23 August 2021: We must not abandon Afghanistan

23 August 2021


Senator McCARTHY (Northern Territory—Deputy Opposition Whip in the Senate) (18:52): [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.