Wednesday, 27 October 2010
The debate about Afghanistan, to me, seems in a lot of ways to be a situation where members of parliament, whichever side they might be on, need to explain to the people of Australia why we as a government have made decisions which not everybody agrees with. But the consensus within the parliament, quite obviously, is that we need to be there and that we are doing the right thing in putting people’s lives very much at risk. I am talking about young Australians who are very good at what they do. I think it is incumbent upon us not just to be members of parties, members of government or opposition or parliamentarians; we actually have to lead in convincing people in our electorates and Australia generally about why that is.
The feeling is that the war is less popular, for want of a better word, than it used to be. I do not think there is anything odd about that, and I do not think that means that a great percentage of Australians do not want us to be there. Nobody wants to put a considerable number of young Australians at risk. Quite obviously, only a lunatic would think it was a good thing to have Australians overseas fighting for their lives. I do think it is incumbent upon us, though, to explain why we believe it is a good thing for them to be there for us and for the world at large. I think that is what it boils down to.
For me, there is no bigger decision that a member of government or member of parliament can ever make than to send our troops off into a war situation. There could be no other decision you would ever make that could compare with it. Both my parents, who are no longer with us, were veterans of the Second World War. They both spent almost five years of their lives in the Middle East and the Pacific Islands during the Second World War. They fought overseas, against an enemy that was not in Australia, and there are some comparisons with the situation today. People say that life is more complicated now. I doubt that that is true. I think that if we had been around in the forties, during the war, we would have thought that life was just as complicated as it is today. But the point is that both my parents went overseas because they thought it was better to deal with the threat to the world and Australia where it was, rather than waiting for it to come here.
Without doubt, the threat has already affected Australians very directly—let alone our soldiers—as we all know. There is no point in going through what happened in Bali and various places around the world. Australians have already been killed by the current threat. Terrorism may be less upfront, but it is just as deadly as any other war. For us as a country to deal with the threat that has affected us very directly already at its heart, as it were, rather than wait for it to land on our shores—as it inevitably will if we do not do anything about it—makes very good sense. We should deal with it in the same way my parents did 60-odd years ago.
As far as Afghanistan is concerned, where the Taliban reign with al-Qaeda, I am one of the very few people outside the military who has had the privilege of going there. I was there for a week two years ago. I was there on Anzac Day. I guess I am speaking now to the people most affected by seeing their sons, their brothers, their daughters, their relatives there. I have spoken about the big picture and why I believe we should be there, but I think we need to speak to the people most affected.
On Anzac Day in Kandahar, which is the main base in Afghanistan where our troops stay before they go into Oruzgan province to the camp at Tarin Kowt, every single nation represented in Afghanistan, plus the Afghan National Army, came to our dawn service—not because it was a big day for them but because they knew it was a very big day for us. Till the day I die I will never forget being there at the dawn service in Kandahar with our troops and with the British, the Americans, the French, the Canadians, the Dutch and the Afghan National Army, who our people train. The various groups were all there. It was a very big moment.
It is in Tarin Kowt that our men and women are living it and going out into it daily. I think everybody who has relatives or friends over there in particular should be aware just how good and how well trained our troops are and how much they believe in what we are doing there. They are extraordinarily good. Our special forces and our mainstream forces, who are part of the reconstruction task force, are the two sides of it. As the people whose job it is to go out and seek the Taliban and deal with bomb makers and the Taliban leaders, our special forces are extraordinarily good at what they do. I have actually been to their selection trials in Western Australia, and no athlete has ever gone through what these blokes go through. So it was not a surprise to go there and find out how respected and how good our special forces are. It was a bit more of a surprise to go there and find out that, with regard to the mainstream Army personnel who work on the reconstruction task force—and we have got personnel there from all three defence branches, doing various things—and work with the Afghans, teach them how to build hospitals and schools, teach them trade skills and train the Afghan National Army, even the special forces say that what the special forces do would mean nothing without what the reconstruction task force is doing. That can give people comfort as to the moral rightness of us being there—and I do not mean the big picture, which we have already spoken about; I mean comfort that their sons, daughters, brothers and sisters are there for good reasons on a local level.
I was amazed when an ordinary soldier—well, he was Australian, so he was not ordinary; we had been there a few days and I had got to know him—said to me one day, quite out of the blue, ‘You know, if there’s one thing I could change in this world, it would be sharia law.’ I was rather taken aback, because he was not an intellectual, he was not a philosopher; he was a soldier, obviously a good one. Our military people over there know more about Afghanistan and the Taliban than the rest of us because they are talking to them and working with them. I thought it was an incredible thing that the thing that mattered most in this bloke’s life—and he was a bush bloke—was to get rid of Taliban law. It is not, as people think, just about women; it is a way of life. But, to Australians and others like us, it is the way it treats women that hits us in the face.
When I was there, at the hospital at Tarin Kowt—which is staffed by Australians, Singaporeans and Dutch, or it was then—the head of our hospital mission, an Australian doctor, said to me: ‘The other day we lost a girl who was brought in by the locals. By the time they brought her in we couldn’t save her. She died from what is a common, ordinary infection. They waited till she was nearly dead before they brought her in. If she’d been a boy, they would have brought her in very early. They didn’t think she was worth worrying about until it was too late.’ He was still incredibly upset by it. That sort of statement gives you an idea of just what it is we are dealing with. He also told me that about once a month they bring in a young boy who has lost his hands or whole arms because he has been forced to go and lay an IED that was not well constructed and it blew up on him. If there is one thing that gets you about this ‘modern’ terrorism, it is that old men send off young men and women and others to die—whether they are suicide bombers blowing everyone up or they are laying an IED—but will not do it themselves. Obviously, a lot of them are dying if they are bringing in a boy every month who is missing his hands. So nobody should feel that there is not a huge moral issue in Afghanistan, let alone us along with our allies trying to deal with terrorism at its heart and at its core.
I will never forget the week I spent with our troops in Afghanistan. I can only say to the parliament and also to the friends and relatives of everybody that is over there, and to the Australian people at large, that I do not think this is very different from our people going overseas to fight the Japanese and the Nazi threat during the Second World War, because, sooner or later, if we do not deal with this, it will come here. Yes, it means pain and grief for a lot of people, but it is something we have to do and I do thoroughly believe that. Let us hope it is dealt with as soon as possible. Thank you.