House debates

Monday, 22 February 2010

Delegation Reports

Parliamentary Delegation to the 55th Annual Session of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly

9:00 pm

Photo of Arch BevisArch Bevis (Brisbane, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Speaker, I present the report of the Australian Parliamentary Delegation to the 55th Annual Session of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, Edinburgh 14-17 November 2009.

Leave granted.

At the outset I want to place on record my thanks to a number of people whose support was essential in the conduct of this parliamentary delegation. I want to record the thanks from me and I know other members of the committee to Australia’s ambassador in Belgium, His Excellency Alan Thomas and especially to his military attaché, Colonel Michael Toohey. Colonel Toohey accompanied us while we were in Belgium with various briefings and he was simply excellent in the support that he provided to the committee. I also want to thank Terry Porter of the Australian High Commission in the UK, for the wonderful logistical support he provided to the committee, and also Richard Selth, the secretary of the committee, who accompanied the delegation.

At the outset I also want to place on record my thanks to the other members of the parliamentary delegation and, in particular, the member for McEwan, who is in the chamber today, whose participation and support both in private meetings and in the formal hearings of the NATO assembly were greatly appreciated by me and I know by other members.

The delegation’s principal purpose was to participate and attend the NATO assembly. Importantly, before we visited the NATO assembly we had the opportunity to go to NATO headquarters in Belgium. That was a critically important activity to be undertaken prior to the engagement at the NATO assembly, and the briefings that we received from both the secretariat and the military people involved in NATO placed the committee in a very good position to be able to engage more fully in the NATO assembly hearings. I also should acknowledge the encouragement and support we received from the NATO secretariat. Their support and assistance made our engagement at the assembly, I think, much more effective than it might otherwise have been.

It also provided us with the opportunity to attend a number of important historical sites that are certainly relevant to the broad focus of our activity. We were in Belgium on Remembrance Day and we had the opportunity both on Remembrance Day on 11th of the 11th and on the evening before, on 10th of the 11th, to attend the services at Menin Gate in Ypres.

I want to acknowledge the honour that was given to the Australian delegation at both of those important ceremonies. Many Australians make the pilgrimage to Anzac Cove—and quite rightly so—but I think many Australians who have had the opportunity to attend a ceremony at Menin Gate, particularly on such an important occasion as Remembrance Day, 11th of the 11th, gain a true appreciation of the high regard with which Australia is held from the efforts of the men and women who served particularly but not only during World War I.

The attendance at the North Atlantic assembly was a very useful occasion for us as Australian parliamentarians to engage in discussions with a broad range of parliamentary representatives from throughout the NATO countries. We were pleased and honoured that the president of NATO made special mention of the Australian parliamentary delegation’s involvement in the assembly.

We also had the opportunity to meet with the Dutch parliamentary delegation. That was especially important because, as most members of this House would know, the Australian forces in Afghanistan work alongside the Dutch, and indeed the Dutch have principal carriage for the area of operations in which the Australian troops are focused.

The Dutch parliament some time last year, I believe, made a decision that they would not continue with their deployment beyond a finishing date this year. It was clearly a matter of great interest to us, and the opportunity to talk to our Dutch colleagues was very useful from both sides of the table. The fact that the president of the assembly of NATO attended those discussions is also an indication that some importance was placed on that. I must say I had very mixed feelings about the news over the last few days that the Dutch government has fallen precisely on that issue.

Unlike many reports of this nature, this report does include a recommendation. It is, I believe, an important recommendation that the Australian parliament participate in NATO assemblies at least once every two years. These assemblies are actually conducted twice a year. It is a critical engagement in a world in which security threats are not geographically confined. (Time expired)

9:06 pm

Photo of Fran BaileyFran Bailey (McEwen, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It is with great pleasure that I support this report by the parliamentary delegation that attended the 55th annual session of NATO’s parliamentary assembly in Edinburgh in November last year. I would firstly like to express my thanks to the member for Brisbane for his leadership of the delegation and to Mr Richard Selth for his assistance and organisation. As the member for Brisbane has said—but I too want to put it on the record—many people from DFAT and our embassies in both Belgium and the UK provided professional staff and briefings. I too want to particularly place on record my thanks to Dr Alan Thomas and Colonel Mick Toohey; and to Mr David Hobbs from the NATO Parliamentary Assembly’s secretariat.

I too believe that the decision to attend detailed briefings by the secretariat in Brussels before attending the NATO assembly in Edinburgh was the key to the success of our attendance as a nation with observer status. Not only did these meetings provide delegation members with an understanding of how the assembly would operate in both the committee stages and the general assembly but they demonstrated our keen interest as observers from a key contact country and reflected Australia’s expanded relationship with NATO. This was reinforced by the fact that the presence of our delegation was welcomed by the Chairman of the Defence and Security Committee and by the acknowledgement of the contribution Australia is making in Afghanistan by the incoming secretary-general, Mr Anders Rasmussen.

We were also honoured to have the President of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, the Hon. John Tanner, chair our meeting with the full Dutch delegation. This was an important meeting. As the member for Brisbane also has alluded to, it was a forum in which we were able to speak openly and freely. The Dutch did express some degree of surprise at the bipartisan nature of the Australian delegation and at the fact that we were in complete agreement on our position. As the press has reported, the government of the Netherlands has fallen, reportedly because coalition members have disagreed on a request to extend the Dutch military mission in Afghanistan.

In listening to the debate in both the Defence and Security Committee and the environment committee, which I also attended, as well as the debate in the general assembly, I was impressed by its openness in relation to NATO’s commitment to Afghanistan and, importantly, to the security challenges of the 21st century, including the increasing problem of international piracy and how to build a more constructive relationship with Russia. While there was much discussion on strategic alliances—how they should be shaped in the future, developing NATO’s new Strategic Concept, the changing role of military power and the cost of casualties, which many delegates from member countries raised in both the committee and the assembly fora—there was an overwhelming acceptance that Afghanistan is NATO’s No. 1 priority. NATO will support the reconstruction and development of Afghanistan, strengthen the capacity of the Afghan National Security Forces and work to establishing a transition to Afghan led responsibility. In fact the new incoming secretary-general, Mr Rasmussen, told the general assembly that NATO’s mission in Afghanistan ends when the Afghans are capable of securing and running the country themselves.

I too want to place on the record the enormous privilege it was to attend Tyne Cot cemetery to see those thousands of young Australians recorded as having given their lives in those horrendous battles and to attend the service at the Menin Gate. I will never forget the sound of the bugles and the bagpipes and those thousands of red poppy petals fluttering down from the arched gateway and being picked up and carried off by the wind. For me that will always be a permanent reminder of the sacrifice that those young Australians made so that we might enjoy the democratic freedoms of this place. (Time expired)