Nelson breaks official line on Afghan war

March 20, 2012

The PM must speak frankly about Australia's role.

WHEN she speaks on Australia's involvement in the war in Afghanistan, Prime Minister Julia Gillard at least has the virtue of consistency. On almost every occasion she has been asked about the possibility of withdrawal, the answer has been the one she gave last week after a US soldier shot dead 16 Afghan civilians, including nine children. ''Of course, an incident like this is a truly distressing one,'' Ms Gillard said, ''but it's not going to distract us from our purpose in Afghanistan and our clear sense of mission in Afghanistan.'' Well, that showed resolve. But, curiously, it also showed more enthusiasm for the ''mission'' than appears to be the case among our allies, especially the United States.

President Barack Obama reacted to the massacre of civilians by saying that it made him ''more determined to make sure that we're getting our troops home. It's time. It's been a decade and, frankly, now that we've gotten bin Laden, now that we've weakened al-Qaeda, we're in a stronger position to transition than we would have been two or three years ago.'' Mr Obama qualified this view by saying there would be no ''rush for the exit'', but as the leader of the international coalition he could hardly suggest that there might be. Nonetheless, the force of his remarks was concentrated in just two words - ''it's time'' - that Ms Gillard seems to be incapable of uttering.

Publicly at least, the Prime Minister appears unable to countenance the fact that the coalition forces in Afghanistan, including the Australian troops training their Afghan National Army counterparts in Oruzgan province, no longer have any prospect of shaping the future of the country. And that inability is all the more puzzling in the light of comments at the weekend by Australia's ambassador to NATO, Brendan Nelson, who told The Saturday Age: ''I would be very certain that by halfway through next year, the way things are going, we will have transitioned to the Afghans for lead security in Oruzgan.'' In other words, Australia's mission is ending sooner than expected, because the government has previously refused to cite a handover date earlier than the end of 2014. Dr Nelson appears to know more about the fate of Australia's Afghanistan deployment than Ms Gillard, Foreign Minister Bob Carr or Defence Minister Stephen Smith. It would be farcical if lives were not at risk.

Dr Nelson, too, qualified his comments. Australian troops would remain combat-ready, he said, in case Afghan troops need their support. But this may be read in the same way as Mr Obama's ''no rush for the exit'' assurance, for the reality is that the coalition is getting out of Afghanistan. And clearly there is a plan for withdrawal: Dr Nelson's timetable for an Oruzgan handover coincides with the date set by US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta for an end to US combat operations in Afghanistan, with a total withdrawal by the end of 2014. That announcement, in February, was an abandonment of the stance Mr Panetta had taken just two months earlier, in a speech to US troops in Afghanistan, when he said, ''We're winning this very tough conflict.'' At least he got the ''very tough'' part right.

As The Age has noted before, the US and its allies became mired in Afghanistan when they lost sight of the war's original goal: the capture or killing of al-Qaeda's leaders. Since May last year, when a US special forces team killed Osama bin Laden in a raid on his hideaway in Pakistan, that goal has in any case become redundant. President Obama clearly recognises that there is nothing further to be gained by a military presence in Afghanistan, and the tragic massacre of civilians suggests that it is even becoming counterproductive. Ms Gillard needs to catch up with all of this; perhaps she could call Dr Nelson for a briefing.

A mother's please: justice for all

THE legal system is daunting even for people who can afford to hire a lawyer. Many people cannot, as the ordeal of a mother involved in a coronial inquiry into the police shooting of her son reminds us. Legal Aid initially rejected her under its tight criteria. Thinking she would have to represent herself, ''Bobbi'' read 187 pages of a 481-page brief on her son's death. ''No mother should have to read so many accounts of her son's last half-hour on earth,'' she said. She eventually received two days of legal counsel's time in a three-week inquest. ''Had I not been represented, I truly believe that I would not have uncovered the answers to many of my questions,'' she said.

Bobbi believes ''everyone has the right to be heard and represented'', but Legal Aid is so underfunded that it turns away most people who can't afford legal representation. The joke in the Australian comedy The Castle that defines a QC as a lawyer who appears for the rich is not really a joke. The 1997 movie coincided with a $120 million cut to Legal Aid funding by the Howard government. The Commonwealth funding share fell from 49 per cent to 32 per cent in 2009-10. The states never made up the shortfall, while costs across all courts rose 78 per cent in real terms over the next decade. Australia's Legal Aid funding is low - about a third of Britain's rate per capita. The Gillard government has lifted federal funding for the first time since 1997, but the last state budget had no new funding.

The Legal Aid crisis affects huge numbers of ordinary Australians who need legal representation, the costs of which are beyond all but the well-off. Even before the funding cuts, most people generally did not qualify for aid: 72 per cent of recipients were receiving social security benefits and 24 per cent had no income at all. It may be that politicians see no votes in showing sympathy for the rights of accused people in court, even if lack of representation means innocent people suffer grave miscarriages of justice. Yet this issue affects mainstream Australians who, at any time, can become involved in criminal or civil cases, including family law.

An unrepresented person is at such a disadvantage that the rights of equal access to the law, equality before the law and a fair trial are all at risk. On top of this, funding cuts may not even save money at all. Modelling of Queensland family law found every dollar to legal aid led to savings of between $1.64 and $2.25 in fees, court time and other expenses. In the interests of justice, efficiency and fairness - as well as saving public money - our governments must stop starving Legal Aid of funds.

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