Monday, 23 August 2021
by leave—I move:
That the Senate—
(a) notes with great concern the urgent and dangerous situation in Afghanistan and the uncertainty ahead for the Afghan people;
(b) acknowledges the role of Australia's service men and women during the last 20 years within the Coalition forces, working with our Allies and others, in the cause of fighting terrorism, promoting freedom and seeking to support the people of Afghanistan;
(c) honours the sacrifice of the 41 Australians who have died in Afghanistan in the service of their country, and acknowledges the terrible loss suffered by their families;
(d) recognises the service of the more than 39,000 Australian Defence Force men and women who served their country in this, our longest war, and the sacrifice of their families in supporting their service;
(e) acknowledges the work of thousands of diplomats, aid workers, members of the Australian Federal Police and other government officials who have contributed to our efforts;
(f) recognises the sacrifice of our Coalition partners and our allies, who have seen their service men and women give their lives for the work they undertook in Afghanistan;
(g) recognises the sacrifice of the people of Afghanistan, particularly those who have died in war or in conflict;
(h) acknowledges and expresses gratitude for the important ongoing role of ex-service organisations in supporting veterans and their families;
(i) commits to the continued work in providing support to all current and former service personnel and their families, and to those who work to serve Australia's interests at home or abroad;
(j) acknowledges and commends the ongoing work and dedication to duty of those Australian personnel and officials who are providing and have provided assistance and support to those in Afghanistan in an extremely dangerous situation;
(k) notes the Government is continuing to take urgent action to evacuate from Afghanistan Australians, Afghan visa holders and others, along with their families, in cooperation with other Coalition partners, in extreme conditions;
(l) notes more than 8,500 Afghans have been resettled in Australia since 2013, including more than 1,900 locally engaged staff and their families;
(m) notes the Government's work since April to bring out more than 430 locally-engaged employees and their families to be resettled Australia, and that this number is increasing as further evacuations are now undertaken;
(n) notes the Government is committed to providing at least 3,000 places for Afghan resettlement in 2021-22, with further commitments to increase the intake in following years; and
(o) calls on any future Government of Afghanistan to respect the human rights of all its citizens, especially women and girls, and for the international community to hold any future Afghan Government to account.
Next month, we will mark and commemorate the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States. Those attacks and their aftermath changed global security and politics. Through our collective efforts, as part of a coalition of nations, we helped to protect the world from repeats of those atrocities and blunted the attacks of al-Qaeda terrorists who had established bases in Afghanistan to train and to plot.
The disappointment and pain felt by so many at the return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan after these 20 difficult years is absolutely understandable, not least for the Afghani people and those who have sacrificed so much to try to improve the lives of Afghans. I acknowledge the more than 40,000 Australian defence personnel and civilians who served in Afghanistan and honour the 41 soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice and the many Australians wounded in attacks who continue to feel the effects of their service, both mentally and physically. Right now, there is no immediate answer or evaluation that will change this disappointment. There will be time for reflection and to incorporate all of the successes and the failures into our understanding of how the world should deal with states that harbour terrorists and regimes that brutalise their own people. For the moment, however, we are dealing with what has happened and looking beyond that disappointment because we have ongoing work ahead of us.
Our immediate mission is to rescue Australians, Australian visa holders and their families and vulnerable Afghans. They include Afghans who are at risk of harm due to their work for Australia. That is our focus. We are making progress, but it is difficult and complex, as all of the countries involved in the same operation are finding. Since 18 August, we have brought more than 1,000 people out of Kabul and we will continue this mission as long as we are able. We are working with all of our partners in country, here from Canberra and in relevant posts in close cooperation. That consultation and cooperation is vital to the ongoing evacuation efforts. Conditions near the airport in Kabul are very dangerous and changing rapidly.
The wellbeing of the Afghan people is also a priority. The Afghan people have suffered through 40 years of conflict. It is devastating to see and hear of the situation there now. I fear for Afghan women and girls and for their rights to education, work and freedom of movement. I fear for the many women I have met over the years of my visits to their country. As for all Afghan people, women and girls deserve to live in safety, security and dignity. Any form of discrimination and abuse should be prevented. Their voices must continue to be heard.
Australia will continue to support the Afghan people through our development program, working with trusted international partners. We are focusing our $50 million bilateral program on humanitarian priorities, those occurring as a result of these events but also including in response to drought, internal displacement, COVID-19 and economic instability, working through existing humanitarian partners, including UN agencies. We have committed to bringing an initial 3,000 Afghans under our humanitarian program to Australia. We will work closely with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and we will provide support to UNHCR's efforts to manage internal and external refugee movements.
Australia will support international efforts to maintain pressure on the Taliban and on any future Afghan administration to meet its responsibilities to its people, its region and the wider world. The United Nations Security Council's call for an immediate end to the violence against civilians; the restoration of security, civil and constitutional order; and urgent talks to resolve the crisis and to arrive at a peaceful settlement is endorsed by Australia.
I understand why a return of the Taliban, especially so quickly, suggests that the achievements of the last years, enabled by the hard work and sacrifice of so many Afghanis and the many Australians and international partners who have contributed so much, will be undone. As we look at this now, many Afghan people have received years of experience of improved education, of health care, of women's rights. School enrolments have increased tenfold since 2002, and access to health care rose from nine per cent to 57 per cent between 2002 and 2020. The maternal mortality rate has fallen from 1,100 deaths to 396 deaths per 100,000 live births between 2000 and 2015. Women's representation in politics increased from zero in 2001 to 27 per cent in 2020.
There is great anxiety that our commitment to Afghanistan has been in vain. I know that from many of my own friends who have served and worked in Afghanistan, both military and civilian, including colleagues here in this parliament. To ensure it is not in vain, we will look for every opportunity to sustain the benefits to the Afghan people that the international presence has brought. We must not lose sight of the fact that many Afghans have seen what a better alternative looks like. One thing of which I am certain is that our ADF personnel and veterans, our diplomats and other civilians who have also served must know that their efforts have not been in vain. Australians did the job that we as a nation asked of them and they served overwhelmingly with great distinction. Nothing will change that.
We must also consider how we combat terrorism from here. Our international networks of cooperation are now more synchronised and networked than ever before. Australia's major concerns today and for much of the past two decades have been with our immediate region, South-East Asia, where violent extremism has taken hold before in pockets of Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia. We've worked with those countries to fight and disempower those violent extremists. We thank those countries for their ongoing efforts on this and recommit ourselves to that task. There is a real risk of which we are acutely cognisant: that, if terrorist bases are once again established in Afghanistan, this will morally energise and materially support terrorists closer to our shores.
Finally, we are clear in relation to the Taliban. The extreme ideology they have long projected has blighted lives and produced conflict. The world is watching now to see how they will behave. They say they want the trust of the international community. With a request for trust comes an expectation that that trust will be earned. That should start with ending all violence against civilians; ensuring the participation of different political actors in Afghanistan; upholding human rights, particularly the rights of women and minorities; allowing journalists to report freely; and opposing violent extremists. We make no premature commitments to engage with an Afghan administration that is Taliban led. Any new Afghan administration will be judged on its conduct. The international community will continue these discussions. We are also very clear that the Taliban has seized power by force, not through the support of the Afghan people.
The links between our two peoples began in the 1860s. Afghan cameleers helped develop our remote inland regions. They have strengthened so much in the decades since, in recent years with further immigration, including under Australia's humanitarian program. Afghan Australians will continue to make a rich contribution to our society here. A stable Afghanistan that prevents violent extremism would contribute to security in central and South Asia and inhibit terrorism further afield, including in our region.
I'm told by my post in the UAE and by the ADF that the first person literally off the first Australian plane from Kabul a few days ago was a little Afghani boy and that he skipped down the ramp when it was lowered. It was a compelling and important sign for those seeking to help and those working on this evacuation.
I know the desperation and fear that is all pervasive right now. I know it is difficult beyond our imaginings for so many brave and proud people in Afghanistan right now and for many here who grieve for the country and the people they love, perhaps as their birthplace or perhaps for other connections. It is very difficult right now. Australia, our partners—government, non-government, humanitarian, academic—and countless others all have an enduring commitment to the people of Afghanistan. That will not change.
Honourable senators: Hear, hear!
[by video link] Over the last two weeks Australians have watched in horror as the Taliban's offensive escalated into a rapid takeover of Afghanistan's regions and eventually its capital. Within days, provinces and cities fell, one after another. Afghanistan's civilian government, security forces and institutions crumpled.
It is with a heavy heart that we face the tragic reality that, despite 20 years of international military intervention and development assistance and despite thousands of lives lost, the international community has fallen far short of its goals and all Afghanistan's gains are imperilled. These events have been heartbreaking for the people of Afghanistan, for the Afghan Australian community, for our veterans, for our diplomats, for our development workers, for the loved ones of the 41 Australian soldiers who lost their lives in battle and the hundreds more who died after the war as a result of its traumas and for all those in Australia and around the world who hope for a better life for the people of Afghanistan.
I have spoken with Afghan Australians, and I have seen their pain and their fear. I've spoken with Afghan women in Australia, trailblazers, community leaders and patriots, all deeply proud of their heritage, often lost for words as they witness the return of a regime whose brutal repression of women we know too well.
In conflict and in peace, in our region and beyond, Australia has been prepared to step up to play our part. Australians understand the power of cooperation with allied and aligned nations, with partners on the ground, with local communities, organisations and activists. And Australia's security is best served wherever we are, for we are trusted as a nation that helps those who help us, and that trust is built on actions, not words.
Like many others, including so many veterans, I fear the Morrison government's failure to act has now tarnished that reputation. Not only has it fallen short ethically; it has harmed our national interest. On 13 April the United States announced that it would fully withdraw its troops by 11 September, and on 15 April Mr Morrison announced the withdrawal of Australian troops by September 2021. It was subsequently reported that the last Australian troops departed on 18 June. On 25 May the government announced the closure of the Australian embassy, citing security concerns. It is true that the speed of the Taliban advance was insufficiently anticipated, but it is also clear that this government had time to prepare and act. For months now, many, including veterans of the ADF, former prime ministers and the opposition, have been calling for urgent action to get those Afghans and their families to safety.
I, and so many colleagues, have been inundated with requests for assistance from veterans, Afghan Australians, development workers and diplomats. For so many, the fear that those who helped Australia and who worked to build a better Afghanistan would be left behind to face the wrath of a vengeful Taliban exacerbated the trauma they were already suffering. Government ministers gave assurances help was on the way, but, at the same time, Australians heard report after report of Afghans caught up in bureaucratic gridlock. Security guards at the Australian embassy were told they wouldn't be eligible for humanitarian visas before being told they could apply. In recent days, 100 such applications have been rejected, with the security guards being informed by a template letter, before the advice changed yet again. Afghans who implemented Australia's development projects were told they were ineligible to apply because they were employed as contractors. But, of course, to the Taliban, these are simply people who helped us.
The United Kingdom announced an acceleration of its relocation policy, offering priority relocation to the United Kingdom for Afghans at risk who were working or had worked for them. In June, Germany expanded its eligibility criteria. But our government did neither. In July, the previously announced US airlift evacuation of interpreters and their families began. This government told us Australia wouldn't join the airlift and that it had no plan to mount a similar operation, and that was on 15 July. So here we are, a month later, with our ADF and government personnel being called on to do precisely that in far more perilous circumstances.
To the members of the ADF and to all the public servants—and I particularly mention those from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade who are working to evacuate Australians and those who helped us—I say: thank you. Thank you for your courage, thank you for your commitment and thank you for your service. We hope and pray this operation will be successful. I also hope that, after it has concluded, this Prime Minister will take the time to ask himself whether he should have heeded warnings and calls. Mr Morrison now deflects to the wisdom of hindsight. Instead, he should understand the consequences of wilful blindness.
Our mission in Afghanistan commenced in the aftermath of the terrible events of 9/11, and it achieved its initial objectives, but we sought to do more. With many brave Afghan men and women, thousands of whom died in the fight, we sought to build a better life for the people of Afghanistan, and gains were made: the return of millions from refugee camps in neighbouring countries, girls in school and women participating in civil society, politics and the professions. That these gains have not been secured is tragic, but that does not mean they were not worth striving for, because they are always worth striving for. In the time to come, we will have to grapple with what we have learnt from this about the limits of military intervention and foreign backed statehood. This mission did not end the way we wanted or hoped, and we should face that reality squarely. These are issues which demand responsible and sober engagement, and all who served and all who will be called on in the future to serve are entitled to that honest appraisal.
We do not know yet what shape the next government of Afghanistan will take. We do know that the Taliban inherits a changed Afghanistan where two-thirds of the population are under 25, most of whom have no memory of its brutal rule; where democracy, women's rights and burgeoning media and civil society, however limited, were facts on the ground; and where citizens are already resisting the Taliban's return, fearful for their futures and unwilling to set the clock back. We know too that Australia and the international community now have to contend with the consequences of this crisis, including the flow-on effects for regional and global security, and we know that strategic advantage from the West's withdrawal will be sought by some. Our government will need to work with allies and partners to counter this, to ensure the security of Australians and to find ways to press the Taliban to deliver on their public commitments to inclusion, the rights of women and minorities, and the security of those who have supported our forces. So I endorse the foreign minister's support for the UN Security Council's call to which she referred in her contribution.
Having said that, we acknowledge that Australia's ability to influence Afghanistan's future is likely to be limited, but there are immediate priorities on which the Morrison-Joyce government must act. In addition to evacuating all Australians and Afghans who supported Australian operations, the government must fast-track visas and evacuations for the family members of Australian citizens and Australian permanent residents, and it should commit to many more humanitarian places for Afghans who are at risk of serious harm by the Taliban. Protecting the Afghan journalists, community leaders, activists and human rights defenders, especially women, should be central to Australia's response to the crisis in Afghanistan.
The Morrison-Joyce government's offer of 3,000 visas is insufficient. Australia did not use its full refugee quota last year, and we have over 13,000 places available each year. Sadly, the places on offer will only help if we are able to secure passage for those who need it, a task made much harder by the current crisis. Mr Morrison must ensure that Afghans in Australia on temporary visas are not deported and have pathways to remain here, because there is nothing temporary about the crisis in Afghanistan. Finally, the government must outline how it will work with international partners to provide humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan and to Afghanistan's neighbours, who will bear the impact of those fleeing for their lives. These are all the ways Australia can still make a difference.
Many thousands of Australians served and worked in Afghanistan in the ADF, in our diplomatic service and through our aid programs and beyond. To all these courageous men and women I say, 'Thank you for your service, courage and commitment.' I end by again paying tribute to those who fell in our name in Australia's longest war. I honour their sacrifice and I extend my sympathy to their families and friends. Thank you.
I rise to contribute to this debate on the motion moved by Senator Payne today. In doing so I extend my sympathies and my heart to everybody who is being impacted by the horror that we've seen unfold over the last couple of weeks in Afghanistan—those who are there fleeing for their lives and those who are here, desperate to know whether their families are safe and what the future will hold.
For 20 years we have been engaged in Afghanistan—Australia's longest war. Of course, we went in following the United States. Australia, again not having an independent foreign policy, was led by John Howard into a war that, arguably, we could never win. Let's remember that the purpose of this military action, right at the beginning, was to hunt down Osama Bin Laden and to attack terrorism. It wasn't initially about freeing women or children or bringing democracy to Afghanistan. It wasn't about rebuilding civil society. And the biggest problem right there is that you can't beat terrorism purely with military response—it requires political, civil society, and humanitarian strategies. None of these were at the core of the approach of the United States and coalition forces at the beginning. Some would argue that, in fact, over the last decade things in Afghanistan have become more unsafe and less free for those who had such great hopes for a reborn nation.
To that point, I acknowledge that the Greens have serious reservations about some of the elements of this motion. We think that it takes a rose-coloured-glasses view of Australia's role in Afghanistan. We can't discount the failures that have occurred over the last 20 years, and the toll on Australia has been great. Forty-one lives have been lost in combat, 260 have been wounded and over 500 veterans have, tragically, taken their own lives. Thousands and thousands more still suffer the effects of PTSD. But the toll has been largest for and hardest felt on the people of Afghanistan. It has been enormous, long lasting and tragic—tens of thousands of innocent lives lost, hundreds of thousands of people displaced and families torn apart. And, of course, like always in war and combat, it is women, children and minorities that are the hardest hit. Australia's longest war has had a long, tragic and harrowing impact on the people of Afghanistan. Hundreds of thousands have fled across borders to escape oppression and violence, in search of freedom from military actions, death and torture. For 20 years, Australia has played a role in this bloody war.
I was remembering last week that, after the 2010 election, one of the things that the Greens negotiated with the Gillard government was a commitment to debate the Afghan war in the parliament every year—a commitment to not forgetting the real impact of this conflict, to debating the merits of our actions, to not forgetting the sacrifice of Australians and others involved in this action and to not forgetting the very people whose lives this war was impacting the most. That debate happened in October 2010, in November 2011 and again in October 2012. But then that was it. When the Abbott government came to power, this parliament stopped debating this important war. This parliament stopped debating the merits of why we were there. It wasn't at the forefront in our minds, as members of parliament, and that is a shame, because without debate we cannot consider the best ways forward.
Over the last two weeks we have seen the horror unfolding in Afghanistan and thousands and thousands of people fleeing for their lives, and we've asked the question: should Australia have done more? What was the exit strategy? How were we going to get people out? What was the evacuation plan? This parliament should have been debating those issues regularly, passionately, honestly, and we just haven't been, and that's not good enough. Our veterans, our diplomats and our Afghan friends in Afghanistan and here on Australian soil deserve better from this parliament. They deserve better from this government in relation to planning, talking and being honest about our involvement.
It's been 20 years of Australian involvement in Afghanistan. And this week marks 20 years since the Tampa, that famous Norwegian boat that was stopped by former prime minister John Howard and that was holding over 400 refugees and asylum seekers, mostly Afghan nationals. That, of course, was the beginning of a huge diplomatic and political row in this country over how we treated people when they were fleeing horrible regimes like the Taliban's, and it set a marker for how we respond to those in need. I put it to you, Madam Acting Deputy President Polley, that's it's been a pretty shameful history ever since.
And it is not lost on me, as we stand here and debate this issue and what should be done to help those who are left fearing for their lives in Afghanistan, that 20 years ago our government turned its back on the very same people fleeing the very same regime. We need to do better. And that is why the Prime Minister's commitment of 3,000 humanitarian places within our existing program is simply not enough. It is why this slow drip, drip, drip of getting people out of Afghanistan who have worked alongside us, and their families, is not good enough. And it is why the Prime Minister's refusal to grant permanent protection to the 4½ thousand Afghans who are here in Australia already, giving them an opportunity to get on with their lives, to be free of the constant threat of having to face the Taliban again, is an unnecessary cruelty—that limbo hanging over people's heads when there is absolutely no need to. It is unnecessary and it is mean-spirited. And if we have not learnt anything for the last 20 years—my gosh, what on earth have we been doing? I don't buy for one second—and I'm sure that not one person in this chamber buys it either—the spin from the Taliban this week that they have changed their approach, that they will treat women and girls properly, that Hazaras will be able to live free from oppression and persecution. I don't believe it and I'm sure you don't either, Madam Acting Deputy President Polley.
So what are we going to do about it? We at least have to take on board our moral obligation and commit to taking and helping those who stood alongside us and helped us, and their families. We have to allow those already in Australia to bring their families here. We have to play our role in the international community by acknowledging that this is a humanitarian crisis and we need to do more.
Minister Payne and Senator Wong both acknowledged that, as members of parliament, our offices have been inundated with heartbreaking stories of people who are living in fear right now, of people who are worried about the fact that they haven't had a phone call or a text message returned in the last 12 hours and they don't know if their family is still alive. As the situation outside the airport deteriorates even further, that fear is only growing.
There are moments like this that happen in a Prime Minister's leadership where a Prime Minister can decide to do the right thing. I plead with Mr Morrison: don't be stubborn about this. This is a humanitarian crisis. These are people's lives—people we owe an obligation to, people we should help because it's the right thing to do. Don't be pigheaded about this. Show some leadership and show the compassion that the Defence Force, our diplomats and our humanitarian workers have all been showing and committed to for the last 20 years. It doesn't take much to do the right thing. You just have to show a bit of compassion and have a little bit of heart, and I urge the Prime Minister to do that today.
[by video link] I rise to speak to the motion moved by Senator Payne. The decision to withdraw from Afghanistan has been drawn into sharp focus by the images of the chaotic scenes at the Kabul airport. We have watched history unfold before our eyes, just as we did 20 years ago when the World Trade Center buildings collapsed and the Pentagon burned from the September 11 terrorist attacks. It's our obligation to bear witness to these events because Australia has played an active role in Afghanistan from the beginning. It has been our longest war, and it has not been without enormous cost.
It's important that we acknowledge the 41 Australians who lost their lives in Afghanistan. It's important that we acknowledge, even if we can't really know, how their families must feel at the moment. I would say to them that it was not in vain. The mission to Afghanistan has not been a failure. The initial objective to hunt down al-Qaeda and destroy its base of operations was achieved. It was right for Australian forces to stay in Afghanistan as part of the effort to secure and rebuild the country. For me, there is no question about this. The questions which remain are whether the withdrawal of coalition forces was too hasty, whether the Taliban will again implement a regime as oppressive and terrible as the one which ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, whether Afghanistan will again become a safe haven and operations base for Islamic terrorists under the Taliban, and what coalition countries will do for Afghans desperate to flee a resurgent Taliban.
Many are saying the withdrawal of Western forces was premature. This position has been underlined by the rapid way the Taliban has taken over control of much of Afghanistan. I had the privilege of visiting Afghanistan three years ago to have a look at what our troops were doing to train the Afghan army. Our people held the younger local trainees in high regard and had strong hopes for the future of Afghanistan. The problem was the old guard: fighters still around from the days of the Taliban. It was clear to me we needed to stay a lot longer and support a younger, more enlightened generation to lead Afghanistan to its rightful place among the modern community of nations.
Now there are reports that intelligence estimates of the strength of the Afghanistan government and armed forces to resist the Taliban were ignored by the unhinged President of the United States, Joe Biden. President Biden has presided over a disaster that could have been avoided. The Taliban now have access to modern weapons and equipment given to the Afghan army, enough for up to 300,000 troops to enforce their rule and supply terrorists. The threat of Islamic terrorism has increased again. This disaster has diminished the standing of the United States and Australia. It's very telling that, while we close our embassies in Kabul, Russia and China are keeping their embassies open.
While the Taliban have made noises about being more benign rulers, particularly with respect to women, there are indications they have not changed since 2001. They have freed thousands of Islamic terrorists. There are reports of executions in the streets and lists being compiled of women to be married off as sex slaves to Taliban fighters. And we have all seen the terrible images of people desperate to escape the Taliban at the Kabul airport following the rapid collapse of the Afghan government. These images have shocked the world, even knocking the COVID-19 pandemic off front pages for a couple of days.
As was inevitable, the usual suspects are putting pressure on the Morrison government to increase Australia's humanitarian refugee intake and bring in a flood of refugees from Afghanistan. The Greens want 20,000 places made available over and above the 13,750 existing places available in our humanitarian program. Labor has called the Prime Minister's offer of 3,000 places within the current humanitarian intake 'piecemeal' and the figure 'plucked from nowhere'. Amnesty International says the offer is 'insufficient'. One Nation encourages the Morrison government to resist these very predictable and opportunistic calls to open the floodgates to a new wave of refugees. Because the government has already been bringing Afghans to Australia for resettlement for years, more than 8½ thousand have come to call Australian home since 2013, when the coalition government came to power. The government is working to bring in those Afghans and their families who worked with the Australian forces and are at risk as a result, and some have already arrived. One Nation strongly supports this effort. We owe it to the Afghans who worked with Australian forces to make their country a better place. But we do not support opening the floodgates to waves of undocumented arrivals again.
The current environment is simply too chaotic for individual applicants to be properly vetted to ensure they don't pose a threat. Afghans have been exposed to a fundamentalist ideology incompatible with living in Australia. There are more than 40 Islamic countries that are better suited to accommodate Afghans fleeing Taliban rule. Australia is hardly in a position to accommodate a flood of new arrivals in any case. They are possibly people who will hate our culture and way of life, people who may never hold a job, people who may want to destroy our democracy. We already have a domestic housing crisis, skyrocketing public debt, growing urban congestion and massive dependency on welfare, all of which are only exacerbated by lockdowns and the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite this, the Morrison government is already showing some signs of caving in to the pressure. It has called the initial figure of 3,000 places a floor, not a ceiling. The Morrison government is holding the door open and could significantly increase the number.
I will not apologise to anyone for not being a bleeding heart. I am a realist and I am not convinced large numbers of Afghan refugees being allowed in to this country is in Australia's best interests, especially with large numbers of terrorists being released from prisons by the Taliban. The PM's open door represents yet another failure to show leadership, which has been the defining feature of the major parties in government during this pandemic. The Prime Minister has surrendered control of the pandemic to premiers and chief ministers in the states and territories. The Prime Minister has surrendered leadership around the vexing question of vaccine mandates, and he is now leaving the door open to surrendering control of our international border and humanitarian visa program to the bleeding hearts of Labor, the Greens and the open-border brigade. They are looking for any and every way to open the floodgates and return to the time when people smugglers were effectively in control of Australia's immigration and refugee programs.
People smugglers are poised for just such an opportunity. They will be active in Afghanistan right now, preying on desperate people. We cannot return to that situation in Australia. Too many people died, and we are still dealing with the fallout years after the last boat arrived. The Prime Minister needs to make it absolutely clear exactly how many people his government plans to bring here from Afghanistan. He needs to show some leadership at last. This parliament and the Australian people deserve to know who will be coming here and the circumstances in which they will come. The Prime Minister cannot leave it open-ended, as that's exactly what the people smugglers have been waiting for.
I have to respond to Senator Hanson-Young's comments when she talked about the oppression and the persecution of women and children happening there. Might I remind her that exactly that is happening here in Australia. It's no different. Why aren't you speaking out about that? Why aren't we debating that on the floor of parliament? What about the child brides? What about female circumcision? What about women having to wear the burqa because their menfolk tell them to? This is happening right on our own doorstep, and you're worried about another country. It is oppression or persecution when we have multiple underage marriages happening on our own doorstep, and yet we do nothing about it.
I would also like to point out that I did go to Afghanistan and I saw what was happening on the ground there. I met interpreters and people who worked with our Defence personnel. They were highly regarded. Yes, I think our presence there did a lot for the country. Just after I left, they had an election. ISIS and those fighters over there were actually lining themselves up at the polling booths to stop people from going to vote. They wanted their freedom. I spent two hours in the Afghan military training college. I walked around with a brigadier, who showed me what was happening. We had women in classes. For the first time, they were actually allowed to join the defence force. For the first time, they were actually allowed to teach in schools. For the first time, they were allowed to join the police force. The country was moving forward.
Now this has happened, and I ask myself the question: Why? Why are Russia and China still over there? Why is Imran Khan, from Pakistan, a supporter of it? We had big problems coming. I saw President Joe Biden unhinged. He either actually had no idea what was going on over there or he wasn't advised, because I was there for three days and I could see exactly what was going on and what needed to be done. I blame the Prime Minister for not stepping up to the mark and having it out with Joe Biden, asking why the troops were not left there long enough to get our people and those that helped us out of that country. The Taliban is now armed with equipment they've never had before. They will become a force to be reckoned with, and, if they really do join up with ISIS, I believe that the Western nations around the world will feel the force of terrorism. It will reach our doorsteps again, because this will be seen by the fundamentalists as a win for them.
That's why I oppose these people freely coming into the country. You can't open up the floodgates. We have a lot of terrorists there that hate our democracy and hate our way of life. You cannot just open up the floodgates. We have to know who we're bringing into the country. This fight is very important. You talk about debating these issues on the floor of parliament. Our ministers and the Prime Minister should have their fingers on the pulse to know what is actually happening there. Sometimes we have too much talk on the floor of parliament, and nothing happens. We must put these decisions in the hands of those authorities who really know what is happening. Most politicians on the floor of parliament haven't been to Afghanistan. They have no idea what went on over there. I went over there, and I saw for myself. I do understand the importance of us being there—to liberate the country, to liberate those men, women and children—but, like I said to you, you ought to start looking in your own backyard instead of talking about the persecution and oppression of women and children over there, because it's happening in our own country. You're a representative, Senator Hanson-Young, for all the people here in Australia, so I suggest you start looking at that. I'll be quite happy to have that debate with you. Let's sort out what's happening to the women and children in Australia. Thank you.
[by video link] To the people who have served in Afghanistan; to the people who lost mates in Afghanistan; to those of you who have missed birthdays, wedding anniversaries, Christmases and kids' first days of school; to the people who lost their health and livelihoods and who lost who they once were over in Afghanistan; and to the many, many people who left a piece of themselves in a war for a country on the other side of the world: we sincerely thank you. We thank you for your service, and we thank you for the sacrifices you have made for this country. We thank you for all that you gave to the people of Australia so we can live our lives in peace, far away from war and conflict. Your country is incredibly grateful and always will be.
Today is hard, and I know many of you are feeling a lot of pain and a lot of hurt about what's going on in Afghanistan. I know that you're confused. You gave everything you could have over there, and you've done everything you could have done—we know you did—just to see the country you tried to save crumble to pieces within minutes of our troops pulling out. And here we are, watching in horror, as Kabul falls to the resurgent Taliban. We're seeing videos of Afghans handing over their babies to American soldiers, trying so desperately to find a way to keep their children safe—even if it means never seeing them again. We're seeing people clinging to the evacuation planes as they take off from the runways out of Kabul. There are plenty of crowds gathering outside the airport gates in the middle of a pandemic, doing everything they can to run, to escape, to get themselves and their families far away from the Taliban, who have once again taken over their country.
It is heartbreaking. There is no other word for it, it's absolutely heartbreaking, but we shouldn't doubt what we fought for. We fought for our values and they're worth fighting for. They are always worth fighting for. No matter what the odds, no matter the result, you value what you fight for. We have always done that. You fought to give little girls a chance to go to school, and you fought to rid the world of the shadow of extremist terrorism. You fought to give people in one of the poorest nations in the world a say in the way their country was run. You fought to make the world better. You certainly fought to make their little bit of the world better, safer and fairer. And that's what Australians should always fight for, because they are part of our values. You did what you believed in and you did what you were asked to do. You should always hold your head up high, stand tall and be proud of what you've achieved, because you did exactly what the country asked you to do.
If anyone wants to judge the result of our longest war by what the country looks like once we leave it, they've missed the point. The only question to ask is what the world would look like if we hadn't gone there in the first place? We need to consider that. What would it look like if Australians hadn't stood up for what we stand for? I have no doubt that we would be living in a world that would be shivering in the shadow of terrorism. People all around the world would live in fear that the disgusting disregard for human life we saw on September 11 would be felt any day, any time, because the ones who think of human life like a bargaining chip, a perverted holy war, would still have a place to call home in Afghanistan.
To those who fought in our longest war: you made us safer, you made Afghanistan safer. You have got nothing to apologise for, you've got nothing to bow your heads down for. If there's failure to be found in what we've seen in the last few weeks, it's to be found in this building. Any failure sits on the shoulders of all the people who sit in this chamber today, and on the shoulders of people who sit in the other place, who made bad decisions about how to run this war. They're the people to blame. They're the people who need to go and have a look at their own conscience—and not just the ones sitting in there today, but the ones from the past. I hope you're taking time out, especially the ones from the past, to have a good think about your actions, because, by God, you need to!
There will come a time when we get to look at this carefully. There will be time for anger, for hard questions about what has gone wrong here. I will be moving a motion this week so that we can do that. We will start that process, because, God forbid, I do not want to go over this process for another 20 years. I do not want to make the same mistakes again for our kids and our grandchildren who will be serving the country. I don't want it, and they don't either!
We sent troops to a country under the thumb of a brutal regime and, for 20 years, we gave them life free of it. That's not failure in my books. If there was anything we could have done to make the Afghan government and its institutions more resilient to the forces of the Taliban, we should have done it. If there was anything we didn't do that we could have done, we should know about it so that it doesn't happen again in the future. And the only way we honour and respect the sacrifice that has been made by those who served under an Australian flag in Afghanistan is by asking hard questions—and they need to be asked—about what we could have done differently, to have a very different ending to what we have today. It needs to be examined.
It's false patriotism to say that asking hard questions about the results of our longest war in any way undermines or disrespects the contribution those troops made. Patriotism means holding your country to the highest standards you know your country is capable of achieving. We owe it to Australia to ask how we could have done better, how we could have had a better result at the end. That's what I want to do for all of us, because we need those answers. We need them. We need to go over the past to make sure that we don't make the same mistakes in the future.
As Leader of The Nationals in the Senate, I rise to support the motion, especially the comments of Minister Payne earlier in this place. The images coming out of Afghanistan have been extremely confronting and distressing for people across the world—just as distressing as the images of the planes flying into the World Trade Center were on 11 September 2001. Any Australian who was alive on that day would remember exactly where they were when the reports of what was occurring in New York and Washington broke on our news networks.
It was a never-before-seen attack of terror on the Western world. In response, Prime Minister John Howard invoked the ANZUS treaty for the first time and we stood with our American friends in their time of need. Australia became part of the NATO-led mission and entered Afghanistan to contribute to the fight against terrorism. We worked alongside the United States, NATO and the international community to hunt down Osama bin Laden and those responsible for the attacks on 11 September and to eliminate al-Qaeda's capacity to stage more attacks on the West from Afghanistan, and that was achieved. That mission was accomplished.
In completing that mission, almost 39,000 selfless, brave Australian Defence Force men and women made Australia a safer place and saved Australian lives through their service in Afghanistan. Many returned home with physical injuries and mental wounds, and some will never heal. Tragically, 41 of our brave soldiers did not make it home. They made the ultimate sacrifice in service of our nation. They did not die in vain, and we will never forget them. We'll continue to honour them each and every day. Australia owes a great debt of gratitude to all our veterans who've served with distinction, as well as gratitude to their families who have supported them during their service and beyond.
Their service and that of other agencies gave Afghans a chance for a better future. Afghans gained increased access to basic health care and electricity. We saw reduced maternal mortality rates, rises in life expectancy and in the participation of women in politics, and girls attending school. A generation of young Afghans were given hope; they were educated as a result of our efforts in that place. Our veterans, Border Force personnel, Federal Police officers and humanitarian aid workers should hold their heads up high. The cause was and always will be a just one. They must carry with them the knowledge that they did their nation and the world proud and that their fellow Australians are proud of them, as we are in this place, for serving in our national interest.
During my time in this place I also had the privilege of being part of an Australian Defence Force exchange program. I was able to visit Al Minhad and meet with soldiers being deployed to Afghanistan, and to visit Tarin Kot, a uniquely Australian base with a uniquely Australian vibe. I was able to also visit Kandahar, where things were a bit hot and heavy. There was a siren and we had to run through the appropriate behaviours—dropping to the floor et cetera. In that period of time, there was a very young Australian soldier—well, I thought he was very young; he was probably nearly 30—who was tasked with looking after this group of MPs, the poor thing. I asked him 'How was it?' He felt very, very privileged and proud to be serving in the ADF at a point in time when he could see active service. It was, indeed, his fourth tour, voluntarily. I have often thought of this young man and his approach to service in the years since. He knew what the mission was, he knew what his job within that mission was and he was very, very proud to serve his country, as I was to meet him. I wish him well, wherever he is today.
Heartbreakingly, though, the hope that we and our allies instilled in the Afghan people is now in doubt. The Australian government is responding to the rapidly evolving situation in Afghanistan, and it remains a highly volatile and dangerous environment. Ministers are meeting daily to lead the response to the crisis, and I am sure we all thank them—Minister Dutton, Minister Payne, the Prime Minister and Minister Andrews—for ensuring that we maintain that our top priority is the safe and orderly departure of Australian citizens and visa holders.
The Taliban must ensure the safe and orderly departure of those who wish to leave. The Taliban also must meet the commitments that they've made to the international community on the participation of women and girls in the broader Afghani community, including the commitment to education, and to ensure that never again will Islamic extremism be able to take hold within its borders to wreak havoc on the world.
We've not forgotten the Afghanis who supported our troops over the last two decades and we will not forget the Afghan people. The Prime Minister has instructed the ADF to extract Australians and their Afghani colleagues. Our forces are working with US counterparts to support multinational efforts to ensure those wishing to leave Afghanistan can do so safely. Since 18 August, alongside our allies, we've facilitated the safe evacuation of over 1,000 people from Kabul in some of the most extreme conditions our forces have operated in. This is in addition to the more than 8½ thousand Afghanis who have been resettled in Australia since 2013. The Australian government has also announced that an initial 3,000 humanitarian places will be allocated to Afghani nationals within Australia's overall annual humanitarian program. We anticipate that this initial allocation will increase over the course of this year. As the Prime Minister has said, this is a floor not a ceiling.
I want to express to the people of Afghanistan: we are thinking of you, we will continue to support you and we will do whatever we can to ensure your safety. Right now, our Australian Defence Force personnel are continuing to make sure Afghani people have access to the same lives, the same freedoms and the same protections we in Australia have. We're committed to doing everything we can in the time we have to get as many people out as safely as possible.
Lastly, I ask all veterans and all Australians to do a very Australian thing—check in on your mates, support those who have served during this very difficult time. To those who need it, I remind all veterans and their families of their access to Open Arms Veterans and Families Counselling. Don't hesitate to call 1800011046. We stand ready to support these incredible Australians and thank every single one of them for their service. I'm confident that our efforts as a nation in Afghanistan meant a safer world, meant a safer Australia. Our decisions as a government have always been taken in the national interest and will continue to be so. All in this place thank those for their service and for the contribution that they made on our behalf.
For years there have been calls to help the locally engaged interpreters and support staff who fought with our troops in Afghanistan. These brave men and women stood alongside Australians in our hour of need, yet we've left it too late to help too many of them in theirs. For believing in our mission and supporting our values of liberty and democracy, they and their families now face grave danger and death at the hands of the Taliban. For months and years, Labor has joined with veterans, retired senior officers of our defence forces and former prime ministers in their call for urgent action to help the locals who helped us.
Australian veterans like Jason Scanes, Glenn Kolomeitz and Stuart McCarthy have been trying to save the lives of their mates in Afghanistan—and I acknowledge as well my colleague in the other chamber Luke Gosling—knowing full well that the window to get them out has been narrowing. Now, with the country in tatters, we are forced to witness the horrific scenes in Kabul as people flee for their lives. The reality is that we simply have not done enough to help our friends. In July other allied nations were evacuating their Afghan supporters as the Taliban advanced. The Morrison government did not do enough. When Kabul fell, the government were left scrambling to send in evacuation aircraft on 16 August. The Prime Minister now says he wishes it could have been different. The reality is that it could have been. Veterans, lawyers and even former prime minister John Howard warned Mr Morrison that he wasn't doing enough to get our allies out.
I've spoken to dozens of people from the Afghan Australian community over the past week. They have shared their stories with me. These are harrowing, tormenting and deeply moving. These are Australian citizens and permanent residents telling me of their relatives who are in hiding, moving every few hours with their children and nothing more than the clothes on their backs, unable to get food, unable to get their documents, unable to fill out the forms and unable to get to the airport. These Australians tell me of the desperate texts, the WhatsApp messages and the fear: the very real threat of death hanging over their wives, their children, their parents, their brothers, their sisters and their cousins. They have more questions than answers, because the humanitarian visa rules are unclear and the process is confounding, particularly in the middle of a humanitarian crisis. MPs and senators, particularly in seats with high concentrations of Afghan Australians, have been overrun—inundated—with requests for help. My office alone assisted in supporting more than a thousand applications in the last week.
Temporary protection and safe haven visa holders are also receiving conflicting advice from the Morrison government about whether they can apply for family reunification visas. The minister, Alex Hawke, said on ABC radio that they can, but the Department of Home Affairs publications say they can't. Legal services and refugee support groups are not able to get clarity either. I've been talking to many of these over the past few days. This confusion adds to the distress and the misery that Australian citizens, Australian veterans, visa holders here in Australia and those who work every day to support them are feeling.
It's not too late to fix this. The Morrison-Joyce government's offer of 3,000 visas is insufficient. Australia has 13,750 humanitarian intake places available for refugees this year, and we didn't exhaust our quota from last year. We should do more. I welcome that the Prime Minister says that this is a floor, not a ceiling. But, again, confusion reigns. The minister for immigration told ABC radio that these places were new. It is clear that they are not. None of this will matter, though—the number of places—if we can't secure safe passage to the airport, a task made exceedingly difficult now due to the government doing too little, too late. I acknowledge the bravery and the hard work of ADF personnel, Home Affairs officials and other Australians who are on the ground, seeking to secure safe passage, but I can share with this chamber that, just today, a woman who my office assisted to get a visa turned up at the airport and was turned away by Australian officials because they didn't accept that the email documentation she had was real. This is the type of bureaucratic process that is simply not working for people who are in a humanitarian crisis. Mr Morrison must ensure, as well, that Afghans in Australia on temporary visas are not deported and that they have pathways to remain here. This has been done for people from Hong Kong. This has been done for people from Myanmar. It can be done for people from Afghanistan who are here in Australia on a temporary visa. We should do this, and all these things, not just because they're right but because we owe respect to our Australian citizens and permanent residents who are desperate and fearful for their family members in Afghanistan. We should do it because we owe a great debt to our military men and women who served in Afghanistan. We honour those who went, those who never came home and those who never came home quite the same.
The reality is that our mission in Afghanistan would have been far more dangerous without the selfless sacrifice of the locals who helped us, and that's why so many of our veterans are fighting to save their mates. How can we let their pleas fall on deaf ears after all they've done for us? Soldiers know better than anyone that mateship is a verb. Mateship means showing up in hard times, and no-one left behind. It's a value woven into our national fabric by the Anzacs. So what do we owe to our mates in Afghanistan? We owe them more than we can ever say, but at the very least we owe them the chance to live in the peace they fought so bravely to bring to their own land.
We will dissect this war for decades to come—why we went there, what we did and why it ended like this. But I beg of the Morrison government, do not let this ending be an enduring shame. That would be the ultimate betrayal of our veterans, of those who helped our soldiers and of our values. The Morrison government must do more for our Afghan-Australian community and for our Afghan mates, and it must happen now.
I too rise to support the motion moved by the foreign minister and I also wholeheartedly endorse her words, her emotions and her sentiments as expressed in her comments. I congratulate her and other ministers, and their staff and their many officials, who are working so hard to save so many lives, but the sad truth is they won't be able to save them all.
For 20 years many thousands of Australians in and out of uniform have served our nation in Afghanistan and more widely in the region. This has undoubtedly saved the lives of not only Australians here and overseas but also many others elsewhere. They've saved Australian lives from the threat of terrorism, which has spread from its roots in Afghanistan like a hydra, right across our region and even into Australia. Like so many others, I have been absolutely distressed in recent days to hear some suggest that the efforts of Australian veterans, diplomats and civilians in Afghanistan were for nought. It is simply not true. As a former defence minister, I've been to Afghanistan. I've seen firsthand how Australia's military involvement there, and in the wider region, not only has made our own nation safer from the threat of terrorism but also has made a tangible difference to the lives of so many millions of Afghans, particularly their women and their girls. The efforts of our veterans have not been in vain. I commend Senator Lambie for her words and her expressions of support for the thousands of veterans from Afghanistan. Through our presence and our support millions have seen the possibility and the reality of a much better life—please, never ever doubt that.
I join the foreign minister also in thanking all of those who are currently supporting the evacuation efforts in Kabul and in the UAE. Like so many others, I am now waiting anxiously for news from Kabul and from the UAE about who has made it out and who has made it out past those terrible roadblocks manned by the Taliban, who are subjecting people to beatings and far worse. But I know there are far too many Australians today who are anxiously and desperately waiting for word of the wellbeing of their family members both in Kabul and also right across Afghanistan.
None of us can ever forget where we were on 11 September 2021. I was chief of staff to the Minister for Justice and Customs when the Twin Towers were hit by al-Qaeda. Like all Australians, and indeed the rest of the world, I watched the horror of the multiple attacks on that day in sheer disbelief. That night, none of us who worked in the ministerial wing here slept. The phones rang hot. No-one at that minute could imagine what the tragedy would mean for our nation's safety and security or for the rest of the world. Indeed, in the first few hours, we were even worried about the safety of the Prime Minister and his travelling team.
Over the next months and, indeed, years, I was at the heart of subsequent reforms to our nation's antiterrorism measures. The Bali bombings, which followed hot on the heels of September 11, added to our urgency and brought the reality of terrorism ever closer to our shores. Throughout this time I gained enormous insight into the darkness that inhabited the souls of the perpetrators of that terrorism. That darkness and evil, sadly, continues to dwell in the minds of some today, including the Taliban and those who have seized control of Afghanistan. The tentacles spread so quickly from Afghanistan and al-Qaeda to our region, to Jemaah Islamiyah and the Bali bombings, which claimed the lives of 202 innocents, including 88 Australians. In Bali, I visited the morgue. I met shell-shocked survivors. I worked with the families of those who lost loved ones in Bali. I saw, heard and—as I will never forget—smelled the impact of terrorism on the lives of Australians.
I also witnessed then, as I do every day here in Australia, that the decisions made by governments of the day are never easy and never taken lightly. That time also showed me very, very clearly that democratic freedoms are never truly free and that, all too often, they have to be fought for over and over again. That is what thousands of our troops did in Afghanistan for nearly 20 years, with the loss of 41 irreplaceable Australian lives. These were all Australians who loved and were loved and who will be forever missed, and they will all be remembered.
These experiences also motivated me to begin volunteering with a range of Australian and overseas programs to support and empower young political leaders, particularly women, to help them find their voice in their communities, in their media and in their parliaments and to help them speak out in circumstances that we have no concept of, that really are just so foreign to our own way of life. I've met so many women, including women in Afghanistan, who I'm now proud to call friend and who continue to make me so proud, to inspire me and to humble me.
What did our 20 years of service in Afghanistan achieve for Afghans? For a start, the life expectancy of Afghans has increased from just 56 years to 64 years. The mortality rate of infants has reduced dramatically, from 87 to 46 per 1,000 births. Women's participation in the labour force has risen to over 20 per cent from almost nil. Afghanistan now has more than 200 female judges and over 4,000 women in law enforcement, and 27 per cent of seats in Afghanistan are held by women. But one of our most significant achievements and, I hope, enduring commitments and legacies is the dramatic increase in access to education for Afghan boys and girls. The literacy rate of the adult population has increased to 43 per cent, while the literacy rate for girls has increased dramatically, to 60 per cent. Student enrolments grew from less than a million—of course, all boys—to over 9.5 million students today. Wonderfully, 40 per cent are now girls.
Having worked with women who fight unimaginable political and security challenges each and every day on behalf of their communities, I think it is very fitting to leave my last words in this chamber today on this issue to the words of one of the women who has so inspired me, an incredibly brave Afghan woman, Shukria Barakzai. Shukria is a former Afghan politician and diplomat and a fierce advocate for women's rights. She has chosen to remain in Kabul. Her bravery, her struggle and her sacrifice continue to inspire me and so many others. In her life, she has been subjected to multiple suicide attacks, she has been beaten, she has been wounded gravely, she has lost two children and she has suffered so many other losses that are just so unimaginable to all of us in this parliament today. She ran an underground school for girls during the Taliban, and, today, she still fights in Afghanistan for the voices of young women.
Last week, Shukria wrote a really powerful article from Kabul, which was published in the Daily Mail, about her fears but, amazingly, also about her hopes that enough younger Afghans will continue to carry out her work and the work of many others who have fought for so long on behalf of women and girls. She said that this week her concern is for the young minds—that they survive, that they endure and that they keep on fighting the fight for women and girls. I'll finish with her parting words in the article:
I am trying to place my faith in the resilience of this land and its brave and benighted people.
No matter how dark the clouds are, I am looking at the end of the night and sunrise beyond.
Today my hope is that the passion, the commitment and the bloodshed of so many from Australia and around the globe will continue to inspire women with the resilience that Shukria has.
To all Australian service men and women and all other Australians who served in Afghanistan, and to their families: I thank you for your service. To all veterans and to their families: please always remember that not only have you saved Australian lives here and overseas but you have transformed the lives of a generation of Afghan boys and girls. And, like Shukria, I hope that together we have done enough to prepare them, as she said, with the skills to endure the current darkness so that they may eventually see the 'sunrise beyond'.
I think we have all been shocked at the images we've seen on our television screens over the last week and a half. I have to admit I found it very hard to watch, particularly when that US aircraft took off with people desperately clinging to the undercarriage. It reinforces, for us here in Australia, our democracy and our freedoms, and it shows how desperate people are to get out of that country and to escape what they know is going to be the resurgence of the Taliban.
Obviously, the unfolding security and humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan is devastating for the people of Afghanistan, for the Australian Afghan communities and for the Afghan staff that supported our military and diplomatic operations for over 20 years. It's heartbreaking for our veterans and for the women and girls of Afghanistan, who now face the prospect of a cruel and brutal regime. I think none of us in this place can imagine how brutal and horrific it will be. Many Australians, including veterans, are horrified to see the Taliban surge across the country. Labor members are deeply concerned about the stability of Afghanistan, and we certainly urge the Morrison-Joyce government to work with international partners to help support efforts towards a negotiated settlement and a permanent ceasefire. Labor will use all of the avenues available to us to ensure the Morrison government continues to support the people of Afghanistan, including through our humanitarian assistance program. We know that this is a deeply distressing time for Australians of Afghan descent and Afghan visa holders in Australia who are fearful, quite rightly, for the safety of their loved ones. We have been calling for the Morrison-Joyce government to develop a plan to urgently fast-track visas and evacuations for Australians' immediate family members who are in Afghanistan, along with those who supported our operations. Thousands of husbands, wives, partners and children of Australians have been waiting for years for partner and family visas, and others must now be eligible for refugee and humanitarian visas.
Last week—like, I'm sure, many of us in this place—our office received a lot of phone calls from very, very distressed Afghanis, in the main expressing their concern about their families, and I want to put some of those callers on the record. There have been many calls, and they have been heart-wrenching. The calls are from members of our community begging for action to bring their loved ones from the terrors of Afghanistan to the safety of our home, Australia. Of course, this isn't the first time these pleas have been made. Under the Howard government we saw many Afghan refugees arriving in this country. They were Hazara. At that time I wasn't a member of this place, but I used to go and assist them to fill out their visa applications. I was really shocked to be confronted for the first time with people who lived entirely different lives to the way I lived mine. They were people who put their occupations down as blacksmiths, as tinkers or as shepherds. Some people had 16 or 17 brothers and sisters in their family, many of whom were deceased. They told me horrific stories of persecution under the Taliban so many years ago, and those stories and the faces of those refugees have stayed with me. Now we have, yet again, Afghanis in the same situation. They're asking, begging, for our help.
One male caller noted that he keeps trying to talk to people in power. He's emailed the Minister for Defence and has tried to contact his Liberal member and the Prime Minister. To quote him on his experience pleading for help: 'These people don't see me. They don't care about me.' He continued: 'You'—referring to the person on the other end of the phone in my office—'are the only person who has listened to what I have to say. We just want to be heard. I would like you to pass on my message to the senator and to the parliament. I worked as an interpreter in Afghanistan for Australian troops. My sister, my brother and my family are in hiding. If the Taliban find them, they will slaughter them. I risked my life for Australia and now I feel as though I am not Australian. They treat me differently. I do not belong.' These members of our community do belong. They should be treated with the same level of respect as every other Australian. Times like these are when the Australian spirit should be strong. We look out for one another. The Prime Minister needs to remember that he is representing the people of this country, and they are crying out to be heard. Zakiya is a Cannington resident; Cannington is in the Swan electorate in Western Australia. Her sister is a midwife and her brother is a journalist. Both are in Afghanistan and fear for their safety due to their employment. She is fearful for her family and wishes the Australian government would provide more assistance.
We heard from a man on behalf of the Afghan community—again in the electorate of Swan. He called before the Taliban entered Kabul the weekend before last. He was a battlefield interpreter for the Australian government in Afghanistan. In his own words: 'I have helped the Australian counterterrorism mission in Afghanistan by wearing the Australian Army uniform and going to the front line of the war in Kandahar province and putting my life in danger. My family members are still in Afghanistan. They are shocked. They have nowhere to go, and the life of my family members is in danger. If the Taliban catch my family members, they will slaughter them.' Over and over again, we have heard that word 'slaughter'. It's a word that I'm not using, but it's a word that's been said to the people at the end of the phone in my office. The man continued: 'I'm begging the Australian government to save my family's life by providing them with a visa and bringing them to Australia to live in a safe environment. This is what the US and Canada and the UK are doing right now in Kabul. My family is not safe under the Taliban, because of my job as an interpreter for the Australian Army. On top of that, I'm Hazara and the Taliban has a history of slaughtering Hazara. That has included the slaughtering of hundreds of innocent women and children. Recently'—and we've heard this a few times now coming out of Afghanistan, and we heard it again on the phones last week—'the Taliban has taken away 10- to 12-year-old girls from their families and forced them to marry soldiers.' This man told us that he only has his voice left to help his family and others like them.
Yesterday, I'm proud to say, the Western Australian community held a rally—something we can do in Western Australia because we don't have the COVID restrictions we see in the eastern states—in support of the Afghan people. I want to talk about one of the young women who organised that rally, Rahila Haidary. Rahila was one of the organisers of the Perth rally for Afghanistan yesterday. She lives in Perth and came to Australia with her family on a humanitarian visa when she was very young. Rahila lives in my Labor colleague Anne Aly's electorate of Cowan. Rahila is an Australian citizen. Rahila works in the international humanitarian and human rights sectors and is an advocate for education and female economic empowerment throughout Australia and the world. Her husband, Khalid, came by boat to Australia a year after Rahila arrived. Khalid is still being made to reapply over and over for temporary protection visas. They now have a nine-month-old daughter. Horrifically, they recently received a letter from the Department of Home Affairs saying that their daughter, born in Australia to an Australian citizen mother, was unlawful. The letter was quickly established to be incorrect, but imagine hearing at this time from the Australian government, which is supposed to be protecting you, that your daughter is unlawful. This is just one of the impacts of the Morrison government's ongoing policies, which lack any compassion or empathy, particularly for people who are living in our country in constant uncertainty and fear.
I would implore the Morrison-Joyce government to at least immediately fast-track those Afghan refugees who have remained on temporary protection visas in this country for years and years. Show some humanity. We saw it from Mr Abbott when he was Prime Minister. We can and must do better than what's on offer at the moment. I want, as do my Labor colleagues, to see us lift the number of people we take into this country. I'm really sad to hear the demonisation that has crept into the language of the Morrison government—Mr Dutton and others—just over the last couple of weeks.
It's with a heavy heart that I rise to make a small contribution on the situation in Afghanistan—a place where almost 40,000 ADF personnel and civilians have honourably served, fulfilling a difficult duty and making sacrifices often extending well beyond the deployment. Each one has their own story, with 41 lost on deployment and too many more lost to mental health consequences upon their return. Each one has a family who carried the weight of that duty too. For our veterans, mere thanks is not enough but I extend it nonetheless.
Coalition forces repeatedly defeated the Taliban in battle. In defence tactics, they have been unparalleled in dealing with an irregular adversary. The problem is that the nation hasn't been able to take that success and translate it into a sustained diplomatic and institutional culture that serves the long-term objective of freedom for the people of Afghanistan. In that sense, it's not so much a military failure as an institutional one. That may seem like cold comfort to the Australian veterans who struggle daily with observing the events in Afghanistan today, or the scars they bear from their time deployed, and it will surely ring hollow to the families of the 41 ADF personnel we lost in Afghanistan.
I hope the veterans listening will take this encouragement: you did everything you could. While it may not be viable for Australia to persist with your legacy of service in Afghanistan in the absence of our coalition partners today, much has been accomplished nevertheless. Let me acknowledge what your pain has achieved. You built a local armed force that was ultimately quite skilled, though it couldn't translate tactics into lasting change. You found and held accountable those who, through al-Qaeda, sought to export terrorism globally and you made it clear that they could not hide. You built prosperity: the GDP in Afghanistan rose by more than 250 per cent during the time of our involvement. You reduced infant mortality in Afghanistan by 50 per cent and newborn mortality by 32 per cent. You reduced death in childbirth by facilitating the training of midwives. In 2002 there were just 400 midwives nationwide; in 2018 there were over 5,000. You delivered an increase in functioning healthcare facilities—from 496 in 2002 to 2,800 in 2018. You made it possible to extend life expectancy by nine years in the period from 2000 to 2018. You reduced the number of people who lived with hunger daily so much that, by 2020, Afghanistan rated 99th out of 107 countries for its Global Hunger Index score. Child marriage plummeted. The rate at which children gave birth was more than halved between 2001 and 2019. You made it possible for 37 per cent of Afghan teenage girls to be able to read today. You ensured that more girls than ever before have the opportunity to attend school—80 per cent of girls, even in remote regions. In 1999, not a single girl in Afghanistan was in secondary school and there were only 9,000 in primary school. That number is now 3.5 million. One-third of university students are women, and 1,000 women started businesses of their own in recent times. All of those things were prohibited under the Taliban's last regime.
I don't pretend that these accomplishments are enough to justify the cost to Australians, but I think of Afghan girls, perhaps of the same age as my daughters, who, after the chance to taste just a little freedom—not much, mind you: the right to be seen, to learn, to be heard, to hope that one day they might live in safety at home and in public—now face the real prospect of life under the extreme repression of the Taliban. My heart breaks for them.
But I know that the seed our veterans have planted in the hearts and minds of so many girls and boys, men and women, who do not subscribe to the extremist ideology of repression and cruelty, now has the chance to grow in a way that is sustainable into a nation that does reflect the values we have helped shape. When that happens it will be sustainable. It will be owned by the people who deliver it, and it will be more enthusiastically defended than any regime we might try to establish from afar. It is my sincere prayer that this seed grows into the strongest of trees, bearing the fruits of prosperity, freedom, education and hope.
In this time of crisis, the Australian government takes the compassionate approach that you would expect. We are facilitating the exit of Australians, as well as those who worked with coalition forces, because we must do the right thing by those who trusted us on the ground.
Since 2013, 8,500 Afghans have been resettled in Australia on humanitarian grounds. Three thousand of the places in our humanitarian program this year will be allocated to Afghans. Australia consistently provides one of the world's most generous humanitarian programs. It is in times like these that the elements of it that can seem strict at times pay dividends. When we have policies in place that otherwise ensure the people smuggling of economic migrants is not rewarded, it allows us to provide more help to those in dire circumstances like those we have seen in recent times.
Since 2013, over 1,800 Afghan locally engaged employees and their families have been granted visas. Since 15 April this year, over 570 people in Afghanistan have been granted a visa under the Afghan locally engaged employee program, including family members. I know Minister Hawke and Minister Payne, in particular, are working around the clock to do the right thing by those people who did the right thing by us. And I know that they are working diligently with each and every person, like me, who brings to them cases of individuals in desperation. So I commend their sincere and diligent work.
Afghanis have now glimpsed the health, education and prosperity that are the products of peace and freedom and the rejection of extremist ideology. It is now up to the people of Afghanistan to take the lessons of the last 20 years and use them to build for themselves a stable, functional and fair government of their own.
[by video link] A tragedy, an appalling tragedy, is the only way to describe what is going on in Afghanistan, which we focus on today. People around the world, including Australians, are shocked, upset and heartbroken and want to know how it has come to this—that, after 20 years of war, the Taliban are back in control and their brutal regime, which the world had hoped was defeated 20 years ago, is back. We need to reflect on the lives that have been lost—the tens of thousands of Afghan people and the 41 Australian Defence Force personnel—and the suffering. So much suffering, so much sacrifice, and it's come to this.
Make no mistake: the Taliban is back, but the newer, softer Taliban—the Taliban who do media conferences—is a lie. We have already heard enough credible reports to know that: the credible reports of them going house to house, executing Hazara people on the spot; of them telling us that the rights of women will be subject to sharia law; and of 10- and 12-year-old girls being married off to soldiers. We have seen footage of the brutality of the Taliban fighters patrolling outside the airport, bashing people with rifle butts. I myself heard a direct account of the people in that maelstrom, that crowd at the airport over the weekend. One person who I was engaged with was bashed by a rifle butt, pushed by Taliban fighters into razor wire and thrown to the ground and had his glasses broken. We know of people who have been evicted from their houses, people living in fear and terror for their lives. We know of Hazara people and others knowing that they are at extreme risk of death just because of who they are.
My office, along with other offices, has been inundated with people—Australians and people from around the world—who are so fearful for the safety of their loved ones, families, friends and colleagues in Afghanistan. My office has been inundated by the emails and phone messages from thousands of Australians who want our government to be doing more. My staff, the staff of our Greens offices, the staff in other MPs' offices, so many of us as members of parliament and so many public servants have worked incredibly long hours over the last week and the weekend, supporting people and helping them work out what to do. We've been advocating to the Department of Home Affairs, advocating to DFAT and advocating through ministerial offices to have visas and applications expedited and for people to be evacuated. Many of the people on the lists that our Greens offices have put together are partners of Australian permanent residents or immediate family members of Australians. Some have had visa applications in to come to Australia for up to two years. They're people who should have been able to come to Australia long before now. Others are human rights campaigners, women's rights campaigners, democracy campaigners, journalists and targeted people, especially Hazara people and other ethnic and religious minorities. They are people who have worked with our government and with NGOs. They've worked in the field with our defence forces, as interpreters, support workers and aid workers.
Over the last weekend, over 20 of the people who our Greens offices had been directly engaged with and were supporting—it was such a relief—managed to get through the gauntlet of the massive crowds outside Hamid Karzai airport. They managed to survive the Taliban attacks on people outside the airport. They managed to get on the list for people to be evacuated. They were approved for travel to Australia and are now on their way to start new lives here.
I personally spent the weekend following the progress of a group of 11 of these folk. They had been brought to my attention by an Australian friend who had been working on an aid project in Mazar-i-Sharif, in the north of Afghanistan, since the beginning of the year. She managed to get out of Afghanistan herself, fleeing in a very dangerous journey, just over a month ago. These were people that she had worked with, who she knew were at extreme risk. She had worked over the last week to put in applications for humanitarian visas to Australia for them. This group of 11 people was typical of the people at risk in Afghanistan and typical of the people in that crowd of tens of thousands outside the airport. They were Hazara people and other targeted ethnic minorities, people who would be at extreme risk of execution by the Taliban. They were human rights and democracy activists and people who have worked with foreign governments and NGOs. They included a family with a four-year-old and a four-month-old. They included a 23-year-old woman who had the audacity to be training to be a pilot. She was one of only 40 women out of 1,000 pilots in the Afghan defence forces and did not want to have her future determined by the brutal repression of women that the Taliban will be imposing—that is, if she even survived. This group had direct experience of the brutality of the Taliban. Some had personal experience from 20 years ago of the massacres by the Taliban, the public executions by stoning, the whippings, the dismembered hands hanging from a tree in the centre of a roundabout, the harassment and the abuse of women.
This group that I was focused on over the weekend were just a drop in the ocean of the people seeking to flee. In my mind, I spent all weekend in Kabul with them. In my mind, I was there with the tens of thousands of people in this maelstrom of humanity outside the airport. Every one of them was there because they are in fear of their lives under the Taliban. This group that I was following spent all of Saturday and Sunday in the awful crowd outside the airport gate. It was 40 degrees. There was no shade. There was no room to even sit down. I could not bear to think of a four-year-old and a four-month-old in those conditions, but they had no option. If they stayed behind, the threat of death was just so real.
I want to thank Ministers Payne and Hawke and their offices for their engagement over the weekend on all the cases that our offices brought to their attention through this last week. In particular, I want to thank them for what is a very wonderful outcome for this group of 11 people. At 2 am last night—eight o'clock their time—I got word that this group of 11 that I'd been following had been permitted to enter the airport and were now waiting for emergency visas to be issued so that they could be evacuated to Australia to begin new lives. I am still crying tears of joy and amazement that they are now safe. I think of four-year-old Daniel and four-month-old Diana beginning their journey to Australia, beginning their quintessential multicultural Australian journey, growing up as Australians in that tradition that our nation has been built on.
Every one of the 450 people Australia has evacuated so far has a powerful story to tell, but so do thousands and thousands more. We need to be doing more. We need to be accepting more than the 3,000 people that our government has committed to—3,000 people who are only being accepted as part of our existing refugee quota. Since we have settled only 8,500 people from Afghanistan since 2013, it is not a number that I would be proud of. And our government should be hanging their heads in shame at their record of locking people up indefinitely—people like these people that we are now evacuating to Australia. People have been locked up indefinitely just for pursuing their right under international law to flee persecution.
Australia should be committed to resettling at least 20,000 people, following the lead of Canada and the UK. The 4,500 people on temporary visas here in Australia must be given permanent protection so that they can fully settle down and establish their roots and know that Australia really values them and wants them to stay. We need to continue the work on fast-tracking visas for the people who are so desperate to leave, and we need to increase aid support, particularly through civil society organisations, to help the people who are suffering so much already and are going to continue to suffer with the Taliban in control. It's the least we can do. The foreseeable future in Afghanistan looks bleak. Our 20 years of war has not created an ongoing peace. Part (b) of this motion says that we have been 'fighting terrorism, promoting freedom and seeking to support the people of Afghanistan'. We might have thought that we were doing that during this longest war, but it hasn't turned out that well, has it?
We must ask ourselves what has gone wrong. Why has it come to this, with the Taliban back in control? Was there anything else that we could have done instead of imposing a colonial war upon the people of Afghanistan, supporting warlords and turning a blind eye to corruption? In this longest war, 41 Australians have died, sacrificing their lives, tens of thousands of Afghans have died, and hundreds of thousands or millions more people have been impacted by trauma and loss. I send our ongoing sympathies to all those people affected and those who have been affected by those who have lost their lives, and I hope that those lives have not been lost in vain. The least we can do in the circumstances is to provide a safe haven for people now. We should have been getting many more people out well before now, so taking 20,000 people to be resettled in Australia is very reasonable in the circumstances.
We should learn from the war of the last 20 years, change the way that we act in the world, and develop and implement policies so that human rights are at the centre of our foreign and defence policies. We need policies and actions in the world that have equal participation of women—we must insist on that. We must have diverse peoples across all hierarchies in all institutions, from ministries to embassies and implementing partners. We need to be supporting political processes to ensure equal influence of the politically marginalised and to actively support civil-society actors promoting gender equality and the rights of political minorities. Yes, there has been progress made in Afghanistan over the last 20 years, but there is so much more that we could have been doing and should have been doing to make sure that those achievements were lasting. We need to acknowledge the continuing colonial legacies within Foreign Affairs and actively work to overcome them. We should be championing cooperation, partnerships and inclusion over domination and exclusion, and emphasising the shared communalities of human beings across the globe.
As we reflect today on the tragedy in Afghanistan we have to realise that we can and we must do better. For the sake of the people who have suffered over the last 20 years, the people who have sacrificed their lives, the people who are suffering at the moment in Afghanistan, and the people who are going to have a very difficult time in the ongoing months and years—who knows how long—we have to do better. We can do better and we must.
[by video link] All Australians are watching very closely the events unfolding in Afghanistan. They are indeed very distressing. Our veteran community are watching closely, reflecting upon their own experiences, their own sacrifices and the sacrifices of others that they served with. Twenty-nine thousand Australians served in Afghanistan in military roles over our longest conflict. Many thousands more served in our diplomatic corps or worked for contractors, aid organisations or the media organisations that reported on the war. They will all be watching this intensely closely. Members of the Afghan Australian community watch anxiously too—those who are citizens now and those who desperately want to be.
Afghans have made a contribution to Australia for over 150 years. The graves of Afghan cameleers and their places of worship are spread all across the Australian outback. Tens of thousands of Afghan troops and civilians have died in this bitter conflict since 2001.
The focus today is on the chaotic, terrible scenes at Kabul airport, where tens of thousands of Afghans and some Australian citizens are desperate to escape. Like all Australians, I know my thoughts today are with them and with the Australian troops and those men and women of the Royal Australian Air Force who have been deployed to effect our rescue of Australians and the locals who have worked with and for us and for a modern Afghanistan—safe, democratic and decent. It's clear that Prime Minister Morrison has left this effort far, far too late.
For years, veterans have raised publicly, privately and increasingly loudly the absolute moral imperative to act to rescue and return to Australia Afghans who worked with us. For months, since the closure of the Australian embassy in Kabul, it has been clear that this task requires urgency and application—as much urgency and application from the government as was required for the original decision to commit Australian troops to this important venture. There is not just a moral imperative; there is a national interest imperative. There's not just a moral imperative but a national interest imperative to get this right and to do it in a timely, urgent and effective way. The Morrison government has had months. I can't think of many meetings that I've had with members of the veteran community or members of veterans' families where this issue hasn't been raised squarely, often setting aside their own direct interests.
It's crucial to how Australia and Australians are regarded in the world and whether we are trusted as partners and friends that we follow through and deliver for those Australians and the Afghan men and women for whom we owe that duty. Yet month after month, the Prime Minister, the defence minister, the foreign minister and the Minister for Home Affairs have all been frozen in inaction. These failures by the Prime Minister, sadly, reflect on all Australians. Every person removed safely in the months preceding the fall of Kabul would have been one less to extract in the last few days of this unfolding crisis. The situation at Kabul airport is becoming increasingly dangerous. Mr Sullivan, President Biden's national security adviser, said yesterday that there is an acute threat from ISIS detachments in the near vicinity of the airport. Here, in Australia, we can but watch and hope that Australian professionalism and grit, planning and good fortune are enough to see all of our troops, aviators, staff and contractors return safe to our shores.
Of course, these events mean that we must defer a post-mortem analysis of our longest war. It's certainly true that that coalition action, of which Australia was an important part, denied al-Qaeda a safe base to launch acts of terrorism and war across the globe. It is also true that Afghans themselves stepped up. Women went to work. Girls went to school for the first time. Men and women stepped forward to work for a better Afghanistan—democratic, free, well governed and more equal. Of course we wonder: what is going to happen to them? It's so distressing to see so much of that so brutally swept away. It's most distressing for those who fought and for the comrades, family and friends of those who were killed, those who were injured and those who have died in the years since their service concluded. But all of us must stand with them. All of us worry deeply about the girls who have gone to school and the women who've stood up for the country that Afghanistan may become.
Afghanistan is a place that has seen so much suffering, with hundreds of years of imperial invasion and conquest, brutality and subjugation. Most recently the brutal conflicts during the Cold War, fought between proxies of the major powers, followed by a period of brutal Taliban dictatorship has meant that the people of Afghanistan have had no real prospect of the peace and prosperity that all of us take for granted. The post mortem can come later. Today we watch the evacuation effort, pray for their safe return and honour the courage and service of all those Australians who served.
I rise briefly today to acknowledge the people of Afghanistan as they're faced with the return of the Taliban and the clock turning back in time, particularly with regard to women and children and the dreadful treatment that was inflicted on them, inflicted upon so many Afghani people. Unfortunately, this looks set to recommence.
But I really wanted to particularly speak to our troops, the men and women who served over the past 20 years whilst the war raged. It's thanks to these incredibly brave men and women that Afghanistan now has a generation of women who've been allowed to flourish, to be educated, to pursue careers and to live in relative freedom. It's because of the work that they did that a generation of children weren't abused or subjugated to child marriage. Young girls were allowed to attend school; they weren't hidden under a burqa or married off in their teen years or, in some dreadful circumstances, even younger. To the 41 Australians who made the ultimate sacrifice in serving your country, our deepest thoughts and gratitude go to you and your families. You will never be forgotten.
I also want to take this chance to acknowledge some of my friends who served, who did multiple tours and who I know are amongst so many of the 39,000 Australians who served that are feeling particularly vulnerable at the moment. There was my friend who, after serving for nine months in Afghanistan, got off the plane to find no-one waiting to greet him, no-one waiting to shake his hand, no-one waiting to thank him for his service. He walked out of the airport and got in a cab to go home. There are those who recently returned, who did multiple tours not only to Afghanistan but also to other theatres in the Middle East, who were too junior to really influence strategy but had enough experience on the ground over those 20 years to see where some of the strategic failures were playing out. And there are those who experienced a decline in mental health, some to the point that it made them consider suicide and others—far too many—who, unfortunately, were successful in their attempts. Please know that all of you are seen, that you are appreciated and that all Australians are proud of you and thank you for your service. Your efforts were not in vain and, as I said earlier, you have influenced and saved a generation of Afghanis who will never forget your help.
To WithYouWithMe, Soldier On and Veteran Support Force, amongst other organisations, thank you for your continuing efforts. All of those organisations are led by people who not only know firsthand what it means to serve but also know the challenges of re-entry into civilian life. To all Australians who've served and to those who are continuing to serve: thank you for your service. Hold your head up high and be proud of what you achieved.
[by video link] I would like to contribute to the motion on Afghanistan moved by Senator Payne this afternoon. It's now nearly 20 years since the US led intervention in Afghanistan that followed the 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States. Having been to Ground Zero on Christmas night that year, I watched and spoke to people who had lost loved ones on that terrible day. They wandered aimlessly that Christmas night next to the safety fencing around the Twin Towers site seeking closeness at Christmas, except, of course, their loved one was no longer there. By an act of evil they had been killed, so the coalition of democracies went in to prevent the Taliban from continuing to protect and shelter those terrorists. That intervention overthrew the oppressive Taliban regime and gave the people of Afghanistan, at least in theory, the possibility of democratic government, the expansion of human rights, particularly for women, and social and economic progress.
Today, as we stand in this place or connect remotely to talk to this motion, it is with great despair and with great sadness that we note that the Taliban regime is back in control in Afghanistan. Since 2001 more than $2 trillion has been spent on military operations in and economic aid to Afghanistan. Twenty years of intermittent warfare have taken an estimated 250,000 lives, with 2,353 US military personnel having perished alongside 41 members of the Australian Defence Force. We will never forget their sacrifice and we will always honour them. We know that 66,000 Afghan military personnel also died trying to create a safer country for their children and for that next generation. This, however, is not the whole story.
There is also a much more positive story to tell about the past 20 years in Afghanistan. Here, it is important for us to remember that Australia was a force for good in Afghanistan. We are all thinking of the 39,000 men and women of the Australian Defence Force, what they contributed and what they sacrificed. Indeed, there are many in this place and the other place who have served our country in the Defence Force and continue to serve in the parliament. During our engagement, Afghanistan saw the most sustained period of economic and social progress in its entire history—in fact, this has been the only sustained period of economic and social progress in the country's history.
Almost two-thirds of Afghanistan's people are aged under 25. They are the best educated generation in the country's history, particularly those among the rapidly growing urban population. Most of them have little to no memory of the Taliban years. But they know from their families' histories how much worse, how much more fearful, life at that time was for everyone, particularly young people and especially young women. There seem to be green shoots of a view, at least from young people today in Afghanistan who do not wish to live under the restrictions of Taliban rule and who do not wish to have liberties which have become normal for them over the last decade removed from them. Of course, there are also now those in the Panjshir Valley.
Countries like ours have a responsibility to deal with the situation that has arisen in Afghanistan. The best way we can fulfil that obligation right now, as the situation on the ground in Afghanistan continues to deteriorate, is to help evacuate those who worked with our defence forces, diplomatic community and aid organisations as well as their families and those who supported our efforts in Afghanistan over the last 20 years. Many are now in immediate danger. Of course, this should be done with consideration for the existing security and immigration vetting processes that are in place. No reasonable person is suggesting otherwise. I note that many of these efforts are currently underway and that we have already evacuated hundreds of individuals out of Afghanistan. I keep looking at the photographs from Kabul airport. I've arrived and departed through both the military and the civilian sides of that airport. It is unrecognisable, with the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, with young soldiers trying to give water, shelter, indeed humanity in this dire situation, and this is why we have an obligation to the people of Afghanistan, to those whose faces are filled with desperation while pressed up against the walls at Kabul airport.
For each one of them we know there are many more who are hiding at home because we have held out the normal freedoms of our country. We cannot now yank that hand back; it would be dishonourable. These people risked their lives to assist us and work with us. It would be a national disgrace if we were to abandon them now to the terrifying revenge of their enemies. Even worse, it would be a failure on the part of the democratic countries if we were just to sidle off into the night. I'd like to thank the government ministers and their offices and departments who have been working around the clock on this. I would like to thank them personally. I also thank my colleagues who have been making representations on behalf of many in Afghanistan.
Normally, when someone in a leadership position makes a commitment, one takes them at their word. The Taliban have guaranteed that they will give safe passage to civilians who want to leave. The international community will be watching closely and will hold them to that commitment. Their own Pashtunwali should also. In addition to this, helping the Afghan people will take many different forms. We should work with the UN agencies, the United States, the European Union, Britain and India, and with international aid organisations, all of which have long histories of involvement in Afghanistan, to provide funds and resources to Afghan civil society, particularly to women's and children's organisations. We should continue to work with and keep looking for those elements of the Afghan state which seem most likely to uphold human rights and resist a return to the past.
In William Dalrymple's definitive history, Return of a King, about the First Anglo-Afghan War in the mid-1800s, Mirza Ata Mohammad, a very witty and clever writer of the period, quotes a Persian proverb: 'Those once bitten by a snake fear even a twisted rope.' We should reflect upon those words over the coming weeks.
[by video link] The Greens have been calling for the withdrawal of Australian forces from Afghanistan for at least the past decade, yet even we were shocked and appalled at the catastrophe that has unfolded in Kabul in the past four days. I was watching some footage of my former Senate colleague Scott Ludlam from the 2012-13 estimates. Going back to 2011, he was initiating debates in this place, the Senate, and asking questions about why our forces were still in Afghanistan. This was following the apprehension of Osama bin Laden and the disruption of the al-Qaeda network, the original intention when going into Afghanistan, which I note for the record the Greens originally supported. Senator Ludlam asked what the withdrawal plan was and what the strategic imperative was for having our forces remain in Afghanistan. All the way through his time in the Senate, he, Christine Milne and Bob Brown—indeed, many of us, including all of my colleagues who have spoken here tonight—were asking the question: when is Australia going to withdraw from this seemingly endless conflict?
We have been repeatedly lied to over many, many years by many politicians. Nearly 200 years ago a military strategist, Prussian aristocrat Carl von Clausewitz, wrote his treatise On War. One of the most famous passages to come from that treatise was that which said that war is simply a continuation of politics by different means. I opposed the Iraq War. I've never felt something as strongly as I did back then. I've never felt a sense of such foreboding that what we were doing was wrong as I felt back then. I opposed that because I could see the politics—the corrupted, self-interested, shallow and dangerous politics—of that war. And it's interesting to note that many experts have said one of the key reasons that we failed in Afghanistan was the illegal and unilateral invasion of Iraq—fighting a war on two fronts.
The answer is a lot simpler than that from my point of view. Afghanistan was always going to be a failure because of politics. Politics reflect the national interest, and what we've seen with the withdrawal from Afghanistan—and the way it has been conducted in recent weeks has shocked the world—is politics. The US are doing what is in their national and political interest. Here I come to a very important point: when the Prime Minister was asked on Insiders on the weekend what he knew about the shambolic and appalling chaos unfolding in Kabul, it was pretty clear he didn't know much. He made it very clear we were there to support our allies in the US and that we receive our advice from our allies in the US, just like we did when we followed them into this war and into Iraq and many, many years ago into Vietnam. And I raise that because Vietnam has been drawn into this messaging fray in the media in recent days—how we could possibly have repeated the same mistakes of history as we did back in Vietnam!
I note Mr Malcolm Fraser, one of the last true Liberals in this country, putting politics aside and urging the Australian parliament to put politics aside and immediately take a significant humanitarian intake of refugees into this country. Many of those refugees I grew up with as a young boy in this country. My dad was a Vietnam vet, and Australians felt very strongly that we should honour the Vietnamese and look after them. And, likewise, today, tonight and this week Australians feel equally as strongly that we should honour those and protect those that have supported us, regardless of whether you agree or disagree with Australia's continuing participation in this war in the last 10 years.
What we have seen unfolding in Kabul is either a massive intelligence failure that has led to the Taliban controlling all the arms that have been left on the ground in Kabul—the billions of dollars worth of weapons that they now have—or the Afghan army unprepared for this contingency or unwilling to fight. There are so many questions we need answered, that we need to get to the bottom of, not just so we make sure this kind of catastrophe isn't repeated in history but, as has been pointed out so poignantly in this debate tonight by so many senators, because of the veterans in Australia and their families, for those who have died—for them so that they don't feel that their sacrifice and their time was a waste.
I want to raise two important points that we need to be thinking about as a nation. The first is: this is all the advertisement this country needs to consider war powers reform. I know my colleague Senator Steele-John will talk about this shortly, so I won't go into that in much more detail. But, while we leave the decision-making in the hands of a few people—go back to von Clausewitz—in the hands of politics and the politics of a few, without scrutiny and without debate, we will continue to go into these wars, we will continue to lose the lives of young Australians and we will continue to fail to meet the objectives of these conflicts.
I actually questioned what the objective of this conflict was. It's interesting that Mr Barnaby Joyce, when asked in question time in the other place today, said that we went into Afghanistan because of the Bali bombings and because of the bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Jakarta. Well, Mr Joyce didn't do his homework very well, did he? Those bombings occurred well after we went into Afghanistan and after we went into Iraq. And many of us have pointed out that these wars would not destroy or beat terrorism—indeed, they would make it worse; they would make Australia an enemy. While our national interest was coupled to the US national interest, we would become a target. Indeed, I think there's plenty of evidence that that is correct.
This invasion of Afghanistan, this occupation of Afghanistan, has failed to counter global terrorism. Indeed, I believe it's made it worse. Many of us raised those issues—as, by the way, did many, many experts on this subject—to put the politics aside, which leads me to the second point I would like to make very strongly. This was the first time that the ANZUS treaty was invoked by our Prime Minister: to take Australian troops off to Afghanistan. To use the words of Malcolm Fraser, who wrote about this just months before he died, we now need to revisit that treaty after all these years. We need to question whether that treaty is built for purpose for this age. We need to question whether Australia's interests are always the same as those of the US. I would argue very passionately and very strongly that that is not always the case. Indeed, we need to forge our own foreign policy and determine what is in our national interests, and that should be done by this parliament, not by a few politicians who are making this up as they go along. If we continue to make these mistakes, we will continue to put future generations of this country at risk.
I've got to say that it has appalled me in recent days to see our Prime Minister fronting the cameras—and we saw a bit of it on show today in Senate question time from Minister Payne and others—trying to turn this amazing effort by our military, this evacuation, into some kind of victory at the end of a very shameful and very dark chapter for this country: 20 years of occupation of a foreign country, for what purpose very few people could ever ascertain and for what purpose we were never really told, except for platitudes about why we were there and how it was honourable to fight under the flag.
Over the years, I've worked very closely with our veterans. The Greens initiated the first inquiry into veteran homelessness, suicide and PTSD, in 2015. The reason we did that was that we knew there's a cost to war, and it's not just the fact that we lost 41 Australians, who didn't need to die in this conflict and who have families who still suffer to this day. But many veterans also came home with other wounds—deep wounds, psychological wounds—that will never heal. The same applies to their families. We wanted that inquiry to help veterans, but we also wanted this country to understand the cost of war and the cost of politicians making decisions that put other lives, Australian lives, in harm's way.
We expect a lot from our Australian Defence Force. I have been a member of that institution myself, as have my father and many of my friends, including many who fought in Afghanistan over many years. I can say today that I'm not going to stand by and watch Scotty from marketing, our Prime Minister, try to spin this into a new marketing win for his government. While this catastrophe unfolds, I will, however, thank the Australian Defence personnel, who are doing a magnificent job; the staff at DFAT; and the many officials out there who are working as hard as they possibly can to try and bring these people to Australia or elsewhere. For that I thank them. That is what our priority should be now. That is why we are having this debate today. But soon we need to have an honest appraisal of not just what went wrong at the end of this conflict, why we were there for so long and what purpose it was meant to achieve but, most importantly, how we can avoid this ever, ever happening again.
[by video link] What is unfolding right now in Afghanistan is a humanitarian crisis that requires an urgent response. The Greens and the community are united in calling for a concrete set of tangible actions to be taken by the Australian government to support the people of Afghanistan, to show solidarity with them in this terrible moment of disaster and fear, and to support those Afghanis living here in Australia. The Greens and the community are calling for immediate allocation of 20,000 additional humanitarian visas to be granted so that those in danger can come to safety. We are calling, together with the community, for the immediate conversion of temporary protection and shared visas to permanent visas so that those here in Australia are relieved from this constant state of limbo in which they have been forced to live by governments of all persuasions. We are calling for the immediate return of all Afghan refugees and asylum seekers from offshore detention to be processed here in the community and be granted permanent visas. We are additionally calling for assistance to the internally displaced people who are now in what seems to be a rapidly unravelling civil war within the nation. We are doing all of these things at the urging of the community and are proud to be alongside them in solidarity and support in this very difficult time.
It was an honour and a privilege to be able to gather with the community yesterday in WA at the same time as communities rallied across Australia to show their support for the people of Afghanistan in this moment. And there was a very clear message for everybody who attended: community members across the country demand that the major parties, the federal government and the state governments do all that they can to support Afghanistan, to support its people, to maintain rights and justice and to use all the levers that Australia has to make sure that those human rights are upheld in Afghanistan. It is so important that Australia use its position in the world to make sure that any government that forms in Afghanistan is one which upholds the rights of women and girls, one which upholds the rights of children and one which guarantees the human rights of all ethnic minorities, whether they be Hazara, whether they be Pashtun, whether they be Tajik or whether they be Uzbek. All human rights in Afghanistan must be upheld. These are the urgent concrete actions which must be taken now in addition to the continuation of evacuations of those on the ground in Afghanistan so that they are able to be brought to safety and that no-one is left behind.
As we take these urgent and concrete steps, it is also vitally important that the major parties, and prime ministers and foreign ministers past and present, reflect on how Australia and Afghanistan ended up in this moment. There must be a full and honest reflection upon what has happened here. The crisis in Afghanistan, the return of the Taliban, is the latest in a series of failed experiments in wars of overseas violent intervention participated in by Australia alongside the United States. From Vietnam to Iraq and now Afghanistan, Australia has repeatedly followed the United States to wars of aggression, with the result that many of our service personnel have died, many more have been wounded and hundreds of thousands of civilian lives, if not millions, have been lost in those nations.
There is an urgent need to recognise and to reckon with the reality that there are credible allegations that, during the 20 years that our armed forces personnel were in country in Afghanistan, there were many instances of war crimes committed by service personnel in that country. We must reflect on the importance of not only holding individuals to account but also holding the chain of command to account, holding the strategists to account and holding to account the political leaders who let our presence and our forces in Afghanistan so dangerously drift, without any discernible purpose, into a context where some of the most heinous violations of the laws of war are now alleged to have taken place.
We must reflect also on the urgent need to consider whether there would have been, and will be in the future, ways that we could have been able to promote human rights globally that do not involve doing so at the end of a gun and whether, if ever the people of Australia are called upon to take up arms or to deploy overseas, that only occurs after a vote of this parliament. No Australian service personnel member should be asked to put their lives on the line for a cause for which no MP has been prepared to vote.
All of these things must be done urgently to support the community and to translate the very fine and comforting words that are so easily now spoken by members of the major parties into concrete actions. We cannot have a situation where debates are held in the Senate or in the House of Representatives in which members give contributions singing the praises of armed forces personnel and committing Australia to support the people of Afghanistan while there is also a failure to translate those words into the concrete actions for which the community is calling.
I say again, there must be 20,000 humanitarian visa places issued specifically for those from Afghanistan. There must be the conversion of temporary protection visas, shifting visas to permanent visa status so that health care, education and supports can be accessed. There must be the continuation of evacuations for those who supported the Australian mission in Afghanistan and also for those who are additionally at risk: the journalists, the academics, the MPs, the activists that are now at risk from the Taliban. We must use our position in the world to ensure that any government that forms in Afghanistan is one which upholds the rights of women, children, girls and ethnic minorities. All this must be done out of recognition that the moment that Afghanistan now finds itself in is a moment to which Australia has contributed.
We are not passive actors in this crisis. A decision was made by the political leadership of this country to follow the United States into this conflict, into this war which has claimed so many Afghani, Hazara, Pashtun, Uzbek and Turkic lives, and so many of the lives of our Defence Force personnel, and has wounded so many. Those were political decisions that were made by Australian political leaders, and those leaders must now take those concrete actions, live up to their obligations and leave no-one behind. I thank the chamber for its time.
[by video link] Like so many of my fellow South Australians, I have struggled to process the images coming out of Afghanistan—images of desperation; of fear; of helplessness; of people clinging to the outside of a departing aircraft, people for whom we know that extremely perilous action represents a better option than staying behind; of the crush of people in Kabul airport desperate for safe passage to a safer future. The most haunting of images are those of children, little boys and girls clutching their parents with looks of grief and confusion on their faces—adult emotions that should never find their way into the hearts of children. Of course, these images tell only one part of the story, the story we can see.
These are devastating scenes. This is devastating for the Afghan people. It is devastating for the Australians who remained there. It is devastating for those who worked with us over many years who are yet to escape, who fear what awaits them if they are left behind. And it is certainly devastating for our veteran community, those who served and sacrificed, and the families who loved them. Today I associate myself with the remarks made by Senator Wong, on behalf of the Australian Labor Party, and the remarks made by the Leader of the Opposition in the other place. Importantly, on behalf of the people of South Australia, who I represent, I want to express our solidarity with the Afghan Australian community in our state, with their friends, family and loved ones who are deeply traumatised by these events.
Much will be said over the days, weeks, months and years ahead about the decisions taken that have led to the scenes we are seeing in Afghanistan. There is much to reflect on, including what this means for human rights, for women and girls especially; for democracy; for our national security; and for the world. Today, as we watch this crisis unfold in real time, I will say this: the Australian government must do absolutely everything in its power to ensure that every friend of Australia who supported us in Afghanistan can get out safely. The government must ensure that the Australians left behind can get home, and it must respond compassionately and generously to those who need a safe, permanent home. The interagency team on the ground in Kabul has an incredibly difficult task before it, a task made harder because of the decisions and the delays of this government. We are grateful for the work of this team so far, and we are watching your efforts anxiously.
I know the people of my state of South Australia would support me in saying we stand by our friends in Afghanistan. We stand by those who helped Australians. We stand by our fellow citizens and by our friends, family and loved ones still there. We stand by our veteran community and the families who loved them, and we honour all of those who made the greatest sacrifice—the 41 Australians fallen.
[by video link] I note the comments made by the minister. We honour the service of the Australian Defence Force in Afghanistan, and most especially those who gave their lives in defence of the values of freedom. Regrettably, the circumstances surrounding our departure raise legitimate concerns about the rationale behind decisions taken that have led to the present extraordinary policy and military failure. As I have repeatedly stated, we had a moral obligation to assist locally engaged Afghanis who provided vital support over the years to the ADF and to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. That is what DFAT told senators in questioning at estimates in May
What I don't understand is that US forces and our forces were withdrawn before the mission of extricating civilians was completed. Now we've had to redeploy ADF forces to assist the security situation at Kabul airport, noting that the US has had to redeploy thousands of Marines as well. In that regard, we seem to have put the cart before the horse. As John Howard stated in the Australian on 9 July, we have 'a moral obligation' to provide asylum. Their fate must not be decided by 'narrow legalism'. Mr Howard told SBS:
That was a moral obligation that we shamefully discarded many years ago, when we pulled out of Vietnam, and I do not want to see a repetition of that failure in relation to Afghanistan …
Further, in this regard Mr Howard made some very clear comments on 18 August on the 7.30 report. He said there was 'an overwhelming belief' in 2001 that Western intervention, following the September 11 attacks, was the right course of action and he did make the point that 'there is no evidence that a major terrorist attack has been orchestrated out of Afghanistan' since the invasion.
A few days ago, we saw the Taliban press conference. Notably, a headline in the Sydney Morning Herald on 18 August stated 'The Taliban are all smiles now but what happens next?' We know what will happen next. The Taliban will revert to being the oppressive regime we know from the past. The reports of brutality by its militants in the different regions of Afghanistan speak to the brutality of a regime that, after 20 years, has seen little change. On the same day the Taliban leadership was vowing to honour women's rights, reports emerged that a woman was allegedly killed for not wearing a burqa. The Taliban promised safe passage to Kabul airport for Afghanis trying to flee the country, yet women and children are being beaten and whipped as they try to pass through checkpoints set up by militants.
We will also see a change in the global geopolitical situation. The enemies of the West, most particularly China and Russia, will be emboldened. Already, China is sabre-rattling in relation to Taiwan.
I note the minister's comment that combating terrorism just got harder. I agree with her, given the sheer volume of military equipment which the United States abandoned in their premature extraction from Afghanistan. This was not the plan that Donald Trump negotiated for the withdrawal. The opportunities for extracting civilians now are very limited and much more dangerous. Sadly, we failed to abide by the maxim 'Hope for the best and plan for the worst'.
[by video link] I rise to make my contribution to this motion. My heart goes out to the Afghan people, who are suffering the harrowing, horrific and tragic consequences of war at the moment—and have been for decades. So let's not try and obliterate this reality. The truth is Australia failed the people of Afghanistan by waging a war on them with our so-called Western allies, and it's failing Afghans today. Mr Morrison, you have left ADF interpreters and their families in extreme danger. You've offered a paltry 3,000 visas from the existing allocation and you have the audacity to say you wish things were different. There are tens of thousands in Afghanistan at risk and desperately seeking to flee to safety. There are thousands in Australia waiting to be granted permanent visas. What a terrible show of apathy and action from this government. We know you had months of warning to evacuate people from Afghanistan, and yet you did nothing.
For 20 years, Afghans were subjected to an imperialist war waged in the name of curbing terrorism. They lived under the direct and violent occupation by Western military forces, and warlords propped up by the United States. Allied forces dropped bombs on children, on farmers and on wedding parties. They've been killed in crossfire and by improvised explosive devices, and there have been assassinations. We will never know the full toll of this 20-year invasion, but we do know that thousands upon thousands have been massacred. We know there is more poverty, there is lack of access to health services, and millions of Afghans have been displaced. And now the Taliban are back in power and they are emboldened.
History, unfortunately, is riddled with these colossal and unmitigated failures of Europe, the United States and their allies, like Australia, to intervene, to control and to attempt to extinguish complicated Middle Eastern conflicts. Every time, it has made the situation worse and inflicted an insurmountable heavy toll on the people who have been invaded, all to keep the Western military war machine going—the same war machine that enlists and uses people and then abandons veterans in the aftermath.
For decades now, the people of Afghanistan have been caught between the misogynistic and extremely violent Taliban on the one hand and the deadly consequences of allied forces on the other. In all of this, the hollow self-serving concerns about the safety of women were paraded around to justify the ongoing Western intervention and Australia's involvement in the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, when we know full well that women, girls and children bear a vastly disproportionate burden of war itself and the havoc that comes after. People love to speak on behalf of Muslim women—as if we have no agency, no capacity to resist or fight back; as if we need to be perpetually protected by the 'white saviour' industrial complex. I know this very well, even though I am in a position of relative privilege. But no-one knows this better than my sisters in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, who have endured Western military invasion, occupation and war. So this is an important time to step back and listen to what Afghan women have to say.
Malalai Joya, a leading Afghan women's activist and former parliamentarian, has said the plight of women in Afghanistan has always served as a very good excuse for Western military invention and has asked that the occupation be rebranded from 'the war on terror' to 'the war on innocent Afghan people'. All the while, she says, the nature of the Taliban hasn't changed and women are again going to bear the brunt of the current crisis. Malalai Joya says: 'No nation can donate liberation to another nation. What we need from abroad is not war machines but humanitarian aid.' And this is the time for Australia to provide that aid in spades.
History will not look kindly upon John Howard for being part of creating this bloody mess, nor Scott Morrison and his government for their morally bankrupt response to the crisis in Afghanistan. We don't just owe the people of Afghanistan an apology; we owe them permanent protection in Australia. We owe them reparations and humanitarian assistance, the scale of which should dwarf our military spend. This is the least we should do, and we must do it right now.
[by video link] The Prime Minister has described Afghanistan as a failed state and is trying to shrug off all responsibility for the countless Afghan citizens who had come to believe Australia would do the right thing by them. Well, right now we are doing the absolute wrong thing by them; and the only failure is in this government's duty of care to the people of Afghanistan, who stood beside Australian forces for two decades. Any Afghan person who has worked with the Australians during the past 20 years now knows that they are likely to become the plaything of a resurgent Taliban. Ethnic Hazaras in particular note that they are in grave danger. Their lives and livelihoods are under direct threat. Many of them have family in Australia. The 2016 census noted that there were nearly 47,000 Afghanistan-born people here. These are real people who are watching their loved ones in Afghanistan face persecution and worse.
Today I spoke to Jamila Gherjestani, an ethnic Hazari woman who is a lawyer, trade unionist and proud Australian, as well as a friend and colleague. Jamila said that the entire Afghan community is horrified both at what has happened in Afghanistan and at what the Morrison government is not doing about it. 'Why were no plans put in place?' she asked me. 'Australia knew this was going to happen.' Jamila went on to say: 'I have cousins in Afghanistan who can no longer go to school and to work. They cannot even leave the house. Women who had jobs in offices are now being told to have their male relatives replace them.' She said, further: 'Afghanistan was not a failed state like Morrison says. It was doing well. Women were doctors. Women were in parliament.' She said she also fears for relatives here existing on temporary protection visas, who now are frightened they'll be sent back to Afghanistan. What a horrific approach by this government; how heartless! It has been reported that there are more than 4,000 Afghan refugees in Australia with temporary protection visas.
Jamila said her young nephew in Australia watched the horrifying spectacle last week of desperate Afghan people clinging to the undercarriage of a US military air transport as it took off, some of them eventually falling to their deaths. He said to Jamila: 'How come the world doesn't care about our people? It's not only distressing to me and my mum and to the adults here, but also to the kids, knowing their cousins are being treated like this.' Jamila is outraged at the Morrison government's dog-whistling about not letting in 'terrorists' and saying that not much can be done for a country that won't help itself. Jamila's apt response: 'Why was it good enough for them to be guarding the Australian embassy with machine guns for 20 years but now you say they're terrorists? It is extremely disrespectful and it makes us angry. You trusted them for 20 years to work with you.'
Jamila arrived in Australia with other family members in 1997, aged seven, as a refugee, after her father was slaughtered by the mujahedin in Afghanistan. Before she was 15 years old, she had a job flipping burgers at McDonald's. When she finished school, she got a law degree so that, 'I could help people like me,' and she has worked in the union movement ever since. Her siblings are all professional success stories. She has a sister who is an engineer, another sister who works in banking, a brother who is a senior figure with the Commonwealth Bank and another brother who is in landscaping. But, without an immediate assistance program for Afghan refugees, she says she knows that there are family members who will never be seen again. She said: 'I can't go to Afghanistan, not even in 10 years time, with the Taliban there. And where are my cousins going to go? They are going to be tortured and persecuted.'
Australia owes people like Jamila and her cousins, nieces and nephews in Afghanistan immediate consideration. We owe a debt to members of the Australian Defence Force and the diplomatic community who have themselves given so much to the Afghanistan cause, particularly in the case of the 41 ADF members who made the ultimate sacrifice. Of course, 39,000 Australians served over there and have done a wonderful job, as we can see from Jamila's comments about women holding jobs in parliament and in civil society, being properly treated, educated and employed. That is a basis for great pride for us as Australians. There have been calls in recent days from across Australian society to increase the refugee intake from Afghanistan, just as Australia did for Syria in 2015, for China after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and even at the conclusion of the Vietnam War and of World War II. Australia has a proud history of offering succour to refugees, a history that is being truncated right now by this callous disregard, dog-whistling and shambolic policymaking. The Prime Minister's opening gambit when Kabul fell to the Taliban last week was to admit, and I quote, 'support won't reach all that it should. On-the-ground events have overtaken many efforts. We wish it were different.' Well, it could be different, if only we were to make it so. Refugees have been the bedrock of modern Australia and have made us the nation we are. We simply owe these people who have laid down everything for Australians in Afghanistan. News reports in recent days have quoted former Australian Army captain Jason Scanes, who said that the delay in processing humanitarian visas applications meant many interpreters, particularly those stranded outside of Kabul, could not be rescued now. Captain Scanes was reported in the Guardian as saying:
The reality is if the government had have been committed to this locally engaged employee visa program efficiently, instead of the lazy, bureaucratic, relaxed attitude to processing application, they would not be facing this huge evacuation operation that the government just doesn't have capacity for.
That was just last month, and yet the wheels have ground ever more slowly. Captain Scanes said the veterans were:
… sick of the marketing of this government … everything is marketing. Just tell us: how many of our mates are left there, what are you doing to get them out, or are you just going to abandon them?
In this crisis, there is no time to dither.
Just last month, the ABC reported a former interpreter who'd worked with Australian forces had been denied a visa to Australia on the grounds he was, and I quote, 'not considered an employee of one of the Australian government agencies'. According to the ABC he said:
When I read the letter saying you are not eligible, I felt like my death warrant has been signed by the Australians.
It is clear that the Taliban will capture and kill me whenever they get a chance.
Even as recently as this weekend, locally engaged employees were reportedly told they did not qualify for visas and should contact a migration agent instead, before being told that they would qualify for asylum after all. We're at a moment in history where we can make decisions we can be proud of and which our children and grandchildren can be proud of, or we can do the wrong thing. The choice is no choice at all. It is Australia's moral imperative to act and to act swiftly by increasing our refugee intake of Afghan people. It's a matter of life and death.
[by video link] I rise in support of this motion on Afghanistan and in doing so I want to speak directly to those Australian service men and women, including members of the Australian Federal Police, who have committed to and sacrificed so much throughout our country's long engagement in Afghanistan. I know that many of you may have been wondering over the course of the last week what your sacrifice was for. Why did you and your comrades suffer the injuries that you suffered? Why did some not come home? After 20 years of conflict, exactly what was achieved? To those of you who have thought about these questions, your thoughts are understandable. And whilst I can't pretend to know how to feel watching the scenes which we saw last week as the Taliban marched into Kabul, I can certainly appreciate the despair that must accompany these sights for you. To those who served, stand tall and let me reassure you that your efforts did indeed make a big and positive difference. Your work gave girls, boys, women, men and others opportunities that they had never before had in that land, freedoms previously unknown to them. Because of you, schoolyards were the place of children. Because of you, leaving home without a burqa or a male chaperone was acceptable. Your work gave cities, towns and villages the infrastructure that was so much needed: the bridges, the waterways, the schools and the hospitals just to name a few. Access to education must be one of the greatest differences that has been made. All this was your work. Thanks to you, international terror networks could no longer rely on Afghanistan to be a comfortable home for their hate-filled ideologies. Thanks to you, one of the world's most brutal regimes, al-Qaeda, was dealt a devastating blow and Osama bin Laden was brought to justice. Your work has kept Australians safe. To those 39,000 of you who served your country in Afghanistan, I say thank you. To the 41 families who have lost loved ones in this conflict, no words I can say can take away your grief, but know that the cause for which your loved ones gave their lives was a most noble one and that the price they paid was not in vain.
It is clear that more needs to be done to support Australia's veterans and their families following this war, which is why Labor has been calling on the government to proactively provide additional elements of support. Veterans are disproportionately afflicted by mental health concerns. We as elected members in this place cannot shirk our responsibility to protect those who have protected our nation, our values and our freedoms. Australia is not that kind of nation, and it is time that we put a greater focus on our veterans' welfare.
As I finish, I say to any veteran who is listening to today's proceedings or who later reads these speeches in Hansard: please hold your head high and remember our nation is proud of you, your hard work, your commitment and your sacrifice, and we will never forget the immense sacrifices that you and your fallen mates have made.
[by video link] Like the rest of Australia, the people of the Northern Territory were horrified to see the unfolding chaos and tragedy in Afghanistan. We have a large defence presence here in the Northern Territory, and many current and former members served in Afghanistan. My colleague the member for Solomon, Luke Gosling, has been horrified to see the Taliban surge across the country. The situation in Afghanistan playing out now is not their failure. It is not in any way the fault or responsibility of our defence forces or the many others who worked to support our efforts in the country.
Tens of thousands of Australians contributed to our mission in Afghanistan, which was largely successful. We built schools, roads and bridges, and a generation of young women received an education. As Senator Wong said in her statement today, female representation in parliament, where there had been no women, increased to over 20 per cent. Our mission in Afghanistan would not have been possible without the support of the Afghan people on the ground—the interpreters, the guides and the cultural brokers. They are our comrades.
Australia has historic links as well as modern connections to Afghanistan. One hundred and fifty years ago, the first Afghans came to Australia as cameleers. They were employed to explore the arid heart of Australia with their 'ships of the desert' as traditional wagons used for such expeditions were not suitable for the harsh conditions of the outback. The cameleers were collectively known as 'Afghans', although a number of them came from other countries and regions as well. They played a major role in delivering freight and essential goods to the new settlers in South Australia and here in the Northern Territory. The rich heritage of these Afghans is evident—very much so—throughout Central Australia in particular, in the names of places and families, like Sadadeen, Mahomed, Satour, Khan and Mulladad, just to name a few. The connection is there with the name of one of our most iconic rail journeys, the Ghan railway.
We've seen other countries with a much larger contingent of locally engaged staff make huge efforts to move them out of Afghanistan and to safety. Australia did not, and this is to our shame. We knew, and we knew for some time, that the international withdrawal from Afghanistan was coming. We had time to prepare an evacuation plan for our local support workers. We had time to get our diplomatic staff out, but the Australian government is stumbling around, caught up in its own red tape.
There are reports that some applications for protection visas have been rejected because the applicants were subcontracted and not directly employed by the Australian government. This is just bureaucratic fiddling—people's lives are on the line. There have been countless reports of Afghans seeking help but being overwhelmed by paperwork and process while their safety becomes increasingly precarious. The Prime Minister has claimed that everything was being done to bring these Afghans to Australia, but there is really little evidence of that. It is a relief to see that we finally have flights going in, and I thank the brave men and women of the ADF and the officials from the various government departments who are assisting the operation, all at great risk now.
Instead of creating bureaucratic mazes, the government should have been and should now be fast-tracking visas and evacuations for Afghan family members of Australian citizens and permanent residents. We must open up the thousands of unused humanitarian places for Afghans who are at risk of harm by the Taliban, including, especially, the women and girls. And we must ensure Afghans in Australia on temporary visas have pathways to remain and that they won't be involuntarily deported. I wholeheartedly support the call by the member for Solomon to open up Bladin Point, here in Darwin, to Afghan evacuees. The facility already has Defence using it in a limited capacity for quarantine purposes. There is no reason it couldn't be a quarantine point for those Afghans coming to Australia seeking complete safety. We know we do quarantine very well here in the Northern Territory, particularly at Howard Springs.
In Afghanistan our defence forces did great things in extremely challenging circumstances and sometimes against impossible odds. It is coming up to the anniversary of September 11, when we will reflect and remember, and we need to do so with pride in the belief that we did what we could and that we must never abandon those in Afghanistan.
Question agreed to.