House debates

Tuesday, 19 June 2007

Questions without Notice


3:07 pm

Photo of Alex SomlyayAlex Somlyay (Fairfax, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

My question is to the foreign minister. Would the minister update the House on Australian support for the people of Afghanistan to rebuild their country? Are there any alternative policies?

Photo of Alexander DownerAlexander Downer (Mayo, Liberal Party, Minister for Foreign Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the honourable member for his question and his interest. This government assisted with the liberation of the people of Afghanistan from the Taliban regime. After the events of 9/11 in 2001 we provided substantial aid to Afghanistan. We are building up to just short of, I think, 1,000 troops in Afghanistan at the moment. Australia has made a great contribution. The Afghans now have a freely elected parliament, seven million children—including two million girls—are back at school, 83 per cent of the population has access to basic health services and GDP growth has been about 12 to 14 per cent since 2002.

It is a country with a lot of problems—there is still a lot of violence there, and there is a need for troops in Afghanistan today—but Australia has made a strong contribution. That was recognised by the Afghan foreign minister, who wrote to me last week expressing his appreciation for our troops, who are doing their vital work there, including the additional 300 troops we announced quite recently. Australia and, in particular, the Australian Defence Force have made a great contribution there. I think the House realises that there is no greater decision that a government ever takes than to send our troops into a combative environment. It is a very difficult decision, and whenever we have made those decisions there has been substantial discussion within the government, understandably.

It is with that in mind that on this side of the House we are pretty surprised that the Leader of the Opposition, just on the basis of a ‘news crawl’, as they are called, on Sky television, decided to rush out and say he was delighted about and the opposition supported the deployment of an additional 300 troops to Afghanistan, which the government had not announced. In fact, the Leader of the Opposition had seen those troops off on 15 May. I do not think he forgot; I think he saw the news crawl and thought, ‘There’s another news opportunity; I’d better get out there.’

If the Leader of the Opposition were a serious leader, not just somebody acting on the advice of Hawker Britton and playing a bit of politics day by day, he would, firstly, have contacted members of his shadow cabinet and, secondly, made sure his office or he himself contacted the government to find out what the deployment was about, because there is no more serious decision that the government makes than to deploy our troops.

Photo of Harry JenkinsHarry Jenkins (Scullin, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Jenkins interjecting

Photo of David HawkerDavid Hawker (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

The member for Scullin is well aware that he should not be interjecting out of his seat.

Photo of Alexander DownerAlexander Downer (Mayo, Liberal Party, Minister for Foreign Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

But apparently the gravity of such a decision did not weigh on the Leader of the Opposition, who rushes to a media conference, because that is what is really important to the Leader of the Opposition, without any sincere concern about what may or may not be happening with the government’s deployments.

It is part of a pattern of a kind of instant policymaking in foreign affairs by the opposition under this Leader of the Opposition. He pretends to be some sort of an expert on international relations—that is part of the marketing that he does with the media and elsewhere—but the reality is that there is a pattern of ad hoc media based decision making. He was going to China to fix up relations with China on climate change and suddenly he decided to cancel that trip because of so-called scheduling problems. We know it was nothing to do with scheduling problems. The pattern is there. The opposition leader stands before the nation as somebody who went out there and supported 300 troops being deployed—who were not being deployed—without even bothering to check. Given the gravity of the deployment of troops, that demonstrates the sort of person we are dealing with in the Leader of the Opposition.