Address to the Senate: Afghanistan - Parliament House - Canberra - 23/08/2021

23 August 2021



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.

And Afghanistan’s civilian government, security forces and institutions crumbled.

It is with a heavy heart that we face the tragic reality -

That despite 20 years of international military intervention and development assistance, 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, our diplomats, 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 hoped for a better life for the people of Afghanistan.

I have spoken with Afghan Australians and have seen their pain and their fear.

I have spoken with Afghan women in Australia – trailblazers, community leaders and patriots.

All deeply proud of their heritage – and 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.

Australia’s security is served best, wherever we are, when we are trusted as a nation that helps those who help us.

That trust is built in actions, not words.

Like so many others, including many veterans, I fear that the Morrison government failure to act has now tarnished that reputation.

It has not only fallen short ethically, it has harmed our national interest.

On 13 April the US announced that it would fully withdraw its troops by 11 September.

On 15 April, Mr. Morrison announced the withdrawal of Australian troops “by September 2021”. It was subsequently reported that in fact 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 the government had time to prepare and to act.

For months now many, including ADF veterans, 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 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 told they wouldn’t be eligible for humanitarian visas, before being told they could apply. In recent days 100 such applications have been rejected – the security guards informed by a template letter before the advice changed again.

Afghans who implemented Australian development projects told they were ineligible to apply because they were employed as contactors.

But to the Taliban, these are simply people who helped us.

The UK announced an acceleration of its relocation policy, offering priority relocation to the UK for Afghans at risk that were or had worked with them.

In June Germany expanded its eligibility criteria.

Our government did neither.

In July, the previously announced US airlift evacuation of interpreters and their families began.

This government told us Australia would not join the airlift, and that it had “no plan” to mount a similar operation.

That was on July 15.

Yet 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 members of the ADF and the public servants who are working to evacuate Australians and those who helped us:

Thank you for your courage, for your commitment and for your service.

We hope and pray this operation will be successful.

And I hope after it has concluded, that this PM 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 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.

Gains were made.

The return of millions from refugee camps in neighbouring countries.

Girls in school.

Women participating in civil society, in politics and in the professions.

That these gains have not been secured is tragic.

But that does not mean they were not worth striving for.

In time to come we will have to grapple with what we have learnt from this.

About the limits of military intervention, and of foreign backed state building.

This mission did not end the way we wanted or hoped.

We should face that reality squarely.

These issues demand responsible and sober engagement.

All who served, and all who will be called on in the future to serve, are entitled to that honest appraisal.

We do not yet know what shape the next government of Afghanistan will take.

But 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, a burgeoning media and civil society - however limited - were facts on the ground.

And where citizens are already resisting its return, fearful for their futures and unwilling to set the clock back.

We know too that Australia and the international community now has to contend with the consequences of this crisis, including the flow on effects for regional and global security.

We know that strategic advantage will be sought by some from the West’s withdrawal.

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.

President, 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 that supported Australian operations, the Government must fast-track visas and evacuations for the family members of Australian citizens and permanent residents.

It must commit to many more humanitarian places for Afghans who are at the risk of serious harm by the Taliban.

Protecting the Afghan journalists, community leaders, activists, human rights defenders - and especially women - should be central to Australia’s response to the crisis in Afghanistan.

The Morrison-Joyce government’s offer of 3000 visas is insufficient.

Australia did not use its full refugee quota last year, and we have over 13,000 places available every 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 in the current crisis.

And Mr Morrison must ensure that Afghans in Australia on temporary visas are not deported and have pathways to remain here.

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 ways Australia can still make a difference.

Many thousands of Australians served in 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.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.