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Condolence Speech on recent deaths in Afghanistan

Speeches in Parliament
Scott Ludlam 31 Oct 2011

Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (17:04): I rise to add my condolences to those of my colleagues on all sides of the chamber concerning the horror that occurred on the weekend and to pay my respects to the three fallen Australians whose sacrifice is appreciated by all of us. Also to the Afghan interpreter, who was killed, and the many who were terribly injured, our thoughts are with them and their families. It is worth noting in passing, with a sense of sadness, that we do not speak to the names of each of Australia's fallen troops now because there are so many. We stand in silence in acknowledgement of their sacrifice but simply do not have time as a parliament to speak to them all as we used to-32 in a decade and a third of them fallen in only the last 12 months. If there has been such progress, if things look as wonderful on the ground as Senator Feeney has been describing, it appears that the violence that our troops have been exposed to is only getting worse.

More than 2,700 coalition dead has been the cost in lives of this war and an uncounted number of Afghan civilian deaths. If this parliament stood in silence momentarily and acknowledged the civilian loss of life in Afghanistan, we would not have time to conduct any business at all. The estimate over the last four years is that nearly 9,000 Afghan civilians have been killed in the conflict, with civilian deaths increasing each year. It is these profoundly disturbing numbers of civilian deaths that I think give the lie to the picture that is being painted that we are in this struggle for the long haul, that all we need to do is stay the course and eventually there will be some kind of happy ending, and that we will be able to depart the country with some form of democracy in place.

Tell the truth. Tell the Australian people the truth. Why is it so difficult to even have these issues debated in the Australian parliament? We would not have even had a mature debate in this parliament if Senator Brown had not got that into the agreement with the Gillard government last August. Tell the truth as to why after a decade in this quagmire there is now the strongest opposition to this war by the Australian people. A recent Essential Media poll showed that 64 per cent of Australians think that troops should withdraw-that is up from 56 per cent this March and just under half about this time last year. This is now a profoundly unpopular war.

It is justified, as we heard to some degree from some of the previous speakers, that this has been a great cause for the emancipation of women. A June 2011 Trust Law report by the Thomas Reuters Foundation found that violence, dismal health care and brutal poverty make Afghanistan the world's most dangerous country for women.

After a 10-year occupation, Afghanistan has emerged as the most dangerous country for women overall and the worst in three of the six risk categories-health, non-sexual violence and lack of access to economic resources. So tell us the truth, government spokespeople and opposition spokespeople, who stand up in here and tell us that things will be fine if we simply toe the line. What if that is not true? German General Kujat told the German Daily in July 2011:

The mission fulfilled the political aim of showing solidarity with United States, but if you measure progress against the goal of stabilising a country and a region, then the mission has failed.

There has been no such honesty from Australian policymakers. We catch a glimpse, of course, of how this war is really seen in the higher levels of the United States government-again thanks to the huge release of US State Department diplomatic cables by the audacious organisation WikiLeaks. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, who served in Afghanistan as a three-star general, at the end of a 9 October cable marked 'confidential' said:

One of our major challenges in Afghanistan is how to fight corruption and connect people to the government, and their key government officials are themselves corrupt.

In another cable, quoted in Bob Woodward's book on the war behind the scenes, O'Bama's War, Eikenberry said:
Right now we're dealing with an extraordinarily corrupt government.

These are our partners. That underscores the tragedy of the events we saw over the weekend. Senator Faulkner says that we are there at the invitation of the Afghan government; we are there at the invitation of the government of the United States. Let us be absolutely clear about why we are there. This is the only time in its history that the ANZUS Treaty has been invoked. Prime Minister Howard, without recourse to parliament, put us into that war, took us directly into that conflict. That, I think, tells us more than anything else.

The debate in Australia is bland, uninformative and superficial compared with the depth of the debate which has occurred in the many other countries Senator Milne outlined whose troops have been withdrawn. The debate has been had, the facts were put on the table, a deadline was set and then the troops were drawn down. There has been no such debate here in parliament. There has been this strange, shallow, bipartisan willingness to tug the forelock and carry on. And not a single parliamentarian in this place, unless you happen to have a seat in cabinet, has the ability to do anything about it because this parliament has never granted itself the so-called 'war power', the ability to sign off on troop deployments and then to call them home. These are not military decisions; these are deeply diplomatic and political decisions which, as parliamentarians, the people who come into this chamber to discuss the matter have absolutely no power to do anything about it. Senator Faulkner, as a former serving defence minister, attended funerals and told this very chamber of the tragic and gruesome updates of the conflict he had tried to manage.

This matter has been reserved for the executive. There is still this stale, bipartisan consensus, unlike our partner countries and most other countries which we consider to be our peers where that power has been devolved from the executive to at least give some say to the parliament-including Westminster and the United States Congress, but no such luck here in Australia. So parliamentarians will file in here and express ongoing confidence and support for the war knowing full well that, even if they disagree, there would be absolutely nothing they could do about it.

We can come in here and conduct a debate, trying to put the facts on the table, but in fact it is the Prime Minister's call. We saw that most tragically-even more tragically than the incident we are debating now-in the war in Iraq where the executive, premised on a lie and against the will of the vast majority of Australian people and arguably against international legal opinion, took us to war in Iraq, which resulted in enormous civilian, military and resource costs on the basis of a lie.

So when will the debate finally come to parliament? We can sit down now, having had a say, perhaps feeling a little better that we have got a few things off our chests and expressed our support for the people we have put in harm's way, but what can we actually do about it in this parliament? It is time the debate in Australia got some maturity about it. Let us hear from the people who have served on the front line, but let us also hear from the Afghan people. People in here disclaim that we are wanted there, that we are there at the invitation of the Afghan government. Afghanistan is being run somewhere on the spectrum between a barely functioning new democracy and an organised crime syndicate. These are the people we have signed up to as our partners in Afghanistan. We owe it to the people we have put in harm's way not to wait for a quiet patch when the attention has gone away, with full respect to the people who have paid the ultimate sacrifice, and asked the questions: why are we there, do we need to be there, how long are we planning on being there and what are the conditions we would call a success, at what point will we say that our work there is done?

In the piece quoted by Senator Milne, it is understood that perhaps within months of a withdrawal-this is from one of the people Professor Hugh White quotes-it may well be that the corrupt government which is being propped up at the moment would not last a matter of months. At what point do we think it would last? When will it be on its feet? Do we need to be there for another decade? These questions need to be asked and they are simply not being asked because of the stale, bipartisan consensus that we will soldier on until the United States government tells us we can go. Surely we can do better than that.




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