We must learn the unclear lessons of the past - Speech, House of Representatives


About once a decade this parliament debates questions around Australia's international engagement. We did so in 1991, in 2002 and in 2010 and now again in 2021. Such debates are important not only for what they say about a particular international engagement but also for what they say about when Australia makes that decision of committing troops to an international engagement. This is symbolic of the positioning of the Australian War Memorial, designed to be along the parliamentary axis. So when considering whether or not to send troops to war parliamentarians look out and see the cost of war embodied in the War Memorial. It has been argued by some that parliamentary approval should be required before committing troops. I believe that at least we should have a parliamentary debate.

I participated in such a parliamentary debate on 26 October 2010, discussing Australia's continued engagement in Afghanistan. In doing so, I noted that, when Bob Hawke spoke to parliament about committing Australian troops to Iraq, he reminded this House of Neville Chamberlain's words of 1938: 'Why should we be concerned with a faraway country of which we know little?' As Hawke reminded the parliament, the answer to Chamberlain's words came only too swiftly, and, as Hawke said, the great lesson of the 20th century was that ‘peace is bought at too high a price if that price is the appeasement of aggression’. I'm not an isolationist, but just because it is right to intervene in some circumstances it doesn't follow that all international engagements are justified. We stayed in Vietnam for too long. We didn't get into Rwanda quickly enough. Australia's engagements in the Solomons and East Timor are engagements of which we should be proud. Every engagement needs to be measured based on the costs and benefits going forward. We can't be blinded by past costs; we have to make a new decision and sometimes that will involve saying that we were wrong in the past.

There are no clear lessons from the past, and I disagree with those who point to the lessons of the British and the Russians in Afghanistan and say, 'See, there you go: that answers it.' We also need to make sure we're not blinded by technology. I was looking over my own 2010 remarks and I noticed I referred to the ability of us to engage ‘with rocket systems that are accurate to within a metre’. That might have been so, but it didn't ensure that we built up the capacity of the Afghan military forces.

I argued back in 2010 that there were four reasons why we should have stayed in Afghanistan, and I want to submit my own reasoning back then to a little scrutiny now. I said that we should do so because of our alliance commitments, and I think that holds. I said we should do so because of international law, pointing to UN Security Council Resolution 1386. I think that is important. I argued that we should do so because it would reduce the threat of terrorism, pointing out that, as Anthony Bubalo and Michael Fullilove have written, Afghanistan helped form the mind of Noordin Top, a terrorist who masterminded a string of bombings directed towards Australians in Indonesia.

And it is true that the West's 20-year engagement in Afghanistan did stop that country from becoming the breeding ground of terrorists that it had been beforehand.

But I think I was wrong to argue that we could make an ongoing difference to the humanitarian position of the Afghan people. We did so temporarily: millions of Afghans got an education they would not otherwise have gotten, particularly millions of girls. In 2010 there were 68 women in the parliament of Afghanistan—unthinkable under the Taliban and probably now unthinkable in the future. But we failed to do what David Kilcullen has referred to as 'armed social work'—a counterinsurgency which won the hearts and minds, and transformed the country.

I believe that Australia would be well served if we engaged in the kind of deep reflection that many in Britain have called for in urging a full inquiry into Britain's involvement in Afghanistan. It hasn't just been Labour members who have criticised the British involvement in Afghanistan but it has included Conservatives, such as Tom Tugendhat and the former British Prime Minister, Theresa May—who has dubbed Britain's involvement as being a ‘major setback’ in their foreign policy and who has asked, rhetorically, 'Where is global Britain on the streets of Kabul?' We need to engage in this sort of analysis, not only because of what it will say about the future for Afghanistan but also for how it will inform this House's decision to send Australian troops to war in the future. Only by reflecting on the lessons of Afghanistan can Australia ensure that when the next question comes upon us we don't have a sudden rush of blood to the head—that we have clear eyed principles to guide our decision.

As with other speakers, I want to emphasise that those who have served Australia should be proud of their involvement in this conflict. I spoke in parliament about Private Robert Poate, a graduate of Canberra Grammar School, described by the principal of that school as, 'an open and purposeful young man, and an all-rounder in the academic, sporting and co-curricular life of the school'. His service in Afghanistan and his death as one of 41 Australians to have died in Afghanistan is a reminder of the tragic costs that we ask young men and women to take on when they don the Australian uniform. Pericles put it best 2,500 years ago when 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.

He 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 issues which we are discussing today matter to Australia but, of course, they matter most to those in Afghanistan—to the 33 million men, women and children in Afghanistan. And now the question is: what can we do to help?

Labor has called for more humanitarian places to be made available, noting the decisions of Prime Minister Hawke to allow 42,000 Chinese nationals to stay in Australia after the Tiananmen Square massacre and Prime Minister Abbott's decision to take in 12,000 refugees from Syria and Iraq. Australia didn't fill our quota of humanitarian places last year. The government cut the humanitarian intake in the last budget, in contradiction to the policy they took to the previous election. Humanitarian places are being squeezed down at a time in which Australia should be more generous. The shadow home affairs minister, Senator Kristina Kenneally, has written to the government, proposing a program being established between the UNHCR and international partners to support those who don't fit within Australia's humanitarian program.

She has asked for an urgent briefing to refugee legal organisations and for funding to support these legal organisations and their work. I have just come from a Zoom hook-up with members of the Afghan Hazara community here in Canberra. They have been speaking to their friends and family members in Afghanistan, and they have apprised me of the desperate situation for so many of those people: members of the special forces, those in the air force and those who have helped Australian work on the ground. I recognise the work that they are doing, and I say to those in the Australian Afghan community: we will do everything we can to help you.

Labor believes that those who have come from Afghanistan who have only temporary visa status should be granted permanency. We would never send back a Hazara refugee to Afghanistan, so why not give them permanent residency and the path to citizenship that they so deserve? I spoke yesterday in the House about Zaki Haidari, but he's just one of the many temporary visa holders who, if granted the opportunity, would make great Australian citizens.


Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.

Stay in touch

Subscribe to our monthly newsletter


Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.