Before I commence my contribution on the motion to take note of the Prime Minister’s statement on Australia’s commitment to Afghanistan, I would like to acknowledge the contribution of my colleague the member for Hindmarsh, a very well considered presentation. I concur with what he said.
I have some difficulty in speaking about this. When I speak on issues in this place, I like to feel that I have a full array of knowledge, that I completely understand them. Because of the very nature of a military presence in another country, someone who is not directly involved cannot have all the facts. In that regard, I am no different to the other members of this place, but I do feel a level of frustration. I have discussed this issue with many of my constituents. I do not purport to speak today for all my constituents-there are a variety of opinions on this-but I think it is important that the people I represent understand what my thoughts are on this issue.
It is important that we go back 10 years to the terrible time of the attack on the World Trade Centre, where many thousands of people were killed, including some Australians, and, not long after that, the two attacks in Bali, where Australian citizens were killed and maimed by terrorists who were trained in Afghanistan. One of the problems with this is that we are getting further away from the issues of the day that framed the thought process that took Australia into this conflict. It is important that we cast our minds back. One of the most indelible images in my brain, apart from all the sights of Bali and the attacks on the World Trade Centre, is from a television report-I cannot remember when it was but it was some time ago-that showed a woman being stoned to death in a soccer stadium in Afghanistan. There may have been charges of adultery. I distinctly remember the images. The Taliban were stoning people to death in a public arena. We need to remember that that was the environment at the time when this decision was made.
As a free nation that was directly affected by people who were trained in Afghanistan, we did have an obligation. I was not a member of this place then, but I would like to think that we went to Afghanistan in the interests of Australia and not, as has been stated by some, to follow a world superpower. I believe that Australia at the time had enough interest of its own in going to Afghanistan. We have an obligation for stability in that region. Not only has Afghanistan been traditionally an unstable place but it adjoins Pakistan, and there has been much said in this debate about the threats that could unfold in Pakistan. It is important that we have a stabilising influence in that area.
We also have an obligation to the people of Afghanistan. My scant knowledge of the history of Afghanistan is that the Afghans are a people who have seen foreign armies come and go, and more often than not, when they go, the country is left in total chaos. Troops from Australia and other countries have worked hard over the years to gain the trust of the citizens of Afghanistan. I would hate to think that, if the troops were removed prematurely, those citizens would be caught up in a period of retribution. That would be most unfair, because a lot of them, from my understanding, have put their own safety on the line in making the decision to support a new Afghanistan, to support a new government and to work towards a clear future. A premature withdrawal would be detrimental to those people. That is the problem. Some people in Australian society would like a clear indication of a date for removal of our presence in Afghanistan. The very nature of our presence there means that we cannot indicate that. If we indicated a time when our troops were going to be removed, those who would like to see the old rule of Afghanistan reinstated and the instability return would have a date to work towards. I do not think that should happen.
I believe that we should maintain our presence there and that we should focus on nation building. I do not underestimate that task. I understand that there are issues with the government that is in place there, and I understand that when a country does not have full faith in its government it is very hard for objectives to be achieved. But I do think that the objective of a permanent peace in Afghanistan is an honourable one, and I certainly hope it can be reached.
Another reason for my standing here today is to give my support to the troops that are serving there now and to salute those who have in the past. In speaking with someone on this subject last week, I was surprised to find that some of our troops are on their seventh rotation in Afghanistan. That is a huge commitment by those individuals and their families and it is important that they know they have the support of this parliament and the Australian people. I am also aware of the importance-even given my limited knowledge in military matters-of the proper resources needed to do the job. It would be very frustrating for them to be restricted in their objectives by a set parameter of resources. Whilst I understand that this is a difficult situation to overcome, I would hope that they are given the full resources they need-whether it is in the form of physical resources or whether it is a necessary set of orders that enable them to do what needs to be done.
Finally, I would like to touch on the issue of the soldiers who have fallen and to address, in particular, the loss affecting one family-that of the family of Lieutenant Michael Fussell. Michael Fussell was a personal friend of my daughter and indeed, on his last weekend in Australia before going to Afghanistan, my daughter, together with a group of friends, farewelled him. I was also acquainted with Michael through his being the best friend of my nephew when they were at school together. I was at Michael’s funeral in Armadale and I have to say that going to the funeral of a young man-I think at the time Michael was 25-is a very sad occasion.
My thoughts go out to Michael’s parents, Ken and Madeline. Their son Dan, Michael’s brother, is in Afghanistan seconded to a British unit. I ran into Ken and Madeline as they were en route to Europe-as Dan is training there with his British unit-to spend time with him when he takes leave in his deployment. That family’s situation is repeated right across Australia and, while we might stand up here and speak in philosophical terms about it, those families are really living the reality every day. The Fussells are having to come to terms with the loss of their son, a bright young man who had his future ahead of him, a future that may not necessarily have entirely resided in military service-as young men like Michael Fussell can choose what they do with their lives. He had ability, drive and personality-a fact that was made clear by his friends at his funeral.
It is important that the soldiers who are there, and their families, know that they have the support of their government and their people. While the deaths of our soldiers are not the sole justification for continuing an engagement, I think it is important that we remember those sacrifices that were made. I have welcomed the opportunity to speak on this matter. While I believe that it is important to commit to staying the course, I certainly hope that our troops can be brought home sooner rather than later.