Tuesday, 10 September 2019
Australian Defence Force Parliamentary Program 2019
Last month, I had the privilege of taking part in an ADF Parliamentary Program trip to the Middle East region—sometimes referred to as the MER. I had previously travelled to Afghanistan in 2017, so this time I knew what to expect. Yet I have to say that, despite that, this trip far exceeded my expectations. I was joined by my parliamentary Labor colleagues Senator Kimberly Kitching and the member for Oxley. Both were excellent travelling companions and, although we had a number of somewhat spirited differences of opinion on policy, they were always very well natured. As always on these ADF Parliamentary Program trips, partisan politics gave way to the importance of Team Australia. This trip was, once again, impeccably planned by the ADF and the program coordinator, Lieutenant Colonel Andy Martin. The resourcefulness of our ADF escort officers was quickly put to the test before we departed Australia, when yours truly left one of my required visa documents at home. In a sign of things to come, Major Michelle Turpie, whose parents live in my electorate, and Lieutenant Commander Andrew Tait snapped into action and resolved the issue. It was to be just the first of several things that I left behind during the trip. In every case, Michelle and Andrew had it all sorted quickly—without fuss and with my battered pride intact. Truth be known, they probably wondered how I managed to tie my shoelaces in the morning!
ADF Parliamentary Program trips to the MER differ markedly from most parliamentary trips with ADF personnel. With the ADF Parliamentary Program, parliamentarians are afforded no luxuries, no special treatment: we eat, sleep, bathe and train alongside ADF personnel. It is an immersive experience providing us with the most realistic opportunity to live the life of an ADF member for a day or possibly 10. It is a remarkable chance few civilians are afforded to get a better insight into the lives of the men and women that we politicians send into harm's way. Every person who travels into the MER area of operations with the ADF must undergo a form of severe ritual punishment designed to test one's emotional, physical and intellectual resolve—under the covert ruse of a 'military briefing'. Based on, no doubt, the habitual beatings of Roman military discipline, in 2019 this practice has morphed into what is known to all modern ADF service men and women as 'death by PowerPoint'. It could certainly be used by the ADF as a potent weapon against any future enemies—though I'm concerned that the practice would be outlawed under the Hague conventions!
All jokes aside, upon arrival the first thing that becomes immediately self-evident—after the 50-degree heat—is the professionalism of our ADF personnel. From private to commander, each and every interaction I had left me with an abiding sense of pride. All Australians should rightly feel proud of the tremendous work being undertaken by our ADF members in the Middle East. Whether it is as part of Operation Okra in Iraq, Operation Highroad in Afghanistan or Operation Manitou on the east coast of Africa, the ADF punches well above its weight. Not only do ADF members enjoy a high degree of respect among their coalition colleagues but, importantly, they have earned the respect of their host nation militaries in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
After our in-country briefings, we had the pleasure of making the trip to Iraq on the flight deck of an RAAF C-130J. We met Flight Lieutenant Jonathan Lee and Flying Officer Cameron Zofrea. Both these young men fly and navigate their aircraft through what are very busy aircraft traffic lanes at the best of times while contending with the risks of flying in and around contested territories. Flying Officer Zofrea told us a story about his RAAF career, which, with his permission, I want to share with the Australian people. It demonstrates the resourcefulness, tenacity and never-say-die attitude of the modern ADF member, even in the face of adversity.
Flying Officer Zofrea had not been flying C-130s for very long. Only a few short weeks before he'd been flying classic F-18 Hornets, and he was preparing to graduate. After training for some five years and poised to fulfil what was no doubt his life's ambition of becoming a fast-jet pilot, in his final week of training Flying Officer Zofrea was told that he would not be graduating. Expecting within days to go to RAAF Base Tindal, he'd sold his car, given up his unit and signed a lease on a property in the Northern Territory. But it was not meant to be. After spending around $23 million on his training, the RAAF reached the conclusion that he had not met the exacting standards required. Now, many of us would have thrown in the towel, but not Flying Officer Zofrea. In a mark of the man that he is, whilst no doubt bitterly disappointed, he reinvented himself and retrained on the C-130. Flying C-130s in war-like operations is not for the faint-hearted, but, as any pilot will tell you, it's not flying fast jets. So this young man deserves all the kudos and respect that we as a nation can muster. Flying Officer Zofrea will be eligible to reapply to train on fast jets in three years, and if he still has that need for speed, if I can use that term, I would urge him to never give up on that dream.
Whilst in Iraq, we had the privilege of undertaking urban warfare training with Australian Army infantry soldiers from Enoggera. Using what's called airsoft weaponry, rather than live ammunition, we learned about clearing buildings, 'looking for work' and protecting our mates. We searched countless buildings looking for two simulated armed intruders. It was hot, incredibly demanding work, both physically and mentally. We knew that behind each closed door could be a mock insurgent armed with one of these airsoft weapons. Now, for anyone who has ever pulled up carpet before, let me tell you that whoever gave the term 'airsoft' to this ammunition was probably related to the person who invented 'smooth edge'. I am still sporting the bruises some three weeks later! As a soldier it appears I make a good politician, and the men who trained us will no doubt be dining out on our exploits for many days to come. However, what we lacked in skills and experience we made up for with our enthusiasm and the battle cunning of Senator Kitching, who clearly was not troubled by our rules of engagement, or by the simulated death of her enemy combatant, as she continued to empty her magazine into the poor bloke lying on the ground!
Finally, I want to single out another ADF member, Lieutenant Commander Errika Meades, who I saw unexpectedly as I boarded the MASS charter flight in Sydney. My friend Errika is completing a seven-month deployment to the MER but in calmer times serves on my Fisher Defence Industry Initiative Committee and is helping me drive defence industry on the Sunshine Coast. Errika, I want to say thank you for your passion for all things defence. Please stay safe. Enjoy your time in the Middle East and thank you for your service. Indeed, to all members of the ADF, we say: thank you for your service. Your professionalism and your skills are a credit to you, your mates and our country, and it was my privilege to be able to spend even just a few short days with you.
I want to thank the ADF in general, and the Vice Chief of the Defence Force, whose responsibility it is to organise the ADF Parliamentary Program. The program provides a very rare insight. I have one of the largest veteran populations in Australia in my electorate. I've never served in uniform. This gives me a very real, albeit very small, snapshot of the life of an ADF member. I believe it gives me an incredible window to be able to serve my constituents in the best way that I can. Thank you to all those involved. Thank you to all those who made us feel welcome as part of the ADF Parliamentary Program.