August 26, 2021

The crisis in Afghanistan can only be described as heartbreaking. It's heartbreaking for the people of Afghanistan, for the families in Australian Afghan communities, for the women and girls now facing the prospect of a cruel regime and for Australia's friends, the Afghan staff who supported our military and our diplomatic operations for more than 20 years. There is great relief that the Australian Defence Force has been able to carry out some rescue missions, taking Australian citizens and visa holders to safety, and Labor strongly supports these efforts. Our thanks go to the personnel and the officials from the departments of foreign affairs, home affairs and defence, who are on the ground and have assisted. Nonetheless, it's obvious to all that these efforts should have been scaled up sooner. The Morrison-Joyce government's actions, while saving the lives of some people, are leaving others at great risk. As usual, it's the bare minimum coming too late.

I think it's really important to try and paint a picture of some of the people who are still in Afghanistan or who have managed to escape. I'm going to share stories that were shared by the member for Bruce. He told of Razia, an Australian citizen who fled from the Taliban 14 years ago. Her mum and sister are still in Kabul, not even able to leave their home to get food. They've been waiting four years for the Morrison government to process their visas. He also shared the story of Ali, another Australian citizen, who was in Kabul with his pregnant wife and two-year-old Australian child. He was there because he's been waiting three years for the Morrison government to process his wife's visa. Even though it was finally granted last week, Ali was beaten trying to get to the airport. The positive news is that he has made it home as one of those rescued.

These aren't isolated cases. These Australian citizens and people who have been given visas should have been out of Afghanistan; they should not have still been in Afghanistan. They should have been out months ago, if not years ago. You have to wonder why it takes, on average, 43 months for people from Afghanistan to be granted a spouse visa when it takes seven to nine months for Americans or western Europeans.

As we discuss Afghanistan, I want to acknowledge the people who stood with Australia. For many months, veterans, former prime ministers and Labor have been calling for urgent action to fulfil our obligation to Afghans who've put their lives and their families lives on the line to support our mission. I can assure veterans that Labor will always stand by the people who stood by them.

When people in my electorate contact me about individual cases, every one of them makes me want to bring that person home. James, who worked in Afghanistan as part of an international project cataloguing artefacts damaged by the Taliban, fears for the lives of Afghanis who worked alongside him and other Australians in various capacities, as one of them said in an email to him in the last couple of days, 'Now my life here is under threat, as I worked with some foreigners; I really fear for my life and my future.' It's just as simple as that. It isn't good enough for the Prime Minister to say, 'We wish it were different,' as though he has no power to change things or to have done things better. He is responsible for those lives, and some of those lives will be lost because he failed to bring these people to Australia sooner.

The response by the government of 3,000 visas—not new visas, but through our refugee quota—is too little. This is a time for urgency and simplicity. Labor's been calling on the Morrison-Joyce government to fast-track this process for months. Mr Morrison should have been working with coalition partners and arranging evacuations months ago. The procrastination is risking lives.

In 2008, in similar circumstances, when Iraqis were being given visas to Australia, there was a bipartisan effort to send a team of government officials overseas to assist them in completing applications. Former Prime Minister John Howard is right when he says that the Morrison government is hiding behind narrow legalism and shirking our profound moral responsibility. To those who have no heart and want to turn acts of compassion that other Australian governments had no problem doing into something that is isn't, I want it to be very clear: every case must be considered on its individual merits, including security considerations. But the Morrison government's delayed response pales in comparison to what other countries see as the right thing to do.

I want to turn to the emails and conversations that I've had with Australian veterans who served in Afghanistan. The members for Solomon, Canning and Herbert in this place need to be acknowledged for their efforts. There's no doubt that they and other personnel who served helped create an environment where Australian support made a difference in people's lives, particularly in women's lives. Under the Taliban in the 1990s, women were unable to be in public other than in the presence of a man. There was forced marriage, not of women but of girls as young as 12, and teenage girls were denied an education. We know that Australia's presence in Afghanistan helped change that. In recent years, we've seen almost 40 per cent of eligible girls in Afghanistan in high school and 100,000 head to university. That was unimaginable 20 years ago.

The life expectancy of women has increased by a decade. These are changes that Australians helped make. That change in education levels can't be undone for that generation, and that gives me hope. To the veterans, the 39,000 who served, and their families, to the families of the 41 who lost their lives in Afghanistan, and to people like Paul, who lives in my electorate, I say that the way that you've impacted women's lives is just one of the ways that you've made a difference. You helped create a safer place for those women and their families, and we are proud of that.

I'm very pleased to see the increased support that's just been offered by the Minister for Veterans' Affairs. I would urge veterans who need to reach out to open your arms to counselling or reach out your member.