House of Representatives Speech- Afghanistan Statement 2010

I commend those before me who have made a thoughtful and considered contribution to what is a complex and difficult debate. I welcome this debate. Any engagement that puts the lives of Australian troops at risk deserves to be discussed openly and responsibly in this place. My focus today will be on military justice, but I will say this about Australia’s role in Afghanistan: we cannot let Afghanistan once again become a safe haven for terrorists who want to perpetrate attacks on Australia or our allies.

I commend those before me who have made a thoughtful and considered contribution to what is a complex and difficult debate. I welcome this debate. Any engagement that puts the lives of Australian troops at risk deserves to be discussed openly and responsibly in this place. My focus today will be on military justice, but I will say this about Australia’s role in Afghanistan: we cannot let Afghanistan once again become a safe haven for terrorists who want to perpetrate attacks on Australia or our allies.

We all remember the September 11 attacks on New York, Washington and the Pentagon which brought the world’s attention to al-Qaeda’s activities in Afghanistan. We all remember the 202 people who were killed, including 88 Australians, in the Bali bombing of 2002. We all remember the coordinated suicide bombings on London’s transport system on 7 July 2005. Each of these has been linked to al-Qaeda and activities in Afghanistan and each of these caused mass fatalities, including the loss of Australian lives. The decision by the former Prime Minister John Howard to assist the United States and our allies to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan following the September 11 attacks was the right one. Unlike the war in Iraq, the decision to send Australian troops to fight in Afghanistan was bipartisan and done with a mandate from the United Nations Security Council.

Ours is a challenging and difficult mission in Afghanistan: protect the civilian population, train and equip the Afghan national security forces and improve governance and socioeconomic development in an emerging democracy. We intervened in Afghanistan, and remain there, because it is important to defend ourselves and our values. In World War II we stood and fought beside our allies to defend the values of freedom, respect for the law, fairness and democracy. The defence of these values is why we went to war in Afghanistan nine years ago and our commitment to these values is why we are still there today. These values are worth fighting for both abroad and at home.

To recognise that we are fighting to defend these values is to recognise that we must also uphold these values. There is an onus on us, as a nation which has repeatedly stood up and fought for fairness, equality and the rule of law, to enhance respect for these values in our own country and respect for our people. That leads me to the recent public discussion over the military justice system and the charges laid against three Australian soldiers while serving in Afghanistan. I do not know if these three men, one of whom is facing a charge of manslaughter, are guilty or not. If I did have an opinion it would be inappropriate for me to make comments that might tend to influence the outcome of proceedings against these soldiers.

It is the same situation for the Leader of the Opposition. But that did not stop him from shouting from the rooftops his disapproval of the military justice process, trying to score cheap political points by accusing this government of letting down the troops by allowing the process of military justice to take its course. Just as it is completely inappropriate for any member of this place to prejudice a criminal or civil trial by commenting on it publicly, it is inappropriate to go on Sydney radio and make the suggestion that by being put to trial these three soldiers are being—and I quote the words of the Leader of the Opposition—‘thrown to the wolves’.

The current system of military prosecution was set up under the Howard government. Its independence is paramount. The process must be free from political interference and it must focus entirely on the law and on the facts of the case, just like any other legal process in this country. That is crucial to confidence in the system and fairness for our men and women in uniform. Yet the independent Director of Military Prosecutions, Brigadier Lyn McDade, has been under personal attack from some areas of the media, with derogatory references to her gender and her 23 years of service to military justice. How did the opposition leader respond to these attacks on Brigadier McDade, who was appointed, I would remind the House, by the Howard government? The opposition leader responded by staying silent when a talk show host referred to the brigadier’s ‘so-called’ independence. The opposition leader responded by creating a presumption that all soldiers have done the right thing. The opposition leader responded by falsely suggesting that the government had failed to assist in the defence of these soldiers—in short, he responded by involving himself in what should be an independent and apolitical process. This kind of rhetoric from the opposition leader is irresponsible and is yet another example of why he is unfit to be this nation’s Prime Minister.

The old adage that war is hell is true. It is ugly and dangerous, and I have the utmost respect for anyone who is willing to serve Australia in a war zone. But there are rules of engagement in war, and it is vital that the Australian defence forces conduct their activity within those rules. It is that insistence on compliance with the rules of engagement and that insistence on proper conduct even in the fog of war which differentiates us from our enemies. It is also worth pointing out that the rules of engagement for Australian troops in Afghanistan are consistent with the rules of engagement that the US forces are bound by. For Senator Johnston, the opposition defence spokesman, to say that he is disappointed that charges have been laid in this case and that this case going to trial is ‘counterproductive to our national interest’ smacks simply of political opportunism, especially when just two years ago Senator Johnston said in committee about Australia’s military justice system:

These statutory officers have to be completely independent …

But now Senator Johnston is willing to compromise the independence of our military justice system by publicly commenting on whether a case should be going to trial or not. This of course is not the first time that Senator Johnston has gone off on an irresponsible tangent when it comes to Afghanistan. A few months ago, he publicly said that Australian troops were poorly equipped and that more troops were needed. This stance was inconsistent with the expert military advice from the Chief of the Defence Force and senior officers of the ADF, and it was quickly recanted once the opposition leader went to Afghanistan and spoke to our troops on the ground.

We have an opposition leader and an opposition defence spokesman who seem determined to make unhelpful and irresponsible comments about a case which they have no particular responsibility for and no particular knowledge of—a case which is going through an independent process that was set up when the opposition leader was sitting at the cabinet table and, indeed, is being presided over by a senior officer who was appointed by the former government.

Neil James, the Executive Director of the Australian Defence Association, says that the fair trial these commandos deserve could be prejudiced by comments being made in the public domain. He understands that no-one in a position of influence—politicians, senior military officers or talkback radio hosts—should interfere in that independent process. One would hope that the opposition leader, of all people, understands why. To have a strong and credible military, you need a strong, credible and independent military justice system. We are fortunate to have both in Australia.

I conclude by paying tribute to the 21 brave Australian men who have given their lives on duty in Afghanistan. Their loss looms large in the hearts and minds of their families and friends, and indeed of all of us, and is a constant reminder to Australians of the ultimate sacrifice they have made to defend our freedom and our way of life.