Private Robert Poate

I spoke in parliament yesterday about Private Robert Poate, a young Canberra man killed in Afghanistan.
Private Robert Poate, 10 September 2012

Among the fallen that we remember today is Canberra-born Private Robert Poate. This young, promising and highly qualified soldier's life was cut short by a rogue Afghan solider in Oruzgan province last month. He was on his first tour of duty. Today we offer our deepest condolences to Private Poate's colleagues, friends and, most of all, his family: Hugh, Janny and Nicola. As a soldier, a mate, a brother and a son, this tragic loss has been keenly felt by Canberra's close-knit community.

After enlisting in 2009, Private Poate rapidly earned a reputation for his professionalism and his leadership qualities. Private Poate completed specialist training as a Protected Mobility Vehicle Driver one year after his initial employment training and went on to complete training as Protected Mobility Vehicle Commander last year.

He was also renowned for his strong leadership skills, completing a promotion course for corporal, also in 2011. Private Poate was recognised for his achievements and was awarded the following awards: the Australian Active Service Medal with clasp ICAT, the Afghan Campaign Medal, the Australian Defence Medal, the NATO Non-Article 5 Medal with clasp ISAF, and the Infantry Combat Badge.

But, beyond the official acclamations, Private Poate will also be remembered for his larrikinism. His close friend rugby paralympian Cody Meakin remembers Private Poate as being 'just a lad'. He said:

‘He was cheeky, always had a cheeky grin. Nothing ever phased him … He was just a top bloke, one of the most genuine and loyal blokes I had the pleasure of hanging out with. He always had time for me. Not because he felt sorry for me, but because he genuinely wanted to hang out.’

Cody Meakin has since had his wheelchair inscribed with a special tribute to his fallen friend. He says:

‘… hopefully it'll give me a bit more in the tank, to try that little bit harder …’

Private Poate's brothers by choice in the 6th Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment offer a similar portrait:

‘Private Poate had a reputation for creating mischief without getting caught and was proud of his family, his military service, his Canberran origins, and his red hair, which he vehemently defended as being strawberry blonde.’

The broader Canberra community also share warm memories of Private Poate. Justin Garrick, the head of Canberra Grammar School, where Private Poate spent 15 of his too short 23 years, recalls:

‘… an open and purposeful young man and an all-rounder in the academic, sporting and co-curricular life of the School. He was also the son of Mrs Janny Poate, who recently retired as receptionist at the front office of the Senior School after more than two decades’ association’

The service that was held at Canberra Grammar to remember Private Poate reminds me of that quote sometimes attributed to the Duke of Wellington that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. All the descriptions of Private Poate paint a portrait of a talented, spirited and fiercely loyal young man. His death is a loss for the whole nation.

He died in a green-on-blue attack, part of a worrying trend in Afghanistan. This year over 30 NATO troops have died from such attacks, more than twice as many as last year. The leader of the US war effort in Afghanistan, Marine General John Allen, is convening a meeting of all US and NATO flag officers to assess the phenomenon. I am not sure that we know everything about what is causing these green-on-blue attacks, but I do think in part that they reflect our success in changing the Afghan military for the better. I think what we are seeing with these green-on-blue attacks is the desperate attacks of an extremist movement that knows it has run out of all other options apart from infiltrating the Afghan military. I do hope we are able to revamp the screening processes for Afghan soldiers, because the abuse of trust that these green-on-blue attacks cause is extraordinarily damaging for Australia in Afghanistan.

The loss of Private Poate reminded me of those classic words from Pericles's funeral oration2,500 years back, but they ring through the ages. He said:

‘… for the Athens that I have celebrated is only what the heroism of these and their like have made her … none of these allowed either wealth with its prospect of future enjoyment to unnerve his spirit, or poverty with its hope of a day of freedom and riches to tempt him to shrink from danger … reckoning this to be the most glorious of hazards, they joyfully determined to accept the risk …’

As Pericles said:

‘So died these men as became Athenians. You, their survivors, must determine to have as unfaltering a resolution in the field, though you may pray that it may have a happier issue.’

The selfless bravery of Private Poate and the other brave men who have lost their lives in Afghanistan, their dedication and their service should provide this House with a great perspective on our own responsibility. His contribution has made a difference. It will not be forgotten. May he and his fellow soldiers rest in peace.

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