Thursday, 26 August 2021
[by video link] In 2007, Jason passed the gruelling SAS selection course. Jason was trained to fight on land, water and air. The following year, during a parachute course, he broke his leg doing a jump. One of his mates recalled: 'Instead of sitting around feeling sorry for himself, he'd go down to the local shooting club in Perth every day. That was the type of person he was.'
In April 2010, Jason deployed to Afghanistan with his unit as part of Operation Slipper. On 13 August, Jason was part of a five-man patrol that had been involved in a disruption operation in northern Kandahar province. Towards the end of the operation, the patrol was faced with crossing a river before reaching their extraction zone. At 6.30 pm, as the Australians made towards the crossing point, they passed a dense thicket of vegetation along the riverbank. Without warning, the patrol came under heavy fire from a concealed weapon at close range. Jason, who was in the middle of the patrol, took the full force of the opening salvo. Despite wearing a helmet and body armour, multiple machine gun rounds pierced his side, and he fell immediately. His patrol mates reacted instantly, running 20 metres across open ground to come to his aid. One member of the patrol remained with Jason, his equipment and clothing being hit by enemy fire multiple times. From this exposed position, he fired on the enemy, killing the machine gun. This allowed another member of the patrol to move forward to help him move Jason and begin first aid. Despite their best methods, Trooper Jason Brown was dead.
Two members of the patrol were subsequently decorated for gallantry. One received a Commendation for Distinguished Service, and the other received the Star of Gallantry, Australia's second-highest award. Jason Brown was the 18th Australian of 41 to make the supreme sacrifice in Afghanistan. His body was repatriated to Australia, and his funeral was held two weeks later with full military honours at the Queen of Peace Church in Normanhurst, the same church where he'd been baptised and confirmed. Jason's uncle, Father Paul Fitzpatrick, celebrated mass, and more than 700 people attended.
Jason Brown was one of the many Australians who served in Afghanistan. For their service, our soldiers received commendations, medals and awards for gallantry, including four Victoria Crosses. I honour the service of our forces and thank them for defending our values and being prepared to serve and put their lives on the line for the cause of freedom. I also want to acknowledge the diplomats and aid workers in the AFP for their service too. While Afghanistan is in for some dark days, the service of our troops gave the Afghan people for the first time a taste of peace, stability and freedom, an education for women and girls and a series of opportunities that would never have been available to them. Whatever the Taliban may do, they cannot take away the ideas and knowledge that have been planted into the minds of the Afghan people. They will not be able to stop the quiet fluttering of the flag of freedom in the hearts of ordinary people.
Last week, I met with nearly two dozen members of the Afghan community from my electorate and across Sydney to discuss the crisis on the ground in Afghanistan. The group I met with, Lobby for Afghanistan, is made up of leaders and professionals from all walks of life, led by my friend Nasiba Akram. Nasiba made a home in my constituency after being forced out of Afghanistan after the communist coup in 1978. She was a member of the Afghan foreign ministry, working for their minister's office, when the Marxists overthrew the government. Nasiba has not only built a life for herself here but spent decades helping others do the same, assisting hundreds of new families to settle. She established a number of services to provide Afghans with education and access to mental health support as well as legal and social support as they try to build their lives in Australia. The discussion with my Afghan community was wide-ranging. We discussed increasing humanitarian visas and vital aid and for the treatment of women by the Taliban to be condemned in international fora by our government. Some participants also asked the Australian government not to recognise the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan.
Australia has been a steadfast contributor to the war in Afghanistan. I take our responsibility and our continuing obligation seriously. I support bringing the Afghans who assisted us in our work as locally engaged staff and their families to Australia to keep them and their families safe. Since 2013, we've granted more than 8,500 visas to Afghans under Australia's humanitarian program. That includes 1,800 visas to locally engaged staff and families. Around 640 locally engaged employees and their families have been granted visas to settle here over the last few months, and more than 500 have already arrived. The ADF has deployed more than 250 personnel and up to five aircraft to support efforts to evacuate Australians and visa holders from Afghanistan. Last night, around 1,200 people were evacuated on six Australian flights. They included Australians and Afghan nationals. In total, around 4,000 people have so far been evacuated on 29 flights in eight days, 639 of whom are already here, including 220 who arrived today. The Prime Minister has announced that an initial 3,000 humanitarian refugee places will be allocated to Afghan nationals. We anticipate that this initial allocation will increase over the course of the year. Australia will prioritise the offshore Afghan nationals within our humanitarian program in the year ahead.
Like our country, Afghanistan is also made up of resilient, vibrant people. Nearly 65 percent of the population is under twenty-five years old. The choices they will make for opportunity, education, and liberty will also determine Afghanistan's future. As Dr. Sakena Yacoobi of the Afghan Institute of Learning, which has opened schools for girls and women around the nation, wrote this week: "While we are afraid, we are not defeated." She added, "Ideas do not disappear so easily. One cannot kill whispers on the wind. The Taliban cannot crush a dream. We will prevail, even if it takes longer than we wanted it to."
[by video link] Of course, I'm supporting the motion moved by the Prime Minister and supported by the Leader of the Opposition. This is an alarming and difficult time for the people of Afghanistan, for the Australian-Afghan community and for our defence personnel who served in Afghanistan. The scenes of people fleeing through the streets trying to approach the airport in Kabul and trying to board planes have been distressing and disturbing. So many Australian-Afghan community members are worried about what will happen to family and friends that they are in touch with in Afghanistan. Of course, their fear is understandable. The last time the Taliban were in charge in Afghanistan, we saw all types of brutality and oppression, particularly for the women and girls of Afghanistan, ethnic minorities and anybody who opposed the Taliban rule.
The women and girls of Afghanistan have seen some real improvement in the 20 years since the Taliban was last in charge. We've seen rates of high school education increase by 600 per cent. We've seen women's life expectancy increase from 56 to 67 years. We've seen mortality during childbirth fall to a third of its previous level. More women are in paid work, in the public service and also in the Afghan parliament where they made up, until the Taliban was back in charge, more than a quarter of the Afghan parliament. We saw those improvements in the last 20 years and we see that the improvements are very tenuous now.
We don't know whether the Taliban will keep their promise to respect the rights of Afghan women. I think anybody who watched the way they ruled last time would be sceptical on this matter. There's still so much that needs to be done to achieve true equality for Afghan girls. Too many are still not in formal education. The progress that has been made has to be protected. It's no wonder that so many women and girls are fearful for their safety under the new regime. It's very important that the international community continues to do what it can to support the protection of human rights in Afghanistan, including the rights of women and girls and including, of course, the rights of ethnic minorities, religious minorities and those who disagree with the rule of the Taliban government.
It's important to soberly reflect on the way the withdrawal happened and what it means for the reputation of Western powers, including our very good friend and ally the United States, the NATO countries and others who still have personnel in Afghanistan that they're trying to get to safety now. It's important for us to think about whether the manner of this withdrawal has a long-term impact on geopolitics, not just of the region but also, more broadly, closer to home for us. However, we have an immediate responsibility to think about the way we help and support the Afghans who helped and supported our people when they were in Afghanistan: our soldiers, aid workers, diplomats and the Federal Police. Former prime ministers and members of parliament have all spoken about the need to help those who helped us. There's a moral obligation that's obvious here. People risked their lives and risked the lives of their families to help Australians when we were on the ground in a very dangerous place. We have a responsibility to help and protect them in return.
But there's another reason that it's important for us to do this. Our soldiers will be engaged in future conflicts—maybe next year, maybe next decade; we don't know when the next conflict like this will occur—and in those conflicts, when they happen, we will need to rely on local people to act as interpreters and security guards and to work with our people on the ground. The way we now look after the people who looked after Australians will really affect the way people are prepared to help us and our soldiers in the future, so it is important that we do everything we can to get people safely out of Afghanistan. We know that the humanitarian component of Australia's immigration intake wasn't reached last year, won't be reached this year and is unlikely to be reached next year. We need to make sure that we can safely bring people who assisted Australians in Afghanistan and their families here to Australia.
In Australia we have the luxury of not having to risk our lives when we disagree with our political opponents. That is not true of Afghanistan. We know there are people who need Australia's assistance and protection, or the assistance and protection of the international community—people like Malalai Joya, who has visited Australia in the past. She was elected to the Afghan parliament as a young woman who was outspoken, standing up for the rights of women and girls, criticising the war lords and their brutality. Having been elected to the Afghan parliament, she was then banned from the parliament for being so outspoken. What people like Malalai Joya face in Afghanistan today does not bear thinking about. We have nothing in our political system that allows us to comprehend the sort of fear that critics of the Taliban would be feeling right now.
I want to finish by speaking for a moment about the Australians who fought in Afghanistan. We know, of course, that 41 made the ultimate sacrifice, and their families, friends and comrades will be thinking about them at this time. But all of the Australians who served overseas with honour, representing their country in working with the international community to provide a better future for Afghanistan, would be having a very difficult time of it at the moment. We have not done nearly well enough in looking after our veterans when they have returned from conflicts, including Afghanistan. This has been a war fought by professional soldiers a long way away, and for some Australians that has meant it has been out of sight and out of mind. For those who served and for their families, it's been constantly in their minds, not just in the last few weeks, as the situation there has worsened, but for many years now. We need to do much, much better in supporting our veterans when they return and in supporting their families as well.
It's an honour to speak in support of this motion, put forward by the Prime Minister, which reflects on the commitment and sacrifice that Australians have made in Afghanistan over two decades. Each of the Australians who has served there—and we've had around 40,000 Australians who have been through Afghanistan, either in uniform, as defence personnel, or as civilians—has given something of themselves to help build that new nation; to help make it a better country; to help create opportunities for young women and girls to express themselves, reach their own conclusions, study, educate themselves, and do many other things besides. Today in particular I think of those many thousands of Australians who have served and given something to that country.
Some of them, of course, had to make the ultimate sacrifice. We lost 41 Australian lives in Afghanistan, and we should reflect upon each of those sacrifices and honour the memory of all those who were killed. Even among those who served and came back alive, a lot still carry the scars from their time in Afghanistan and the memories of what they saw there and what they experienced. I know this would be a particularly difficult time for many of them, soldiers and civilians, who gave of themselves to help build up that country. To have seen the country going backwards at an alarming rate over the last few weeks must have been particularly distressing.
I visited Afghanistan in 2011, only the one time, with then Prime Minister Julia Gillard. I was an official with the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. We flew in from Al Minhad Air Base in the UAE on a C-130. We visited the Australian contingent at Tarin Kowt. That was when we were in charge of one of the provincial reconstruction teams. We met with the soldiers. We met some of the civilians. We met some of the tribal leadership in Tarin Kowt. Then we flew on to Kabul, where we met with then President Karzai in the palace. We were also briefed by General John Allen, who was the head of the NATO International Security Assistance Force at the time. I recall that it was obviously still a tense time in the country. Even then, the Taliban remained a presence. There was a green zone inside Kabul and blast walls and patrols on the street. But there was certainly an optimism in the air amongst the leadership that we met with and amongst some of the new figures about the future that they were building in Afghanistan and the opportunities that they would have in that country. It's very sad to have seen the events of the last few days and the last few weeks and to know that those people and those individuals, some of whom we met then, will have seen much vanish before their eyes as military reversals on the ground have laid the pathway for the Taliban to re-establish themselves as the governing authority in Afghanistan.
I was opposed and remain opposed to the US decision to withdraw its presence from Afghanistan. I think it was a poor decision. It was also poorly executed. Most obviously, it's undermined civilian rule in Afghanistan, but, more importantly, I think, it's also sent quite a damaging signal to US allies around the world.
Whilst reflecting on Afghanistan, though, we should also reflect on the fact that we achieved a great deal. Al-Qaeda was rooted out of Afghanistan. Afghanistan was no longer an incubator or an exporter of terrorism to the rest of world, as it had been most dramatically in 9/11 but also, even before then, with the bombings at the US embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi in 1998 and the attack in the Gulf of Aden on the US naval presence there. All of these things emanated from Afghanistan and al-Qaeda's presence there. Our intervention in Afghanistan prevented al-Qaeda from regrouping and from launching further attacks against us elsewhere around the world.
In addition to doing that, we helped create a more modern and tolerant Afghanistan, one where women and girls could be educated and go to school, one where people could play or listen to music. They could practice arts, consume culture, make their own life decisions, receive a formal education, be involved in cultural activities and any number of other things—vote in elections, of course. They could express themselves freely, join an independent media organisation, publish opinion pieces in newspapers and record podcasts. We helped to make all of those things possible in Afghanistan, and I think we should look back proudly when we reflect on those achievements.
People say, and there were many in America who were saying, that the purpose of our mission in Afghanistan was not about nation building, and that is true to a degree. We can never create a nation. Ultimately, the people of that country have to build and secure that nation for itself. But while Afghanistan was never going to be a model liberal democracy, and certainly it would take generations for that to be the case, nor did it have to become a brutal theocracy. By withdrawing a presence that was modest by international standards, was sustainable, both politically in Washington and on the ground in Kabul, and was one where lives were not being lost—no NATO personnel had been killed in over 20 months in Afghanistan—I fear that we have accelerated the return of a brutal theocracy in Afghanistan.
Some people have also characterised this as a forever war; well, I don't buy that characterisation. I don't accept it. I think if it was an enduring commitment, the shape and nature of that commitment would obviously change over time, as it should. And the United States and its allies have made enduring commitments to a number of countries around the world for decades. The United States retains a sizeable presence in South Korea—tens of thousands of service men and women—a sizeable presence in Japan, and a sizeable presence in Germany. These commitments have lasted upwards of seven decades and have involved countless personnel. But it's what an enduring commitment looks like. In the Sinai Peninsula, US personnel and a US mission continue to serve in monitoring and ensuring compliance with the Israel-Egypt peace treaty. Sometimes an enduring commitment is what's needed to stabilise a situation around the world, and sometimes there is a value in equilibrium and a modicum of stability, even if you're never going to obtain perfection. I think that's an enduring lesson of statecraft, and one that, unfortunately, this US administration did not heed in its decision.
But we are where we are today. I want to reflect on the current challenges in Afghanistan. Obviously, our priority right now, in the immediate moment, is to get as many Australian nationals and permanent residents and their family members, and those who served or worked with the Australian presence in Afghanistan to safety. And over the last week since 18 August we've been successful in evacuating almost 3,700 people. Even overnight, on four ADF flights and one New Zealand Defence Force flight, we were able to get almost a thousand people out. Beyond that, since April we've been able to resettle and remove 400 of our locally engaged staff, people who worked with the Australian mission in Afghanistan, and we've removed 1,800 of those people since 2013.
Of course, beyond that we've had a broader humanitarian commitment to resettle Afghan people, and we've resettled almost 8½ thousand since 2013. It's important the commitment endures beyond this, but, regarding the air bridge in Kabul, the Taliban have given every indication that, come 31 August, they expect the presence of Western countries in Kabul airport to be finished. So this is a limited operation. We're obviously doing as much as we can in the time available to us, and given the very challenging security circumstances that we face, but, beyond that, we will have to make—and I'm pleased we will make—an enduring humanitarian commitment to Afghanistan to resettle refugees and people who are fleeing Afghanistan, people who will undoubtedly have a well-founded fear of persecution.
I lastly want to reflect on and thank the many personnel who are in Kabul, in the region and in Canberra, who are right now working around the clock tirelessly to allow us to conduct this operation in incredibly trying and difficult security and other circumstances. We have people from the Australian Defence Force, we have people from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, we have people from the Department of Home Affairs, we have people from the Australian Border Force—all of them working exceptionally hard right now to do the right thing by the people we are helping and to honour our obligations as a nation, so that we can acquit ourselves with honour by helping as many people to safety in the very limited window that we have available. Deputy Speaker, allow me to acknowledge and thank all of those who are involved in this operation for their service.
On the motion moved by the Prime Minister on Afghanistan, I want to thank him and the Leader of the Opposition and all those who have spoken on this matter. We have a very vibrant Afghan population in my electorate of Macarthur. I've helped train a number of medical students who have come from Afghanistan or whose family has. For over 20 years we have had quite a large Afghan population; in fact, for a number of years one of the local chicken shops was run by a professor of English literature from Kabul University. My heart goes out to them. My office is doing all it can, working with Minister Payne and DFAT to do what we can to support our Afghan friends and their relatives.
For me, this present situation is a very terrible repeat of what happened many years ago, with the end of the war in Vietnam. I was actually in Afghanistan in 1973-74 as a medical student for a brief period of time. I had taken some time off university and, with the help of Tom Stapleton, who was a professor of paediatrics at the University of Sydney, I got a job working with UNICEF to set up immunisation programs in the subcontinent, following a large refugee population moving down the east coast of India after the split of Pakistan into Bangladesh and Pakistan. As part of that, we were setting up immunisation programs, mainly for children, through UNICEF. I was based at the BCB Medical College in Orissa, on the east coast of India. We were providing immunisation programs throughout the subcontinent.
We briefly went to Afghanistan and met with some of the Afghani leadership. It was a time when the Prime Minister was Daoud Khan, who was part of the Afghani ruling family; he had broken with them, abolished the monarchy and set up a quasi-democratic Afghani government, which, for students of history, fell when he was assassinated in 1978. That led to the present Afghani war or Afghani insurgency, whatever you like to call it, which has gone on for almost 50 years since the fall of the Daoud government.
Professor Das was the leader of our delegation when we went to Kabul. I was quite optimistic about being able to help with immunisations for common childhood illnesses like measles, diphtheria, tetanus, polio—all those things—because we'd had some success in India itself, in Bangladesh and also in Pakistan. I remember, as we were flying into Kabul, talking to Professor Das with some degree of optimism, and he said: 'Well, don't set your hopes too high. This is a very difficult place to work in.' And it made me realise, and he explained to me, that Afghanistan was not one country; it was a feudal area ruled by a whole range of different ethnic groups. There are over 20 ethnic groups in Afghanistan. There are the Pashtuns, the biggest group, from which the Taliban are derived, and they rule certain areas. There are many others, from Turkmens to Tajiks to Hazaras. People are loyal to the leadership that will protect them, and many of those relationships have been built up over hundreds of years. How we deal with them is a matter of what the local warlords want, and that doesn't change. What happened was that the immunisation supplies were basically left at the airport until they were no longer useful, because UNICEF had a policy then, as it does now, of not paying bribes to politicians et cetera to use their services. So they were wasted.
We tend, from the West, to see Afghanistan as one country, but it is clearly not. What has happened in Afghanistan is very similar to what happened in Vietnam, with flawed military intelligence, flawed local intelligence and overoptimistic estimates of what could and couldn't be achieved. I remember General Westmoreland, in Vietnam, giving very optimistic assessments of how the war was going in his time there, and even afterwards, just before the Fall of Saigon, still being optimistic about how local governments could maintain nationhood in the face of local insurgencies. A similar thing has been repeated in Afghanistan, with some rapidity and very poor responses—too little, too late. We're seeing that play out now.
I want to give credit to all our armed services personnel who fought and who worked in Afghanistan, because I think what they did, their legacy, will live on. I certainly think that their efforts were not in vain and are not in vain now as they work to evacuate as many people as they can. I want to thank those who are there and all those personnel from DFAT who are working tirelessly to get as many Australians and people who supported Australia as possible out of the country. Of course, they are really dire circumstances, and my heart goes out to the Afghan people and all those who are suffering. I hope we can continue to provide support and I hope that we accept as many refugees as we possibly can.
I want to point out what a great support to the Macarthur community our Afghan citizens and those of Afghan origin are. I've seen many of them grow up and go through university. One, who went through our medical school, at the moment is training to be a neurosurgeon. Many others are doing medicine or law, or are teachers and nurses—they're doing a whole range of jobs in our community.
What we're seeing unfold is, of course, a tragedy. It is far too soon to be making any judgements about the effects of our presence in Afghanistan. I think, like Vietnam, the true effects will not be known for decades afterwards. I certainly will not be saying that our efforts were pointless, because I don't believe that's true. I think that the deaths of those 41 soldiers were not in vain. What they were able to demonstrate to the Afghan people is that there is a better way and there is a better life. I know that it doesn't seem now like that is playing out, but I think, in the future, they may well have made a very big difference. We have shown in particular that the education of women is a very important thing. We have shown the Afghan people that there is a better social way of living, and I hope very much that that will sow the seeds of something better in the future.
At the moment, it doesn't look like it, and my heart does go out to all those suffering in Afghanistan. I know there will be suffering to come. I personally do not believe any of the Taliban's statements that they are a more progressive party now than they were in the past. I don't think there is any evidence for that at all, and I'm very concerned about what is going to happen in Afghanistan. It's important to remember that what happened in Afghanistan was, as far as we can see, supported by other countries in the area. That leads me to a great deal of concern about what's going to happen now.
I acknowledge the difficulties that everyone is facing. Our brave men of the Defence Force are presently in Afghanistan, and I thank them so much, as I've said, for their service and what they are doing. I just hope that what they are doing now can lead to more people getting out. We have a real moral obligation to all of those who have supported us. I hope that none of our servicemen are hurt either physically or psychologically in that process. We have a lot to thank them for.
Brave Burnie boy Cameron Baird was the fourth digger to receive the Victoria Cross for Australia during Operation Slipper. He was the 100th Australian VC recipient. There would be no ceremony at which he would have the highest honour for gallantry and valour pinned to his chest. There can be no greater love than to lay down your life for your friends, and this is what Corporal Baird did. His VC was posthumously awarded. I remember, all too well, when then Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced the fact that Corporal Baird would receive this honour. Corporal Baird's parents were sitting just here, to my left. Afterwards, a long line of MPs went up to thank Doug and Kaye Baird for the service and sacrifice of their loved son. I well remember, through her tears, his mum saying to one of my colleagues: 'No—thank you. Thank you for giving us the honour of having our son represent his nation.' Corporal Baird's actions on his fourth tour of duty—think of that, his fourth tour of duty—in Afghanistan are as courageous as any in that long line of khaki stretching back to Gallipoli and beyond.
There has been a lot of commentary, given the human tragedy unfolding in Kabul over the past week or so, about whether the lives of Corporal Baird and 40 other Australians were lost in vain. But perhaps it's not for the media commentators in the safe sanctity of their television studios, or anyone else for that matter, to have that final say. It probably should be more up to the family and friends of those who laid down their lives for their friends to have that view. I phoned Doug Baird this morning, as I did back on 17 April, the day after Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the withdrawal of the troops from Afghanistan. Doug Baird, who's become a friend of mine, said it was a sombre experience. He said:
If my son's life has helped others to have a better life, to have a more secure environment, to protect the interests and freedoms and democracy of Australians, then that's a price he was willing to pay.
To that end, he was very thankful for the Prime Minister making that announcement back in April but also very thankful for the fact that people are saying to him, 'Thank you for your son's service.'
I also messaged Mark Donaldson, another VC recipient. He's also a mate of mine and he's one of the lucky ones who came back. He's now doing some great work with Boeing and some great work with veterans. He often gathers with his friends and his former comrades to talk about their service in Afghanistan, that troubled country. And today, as we reflect on the service and sacrifice, on the blood shed by Australians and others in Afghanistan, we say thanks to those brave men. And we should say thanks, each and every day, not just on Remembrance Day or Armistice Day, not just on Anzac Day, but every day. We should always remember what they have done for us.
Corporal Baird went through Kapooka. It's the recruit training centre for the Army in my home town of Wagga Wagga. There is a trophy which is given at each march out, in his honour, to the most outstanding soldier. Doug Baird said he looks forward, when COVID restrictions ease, to coming to Kapooka and attending one of those march outs. We should be very proud of those men and women who march out of Kapooka.
Another who has done just that is Corporal Daniel Keighran VC, who now serves in the Australian Army Reserve, posted to Army headquarters. He was on the ABC's Q&A last Thursday, and on the program he gave some timely insights, including this:
… as a veteran myself serving, I know there's a lot of hurt in the veteran community right now. Let me say that your service absolutely was worthwhile in Afghanistan. I know, myself, doing two tours, spending some 16 months outside the wire, as they say, I was fortunate enough to see that change. From my first tour in 2007 to 2010, I saw the change in the smiles on the faces of the kids from going from where they were in 2007 to 2010. The uniforms, the infrastructure projects—there was a real sense the country was turning around, without a doubt.
So it is quite disheartening, I know, as a veteran that has served with the Afghan National Army, that has fought beside them, that has lost mates on the ground over there, fighting for human rights, to see the scenes that are coming out of Kabul and Afghanistan now. So, for those veterans, my message to you is pretty simple: 'Hold your head up high, you should be proud of what you achieved.'
Darren Chester, member for Gippsland, former veterans' affairs minister, was also on that program. He talked about the need, the necessity, for veterans to reach out to those various services that are available—Open Arms, counselling for veterans and families on 1800 011 046, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and Safe Zone Support on 1800 142 072, a free and anonymous counselling line for current serving Australian Defence Force personnel, veterans and their families. When people call Safe Zone Support it's up to them to decide how much information they want to disseminate or not. The member for Gippsland also said:
… no Australian veteran, no serviceman or woman who served in Afghanistan, should feel anything other than pride in their mission that they were endeavouring to fulfil. They acted enormously with great integrity, with humility, with compassion, and also had to do a very difficult job, and they should be proud of what they did in their efforts to secure some form of peace in Afghanistan.
He talked about the dedication of our diggers and others that served in their role. He said:
They were looking to secure whatever an Afghanistan form of peace might look like. But, whether it was an intelligence failure over the last few weeks, or whatever has occurred, the military clearly wasn't capable of withstanding the Taliban, and the speed with which the country was overrun, I think, took everyone by surprise. And those scenes at the international airport, and the scenes we've been seeing on our news all this week would be disturbing for a lot of veterans.
So I'd encourage you to make sure you reach out to your mates. Call a few mates, see how they're travelling. I've had the chance to talk to a couple of family members who lost loved ones, both in Afghanistan, but also post the war – people who lost the battle at home – and they're feeling pretty bruised by what they're seeing on the news, and it's just important that people do reach out and support each other if they're having difficulty at this time.
They are fine words and they were eloquently spoken by the former veterans' affairs minister—and certainly by Daniel Keighran, VC, and also by Doug Baird. He spoke to me this morning about the quickness—that was the word he used—of how the Taliban has resumed control in that country. We know that the situation in Afghanistan is evolving rapidly. It's changing by the hour. It's volatile. It's dangerous. I want to thank those current men and women in uniform who are doing what they can, on the government's instruction and at the Australian people's request, to go in and save what they can and to attempt to get as many Australians and others out as they possibly can.
We acknowledge the more than 40,000 Australian Defence Force personnel and civilians who served in Afghanistan, who must be watching on with horror, as we all are, at the scenes that are occurring in Kabul, in particular. As the PM has said, Australia, working with others, sought to make a failed state a functional state. We call on, of course, the Taliban to cease all violence against civilians and to retain the rights that women have and have because of the efforts of our diggers. We say again to our diggers, to our brave men and women, thank you for your service. Thank you for your sacrifice. Thank you for what you have done in making Afghanistan a better place, and we hope that troubled country can find some peace into the future.
[by video link] I'm grateful for the opportunity to follow the member for Riverina, who gave the parliament a very clear and, I thought, a very important contribution in respect of the contributions made by fellow Australians, particularly in our defence forces, in helping rebuild Afghanistan and playing a part in providing security there. They did so at high cost, with a number of ADF personnel having lost their lives there. Forty thousand made a contribution, as the member for Riverina indicated. We here in Australia are obviously conscious of that contribution, but I think there are, in watching what's happened in Afghanistan, a lot of questions that have been raised, some that should be answered at another time. In particular, after a 20-year engagement in that country the question of how things have got to this is probably the thing that stands at the front of a lot of people's minds. Answers aren't necessarily ready to be put forward at this point in time, given that the focus is on saving a lot of people. It is difficult, as someone who has vocally and openly supported the engagement that we made as a nation in Afghanistan 20 years ago in the aftermath of September 11, with the priority to track down those who had aided, abetted, encouraged and, in fact, planned other terrible events—notably through al-Qaeda, who had set up a presence deep in Afghanistan and needed to be tackled. It was important for us to deal with that, but it was also important to provide longer-term security and help for Afghanistan.
Besides Australian defence personnel, there were a lot of people in the NGO community who had worked with local communities in various parts of Afghanistan to try and restore life, improve the quality of life for people there. Given that long contribution, to see where we've got to now is not only difficult for veterans here who are having to watch what has occurred in a country where they have made a very noble and important contribution but difficult for other Australians as well who had done likewise.
As someone who represents nearly 1,500 people of Afghan heritage in my own electorate, I appreciate the impact on Afghans here in seeing what's happened over there, plus the wider concern in the broader community about what's gone on and a feeling that we have not acted, which is often the case, quickly enough, surely enough, comprehensively enough to help friends out, particularly Afghans who, in Afghanistan, risked a lot to help us. It is important to point out that they undertook work with Australians, either in the ADF or elsewhere, at great personal risk. We've all been taught to back people who had backed us, to help those who had gone out of their way to help us. I think that is the big thing that a lot of Australians cannot fathom, that we have been slow, in particular the government has been slow, to act on this. They may emphasise now how quickly they have moved, but this has been a situation that's been developing for some time. Regardless of politics people have called up politicians, in particular former prime ministers of both political persuasions, and urged this government to act much more forcefully, and with greater energy and speed, in particular to help those who had put themselves in harm's way. It's been enormously frustrating and concerning that that was not taken up earlier. Now we are playing catch-up when other nations have moved a lot more forcefully to address this situation.
In trying to extend assistance to Afghans in that country right now who are trying to flee, the way in which it has been made difficult for them to do that, based on some of the approaches used by this government and its arms, at various points in time—it had been noted, for example, yesterday that Afghan interpreters, who've worked with Australian soldiers, were told by Australian officials to send their visa application in the post when they needed to be evacuated. I don't think anyone out in the broader community would think that that is a satisfactory or a proper way in which to assist people in such a life and death situation. There certainly wasn't a need for this when the US government stepped up and evacuated some of these families. People are having to wait extraordinary numbers of hours outside Kabul airport to try and get assistance—as has been raised in the last 24 hours
As I said, the impact of this is being felt by people in our area who are gravely concerned about the situation. I've received hundreds of contacts from people locally who have raised their concerns about what has gone on. On the weekend I hosted an online forum with people who had contacted me locally, many from the Afghan Australian community, joined by the shadow minister for home affairs, Senator Keneally; SydWest Multicultural Services CEO Elfa Moraitakis and the Mount Druitt Ethnic Communities Agency manager, Daniel Gobena. We all heard from residents about the fears they had for safety of family in Afghanistan who are around the airport and trying to flee the country.
One constituent shared the story of her brother, who used to work with the Afghan government and who was killed recently by the Taliban. Her family had to flee and are trying to find a way to get here safely. Another shared her story about her mother and sister. Her sister had worked as a midwife in the US aid program and they applied to come to Australia. But because, sadly, her mother passed away during the application process the department rejected the application as the mother was the main applicant and the sister was the secondary applicant. This doesn't take away from the situation that her sister faced in Afghanistan, but it highlights the serious flaws in the way in which we process some of these visas and the application system which basically surrounds it. This resident is still willing to sponsor her sister but our government has not been as helpful as it could be there due to these processes.
This is the frequent concern that is being raised by my constituents of Afghan heritage who are trying desperately to save their families. They want processes that are easy to navigate and where they don't have the bureaucratic run-around. Some of them are concerned, for example, that if there is one error in their form then the form and the whole process is reset and they're forced to go to the back of the queue as a result of something which could be addressed quite easily and which would literally be a life-and-death decision for some people. That is what their concern is if they're forced to go back. They also want all Afghans to be treated equally. There are Afghans of various backgrounds within that nation who have made a contribution and are expecting that we would have their backs when they had ours. We should certainly make sure in the way that's done that we don't have an overly bureaucratic, red-tape-laden approach to the way in which people can apply to flee. We should be doing more to help out in that way.
The other thing that I'm very concerned about is the fact that we don't have any sense of how the 3,000 places that have been set aside in the current humanitarian intake were determined, when other nations are clearly stepping up to do more. While I'm heartened to hear that the Prime Minister said he would be willing to acknowledge that this is not a floor but that it can be lifted up, I think the key will be not only to provide additional places but, as I said, based on what I'm hearing from Afghan Australians, that the process is not overly difficult.
What we also don't need to hear, quite frankly, are some of the things that suggest why that assistance hasn't been provided. For example, in the last week there was the suggestion made by the Minister for Defence that some Afghan interpreters weren't assisted because there were concerns that they might be part of some sort of terrorist group or have some sort of terrorist question mark hanging over them. If there is proof of that he should step forward with it. We've had episodes in times past with suggestions that people fleeing persecution are doing terrible things, or might be in the process of doing terrible things, and where that simply was not sustained. Anyone who looks at the history of the scandalous 'children overboard' saga would know that we do not need speculation made by people in significant positions in government. They should have evidence based ways in which they make those claims and back them up. We don't need that type of rhetoric ramped up and used at such a difficult time. People should be using their heads a lot more clearly.
We owe it to people who helped us to help them out in their time of need. People do not need to be given the run-around; they should be backed up, they should be supported and we should do what's right. We should not be seen as a nation who, when people help us, aren't there to help them. That is my big concern coming out of this. For people in my constituency: I will absolutely speak up for them. We will work to help them wherever we can and we hope that the federal government does the same.
I think that our withdrawal from Afghanistan was very well highlighted or described by the Deputy Prime Minister when he spoke in this place, I think it was two days ago. He said that we should never forget why we went there. We went there after the two planes were flown into the World Trade Center and another one into the Pentagon. We went there to protect Australian lives after the nightclub bombings at the Sari nightclub in Bali and other attacks right around the world. And, while the world has not been all sweetness and light in the period since we went to Afghanistan, there has not been an expansion and an explosion of those types of terrible, random terrorist attacks, so we largely have achieved exactly what we went for.
We stayed longer and attempted to build a successful, democratic society in Afghanistan. That has proved more difficult. Certainly, there have been great improvements in lifestyle and in opportunity, particularly for women but not only for women. It's quite some time since I was in Afghanistan; I was there in 2012, and I'll come back to that in a moment. But, when we look at the deeply disturbing pictures coming out of Kabul at the moment, we can see in the backdrop that there is ample evidence of a very civilised and successful lifestyle that has been occurring over the last few years. When we see the photos of people working at the fronts of the shops and painting out images of what is now the past regime, we can only reflect on the fact that those images are so much like the ones that we see around us in successful societies like Australia. So we have achieved so much.
I did have an opportunity to go there—I think, without looking at my records, in 2012—as part of the Australian defence exchange. We landed in the United Arab Emirates. We were at Al Minhad—which is being used again now, and is still used by Australian forces—where we were briefed on going into a battle zone. We went to Kandahar, which was one of the large international bases there. I am reminded that, at the time, it felt a little bit like a Star Wars episode inasmuch as there were people from nations all over the world, such was the scope of this international intervention. And, of course, we went to Tarin Kowt, which was, largely, the Australian base. It was there that we had an opportunity to speak on an intimate basis with those who serve in our defence forces.
By and large, it was a volunteer operation in the forces. Those who were there were there by choice, and it wasn't hard to find volunteers in the Australian defence forces to go there. One young trooper described the situation to his father—a friend of mine, who was a diesel mechanic. His father was a bit put back by the idea that his son was going to Afghanistan. His son said: 'Dad, it's like this. You're a diesel mechanic. You're trained to work on engines. How about if, when you'd finished your training, they'd said that you weren't allowed to work on engines. I'm trained to defend our nation. I trained in the Defence Force. This is what I trained for.' So many of the people that I spoke to on an individual basis said: 'This what is we are. This is what we do, and we are pleased to be here for Australia.' Many, I must admit, in the Regular Army said: 'I'll only be doing one tour, if that can be the case. I wanted to come here and see what it was like and test myself. I'm pleased I've done it, but maybe I won't put my hand up the next time.' By comparison, when we met with the special forces—in this case, the commandos—it surprised me how many times some of them had gone there. Some had done five tours. It is a concern to me that somebody would go in and out of a battle zone on such a regular basis and then be expected to reintegrate into our regular society when they come back to Australia. This is why we need to take continuing care of people.
There have been enormous advances in managing Veterans Affairs even over the time that I've been in parliament. There is much more care and consideration, and much more effort is going into tracking these people and staying in contact with them after they've come out of a battle zone like Afghanistan. The numbers tell us that we can still do a lot better. And, particularly as we are speaking about Afghanistan today, I remind all of those veterans who have served in that arena: if you need help, that's what Veteran Affairs are there for. If they don't answer your call, call people like Rowan Ramsey or your member, and we will make sure that they listen to you. In fact, I was speaking to a veteran only in the last 48 hours who had not received the service he thought was due to him—not an Afghanistan veteran, but certainly somebody who had spent a long time in the Australian forces. That is our duty. John Howard said recently that there's no hierarchy of sacrifice, and he's completely right. The moment that our defence forces sign on to go and serve, they know that they may be called upon any time to do so.
On Afghanistan itself, and the evacuation at the moment, it's no surprise and no secret that nations, including Australia, were ill prepared for the rapidity of the fall of the former regime. But we have risen to the case, and the Prime Minister has reported that over 4,000 have now been evacuated. I think that's a sterling effort. There will undoubtedly be more, and we will try to assist in any way we can in the future. To all those who have helped with the coalition forces in Afghanistan and, particularly, helped with Australian forces, I wish you well, and I wish all those who have served in Afghanistan with Australian forces well. I thank them all for their effort, for their sacrifice, for their contribution. And to those families who have lost loved ones there, the whole nation thanks you. This is a sombre time for us all, as we recall how and why we exist as a democracy and what we need to do to help others around the world.
Before I prepared my remarks this morning for this debate on Afghanistan, I had cause to give a phone call to Warrant Officer Class 2 Brian McGrath—or Brian, as I generally refer to him—a good mate of mine who resides in the suburb of Dapto in my electorate. He is quite an extraordinary character. He did the reverse of what many do. He joined as a Reservist at the age of 30 and then enlisted as a full-time member of the Australian Army some years thereafter. I want to thank him for his service. He did his tour of duty. He's a sapper, and it was his job to train those who were arriving in Kabul in explosives and the risks of explosives. I have no doubt that the work he was doing kept many Australian men and women alive. So, I thank Brian.
And I'll start by thanking the 26,000 other Australians who served their country by serving in the ADF in Afghanistan over the past 20 years. I also want to honour the ultimate sacrifice made by the 41 Australians in uniform who sacrificed their lives on our behalf in Afghanistan. We cannot begin to contemplate the grief that their families share and that is revisited on occasions such as this. It's going to be a very tough couple of weeks for the families of those Australians. But we do in some small way share the loss that their families, friends and comrades feel today.
Afghanistan was our longest-running war and in many ways our costliest. We measure that cost not just by the lives of the 41 Australians lost on the front line of the conflict. There are also those soldiers who survived their tour but lost the battle at home, and there are those who continue to live with post-traumatic stress disorder. I'd like to pay tribute to organisations like Open Arms and Soldier On and encourage any of our ex-service men and women to reach out to them. They're doing a great job—a much-needed job. But the fact is that we're not doing enough to support our veterans on their return home. As a nation we were too slow to recognise the burden they carried on their return and were too slow to respond. But in counting the cost of our involvement in Afghanistan we cannot look only here at home. Civilian deaths are estimated to be at least 50,000 people, including may women and children. There are also about 70,000 Afghan National Army members and local police who lost their lives during the 20 years of conflict. In a country of 39 million people, 120,000 dead is a huge number. As many here in Australia wonder whether the cost was worth it, now that the Taliban are back in power, I'd like to think that the families of those 120,000 people in Afghanistan are asking the very same question.
Tragically, we're not yet in a position to judge the final cost of this war and our involvement in it. The chaotic and deadly scenes we've seen in Kabul over recent days will add to the toll. I'd like to pause at this point to honour the excellent work that has been done by our ADF forces and diplomats, the men and women, as they work under unimaginable pressure to bring as many people out of Afghanistan as possible. They've been hamstrung by a government that was not on top of the situation early enough, but their work is important and dangerous and we support them. The long-term cost is going to be very hard to judge. There's little reason, on the evidence, to trust the Taliban when they say that they have changed, but we live in hope. The days of Afghan women in parliament and Afghan girls attending high school seem to have tragically come to an end.
Reasons will be raised about the West's commitments to the people of Afghanistan in the face of our withdrawal after such a swift return of those we sought to oust. While the invasion of Afghanistan was absolutely justified by the 9/11 attacks, America and her allies must confront questions about the misery that was to come for two decades that followed. Objectives became opaque and resources were spread too thin. Once the initial operation to remove the Taliban had succeeded, we saw the limits of our efforts in a foreign state building. Australia was dragged into the quagmire and so was the Afghan population. Two decades of significant advances in human rights and basic infrastructure were achieved. This is not nothing. I saw this for myself when I visited Kabul in 2018. The advancement in education and basic human rights for women was significant and heartening to see. But the Taliban have shown patience can trump military might, and those advances are now all but lost. Much of our presence in Afghanistan was justified by the need to deny safe haven for international terrorist groups. Any success that we may have claimed on that front has now been reversed as well.
The Taliban's stunning victory will inspire jihadists around the globe. Islamic State and al-Qaeda both have presence in Afghanistan from which to rebuild. Nothing can make this right, but we can make it worse. If we fail to keep our word to the brave Afghans who drove our men and women around, interpreted for them, worked in our embassy or otherwise helped, our mistakes will be compounded. We must bring them out of Kabul and to safety. This is now a matter of national security. It is also a matter of national honour.
There's more that we can do. Around 4½ thousand Afghans already live in Australia on temporary protection visas, many from ethnic minorities that would face certain death at the hands of the Taliban. Their families still reside in Afghanistan. We must demonstrate to them and to the world that we will never force them back to Afghanistan. We must give them immediate and permanent protection. This is now the only good thing that can come from the fall of Kabul and the 20 long years of much sacrifice of Australian lives and effort since our first involvement in this long bloody war. I thank the House.
I rise to support this motion and to recognise the many contributions of the members of this House, including those contributions from members who are veterans and have served our nation in uniform.
It's almost 20 years since the shocking attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Images that were broadcast in real time around the globe were seared into the minds of a generation. I don't think any of us will ever forget those haunting scenes. I can still remember watching them like it was yesterday. At that time, al-Qaeda was based in Afghanistan and working closely with the Taliban. The terror that was unleashed on that day in September posed a real threat to the security of the world, our region, and our nation. With freedom in peril, Australia stood up to defend it, just as we have always done. The ANZUS treaty was invoked for the first time in our history and NATO declared those attacks to be taken against all member countries.
It's also important to recall that on 17 September 2001 the parliament and this House came together in a sombre session to support Australia's commitment to take action against terror and those responsible for the atrocities. Operation Enduring Freedom commenced on 7 October when the United States and allies conducted military operations against al-Qaeda and Taliban targets in Afghanistan. Australia and its allies were united in our fundamental beliefs in freedom and the fight against terror.
On 22 October the first contingent of the Special Forces Task Group was officially farewelled in Perth as they departed to assist our partners and allies on the ground as part of Operation Slipper. At the time, Afghanistan was a hotbed of terrorist organisation and training. And over the ensuing two decades, the men and women of the ADF helped put an end to that and, in so doing, made Afghanistan and the world a safer place. We will never know how many acts of terrorism and murder were prevented through their efforts.
Last week I called together members of the veteran and defence community, including ex-service organisations and those who served in Afghanistan, to hear their views on supporting veterans affected by the tragic unfolding events there. The younger veterans who served in Afghanistan were united in their view that they were highly successful both militarily but also in making life better for the people of Afghanistan. As one veteran said, 'Every single one of us that went knows the difference we made on the ground when we were over there.'
The men and women of the ADF can take great pride in their achievements. They were respected by our allies, feared by our enemies and greatly appreciated by the people they gave so much support and assistance to. Our Australians played a critical role in the reconstruction task force. They helped build schools and medical centres and ran clinics. They also helped ensure that the people of Afghanistan were able to access electricity, that girls were given an education, and that women were given a chance to work and have a career for the first time. This is the story that our veterans want told. They want their families to know, they want their friends to know, they want all Australians to know what they did there. Children of our veterans should be very proud of their mothers and fathers and know that their service was with courage, honour and dignity in the finest traditions of Australia's armed services and that their service meant something and that it did make a difference. Nothing more could have been asked of our Afghanistan veterans, and nothing more could've been asked of Australia.
The events unfolding in Afghanistan are grim and tragic. I know I join many others in this House in hoping that freedom's light will find a way to keep shining in some way, in some form, in Afghanistan. The people of Afghanistan who worked so hard to build a future for their families and their country deserve our support. As of today, some 4,000 people have been evacuated from Kabul by Australia in the most difficult and dangerous of circumstances. We will soon be leaving Kabul, but Australia's efforts to help those in need and fear will not end with the airlift.
Supporting our veterans at this time is crucial. At my direction, the Department of Veterans' Affairs has been contacting the families of Australian Defence Force members who lost their lives in Afghanistan as well as any veterans the department is aware of who could suffer adversely as a result of what is currently happening there. So far the Department of Veterans' Affairs has contacted over 320,000 veterans and their family members to let them know support is there if they need it. I urge anyone who served in Afghanistan or their family members to reach out for that help, for that support, if they need it. It's there 24 hours a day, seven days a week through Open Arms on 1800 011 046, or, if you would like to remain anonymous, you can call Safe Zone Support on 1800 142 072. And there is something that all of us may be able to do. If you know a veteran, please give them a call to say g'day. Pick up the phone in this difficult time. Take the time to check in on a mate and see how they're going. A friendly voice over the phone can make all the difference, especially in this time of isolation and lockdowns.
There were 39,000 veterans who served in Afghanistan, and we have ADF personnel in harm's way in Kabul as we speak. To the men and women of the ADF and our veterans, we want you to know how proud Australia is of your service. We want your families to know how grateful Australia is to them as well. The sacrifice that family members endure for our country is enormous too, and it needs to be acknowledged by this House and our nation.
Lance Corporal Jared MacKinney lost his life 11 years ago while helping a mate, fighting the Taliban at a place called Derapet. He was a husband and a father of two who never got to meet his son Noah. It was during that action that Corporal Dan Keighran was awarded the Victoria Cross. Jared and 40 more of our fellow Australians lost their lives in Afghanistan. To Jared's wife, Beckie, and all the family members of Australia's fallen, who will always carry that grief and loss, our hearts go out to you today. Australia will never forget you or those you loved so much and what they did for our nation. Lest we forget.
The crisis in Afghanistan can only be described as heartbreaking. It's heartbreaking for the people of Afghanistan, for the families in Australian Afghan communities, for the women and girls now facing the prospect of a cruel regime and for Australia's friends, the Afghan staff who supported our military and our diplomatic operations for more than 20 years. There is great relief that the Australian Defence Force has been able to carry out some rescue missions, taking Australian citizens and visa holders to safety, and Labor strongly supports these efforts. Our thanks go to the personnel and the officials from the departments of foreign affairs, home affairs and defence, who are on the ground and have assisted. Nonetheless, it's obvious to all that these efforts should have been scaled up sooner. The Morrison-Joyce government's actions, while saving the lives of some people, are leaving others at great risk. As usual, it's the bare minimum coming too late.
I think it's really important to try and paint a picture of some of the people who are still in Afghanistan or who have managed to escape. I'm going to share stories that were shared by the member for Bruce. He told of Razia, an Australian citizen who fled from the Taliban 14 years ago. Her mum and sister are still in Kabul, not even able to leave their home to get food. They've been waiting four years for the Morrison government to process their visas. He also shared the story of Ali, another Australian citizen, who was in Kabul with his pregnant wife and two-year-old Australian child. He was there because he's been waiting three years for the Morrison government to process his wife's visa. Even though it was finally granted last week, Ali was beaten trying to get to the airport. The positive news is that he has made it home as one of those rescued.
These aren't isolated cases. These Australian citizens and people who have been given visas should have been out of Afghanistan; they should not have still been in Afghanistan. They should have been out months ago, if not years ago. You have to wonder why it takes, on average, 43 months for people from Afghanistan to be granted a spouse visa when it takes seven to nine months for Americans or western Europeans.
As we discuss Afghanistan, I want to acknowledge the people who stood with Australia. For many months, veterans, former prime ministers and Labor have been calling for urgent action to fulfil our obligation to Afghans who've put their lives and their families lives on the line to support our mission. I can assure veterans that Labor will always stand by the people who stood by them.
When people in my electorate contact me about individual cases, every one of them makes me want to bring that person home. James, who worked in Afghanistan as part of an international project cataloguing artefacts damaged by the Taliban, fears for the lives of Afghanis who worked alongside him and other Australians in various capacities, as one of them said in an email to him in the last couple of days, 'Now my life here is under threat, as I worked with some foreigners; I really fear for my life and my future.' It's just as simple as that. It isn't good enough for the Prime Minister to say, 'We wish it were different,' as though he has no power to change things or to have done things better. He is responsible for those lives, and some of those lives will be lost because he failed to bring these people to Australia sooner.
The response by the government of 3,000 visas—not new visas, but through our refugee quota—is too little. This is a time for urgency and simplicity. Labor's been calling on the Morrison-Joyce government to fast-track this process for months. Mr Morrison should have been working with coalition partners and arranging evacuations months ago. The procrastination is risking lives.
In 2008, in similar circumstances, when Iraqis were being given visas to Australia, there was a bipartisan effort to send a team of government officials overseas to assist them in completing applications. Former Prime Minister John Howard is right when he says that the Morrison government is hiding behind narrow legalism and shirking our profound moral responsibility. To those who have no heart and want to turn acts of compassion that other Australian governments had no problem doing into something that is isn't, I want it to be very clear: every case must be considered on its individual merits, including security considerations. But the Morrison government's delayed response pales in comparison to what other countries see as the right thing to do.
I want to turn to the emails and conversations that I've had with Australian veterans who served in Afghanistan. The members for Solomon, Canning and Herbert in this place need to be acknowledged for their efforts. There's no doubt that they and other personnel who served helped create an environment where Australian support made a difference in people's lives, particularly in women's lives. Under the Taliban in the 1990s, women were unable to be in public other than in the presence of a man. There was forced marriage, not of women but of girls as young as 12, and teenage girls were denied an education. We know that Australia's presence in Afghanistan helped change that. In recent years, we've seen almost 40 per cent of eligible girls in Afghanistan in high school and 100,000 head to university. That was unimaginable 20 years ago.
The life expectancy of women has increased by a decade. These are changes that Australians helped make. That change in education levels can't be undone for that generation, and that gives me hope. To the veterans, the 39,000 who served, and their families, to the families of the 41 who lost their lives in Afghanistan, and to people like Paul, who lives in my electorate, I say that the way that you've impacted women's lives is just one of the ways that you've made a difference. You helped create a safer place for those women and their families, and we are proud of that.
I'm very pleased to see the increased support that's just been offered by the Minister for Veterans' Affairs. I would urge veterans who need to reach out to open your arms to counselling or reach out your member.