Veterans’ Affairs and Defence Personnel


August 18, 2021


STEVE PRICE, HOST: It is Vietnam Veterans’ Day. Today we will talk to Ray James, President of the New South Wales RSL, about that and about the effects on Afghan veterans. Shayne Neumann is the Shadow Veterans’ Affairs Minister. He, like I, has done a lot of work in this region. I mean, I've done a lot of work for Wounded Heroes, with Vietnam veterans, with veterans from Iran, from sorry, Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. They've come back with some tremendously difficult problems to deal with. He's on the line. Thanks for your time. 


PRICE: Afghanistan and what we're witnessing in Kabul must be very triggering for a lot of those Australian men and women who served there over 20 years. 

NEUMANN: It must be, and I've spoken to quite a few people in the last few days who served there. People like Glenn Kolomeitz and Heston Russell and others who've been, and Jason Scanes, who've been advocating to the Government to take action to get the Afghan interpreters and embassy staff and contractors in their family's homes. It’s a confronting day. It’s also Vietnam Veterans’ Day and I want to thank Vietnam veterans for their service and sacrifice as well as Afghan war veterans as well. So, I want to thank them all. But I spoke to a couple of mates locally in my area who served over there and they're doing it pretty tough as well. So, I think of the Vietnam veterans today as well. 

PRICE: The Afghan returned soldiers would be thinking to themselves, some of them, not all of them, I mean, as you know, Shayne, because you've done so much work in this area, everyone deals with it differently. Those that have had a difficult extraction from the military, those that have used up their pension, those that have fallen to, you know, drinking, gambling, taking drugs and ostracised from their family, been involved in domestic disputes. They must be just thinking to themselves, well, look at me, and was it was it even worth my while? Why am I in this condition, when everyone's now walked away and let the Taliban take over again? 

NEUMANN: It's understandable. It's understandable. We've got mental health issues. We've got issues concerning how they feel about their service. They've been criticised, some of them fairly and many of them unfairly, in the media. And in reports, there's been obviously a monumental miscalculation of the capacity of the Afghan people to support the Afghan government. And we see that betrayal of the Afghan President fleeing the country. They must be feeling it. Can I just say to them, they gave women and children, particularly girls, educational opportunities and liberties they hadn't experienced before. They did engineering and infrastructure work in the community. And they were part of a combined effort to clear away terrorist cells. Many of these cells attacked Australians, Americans and others. So, I want to thank them on this particular day for the work they've done. But it's totally understandable that they would feel very downcast today and looking at those pictures, confronting, from Kabul and elsewhere.

PRICE: You know, you and I know, Heston well. He said that he wouldn't have survived a day there without his help from Afghan interpreters and locals. And, you know, we think of it because you and I never had to go and do what they did. We think of it as, you know, you're driving down the road and you need someone to give directions. So, you've got someone who speaks the language in your vehicle with you. But no, what Heston says is, these people were so attuned to the local conditions that they could say, don't go down that road, because on the left hand side there is an explosive device that might kill us all. 

NEUMANN: They kept them safe. They kept our ADF personnel safe. But not just them, the DFAT workers, the NGOs, the United Nations staff, you know, the Australian embassy staff. These interpreters put their interests aligning with our interests. And we've got a moral obligation. And Penny Wong is absolutely correct, you know, when she talks about the fact that we've got a national security interest. We need to be seen as a reliable partner in the future. In any warlike situation, in any peacekeeping operations, we need to be seen as an independent, mature, confident country that will stick by your friends and that's why we've got an obligation as well as a national security interest to protect them. 

PRICE: That's a good point she and you make because God forbid we ever have to go back. But if you do, you know, a lot of locals will say, well, don't go and work with the Australians because they abandoned us.

NEUMANN: We've fought a lot of wars, our country, since Federation and we've been involved in lots of peacekeeping operations. If we are seen as a middle power, a power that can be relied upon, and a people who can be trusted, we need to do this. And I call on the Government. People have been calling on the Government for months, if not years. I would recall, you know, Bill Shorten asking a question in Question Time about the fact that Jason Scanes up there in the Gallery and saying, you know, he couldn't even get a meeting with the Minister for Home Affairs to talk about interpreters getting them out at the time. And that was years ago, I remember, that particular thing in Question Time. And I can assure you that he and others, like Stuart McCarthy, have been advocating, irritating and annoying the Government. And Labor’s been calling on the Government to do more for months. It's no good saying, you know, it’s someone else's fault, events have overtaken us. The Government has a responsibility. You're not just in office, you're in power. You've got to do things. I hope they can get more people out. I hope they can work with the Americans. I hope the arrangement with the Taliban regime holds up so we can get these Australians and Afghan interpreters and their families out.

PRICE: Your leader said yesterday that Scott Morrison comes to these issues late. He did seem to change his language, Shayne, didn't he, yesterday in regard to getting more people out? I mean, unless my memory’s playing tricks with me, two three weeks ago, the argument was ah well, we don't know how genuine all these people are, we're not going to bring them all here. It's not fair until we, you know, check them out. Some of these people have been, you know, waiting on applying for visas for years now. The language does seem to have changed. 

NEUMANN: Well, that's the words that the current Defence Minister Peter Dutton was using not that long ago. You know, there were difficulties and delays, but there was dissembling yesterday. I couldn't believe the way he was parsing his words, the Prime Minister. You know, we've got Prime Ministers of both persuasions, Labor and Liberal, that stood up. I don't agree with everything they did. Look what Malcolm Fraser did after the Vietnam War. We took in tens of thousands of people, refugees. Bob Hawke, after Tiananmen Square did the same. Even Tony Abbott, who I thought was a pretty awful Prime Minister, even he took in 12,000 extra Syrian and Iraqi refugees. 

PRICE: Timorese is another. Timorese as well.

NEUMANN: Absolutely. You know, we've got to do better in this country. It's time for Scott Morrison to stand up, you know. Stop blaming others. Stop blaming circumstances. Take responsibility for once. 

PRICE: Good to talk to you. Thanks for your time, as usual. 

NEUMANN: Good. Good to talk to you Steve. 

PRICE: Shayne Neumann is the Shadow Veterans’ Affairs Minister. 300 or 400 Australians over there are still waiting. 400 to 600, I should say. Department of Foreign Affairs has a list of 400 to 600. I don't know why that figure is so broad. Mostly former interpreters, Australian embassy staff and their families. There are two Australian aircraft on the way there, Globemaster aircraft, who apparently are going to attempt to get in and out, though they'll transition in the Middle East and they will then try and get in and out of Kabul when they can get a landing slot. That seems to be part of the problem. And you saw the chaos on the ground at Kabul airport yesterday. You can't question as to whether you have to wait until it's safe to land. But when it is, we should do exactly that, what Shayne Neumann was saying, take out as many of those people as we can.