House debates

Monday, 26 September 2022

Motions

1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment

4:47 pm

Photo of Phillip ThompsonPhillip Thompson (Herbert, Liberal National Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Defence) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That this House:

(1) notes that on 16 August 2021 soldiers from the 1st Battalion Royal Australian Regiment, along with other military attachments, were deployed to Afghanistan to rescue Australian passport holders and those who supported our nation throughout the war on terror;

(2) acknowledges

(a) the brave soldiers who put themselves in harm's way to rescue more than 4,100 people from the chaos;

(b) that when the Taliban took back Kabul, the soldiers returned to the belly of the beast to evacuate thousands of civilian men, women and children; and

(c) that the Afghan people may have lost their city and country, but our Australian Defence Force heeded the call to ensure that they did not lose their lives;

(3) honours the brave, selfless actions of those deployed; and

(4) calls on the Government to honour the 1st Battalion Royal Australian Regiment with the appropriate battle honours to highlight the unique operation that was conducted in the most hazardous, chaotic and challenging circumstances.

Today I honour the brave contingent of Australian Defence Force personnel for the evacuation operation conducted in Kabul. This was no ordinary deployment. In the face of extreme danger, brave soldiers from 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, along with other military attachments, put themselves in harm's way to rescue others. Despite the images of chaos that were beamed around the world—pictures of men, women and children clinging to aircraft, trying to escape the Taliban—and the ever-present threat of a terrorist attack, our men and women answered the call to serve, without question. The selfless actions of those deployed enabled the rescue of more than 4,100 people—Australian citizens and refugees—from a life of oppression at the hands of an illegitimate government. While the Afghan people may have lost their city and country, our ADF ensured that they did not lose their lives.

Today I call on the government to honour 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, and military attachments with the appropriate battle honours to highlight the unique operation that was conducted in the most hazardous, chaotic and challenging circumstances.

I asked those brave soldiers to share some stories from on the ground. They are real and they are raw. They demonstrate why 1RAR deserves a commendation—battle honours. Here is a recollection from one member:

Being the first platoon in country, we had little to no idea what the situation was to look like on the ground despite orders given in as high detail as possible, but we'd all seen the mayhem on the news.

Once in country we learned immediately that it was the wild west with sounds of constant gunshots either being warning shots around the entrance points to the airport or contacts happening locally. My shifts at the North Gate were the most memorable. Looking out upon terrified suffering, helpless men, women and children, surrounded by gunfire, razor wire, Taliban, Death, newly made corpses, and the complete feeling of helplessness became common place.

On one of my section's shifts I had noticed a man standing in a crowd of crouched civilians waving at the gate's general direction, roughly 40 to 50 metres from the entrance point and where I was standing.

He was dressed in black body armour, had a heavily modified AK and no recognisable patches. It became obvious he was Taliban.

Almost as soon as I'd worked out who he was, he unloaded a burst point blank into the crowd he was standing over, hitting at least 3 men with rounds, one of those 3 men receiving a round directly to his head.

As there was an enormous crowd of people between me and him, there was little I could do and I was helpless to act.

These were the horrors our brave men and women faced. But in amongst the horrors were stories of success. Another member states:

As we were working on Abbey gate I remember pulling a family up from the canal. They were covered in whatever mess was in the water.

The mother and 3 girls were completely dehydrated, barely able to stand by themselves. When I checked their paperwork and accepted they were good to go, I walked them up from the gate to our Australian checkpoint about 300 metres away.

Carrying their bags and a child in each arm, while the third held my hand and kept kissing it saying 'thank you' over and over again, will be something I will remember for the rest of my life.

Another story states:

Myself and another guy found this girl, about 8 or 9, wandering around very close to the Taliban-run checkpoint down the side of the canal.

Once we asked where she was going, she replied in the most purely Australian accent that her and her mother were Australian and she needed help getting there.

She told us her mother was back at home so she had to phone her and tell her to make her way to the gate.

After several hours of waiting, the little girl was being so polite and patient, as she waited for her Mum.

Fast-forward, her mum made it to the gate, and we pulled her out about 12 hours later. I hope they are living their best life in Australia.

These are the acts of extremely brave men and women. These things happen on the battlefield, and more than 4,100 people out there owe their lives to the Australian Defence Force on this deployment. It is only fitting that we recognise their contribution and give them the recognition they deserve. For the brave men and women who deployed into the belly of the beast, there was no rule of law. We saw a country fall. There was no quick reaction force and no support close by such as was afforded to me and others when we were in combat in Afghanistan. These people didn't have that. They literally were standing side by side with the Australian flag on their shoulders, with a nation behind them, with no support. And I believe we should pay them the recognition they deserve. I commend this motion to the House.

Photo of Lisa ChestersLisa Chesters (Bendigo, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the motion seconded?

Photo of Gavin PearceGavin Pearce (Braddon, Liberal Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Health, Aged Care and Indigenous Health Services) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the motion and reserve my right to speak.

4:53 pm

Photo of Luke GoslingLuke Gosling (Solomon, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the member for Herbert for bringing forward this motion today. Let me say from the outset that those Australians who were engaged in the evacuation of Afghanistan at the Kabul airport should be acknowledged and should be commended for their meritorious service. I'm sure all members remember the chaos of last August as the allied troops withdrew from Afghanistan and Kabul fell to the Taliban. Who could forget the images we saw of the airport flooded with desperate Afghans fleeing the incoming regime and the panic as we raced against the clock to help as many people as possible?

This motion is important. It reflects on the efforts of not only soldiers from the 1st Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment—the Big Blue One—but also many other attachments who worked to rescue Australian passport holders and some of those loyal Afghans who supported our nation over that 20 years—some of those. They worked heroically in a desperate situation to rescue as many men, women and children as they could. They worked tirelessly to save as many lives as they could. They were brave and they were selfless.

I'd like to share with you some reflections from some soldiers on the ground of what those rushed weeks were like. One said:

It was extremely mentally fatiguing operating within that environment.

Thousands of people shouting, babies getting crushed and young people getting injured, people getting shot.

It's a little known fact that our guys were involved in a contact when a suspected vehicle-borne improvised explosive device—

or IED

rammed the North Gate.

He goes on to say:

Our combat medics were treating multiple casualties with everything from heat illness, gunshot wounds, respiratory injuries from the non-lethal ammunition fired by coalition partners, and crush injuries to name just a few.

We also had the heartbreak of having to tell family members that although some of them qualified to come to Australia, other family members did not.

Having to explain that and watch the families say their perhaps final goodbyes to loved ones.

Some of those family members begged us to shoot them then and there rather than go back outside the gates to the Taliban.

All of this has left a big hole in our hearts and a large moral injury on the young men and women that served in Kabul.

That soldier is completely correct. It is a truth, and we need to tell truth in this place. The former government inflicted a huge moral injury on our troops when, despite months and months of warnings from the United States, they failed to plan for our withdrawal. They failed to process visas for our loyal Afghan colleagues who saved so many Australian lives at great risk to their own lives. Their inaction and incompetence is what caused those scenes as I've just described them. It is not right and it is not fair that those brave Australians from the 1st Battalion and the attachments on the ground in Afghanistan should have to bear the weight of that moral injury for failed government policy.

It cannot be understated that the decade and neglect of the LEE visa program by the former government had left many loyal interpreters who assisted our soldiers in Afghanistan stranded. It has been heartening to see that some interpreters' families have been reunited, with some of the visas coming through in the last few months. But still that took a year to occur. The Albanese government is getting on with the program, and I commend the immigration minister for his efforts. I know it's appreciated by many Australian troops who served over there in Afghanistan.

There are many challenges ahead, but, returning to the motion, I commend, in the highest terms, the actions of those who were deployed from Australia in order to facilitate the withdrawal from Afghanistan at the Kabul airport. That battalion group plus conducted themselves in an incredibly meritorious way, and I commend them for those actions. But we should not be repeating history due to the failure of the former government to do it effectively.

4:58 pm

Photo of Gavin PearceGavin Pearce (Braddon, Liberal Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Health, Aged Care and Indigenous Health Services) Share this | | Hansard source

Prior to making comment, I would like to acknowledge the fact that the member for Herbert has always been steadfast in his resolve when standing up for veterans issues and when standing up for our ADF personnel. He is, and I think always will be, straight of eye and true of limb when it comes to that task, and the people of Herbert are well served in my opinion. You've got a fair dinkum bloke there who's doing the right thing for you and your electorate.

In speaking on this important motion, I would like to read to you now from the member for Herbert's press release:

As we remember the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, today we mark a year since the deployment of a brave contingent of Australian Defence Force personnel for the evacuation operation.

…   …   …

Despite the images of chaos being beamed around the world—pictures of men, women and children clinging to aircraft trying to escape the Taliban, and the ever-present threat of terrorist attack—our men and women answered the call to service without question.

The selfless actions of those who deployed enabled the rescue of 4100 people—Australian citizens and refugees—

and internally displaced people—

from a life of oppression at the hands of an illegitimate government. While the Afghan people may have lost their city and country, our ADF ensured that they did not lose their lives.

The press release stated:

This was no ordinary deployment. In the face of extreme danger, brave soldiers from Townsville's 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, along with other attachments, put themselves in harm's way to rescue others.

The 1st Battalion has a very esteemed history. The 1st Battalion—'Big Blue One'—of the Royal Australian Regiment was first formed as the 65th Australian Infantry Brigade in 1945 and since that time has seen active service in the Korean War, the Malayan emergency, the Vietnam War, the Unified Task Force in Somalia; and in East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan. The battalion has also been deployed on peacekeeping operations in Rifle Company Butterworth, Timor-Leste, Solomon Islands, Tonga, the Philippines and many more.

The 1st Battalion remains one of the Australian Army's most heavily deployed units, and that unit has contributed to domestic support on countless occasions. It has been a year since the 1st Battalion evacuated Kabul, and I recall two brave, young junior NCOs being awarded the Jonathan Church Good Soldiering Award. Their names were Corporal Quinn Jensen and Corporal Matt Reid. That award is annually awarded to junior soldiers and officers who personify compassionate and ethical soldiering. The Hassett trophy for outstanding junior leadership was also borne by these two, when they located a group of young female soccer players and evacuated them safely. Together, they were part of a team that facilitated the evacuation of more than 4,100 refugees and IDPs.

In affording this recognition, most would be aware that the Australian Active Service Medal has a 30-day qualifying criterion. Again, I would like to commend the member for Herbert's action and support in fighting for the Operational Service Medal which was awarded to that unit. But they deserve more. This was an operation like no other. We sit in this place often, and we listen to the speeches that are made but rarely—so rarely—do many understand what really goes on on the ground. I think this motion has merit. I think this motion personifies the effort that the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, and those attachments displayed during that evacuation and the professionalism that that unit has always shown. It is no doubt deserving of, and has my highest support for, a higher award when it comes to unit recognition.

Finally, I want to thank the officers and the soldiers—all those deployed on that dangerous operation. I want to sincerely thank you for that from the bottom of my heart. You should be eternally proud of the job that you did for the people of Afghanistan and of Kabul. You should not resile from the fact that you belong to the finest battalion of the Australian Regular Army. (Time expired)

5:03 pm

Photo of Fiona PhillipsFiona Phillips (Gilmore, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I love the chance to talk about the very important work our Defence Force does in Australia and around the world. My electorate has a huge defence presence with HMAS Albatross and HMAS Cresswell based in Nowra and Jervis Bay, respectively. The Shoalhaven is Australia's centre for naval aviation. We train both Navy and Army helicopter crews, and our defence industry supports both Army and Navy, building Australia's defence capabilities locally. We've also got a fabulous and active veterans community who work every day to support each other, our community and those who are currently serving. Our veterans are nothing short of amazing—the things they do in our community! So it is no surprise that the fall of Kabul and Australia's efforts to evacuate Australians and Australian supporters hit local people hard. We know all too well what it means for our troops to be sent in during an operation like this. We know they are putting themselves on the line for us. We know it takes bravery and a selfless sense of duty, and we know the lasting impact it can have, both seen and unseen.

But we also know why they are doing it. After the fall of Kabul one year ago, I was contacted by many local people concerned for Australians left behind. Many were also worried about the Afghan interpreters and others who supported our Defence Force during our 20 years in Afghanistan. Local veterans called my office asking about those they knew—those they had worked with who had been left behind. Not-for-profits who had worked with Afghans doing great work asked for help. Local people had family members who couldn't get out. All were begging for the government to help get these people out. All were distressed at what the future might look like for those they cared about.

For our serving and veteran Defence Force personnel, this was a deeply traumatic experience. They genuinely care about those who helped and were devastated about those who were left behind. Some 39,000 Australians served in Afghanistan. On top of that were Australian diplomats, non-government organisations and aid organisations—so many Australian people undertook every effort over so many years to bring democracy to that country. Their work was invaluable. It was hugely important, and what happened when the Taliban re-took Kabul was nothing short of devastating for everyone. That's why I know that the members of the 1st Battalion Royal Australian Regiment, and all those who were deployed for the rescue operation in Afghanistan, did so selflessly and without hesitation. Their bravery saw more than 4,100 people rescued from a harrowing situation in the middle of all the chaos that was unfolding in this city and country that our troops had spent so long defending.

Sadly, this mission couldn't get everyone out. That's why we are continuing to prioritise the processing of visas for those who remain in Afghanistan. We saw a huge surge in those applications in the wake of this tragic event. I know the minister is committed to getting through those as quickly as possible. But this was one of the largest humanitarian airlift operations in our history, and every person involved deserves our heartfelt thanks and appreciation for the actions they took. I thank soldiers, government officials and everyone who worked together to make this happen. We are indebted to you for your brave work.

I would also like to give a special shoutout to the fabulous defence industry in my electorate, supported by the Shoalhaven Defence Industry Group and many of its partners—Shoalhaven City Council, the University of Wollongong, the Shoalhaven Business Chamber, and all our defence industry organisations. Our Defence Force is supported to do what they do because of defence industry providing them with state-of-the-art capabilities and equipment. I recently attended the Shoalhaven Defence Industry Showcase at the University of Wollongong's Shoalhaven campus, which highlighted some of the amazing work that the local defence industry is doing. It was a truly fabulous event. I couldn't be prouder of the fact that my area is a major contributor to defence capabilities across Australia. I thank you for all you do.

Once again, I say to all of our defence personnel—not only those involved in this particular event but also everyone who serves and has served to protect Australia and our interest—thank you.

5:08 pm

Aaron Violi (Casey, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Like all Australians, I looked on in horror at the situation unfolding in Afghanistan a year ago, when 4,100 people were evacuated on 32 flights from Kabul. Anyone who saw the mobile phone footage of people holding onto planes as they took off, or of the crowds at the airport gates, will never forget those images. I don't think we can imagine the fear and desperation those people felt at that time in order to take those actions. The air evacuation in Kabul was one of the largest humanitarian airlift operations in Australia's history. The evacuation involved hundreds of Australian Defence Force personnel and government officials, working together on the ground in Afghanistan, in Canberra and in the United Arab Emirates. Each and every deployed Australian soldier put their own life on the line to save strangers. These soldiers saved people from another country, another language, another culture, another life. But these things did not matter, for our soldiers and those in Kabul shared one important thing: the innate human drive for freedom and safety.

After the evacuation, I had the opportunity to have a deep conversation with a gentleman who was evacuated from Kabul. When I heard his story, and saw his videos and those of others evacuated of what they had to endure to reach the airport, their determination and bravery was obvious. They were fighting for their lives and, in many cases, there was no alternative. I saw a report from the commanding officer of the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, Lieutenant General Colonel Scott Holmes, who said the efforts of his regiment resulted in getting more than 1,000 people out of the crowded airport choke points and onto the military aircraft. He said:

We were over there to help those who had helped us significantly – the work was really rewarding.

The same soldiers formed a unique bond with rescued Afghanistan refugees when they were deployed to ensure the temporary camps used to house evacuees were well run. It was at these camps where soldiers realised there were some familiar faces. Private Buntrock Roljic had pulled several people to safety from a vast crowd in a canal at the perimeter of the airport. During a shift at one of the camps back at the Middle East base, Private Roljic saw some evacuees he had helped to safety who were now healthy, rested and waiting for flights to Australia. He said:

They just came up to me, gave me a big hug and shook my hand.

Their stories also allow us to appreciate the amazing bravery of the soldiers of the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment—the soldiers who were committed to ensuring these vulnerable, innocent men, women and children had every chance to escape and to live. These Australian heroes must be honoured at the highest level for our country, and for that, battle honours must be awarded to the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment. Not only must we award these brave soldiers with battle honours but we also need to continue to support these soldiers with any mental health challenges they face post the evacuation, and particularly post their service.

I've been fortunate to be a member of the Lilydale RSL, and often spend time with local RSLs in Casey, hearing their stories of their support of veterans. They do such valuable work supporting our veterans. They provide not only the advocacy, access, services and support they need but also camaraderie, mateship, and the opportunity for veterans to bond through shared experiences. It is vital that governments also continue to support our veterans and implement the findings of the royal commission.

The war in Afghanistan has created a new generation of veterans, and we have a moral responsibility to learn the lessons of the past and ensure we are assisting them through any challenges they may face in the future. The last coalition government invested over $11.5 billion each year to support the wellbeing of around 340,000 veterans and their families, and it was great to see the announcement today from the new minister in regard to the interim royal commission. I join my colleagues in calling upon the government to honour the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, with the appropriate official public recognition of their extraordinary actions by awarding battle honours.

5:13 pm

Photo of Rob MitchellRob Mitchell (McEwen, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

This is a motion that I think all of us should be supportive of, and supportive without going through the faux patriotism and that. Let's be really honest and brutal about what this is about. Having spent time in Afghanistan along with the member for Riverina, who I hope got rid of those photos, we got to see firsthand what went on and what difficulties people faced. It's a very, very tense area. What we saw happen with the first airlift, and 1RAR and everyone involved, was something I don't think we've seen the likes of since the fall of Saigon, with photos of helicopters and aircraft removing people. It was chaotic, shambolic and badly organised, but what you do know is that when our defence personnel get given a job, they do it. They don't just do it; they do it well, they do it to their best ability, and they do this nation proud. That's why it's important that we have a look at these things. Today is the day that we had the ministerial statements on the Royal Commission into Defence and Veterans Suicide, something that most of us fought long and hard to get happening because we know the challenges. We know what people face.

If you've been to Kabul, it's not a great spot. I can remember travelling through Kabul, where there were families in the streets, just sitting in bomb craters, begging for food and money as we were going past. It's fair to say that our apprehensions were high that day when we went into the city. But, after seeing this happening in real life, you just know why those images of people scrambling onto planes happened: because they wanted to get out of there for their safety. I fought very hard and feel very disappointed that I've never been able to achieve the ability to get our interpreters out of Afghanistan. I think it's almost shameful that we as a nation haven't been able to get out these people who fought with our soldiers and probably saved hundreds of lives that we didn't know about because of the work that they did.

That's why I think it is important that we recognise the work of 1RAR and what they did, because what they put themselves through, what they did, was very extraordinary. I can recall my friend former senator Kimberley Kitching and what she did at a time when there were people calling from Afghanistan, trying to get out, and she went and arranged and did all this amazing stuff to help get people out at a time when it was chaotic. I remember at her funeral listening to the story of what she did with the girl in the yellow scarf. You could almost make a movie out of what Kimberley did and what she went through to help just get that one person safe, let alone the number of people we were able to transport out of there on all the different flights that we had.

I know the trauma that the men and women of the ADF are going to face with those moments, especially when we go back and look at that footage. It's a horrid thing to see people fleeing for their lives, desperate to do anything they can to get themselves and their families out. We can all put ourselves in those same shoes, because without a doubt, if we were living in an area or a situation like that, not one of us would not want to do everything possible to try to get out and risk their life for safety. It's the ADF personnel who are at the front of that. They're right at the coalface as people are scrambling through canals, climbing over fences and doing everything they can to try to give themselves a chance at a life that we take for granted.

We have a responsibility to those people when they come back, to make sure that we give them every opportunity. Last week I talked about MC Labour and the great work they're doing with giving veterans opportunities and jobs when they come back. Not all scars are physical. I think they're the ones that we don't see enough of and that we don't recognise enough—just the pain that people go though with what they see and do. My pain in Afghanistan was spending two weeks sharing a bunk with the member for Riverina, but that was about it. It was a small price to pay.

When it comes to looking at where we give decorations, we know there's a process. It's always been the same process, and it is a slow process, absolutely. But we should make sure that, when we give out citations, we give them out properly and appropriately and give every opportunity to make sure that people who put themselves in harm's way—people that we ask to go and do these things—are given the recognition they deserve. So I support this motion, and I think that all of us could take a moment and reflect on what those men and women went through and think about what they're going to go through in the coming months. (Time expired)

5:18 pm

Photo of Michael McCormackMichael McCormack (Riverina, National Party, Shadow Minister for International Development and the Pacific) Share this | | Hansard source

At the outset, I would like to commend the member for Herbert for bringing this important motion to the chamber, to the house of democracy, to the federal parliament. Down the path from the opening doors of this place is the Australian War Memorial, that keepsake place where the memories are stored of battles won, conflicts lost, service given and sacrifice made—the supreme sacrifice in the name of democracy so that we can have free speech and a free parliament. Indeed, 103,010 names are etched into those bronze rolls of honour at the Australian War Memorial.

The member for Herbert did his recruit training at the Australian Army Recruit Training Centre at Kapooka, Wagga Wagga. It's the home of the soldier, Blamey Barracks, named after Thomas Blamey, who was born at Lake Albert, not far from Wagga Wagga. The bravest of the brave go through Kapooka. You know that, Deputy Speaker Wilkie. Others know it. I thank those members of parliament who have given service, but I thank all men and women who have proudly worn the Australian uniform. When others flee from danger, it's our uniformed men and women who charge to it—to save, to protect, to defend, to do what they can, whether it's in Afghanistan or elsewhere. I acknowledge the words of the member for McEwen. Yes, we went to Afghanistan together and, yes, they were apprehensive days. We were kitted up but obviously not with weaponry. But I can't even start to imagine how brave and nervous people like the member for Herbert must have been when they were going into those battle zones. We owe them a debt of gratitude. I note that the member for Herbert has called:

… on the Government to honour the 1st Battalion Royal Australian Regiment with the appropriate battle honours to highlight the unique operation that was conducted in the most hazardous, chaotic and challenging circumstances.

He's right, of course. He's very, very right.

1RAR was founded in 1945, and it's in their DNA to protect, to serve, to sacrifice if need be. It's to those brave people we do owe a debt of gratitude. If it means a pin of medallic recognition on their chest, then so be it. That is a small price that we pay for what they put themselves through and what they, indeed, put their families through, because the worry of their loved ones back home must have been very hard to take at the time. There were 41 lives lost on duty for Australia in Afghanistan. It was a sacrifice that led to better outcomes for girls and women, particularly, who were given the opportunity for education and employment that they otherwise would not have had. But we've seen how things have gone awry with the Taliban retaking over that country. We see how disaster is impending, with famine about to be declared. This is an absolute tragedy given the sacrifice that Australians and Americans—nearly 2,500 lost—made in that conflict.

The brave soldiers put themselves in harm's way to rescue more than 4,100 people from the chaos at the time when there was the withdrawal. Whilst I appreciate there was great work done by our soldiers, great work done by our diplomats and bureaucrats, I would just like to make a special note of the work of the member for Mitchell and Senator Marise Payne—who probably haven't been recognised as well as they should be—to facilitate much of that activity in getting people out. They worked around the clock. I know that. Neither would ever seek credit, but they do deserve credit for the efforts that they went to, working around the clock with our diplomats, with our wonderful bureaucrats, to get those people out in that mad scramble that was evident at Kabul and other places.

I commend the member for Herbert. I commend this motion. Whatever we can do as a parliament, whatever the government can do, to ensure that these people are recognised has every credit and every commendation.

5:23 pm

Photo of Peter KhalilPeter Khalil (Wills, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank my colleagues across the aisle, across the parliament, for their contributions on this motion, particularly those who have served our nation in uniform—the member for Herbert, the member for Solomon, the member for Braddon. Thank you. For many of us in this place, events that occurred in Afghanistan in August 2021 remain fresh in our memories. How could we forget the tragic photos and footage, the planes packed full of people, the victims of violence and the destruction at the hands of the Taliban, or the thousands upon thousands of emails, calls and representations from people to our electorate offices across the country? We all saw the tragedy unfolding before us. But, however tragic those scenes were for us here in Australia, one can't really imagine what it was like for the brave Australian men and women deployed during the evacuation—in particular, the members of the 1st Battalion Royal Australian Regiment and more than 250 Australian Defence Force personnel who, along with military attachments, led one of Australia's largest humanitarian evacuations. That included not only Australian citizens but Afghan nationals who bravely put themselves and their families in harm's way to support our operational efforts.

In total, more than 4,100 people were evacuated by Australian service personnel. Whilst we were all watching from the safety of Australia, these people were going back into harm's way to rescue Australian citizens and passport holders, and other noncombatants from Kabul, in what truly was a rapidly evolving and perilous environment.

I've seen firsthand the chaos of a war zone, but I also saw, as we did in the evacuation of Afghanistan, the bravery and commitment of Australian service men and women amidst that chaos. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, I also saw the contribution of interpreters and of local staff who supported local operational efforts. Many of these interpreters and staff, of course, were let down by the previous government.

It's hard to do these motions without being bipartisan; that's important. But the fact is that many of us in this place were screaming for the actual evacuation and effort to start earlier—months earlier. That takes nothing away from the sterling effort of our Defence Force personnel and our people who conducted that evacuation. For many, the rescue was too late or didn't reach them at all, despite years of sounding the alarm about the danger both to them and to their families that they faced after aiding Australia's efforts.

This is personal for me. I will never forget the interpreters who supported our efforts in Iraq—people like Ali. He was so excited about rebuilding his country. He was half Sunni and half Shiite, and he wanted more than anything to bring his country together. Ali was found by the roadside, killed. He was beheaded by insurgents because he had been identified as having worked with us, with the coalition. For years I have thought—and I still do think—that, if he hadn't worked with us, he might still be alive. There are very similar stories that have come out of Afghanistan of the people left behind. And I know that it is equally personal for the defence personnel who worked with them and served alongside them. Some of those personnel have contacted me to share their grief.

Whilst we often can't agree across the political divide, I suppose we can agree on honouring the sacrifice of our defence personnel for their service. We can't forget the failings of the past and the need to do better. In the months after the fall of Kabul, the ADF continued to support the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in moving evacuees to safety, and they did a tremendous job. I join my colleagues from across the House, including the Deputy Prime Minister, the foreign minister and others, in thanking them for their honourable service. In doing so, I also pay tribute on behalf of my community of Wills to the 41 Australian soldiers who paid the ultimate price while serving in Afghanistan, and, of course, to their families; and to all the people who returned, who so often carry the lasting physical injuries and mental scars of their service.

Photo of Andrew WilkieAndrew Wilkie (Clark, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

The time allotted for this debate has expired. The debate is adjourned, and the resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting.