Mr RAMSEY (Grey—Government Whip) (12:58): I think that our withdrawal from Afghanistan was very well highlighted or described by the Deputy Prime Minister when he spoke in this place, I think it was two days ago. He said that we should never forget why we went there. We went there after the two planes were flown into the World Trade Center and another one into the Pentagon. We went there to protect Australian lives after the nightclub bombings at the Sari nightclub in Bali and other attacks right around the world. And, while the world has not been all sweetness and light in the period since we went to Afghanistan, there has not been an expansion and an explosion of those types of terrible, random terrorist attacks, so we largely have achieved exactly what we went for.
We stayed longer and attempted to build a successful, democratic society in Afghanistan. That has proved more difficult. Certainly, there have been great improvements in lifestyle and in opportunity, particularly for women but not only for women. It’s quite some time since I was in Afghanistan; I was there in 2012, and I’ll come back to that in a moment. But, when we look at the deeply disturbing pictures coming out of Kabul at the moment, we can see in the backdrop that there is ample evidence of a very civilised and successful lifestyle that has been occurring over the last few years. When we see the photos of people working at the fronts of the shops and painting out images of what is now the past regime, we can only reflect on the fact that those images are so much like the ones that we see around us in successful societies like Australia. So we have achieved so much.
I did have an opportunity to go there—I think, without looking at my records, in 2012—as part of the Australian defence exchange. We landed in the United Arab Emirates. We were at Al Minhad—which is being used again now, and is still used by Australian forces—where we were briefed on going into a battle zone. We went to Kandahar, which was one of the large international bases there. I am reminded that, at the time, it felt a little bit like a Star Wars episode inasmuch as there were people from nations all over the world, such was the scope of this international intervention. And, of course, we went to Tarin Kowt, which was, largely, the Australian base. It was there that we had an opportunity to speak on an intimate basis with those who serve in our defence forces.
By and large, it was a volunteer operation in the forces. Those who were there were there by choice, and it wasn’t hard to find volunteers in the Australian defence forces to go there. One young trooper described the situation to his father—a friend of mine, who was a diesel mechanic. His father was a bit put back by the idea that his son was going to Afghanistan. His son said: ‘Dad, it’s like this. You’re a diesel mechanic. You’re trained to work on engines. How about if, when you’d finished your training, they’d said that you weren’t allowed to work on engines. I’m trained to defend our nation. I trained in the Defence Force. This is what I trained for.’ So many of the people that I spoke to on an individual basis said: ‘This what is we are. This is what we do, and we are pleased to be here for Australia.’ Many, I must admit, in the Regular Army said: ‘I’ll only be doing one tour, if that can be the case. I wanted to come here and see what it was like and test myself. I’m pleased I’ve done it, but maybe I won’t put my hand up the next time.’ By comparison, when we met with the special forces—in this case, the commandos—it surprised me how many times some of them had gone there. Some had done five tours. It is a concern to me that somebody would go in and out of a battle zone on such a regular basis and then be expected to reintegrate into our regular society when they come back to Australia. This is why we need to take continuing care of people.
There have been enormous advances in managing Veterans Affairs even over the time that I’ve been in parliament. There is much more care and consideration, and much more effort is going into tracking these people and staying in contact with them after they’ve come out of a battle zone like Afghanistan. The numbers tell us that we can still do a lot better. And, particularly as we are speaking about Afghanistan today, I remind all of those veterans who have served in that arena: if you need help, that’s what Veteran Affairs are there for. If they don’t answer your call, call people like Rowan Ramsey or your member, and we will make sure that they listen to you. In fact, I was speaking to a veteran only in the last 48 hours who had not received the service he thought was due to him—not an Afghanistan veteran, but certainly somebody who had spent a long time in the Australian forces. That is our duty. John Howard said recently that there’s no hierarchy of sacrifice, and he’s completely right. The moment that our defence forces sign on to go and serve, they know that they may be called upon any time to do so.
On Afghanistan itself, and the evacuation at the moment, it’s no surprise and no secret that nations, including Australia, were ill prepared for the rapidity of the fall of the former regime. But we have risen to the case, and the Prime Minister has reported that over 4,000 have now been evacuated. I think that’s a sterling effort. There will undoubtedly be more, and we will try to assist in any way we can in the future. To all those who have helped with the coalition forces in Afghanistan and, particularly, helped with Australian forces, I wish you well, and I wish all those who have served in Afghanistan with Australian forces well. I thank them all for their effort, for their sacrifice, for their contribution. And to those families who have lost loved ones there, the whole nation thanks you. This is a sombre time for us all, as we recall how and why we exist as a democracy and what we need to do to help others around the world.