Speech on Motion: Appreciation of Troops in Afghanistan

26 May 2014

Dr CHALMERS (Rankin) (12:48):  I agree with every word of your motion on Defence Force personnel, Acting Deputy Speaker Griggs. I commend you for moving it and every other speaker for supporting it. At a time when political disagreement is otherwise fierce, I am pleased that when it comes to recognition of our defence forces there can be a display of bipartisanship like this.

There was also a very moving display of bipartisan support when the Prime Minister and the opposition leader stood together in Tarin Kowt late last year to mark our military contribution to the security of that part of Afghanistan. But the enduring image of that day was not of two politicians but of two hands inter-locked: one belonging to the Chief of the Defence Force, the other belonging to the mother of one of the 40 souls lost in Afghanistan since 2001. That image hangs now hangs in many places, including on the wall of the command headquarters for Joint Task Force 633 at the Al Minhad Air Base in the United Arab Emirates, from where Australia oversees its commitment to the Middle East area of operations and its presence in Afghanistan, Qatar, Bahrain and elsewhere throughout that very difficult region.

Every Australian is reared on our history of military heroism, but few get to see the modern incarnation of that commitment at work. That is why I consider myself privileged to have been able to spend a week with our forces in Afghanistan and in the Middle East very recently. I want to take the opportunity to thank the Commander of JTF633, Major General Craig Orme, for this opportunity and the members for Petrie and Boothby and Senator Smith, who accompanied me.

We were struck by two things in particular: the quality of our people and the diversity of the tasks asked of them, from piloting unmanned surveillance planes out of Kandahar airfield, and Hercules transports, to training the Afghan military and police, advising on intelligence matters, providing security, guiding up-armoured SUVs around the streets of Kabul, intercepting billions of dollars’ worth of narcotics on the sea, combating piracy, policing the skies, identifying and defusing ballistics, healing the sick and operating on the wounded, and much more. If there is one message that our men and women in harm's way in Afghanistan wanted us to relay, it is this: despite the transitioning of our mission, we still have hundreds of Australians working to make Afghanistan more secure—a place where little girls can go to school, as the member for Ryan mentioned; where small businesses can thrive, free of intimidation; where violence is an exception rather than a norm of Afghan life; and where the economy is less reliant on aid and drugs and more reliant on the talents and toil of the local people, who have been burdened for too long by conflict and carnage.

Despite progress, there is still a long way to go. When my colleagues and I were in Kandahar, we had a tragic reminder that Afghanistan is still a very dangerous place when we attended a memorial service for five British brothers whose lives were taken in a helicopter incident just before we arrived. In Kabul, we were reminded of the threat still posed by improvised explosive devices, the infamous IEDs, as reports came in of Afghan nationals destroyed by these gutless weapons of Taliban and extremist choice.

A culture of selflessness and sacrifice and the attitude and aptitude that Australians bring to the task over there are all reasons why we are such a sought-after partner in the planning and prosecution of joint efforts. It is not as well known or well appreciated that Australians are embedded into all levels of leadership of ISAF and other coalition bodies, working at the pointy end of our partnerships, respected and revered. In this sense, our contribution to Afghanistan since 2001 sits in a much more expansive context, and we should see our commitment there in that broader foreign policy context as well because, even if the dust were to settle in Afghanistan, challenges would still remain beyond in troubled parts of Pakistan and Iran and throughout pockets of the Middle East and northern Africa.

Our entire nation is better off because of the work that the Australian Defence Force do to secure the lives and livelihoods of others, wherever they are sent. So I thank those I spent time with in Afghanistan, the UAE, Qatar and Bahrain for the opportunity to see them work. As ambassadors for our country in a troubled part of the world, they bring credit to our nation and its people. And, like the 40 souls we have lost and those who have come home with other scars, obvious and not so obvious and which require our ongoing care, the contribution of 30,000 Australians will never be forgotten by the country they serve and have served with such distinction and such honour.


Debate adjourned.