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ADDRESS TO THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES: AFGHANISTAN

August 24, 2021

I am pleased to speak on this motion today.

At the outset, Labor commends the 39,000 dedicated members of the Australian Defence Force, along with officers in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Australian Federal Police and other agencies, for their service in Afghanistan, often in difficult and dangerous conditions.

In particular, we honour the supreme sacrifice of 41 ADF personnel who lost their lives in the conflict during the past 20 years and we thank their families also for their ongoing sacrifice.

We know it's a very difficult time for ADF members and veterans who served there.

There are also those ADF personnel involved in evacuation operations now.

Some of them have been involved in working at RAAF bases and Army bases around the country, including Amberley in my electorate.

The situation in Afghanistan is fraught and fluid, and those people who are getting people out today and over the last few days, and who will be until the end of August, are doing a fantastic job – extraordinary - in very difficult conditions.

We thank them for it.

But many veterans are horrified to see the Taliban sweeping across the country, seizing ground for which they fought, scaring communities and making individuals afraid - people who they sought to help when their service was being executed in Afghanistan on our behalf.

Speaking to veterans in my community and from around the country over this past week, I know that many are frustrated, disappointed and heartbroken.

Our veterans need to know that they're not alone and that Australia is proud of their service.

That is why Labor has called on the Government to provide extra support for veterans who may be questioning the value of their service and sacrifice.

I telephoned the Minister for Veterans' Affairs last Monday and told him that the Government needed to be proactive in providing assistance for ADF personnel and veterans who may be struggling at this time.

I am pleased - and I want to thank the Minister for Veterans' Affairs - for the fact that the Department of Veterans' Affairs has been contacting families of ADF members who were killed in Afghanistan, as well as veterans the department is aware of who may be affected by what's happening.

I thank the Government for that and I thank the Minister personally for responding in such a way.

I encourage ADF members and veterans to look after their mates, to make use of the support available through counselling services like Open Arms and ex-service organisations like local RSL sub-branches, Mates4Mates, Wounded Heroes and Soldier On.

I know many of these people are angry. Many feel that the government has abandoned them, that it has betrayed the local interpreters and staff - their brothers in arms they call them - who helped keep them safe in Afghanistan.

For many months Labor, along with veterans, retired senior ADF officers and former Prime Ministers, have been calling for urgent action from the Government to honour our moral responsibility and obligation to those who risked everything to support our mission, even if that means processing their visa applications in third countries.

I spoke in Parliament on this issue back in June and urged the Government to act immediately.

My voice was just one of many, many voices urging the government to act.

Around that time veterans like Glenn Kolomeitz, Jason Scanes and Heston Russell were warning the Government that they only had a narrow window of opportunity get people out.

From veterans like these there have been numerous reports of hundreds of interpreters being killed by the Taliban in recent years and months.

By July other nations, like the United States of America, were airlifting their Afghan supporters before the Taliban took control of most of the country by early August, but stubbornly the Government refused to participate in evacuating our Afghan friends and participating in this mission offered to the government.

The Government dithered and delayed right up until Kabul itself fell, and so they were left scrambling to send our first evacuation flight on 16 August.

Just to show how the Government was caught short: they withdrew a motion on Afghanistan from the member for Fisher yesterday.

It was due to be debated yesterday, but some of the contents of that motion could have caused embarrassment to the Government and they had to withdraw the motion.

The reality is that for many months the Government has been sitting on its hands, quibbling about individuals' eligibility for visas.

Some have justified the delays by even suggesting the threat of a small number of individuals being linked to the Taliban.

The comments by some spokespeople from the Government are simply a disgrace.

It is not good enough for the Government to be treating people in this way.

They were suggesting, for example, that some of these people would have shifted alliances and so would be a threat to our national security.

No-one is suggesting that identity and security checks shouldn't be carried out in these circumstances.

But, make no mistake, our global reputation is at stake here.

It's not just a moral obligation. It's in our national interest to get these people out and honour our word.

If we neglect these people now we'll only compromise our ability to recruit local staff in future conflicts and peacekeeping operations.

Thanks to the Government's red tape and bureaucratic delays, we're now hearing reports of Afghans being overwhelmed by paperwork and process while their safety becomes increasingly precarious.

There are Australians today desperate and anxious about their family in Afghanistan.

They have been waiting months, and in some cases years, to get partner visas or family reunification visas issued and get their families out.

Now there is the prospect of people not being able to get to Kabul airport and having to run the gauntlet of Taliban fighters there.

Like many MPs, my office has received numerous requests from citizens, Defence personnel, veterans and Afghan Australians on behalf of family and friends stranded in the country.

Many of them are heartfelt, desperate requests and heartbreaking stories.

The Government's attempts to provide guidance and support to a community that has faced an incredibly difficult time have been woefully inadequate.

The shambolic way in which the Government has treated Afghan security guards who protected our embassy in Kabul is a case in point.

First, years after some had first sought asylum, the guards and their family members were shocked to receive mass-produced form letters from DFAT on Friday saying they had been rejected for the locally engaged employee visa scheme because they were not direct employees of our embassy - not that the Taliban would ever make that distinction.

They were told they needed to apply for one of 3,000 general humanitarian places and were encouraged to find a migration agent.

Then, late on Sunday, it appears the Government backflipped and tried to spin that the guards had been approved for visas in another unspecified humanitarian category, but their lawyer has said that the guards themselves have not been told this and that there is still no clarity as to what specific visa category they're eligible for.

Now we're hearing reports this morning that the guards and their families had been directed by DFAT to go to Kabul airport yesterday, only to have been turned away by ADF personnel because they didn't have visas in their passports.

Talk about red tape.

This is a disgrace.

 It's utterly chaotic.

The Government needs to fix this and fix this now. Peoples' lives are at stake.

One ADF member who has been assisting in my office tellingly said last week that he has a very different view of the Government he serves and the Government in general.

He simply couldn't believe that they had no plan to get these people out and was disgusted by the way his former interpreter and his former interpreter's family were being treated.

I can assure the House that, on the Labor side, we'll do everything we can to support people in their pleas to have their families evacuated to safety.

We understand that every case has to be considered on its merits, including security considerations, but peoples' lives are at stake.

The Government has been wasting precious time; yet, instead of taking responsibility for its failures, all we get is excuse after excuse.

The Prime Minister had to admit last week that events had overtaken us and that Australia won't be able to get out all the Afghans who helped us.

He says he wishes things were different.

I say to the Prime Minister: that's simply not good enough.

The reality is that, like in so many other areas, whether it be the vaccine rollout, the bushfire response, robodebt or veteran suicide, the Government's done too little, too late. 

The Sydney Morning Herald political and international editor Peter Hartcher wrote on the weekend:

There is no crisis so big or so urgent that the Morrison Government cannot find a rationalisation for avoiding it.

I agree with him.

The Government has been incompetent and out of touch.

The Prime Minister and the Government have been characterised by inertia.

I say to the Prime Minister and the Government: please do better for all of us and for our Afghan friends.

WE'LL PUT PEOPLE FIRST