Islamist extremism.
I agree with Dr Kelly that this is a test of our resilience and our fortitude in the face of extremism. It has been said many times that the world changed on September 11. Of that there is no doubt. It has also been said many times that the atrocities committed in Afghanistan by the Taliban are many and the treatment of women in particular is appalling and oppressive. I note the presence of the Minister for the Status of Women in the House. Having made the decision to participate as part of an international community effort which has been sanctioned by the UN Security Council, we have an obligation to the Afghan people to finish the job that has been started. I do not believe that now is the time to cut and run. That is exactly what the Taliban would be hoping for.
The Minister for Foreign Affairs also made a valuable contribution to the debate when he referred to the risk of terrorism attacks. I want to quote from that speech. He said:
The truth is that our continued operations in Afghanistan against the Taliban to deny the return of al-Qaeda and its allies to Afghanistan, combined with coordinated counterterrorism operations around the world, have helped in preventing a repetition of a series of large-scale September 11 type attacks. Of course there have been many near misses—in fact, many more than the general public is ever likely to know about. The problem is that the success of an effective counterterrorism strategy is much harder to recognise than its failure.
I raise those points because we just simply cannot assume that the risk of terrorism has passed and that there are so many people working around the world to remain vigilant to protect innocent people. Preventing Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for terrorist training is another important consideration in this debate.
It is for all these reasons, and because of the fact that it is in Australia’s best interests to maintain and enhance its alliance with America, that I support our current involvement in Afghanistan. A strong alliance with the US is fundamental to Australia’s national security. While that should never be used or be seen as a blanket excuse to follow the US into battle, it is an important consideration in the context of the debate.
I would caution that just because I am convinced in this case about Australia’s continued involvement, that does not mean I am necessarily comfortable with our role. I suspect that like many Australians I would rather see our service men and women back on our shores as soon as possible, as soon as their mission objectives will allow. In a perfect world there would be no reason to take up arms in this manner, but in a perfect world Australians would not have been murdered in terrorist attacks. I can only imagine the worry and the uncertainty in the many thousands of homes throughout Australia who have loved ones currently serving in Afghanistan. I believe it is important for us to have this debate and it is important for our armed forces and their families to know that their mission has the overwhelming support of members in this place. As I said, I respect the members with differing views, but I think the overwhelming majority of members in this place have stated on the record their support for our current involvement in Afghanistan. I believe it is important for the armed forces, for the personnel on the ground, but also for their families and friends in the wider community.
I think it is also important that the government continues to keep informing the Australian public as the mission develops. As I mentioned previously, it is the one area where I believe we have let our community down. We have not been able to make the case in a way which is clear and concise so that people understand the mission, what our objectives are and what can be achieved by our work on the ground. This is not just about fighting. It is also about the work that is going on in the community to try and assist the Afghan people to govern in their own right in the future.
Having said all of that, it is hard to know what winning looks like in this conflict. We have to be realistic and acknowledge that Afghanistan is not going to achieve a model society at any stage in the near future, perhaps not in my lifetime, perhaps not in my children’s lifetime. It is widely accepted that the military can only do so much and that the war can only be won by the Afghan people themselves. We are effectively, I believe, buying more time for them to get their own house in order. It is inevitable that there will need to be a negotiated outcome, but it is far better for the moderates to be negotiating from a position of strength. I fear that leaving now will not give Afghanistan the best chance to achieve a peaceful, respectful, tolerant and modern society.
To our service men and women I can only say: the majority of members in this place clearly believe you are doing a difficult and dangerous job to the absolute best of your ability, and we are committed to supporting you in that role. You are there to help innocent people. You are there to protect us from those who would do us harm. Your government is indebted to you and I believe that we as individual members of parliament are also indebted to you. Our nation’s heart aches for your return.