HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES – Wednesday, 4 February 2009

CONDOLENCES

Private Gregory Sher

Debate resumed from 3 February, on motion by Mr Rudd:

That the House record its deep regret at the death on 4 January 2009, of Private Gregory Sher, killed while on combat operations in Afghanistan, and place on record its appreciation of his service to his country, and tender its profound sympathy to his family in their bereavement.

Mr BALDWIN (Paterson) (12.05 pm)—I rise today as the shadow minister for defence science and personnel and assisting shadow minister for defence to put the opposition’s support for this motion, joining with the government in the condolence for Private Gregory Michael Sher, who lost his life in Afghanistan on 4 January 2009, and extending our thoughts and prayers to his friends and family.

Private Sher was born in South Africa in 1978, moving to Australia with his family in 1986. He joined the Army in 1989 as an army reservist infantryman and deployed to East Timor in 2002. In 2004, he completed the commando selection course and joined the 1st Commando Regiment, going on to complete a suite of difficult and demanding Special Forces courses required to become a qualified commando. For his service in East Timor, Private Sher received the Australian Active Service Medal, the United Nations Transitional Authority in East Timor Medal and the Infantry Combat Badge. Private Sher has also now been awarded the Afghanistan Campaign Medal, the NATO Medal with ISAF Clasp, the Australian Defence Medal and the Returned from Active Service Badge.

As we have heard, Private Sher was killed by rocket fire by Taliban insurgents against the Oruzgan province patrol base a few days into the new year. Sadly, he was 30 years of age. Five days later, in a hot and gloomy airport hangar in Victoria, colleagues and I joined Private Sher’s parents, Yvonne and Felix, and brothers, Steven and Barry, along with his partner, Karen, in attending the ramp service that brought Private Sher home. During that service, a young soldier who I will identify only as Keith spoke over the flag draped coffin of his friend and colleague. He spoke from one family to another, not of the sorrow they felt in Greg’s loss but of the virtues of his life. It is a sad and difficult duty to bear witness to the loss of a young soldier, and I pray that my colleagues here and I never get used to it. Yet it was on this occasion a rare honour to witness the dignity and devotion with which a soldier paid tribute to his fallen comrade.

We are here today to pay tribute to the courage and sacrifice of Private Gregory Sher. I fear my words can do little when compared with those of that soldier. So, with his permission, I would now like to share with the chamber part of that speech:

Very shortly, the Commanding Officer of the 1st Commando Regiment will present Private Sher his medals. This is a very special occasion for any soldier, and, for the members of his unit, the chance to share with you the many accomplishments he has achieved. We (his military family) are so proud of him and we want to share with you the reasons why.

Greg Sher’s entire military career is characterised as one of being a ‘volunteer’. Greg was a volunteer when he decided to first join the Australian Army Reserve in 1998. Greg was a volunteer when he completed his recruit and infantry courses and commenced his career as a Rifleman with 5/6 Royal Victorian Regiment here in Melbourne. Greg was a volunteer when, after completing 5 months of build-up training in Darwin, deployed with 5/7 Royal Australian Regiment to East Timor for over six months in 2002 & 2003. Greg was a volunteer when, after earning the Australian Active Service Medal, the UN Transitional Authority in East Timor Medal and the Infantry Combat Badge, set his determined sights on a path that would ultimately lead him to obtaining a green beret as a qualified Commando within Australian Special Operations Command.

Greg was a volunteer when he looked east out over the suburbs of Melbourne to the Dandenongs and saw, in the fire access track that splits the mountain, a suitable training ground. Greg was a volunteer, when early on any cold and wet weekend morning, when others were enjoying a warm coffee and hot breakfast at home, he was moving his little (but very strong) legs up and down the ‘thousand steps’ or the ‘fire access track’, pausing only to re-tape his bloodied feet, motivate his fellow soldiers to keep going or quietly add more weight to his own pack. You see, for close to six months, Greg volunteered to put himself through enormous physical and mental hardship just to make sure that on the day he showed up for his commando selection course he was physically and mentally ready. And ready he was. Greg passed the gruelling commando selection and training course in 2004, going on to obtain a whole suite of commando and special forces qualifications. As a very humble man he was not one to boast about his skills. But just some of the courses that Greg volunteered for and completed included: the infantry reconnaissance course; commando urban operations course; advanced close quarter battle course; commando amphibious operations; close quarter fighting course; special forces roping; special forces heavy weapons course; military driving; special forces demolitions; the combat first aid course; and his military parachute course, (to name but a few). For each of these Greg was a volunteer. For each of these Greg stood out amongst his peers.

But, for us in his unit, you need to know that Greg meant so much more than his many operational and special forces accomplishments. Greg was selected to serve within special forces because he had the attributes we were looking for and few have; attributes such as toughness, resolve and intelligence. But for Greg, one attribute stood out amongst all others, and it was his ‘compassion’. It is in this regard that Greg best personified the special forces soldier—the unique combination of the best team player who is still in so many ways an individual. Greg’s compassion as an individual came out in many ways. One of those was in his justification for why he was a soldier. He saw his role as a soldier being to help those that he loved and to do his part to make the world a better place.

Greg was, as many soldiers have said to me this week, a truly rare and inspirational person. I know for me, whenever I saw Greg I felt like a whole room just lit up and I wanted to talk to him about everything. He was a well-read man who would enjoy a considered and meaningful discussion on any world issue. Last night I asked those soldiers closest to Greg what he wanted to talk about most when on gun piquet in the middle of the night. They said ‘Nothing. Because he would rather listen to you.’ He would become so genuinely engrossed in what was important to you, what your dreams were and, when you were finished; say how ‘awesome’ it was. Even if he had just heard the biggest load of rubbish, he would still find what you had to say interesting. He would still find what you had to say important. He would then tell you something about you that he really liked and in a way that you knew was heartfelt. He cared about other people and he made you feel good. For his compassion we went beyond just respecting him. We loved him for it.

Another attribute Greg had in abundance was his determination to constantly improve. Even during the worst of days, when any other soldier would feel beaten and be tempted to give up, Greg’s resolve and strength was unwavering. He would say to his friends ‘When it’s really bad. I take it all in; I step back; regroup… and I come back stronger.’ Whether it was mastering a new amphibious craft, honing his weapon change over drills, improving his fitness or learning how to improve new medical skills, he always sought to better himself. Greg always came back stronger.

And his motivation for improvement was not one of competition but instead reflected his desire to better serve his team-mates. Greg did not want to let anyone down. And he never did.

Over time we will learn more about how Greg had an infectious laugh, how important his Jewish faith was to him and how determined and driven he was. But before we present Greg with his medals for his service in Afghanistan, please indulge us for a moment more. Greg’s brothers will be very aware of a very short but moving poem that Greg used to motivate himself when times were hard or he felt down. He often had a copy on him, knew it off by heart and spoke about it regularly …

It is called Invictus (Latin for ‘Unconquered’) and it is by William Earnest Henley, who wrote it from his hospital bed:

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Greg, previous generations once bestowed the label of the ‘Greatest Living Australian’ to a Jewish soldier from Melbourne called John Monash who, like you, began his military career as a reservist in the Victorian Militia and, like you, volunteered for everything he could and, like you, never stopped trying to improve himself and, in doing so, stood out amongst all others.

Greg, we know that our generation’s place in the story that is Australia is still being written. We know that it is being written in the jungles of East Timor and, as we speak here today, by our closest mates in the snow-covered caves of Afghanistan. We don’t know what the final story of this generation will be, but we do know that on a rock in Williamstown, on the war memorial in Canberra, in our history books and in our hearts, there will be several chapters devoted to a young Jewish man who, at this time in Australia’s history, stood up and said ‘I am Greg Sher and I am ready to serve’.

Greg, from that day in 1986, when you, with your brothers and your parents, first volunteered to journey so far and become Australian, you have volunteered every day since. You have made Australia and this world a better place. You have demonstrated to all of us what it really means to be the master of your fate and the captain of your soul. We are all so much better for knowing and loving you. We salute you my friend and we will never forget you.

When I heard that eulogy along with my colleague the member for Hunter, I thought it was very moving. These were Australia’s finest and bravest coming together to pay their respects to their comrade. I cannot add to the eulogy, because its words encapsulate the life of Private Gregory Sher. But we must never forget the courage and the sacrifice of such young men nor the grief and loss endured by their families and friends. To Greg’s comrades and colleagues still serving in Afghanistan and elsewhere and whose jobs are difficult and dangerous in often harsh and bloody environments, I simply say that we are proud of your service to your country. Please know and understand that we are committed in our service to you. May Greg Sher’s soul rest in peace.

 

Mr FITZGIBBON (Hunter—Minister for Defence) (12.17 pm)—I begin by thanking the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and indeed all of those who will make a contribution to the debate on this very important condolence motion. For a defence minister such motions bring both pleasure and pain. The pain is obvious as we are reflecting on the loss of one of our own; nothing is more difficult for a defence minister. The pain far outweighs any pleasantness but there is pleasure. The pleasure comes from an opportunity to pay tribute to a great Australian, an Australian who made the ultimate sacrifice. He gave everything for his nation in a most courageous and professional way. We can all be very proud of all the men and women of the Australian Defence Force. We can certainly be proud of Private Gregory Sher, who was a highly trained soldier, a very effective soldier and a soldier of great courage. He is truly one of our finest in the Anzac tradition.

There are a couple of things which make Greg Sher’s loss not unique but maybe unusual. The first is that he is the first reservist we have lost in Afghanistan. That is sad, but it also helps to highlight the important role our reservists play in the Australian Defence Force. It demonstrates to the Australian community that reservists can reach the highest levels of training, professionalism and expertise—and Greg Sher certainly did that. It highlights to the broader community the important role they are playing in defending Australia’s national security. The second somewhat unusual—and, I would say, very unlucky—thing is that we lost Greg Sher while he was within one of our forward operating bases in Afghanistan. That is unlucky. Despite his high level of training, expertise and skill, nothing could have saved Greg Sher. He was literally a person standing in the wrong place at the wrong time.

When reflecting on these events, I think it is always important that we ask ourselves, as members of parliament, how we can say thank you for the sacrifices of people like Private Greg Sher. Of course, the most important thing is to commit ourselves to never forgetting his deeds and his sacrifices. Before the parliament today, I certainly make that commitment personally. He will take pride of place with those who went before him in one of our most important institutions, the Australian War Memorial.

The second thing is not so much a thanks directly to people like Private Greg Sher but a thank you that recommits us to ensuring that those who come after him, and indeed those who still serve, have all the capability, protection and training they need to allow them to do their job as effectively, efficiently and safely as is possible. This is an absolute priority for me and I know an absolute priority for the government. I have often said publicly that military planners spend a lot of time thinking about hedging against the improbable, and that is very important, but we need to spend at least equal time planning for, funding and creating the capability and training we need to ensure that the people who are doing things now on a daily basis in the most dangerous of circumstances have all the protection and capability they need and deserve. Again, I recommit myself to that very important cause.

The third thing of course is to finish the job, just as Greg’s mates finished their job by continuing on with their important mission despite the loss of Private Greg Sher. And they did so very successfully. Indeed, they met their main objective when they removed from the equation Mullah Abdul Rasheed, a key Taliban leader. Disrupting the insurgency leadership is crucial to better progress in Afghanistan and that is what Greg and his mates were going out to do after they were to leave that forward operating base on that fateful day of 4 January this year.

Afghanistan remains a great challenge but we must follow the job through. We must ensure that Greg Sher and the seven other Australians who lost their lives wearing the Australian uniform, and indeed the Australian recently lost wearing a UK uniform, did not give their lives in vain. Again, I say to those still mourning the loss of Greg Sher that we intend to continue on with our determination to ensure that Afghanistan does not once again descend into a breeding ground and a safe haven for those who train for and plan their acts of terror and give them application around the globe, including in our own backyard in this region and potentially right here in Australia. That is our most important task: ensuring the government in Afghanistan is able to take care of its own security in the long term and a government in Afghanistan, which, unlike the former Taliban regime, is not prepared to give a safe house to terrorist groups like al-Qaeda—groups which are prepared to perpetrate those acts of terror in the name of their extreme form of Islamic fundamentalism. Of course, there are other important tasks in Afghanistan, the least not being the opportunity to lift the Afghan people out of a life of abject poverty, to promote human rights—for example, giving women equal rights and the opportunity to secure an education—and to turn off that drug flow that produces around 90 per cent of the world’s opiates. They are drugs that fund terrorism both within Afghanistan—the money is used against our own troops—and around the globe. Some of those drugs obviously end up on the streets of Australia and in the arms of young Australians.

So the best way we can thank Private Greg Sher and those who went before him is to finish the job. As I said, we continue to remain committed to the job. There has been a lot of speculation recently about whether we would be asked to do more in Afghanistan and, as I have said publicly on a number of occasions, we will always consider any request from our allies to do more, because this is an important project. But there are some threshold issues: we would expect those undercommitted NATO countries to do more, we would expect the coalition to produce a new plan for greater success and we would expect the request to come with some strategic justification — that is, not more numbers for the sake of more numbers but as part of a broader plan to produce that greater success. And of course the risk analysis is always very important—that anything additional we might do carries acceptable risks in terms of the risk it poses to those who are fighting under our flag in that theatre. It remains to be seen whether any such request comes forward, but they are the conditions under which this government would give any further consideration to doing more than we are as a non-NATO country fighting a NATO mission. We are the largest non-NATO contributor and the 9th or 10th — the number fluctuates — contributor overall.

The other pleasant thing one experiences in the difficult event of losing a soldier is the opportunity to meet their family and mates. It never fails to amaze me how close our ADF community is and, when you break that down, how close particular units are—for example, the special forces family. I have had the great pleasure of meeting many of the people who trained with and worked with Greg Sher — and indeed trained him — and they are a wonderful group of people, committed to their work. I know they provided great comfort to Greg’s family and I want to pay tribute to the way they have handled the situation and for the support they have given to Greg’s family. It has been absolutely wonderful.

The member for Paterson read into the Hansard the eulogy for Greg Sher, presented by a very impressive young captain at the ramp ceremony when Greg returned home. It is interesting to note that the eulogy was written by a few mates in the pub late the evening before. I think there could be nothing more Australian than to have collectively scribed their tribute to their mate over a few beers in the pub the evening before. I thought some of them looked a bit tired that day. We would not deny them that.

Greg’s family and friends have established a website, which is quite unusual. It is http://www.gregsher.com, and I recommend it to members of parliament but also the broader community because if you go into that website you will see the extent to which Greg Sher was both loved and respected. There are pages and pages of tributes from a whole range of people who knew Greg Sher in various forms throughout his life, whether it was at school, in his work or through his involvement with the Australian Army. I recommend that; it is a wonderful tribute to a wonderful Australian.

Lastly, the family—what a wonderful family the Shers are: Greg’s dad, Felix; his mum, Yvonne; his brothers, both of them wonderful people; and his partner, Karen, who as much as anyone of course is feeling his loss very strongly. Families react differently to tragic events like this. Some cannot stop shedding tears. Others appear to be, if you like, much stronger, but on the inside the result is just the same.

The Shers have been very, very strong and very appreciative of the way the Australian Army have dealt with their loss. Felix specifically asked me to pass on his thanks during the condolence debate today. He was in awe of the way the Chief of Army and those under him have supported the family through their most difficult time. I should say, Mr Deputy Speaker, that since becoming the minister that has been my experience on each occasion we have lost a soldier in theatre. The Australian Army are very good at taking care of their own and very good at helping, in any way that they can, the families who have tragically suffered a loss. I thank them for that and pay tribute to them.

To Felix and Yvonne, to Steven and Barry, to Karen and the broader family and all Greg’s friends: I extend once again my deepest sympathy. One thing common amongst these families is that they always say that their son was doing what he wanted to do, he understood what he was doing, he knew the risks and was prepared to take those risks, and he fully believed in what he was doing for his country. The Sher family certainly fall into that category, and for that I pay tribute to them. They have been supportive of Greg in his ambition to rise through the Australian Army and his skill competencies and they remain supportive of his decision to deploy to Afghanistan, even though the outcome for them has been so tragic.

As others have said, Greg was a member of the commandos; indeed, the first commando company, based in Sydney, but more specifically the second commando company, based in his home state of Victoria. He previously had deployed to East Timor and was a highly decorated soldier. I will not go through the list of his awards again. That has already been done by others. Again, my deepest sympathies to the family and my thanks to Greg Sher for what he did for his country. He is truly a great Australian.

 

Mr ROBERT (Fadden) (12.32 pm)—Benjamin Disraeli said that the legacy of heroes is a memory of a great name and the inheritance of a great example. Private Gregory Michael Sher is indeed a great example to all Australians, and it is with great pride mixed with some sadness that I rise to honour this fallen warrior, the eighth since 2002 to give his life serving our country in Afghanistan. I pass on my sympathy and support to his family: his parents, Felix and Yvonne; his brothers, Steven and Barry; his grandmothers, Sylvia and Molly; his partner, Karen; and his aunts and uncles, Bertha and Harold Milner, Hazel and Alan Fine and Rael and Diana Dushansky.

Greg was 30 years old, a young man to lose his life fighting on a foreign battlefield. As we age in this place and around the country, age shall no longer weary Private Sher. Remembrance Day this year will see his name etched on the roll of honour, as Remembrance Day last year saw so many names etched there. As the ancient adage has taught us, ‘Good men must die but death cannot kill their names.’ Private Sher was killed in a rocket attack in Uruzgan province at the hand of Taliban insurgents. He was serving with the Sydney based 1st Commando Regiment as part of the Special Operations Task Group. Yet he was born a long way from these shores, in South Africa, and moved to Australia with his family in 1986. He fully embraced our great nation as his new home and joined the Army in 1998 as a reserve infantryman. In 2002 he served in East Timor and was subsequently awarded the Australian Active Service Medal, the UN Transitional Authority in East Timor Medal, the Infantry Combat Badge, the Afghanistan Campaign Medal, the NATO Medal and the Australian Defence Medal. His family describe him as a man of purpose and committed determination, a quiet achiever who always got the job done. I think we would describe him as a deadset hero and a man who truly put sacrifice above self.

Private Sher and those like him are beacons of inspiration for others who strive to defend freedom, restore peace and hope and provide a better future for the people they serve—those of Afghanistan. He fought for those who simply could not fight for themselves. He stands tall, as a man who believes that all people, wherever they may live, should have the opportunity to live in a better world that is free from violence, intimidation and repression. I know it can only ever be a small comfort to his family, but Private Sher sacrificed his life doing what he loved: soldiering and serving his country. The saying ‘We sleep safe in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm’ is attributed to George Orwell. If freedom is indeed the sure possession of those alone who have the courage to defend it, then Gregory Sher stands tall in this nation’s history as a man who had the courage to defend what he believed to be true—in the great tradition of Pericles, the ancient warrior, statesman and king, who founded the Athenian empire 2½ thousand years ago and led that nation for the first two years of the Peloponnesian War. Pericles once said that what you leave behind is not what is engraved on stone monuments but what is woven into the lives of others.

The Minister for Defence has just spoken eloquently about Private Sher’s mates. He painted a picture of the boys having a few quiet ales together in the pub the night before Private Sher’s funeral, reflecting on his life and drafting his eulogy. The minister painted a picture of what Private Sher had woven into the lives of others. Such memories cannot be outdone or outshone through monuments of stone; they live and breathe every day in the lives that are left behind.

This parliament is very proud of Private Gregory Sher. We thank his family for the great sacrifice they have made. It is unimaginable what it would be like to lose a son, but Private Sher died fighting for his country. He died proudly. He died a soldier’s death.

 

Dr KELLY (Eden-Monaro—Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Support) (12.37 pm)—Over the past year and a half in this place, I have come to appreciate that we do experience some very special moments and chances to contribute on very significant issues. This is definitely one of those moments. I deem it a very great privilege to be able to speak on this condolence motion for Private Gregory Sher. He was truly a great Australian, an extremely proud Australian. He lived all of his formative childhood years in this country and considered himself an Australian. He did not really know much about his background in South Africa; he was very proud to be an Australian. His family, his brothers and his partner admired and understood that about Private Sher.

As we have heard, Private Sher was killed in a rocket attack. During my year in Iraq, I came under rocket attack many times in that place and watched the destruction and devastation that can be caused by those attacks. I know what it is like to sit there and wash from your gear the blood of your friends; those consequences become apparent from those attacks. Today I send out my thoughts and prayers to Private Sher’s colleagues, because I know the impact of that experience on them. But I also know that, being the proud professionals they are, they will use this experience to steel themselves for further effort in our cause in Afghanistan. I salute their service.

I have spoken to Private Sher’s family, and they are wonderful people—Yvonne and Felix, Stephen and Barry, and Gregory’s partner Karen. They have made wonderful contributions to the Australian community in their own right. It was wonderful to hear Felix talk about the Australian Defence Force and the reserves who serve it. It was wonderful to hear his encouragement for those members, and for people who think about joining the ADF, to continue in that path. He understands the importance of that service and what it means to this country and the international community. So I salute the family of Greg Sher as well.

We have heard a lot about Greg’s biography, his background, and I will not go over that ground. I thank the members for Fadden and Patterson for their contributions, and I particularly thank the minister for his. But there is one aspect that I would like to highlight about Greg’s service—that is, he was a reservist. It is a privilege in my work in this portfolio to be responsible for the reservists. I do not think people truly appreciate, given that Greg Sher was a commando, what extra effort is required to achieve the qualifications of being a commando in the special forces, to pass all those courses we have heard about, and at the same time be an ordinary citizen going about your day-to-day life. Effectively, our reservists amount to twice the soldiers because of what they contribute to the community and then the extra effort they make, those extra yards they go, to serve this country as reservists.

We are so well served by our reserves. In recent years we have become more and more dependent upon that service. In the last financial year, over 1,800 man years of service was provided by reservists employed on continuous full-time service and a further 4,500 man years of service was delivered using reserve days. In addition to that, of course, we have had 3,000 reservists serving on ADF operations, both overseas and within Australia. Over the past two years those operations have included individual deployments involving particular specialties and skills. Our reservists have provided capability bricks in the Middle East and East Timor, carried out border security and UN duties and also served as subunit groups in the Solomon Islands. They took part in Operation Acolyte, which supported the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, in Operation Deluge, which was the APEC effort in Sydney, and in Operation Testament for the Papal visit to Sydney. So we are entirely dependent on our reserves to maintain our operational tempo. They are out there making every effort and committing themselves to the extra effort that is needed to prepare themselves for these operations, make that separation from their businesses and their employment and then come back and pick up the rope again to continue on. It was very special for me to welcome back recently the company group at Holsworthy from the Solomon Islands. I salute the service that our reserve forces are doing in the Solomon Islands. It will be a privilege to visit them later in the year. So that is a special thing to note about Private Greg Sher.

We have heard that Private Sher was also a member of the Australian Jewish community, and a very proud member of that community. That community has contributed great things to this country over the years. In fact, as has been referred to, our finest commander, Sir John Monash, was a member of the Jewish community. Private Sher was someone who imbibed the values of that faith very deeply. One key principle of that religion is the concept of the Mitzvot, in effect the need for every citizen to do good deeds. Private Sher lived that credo in his day-to-day life, not just in his ADF service.

He also imbibed the philosophy of the great Jewish philosophers over the years — this is really something we should absorb in relation to our struggle in Afghanistan and internationally against terrorism, or Islamist extremism — that there are great daunting tasks in front of us and we sometimes face them and say: ‘What can I do? This is a long battle; it will never be won through anything that I can do. I can’t see the end of this, maybe even in my lifetime.’ But the philosophy of these great Jewish philosophers was, ‘Certainly you may not be obligated to complete this task, but it is up to you to make your contribution, to make a beginning and to make an eventual contribution to success.’ Private Sher understood that — he understood that we were involved in an international struggle against this extremism. He understood the effort and the sacrifices and the threats of his coreligionists in Israel, and that these integrated and networked groups—Hamas, Hezbollah, al-Qaeda, Taliban, the Jemaah Islamiah group — all have similar characteristics at their heart. It only takes a cursory reading of the charter of Hamas to understand the medieval and desperate ignorance of these people and the destruction and negativity and nihilism that they represent.

I think it is important for us to understand that we are not involved in an international war on terrorism. We should take these opportunities when we have these casualties to continually remind the Australian public about what it is we are engaged in in this struggle at the present time. It is in fact a war on ignorance. That is what is at the heart of this struggle. That effort must be fought on many levels and the minister has made comment many times about the different levels, nuances and sophistication that we must bring to the effort in Afghanistan and about how it cannot be won purely as a military effort; how it must be won on many levels. So this is going to be a battle as much in the classrooms and madrasahs as it is in the battlefield. Notwithstanding that, we still need warriors like Greg to deal with those whose goal it is to deal out death and destruction to the innocents. So we continue to need people to join our struggle, to join the defence forces and to join the reserves, to make our contribution to that international effort. We have physically lost Greg in that battle, but as a member of the ADF I know and understand that you never lose one of your own. We will always preserve the memory of Greg in our hearts and our minds, and Greg has added now his own page to the proudest history in this country, the Anzac history. I salute Greg and I salute his family.

 

Mr SIMPKINS (Cowan) (12.46 pm)—On the first Sunday of this year an event took place in Afghanistan, a tragic event which took the life of one of our very good soldiers and a great Australian. That event is an example of the risks that are taking place every day for our servicemen overseas. I would like to make some comments today on the life and the service of Private Greg Sher. I will attempt to do it justice, though I have no direct knowledge of Greg nor was I at the ceremonies where others paid tribute to him. My past has some similarities, insofar as I wore the same sort of uniform as Greg. I would like to begin by talking about the comments that others have made in their writings about Greg—and I know of the great involvement of the member for Melbourne Ports in this matter. From what other people have said about him, Greg Sher seems to have been the classic special forces soldier—the sort we have all met through our service or our involvement with Defence. He was not a big man at five feet eight but he had a tremendous heart—not someone who was just physically tough but an all-rounder. He was genuinely interested in others—his mates and those around him. He was positive, enthusiastic and compassionate. He was a genuine and authentic person.

Mention has been made about the fact that he was a reservist. This is a very important aspect. It was typical of those who had not actually served with the reservists to be somewhat critical of them. They were considered part-timers or chockos. Yet when you work with these guys you begin to realise that they are really committed. They love what they do on a part-time basis. They love to serve this country. They make their contribution in civilian life, as most Australians do, and then they give up their weekends and holidays.

Then you have people like Greg, who joined the Army Reserve in 1998 and who by 2004 was seriously committed to undertaking the selection course for the Commandos. That is serious training and commitment to a cause. It comes through very strongly that he seemed to enjoy what he was doing. That is fabulous. He was genuinely committed to the service of this country and to his friends, and he was in a great situation where he enjoyed what he was doing. He was so very keen to participate, move forward and make an even greater contribution.

What also struck me was that in this country we try not to refer to people by names that would possibly be perceived as denigrating them on religious grounds, and yet in 5/6 RVR, the 5th/6th Royal Victoria Regiment, his initial unit, and then later with the Commandos, Greg was called first ‘the Jew’ and then ‘the Super Jew’. He was clearly comfortable with that. He was a man who was not afraid to be defined by his religion. But obviously his greatest definition was great actions and great commitment to his cause. What we see in Greg is the very best, an example of the very highest level of commitment by an Australian in the reserve service of the defence forces.

I also think of the great contribution that Jewish South Africans have made to our country. In Perth, in particular, we have a lot of people from South Africa of the Jewish religion. They make a fabulous contribution. They are involved across many sectors of the community. Private Greg Sher was an example of someone who took that a long way further. He put his life on the line for his friends and for a cause. It was clearly a job that he wanted to do and that he was fully committed to. He went a little bit further than most Australians in what he was prepared to do.

Greg made a great contribution to this country. It is a terrible situation when someone so committed, someone so authentic, such a good bloke, eventually gives up his life for that cause. I am sure that nothing we can say here will ever take away the pain and the hurt that his family and his partner, Karen, feel. Possibly, through the comments that I and others have made today, they will feel some alleviation of that pain. Greg Sher was the sort of guy that we could all look up to. He was five foot eight, but the stature of the man was clearly above most of us.

I would like to conclude by paying tribute to the contribution he made to this great country, the cause he fought for and died for. Sometimes it gets to the point where, for our freedoms, for the defence of the weak and defenceless, you just have to fight. This is something Greg knew and something he died for. I pay tribute to his sacrifice. He was a great Australian and we will miss him greatly.

 

Mr DANBY (Melbourne Ports) (12.54 pm)—It is only a little over two months since I spoke in this chamber on the death of Lieutenant Michael Fussell on active service in Afghanistan. It is with great sadness that I rise again to record the death of another brave Australian soldier. This time, however, the sadness I feel is a bit more personal because the death of Private Greg Sher in Afghanistan on 4 January struck very close to home for me.

The minister asked me to participate in the ramp ceremony, which I cannot say I appreciated or enjoyed doing, but it was my sacred duty that I did. It was an important thing to do on behalf of the family, but it is the hardest duty I have ever done since being elected, standing opposite that family as the body came back from the C17 through that group of his colleagues, the commandos with their green berets on. Standing opposite Felix and Yvonne as their son was returned in a casket was very hard for all of us who participated in it, but one can only imagine what the family has suffered and will continue to suffer through all the years with the loss of their precious eldest son, Greg Sher.

Greg had the honour of being a member of 2nd Commando Company, which is a subunit of 1st Commando Regiment, based in Sydney. It is the first reserve unit to have the honour of being included in formations eligible to go on active service in Afghanistan.

I want to thank the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition for their remarks about Greg in the House yesterday and the defence minister and the parliamentary secretary, the member for Eden-Monaro, for their comments here this morning, as well as members of the opposition. I want to thank them on behalf of the family, because they have really appreciated their input and the sensitive way that particularly the minister, who has regularly been in contact with the family personally, has treated them. I also want to thank all of those people who participated in that enormous and moving funeral at Lyndhurst on that blistering hot day in Melbourne, including the Deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard; the Leader of the Opposition; the Prime Minister; and the Minister for Defence. We also had a couple of very senior military leaders present there: the Chief of Army, Lieutenant General Ken Gillespie; and the Vice Chief of the Defence Force, Lieutenant General David Hurley. I know this mark of respect by the country’s political and military leaders was deeply appreciated by the Sher family and indeed by the 2,000 people who attended the funeral.

I join with the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in expressing my deepest condolences to Felix and Yvonne Sher, to Greg’s partner, Karen Goldschlager, to his brothers, Steven and Barry Sher, to all his family, to his colleagues in 2nd Commando and the Community Security Group, which he professionally worked in for some years. There were busloads of proud, leathered, former commandos who attended the masterfully organised funeral service, along with Deputy Premier Rob Hulls and, very interestingly, former signaller in 2nd Commando Minister Tim Holding, who is the local member. He was there with a bevy of orthodox rabbis. I want to record their names, because I want the family to know what honour was done to them. They were Rabbi Chaim Tzvi Groner, Rabbi Dovid Rubinfeld, Rabbi Meir Schlomo Kluwgant, Rabbi Sholom Mendel Kluwgant, Rabbi Mendel Groner, Rabbi Stephen Boroda, Rabbi Stephen Link and Rabbi Faitel Levin, and of course Rabbi Philip Heilbrunn officiated at the ceremony.

Greg Sher, as was said, was born in South Africa in 1978 and came to Australia with his family as a child. He joined the Army Reserve in 1998 and later trained to be a commando, a particularly skilled branch of the Army but also one with a high level of risk, as he knew. He was deployed to East Timor in 2002. For his service there he received several awards, including the Australian Active Service Medal, the UN Transitional Authority in East Timor Medal and the Infantry Combat Badge. In Afghanistan he was awarded the Afghanistan Campaign Medal, the NATO Medal and the Australian Defence Medal. Greg Sher was the first member of the reserves to be killed in Afghanistan. He is the first Jewish member of the Australian defence forces to be killed in action, I think, since the Second World War. I think he is the first reservist to die since Vietnam.

His friends and his family are also very proud. They are proud to have given Australia such a fine young man, willing to risk and ultimately lose his life for his adopted country’s service. They are also proud that he died working to free other people from tyranny and oppression. They are proud that a first-generation immigrant family could participate in such an elite unit as the 2nd Commando.

I have spoken in the House before about Sir John Monash, regarded by many historians as Australia’s greatest military commander. Like Greg Sher, John Monash was the son of Jewish immigrants, this time from Prussia, not from South Africa, who came to Australia in search of a better life and who valued above all the freedom, equality and opportunity that they found in this most fortunate of countries. In the First World War, as today, all members of Australian forces were volunteers. History has taught us many hard lessons, and one of them is that freedom is fragile and can never be taken for granted. Both John Monash and Greg Sher willingly volunteered to serve Australia because they knew Australia was worth fighting for and because they wanted other people to enjoy the same freedoms that we enjoy here.

There is a certain irony in the fact that the people whose freedom Greg Sher died for were Muslim Afghans, the long-suffering people of Afghanistan. As the member for Eden-Monaro alluded to, a very small number of people in Australia have sought to foment conflict between Jews and Muslims here based on hatreds imported from other parts of the world. Greg Sher’s life and death show that such efforts have not succeeded. He was a soldier who went where he was ordered to go but he was also a citizen, a very intelligent and very well read citizen, who knew exactly what he was fighting for and why. For him, the right of Muslim people in Afghanistan to live in freedom and security was just as important as the right of people in Australia or any other country to do so.

As I said in my speech on the death of Lieutenant Fussell, we in this place have no right to send young Australian men and women to risk their lives in foreign fields unless we are certain that the cause for which we are sending them to fight is a just one and that our objectives are clear and attainable. That was not the case, for example, in Vietnam, but I believe that it was very clearly the case in East Timor, where Greg Sher served with our peacekeeping forces. I also believe that this is the case in Afghanistan, although, as the Minister for Defence has explained to many people and as our military chief says, the task is a much tougher one. The defeat of multinational terrorism based in Afghanistan is vital for our own national security as well as for the people of Afghanistan. We are fighting in Afghanistan to give its people the chance of a better future free from violence, oppression, corruption and extremism. None of our boys who have died there died in vain — not Private Greg Sher, not Lieutenant Michael Fussell, not any one of the honoured eight. Counterinsurgency fights are often long and bitter, but I believe that we and our allies can achieve our objectives if we persist and that the sacrifices we are asking of our service personnel and their families will, in the long run, be worth while. That is certainly what Greg Sher believed, and we should honour his memory by ensuring that we do not fail in our mission.

As the member for Eden-Monaro said, I salute Greg Sher and his family. He would probably describe himself by the line in the poem Invictus, which he kept with him all the time and that is noted by all of his military colleagues as something that was very dear to his heart: captain of his soul, master of his fate.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Ms AE Burke)—I understand it is the wish of honourable members to signify at this stage their respect and sympathy by rising in their places.

Honourable members having stood in their places—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER—I thank the Committee.

Mr MARLES (Corio) (1.03 pm)—I move:

That further proceedings be conducted in the House.

Question agreed to

House of Representatives – Hansard – Wednesday 4 February 2009

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