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August 17, 2021

BRENDAN O’CONNOR, SHADOW MINISTER FOR DEFENCE Thank you very much for coming. I just wanted to make some comments in relation to the unfolding tragedy in Afghanistan. Clearly, unlike what was anticipated, the Taliban has taken control of Afghanistan in a very rapid manner. And that, of course has led to a humanitarian tragedy that we are watching on our television screens.

It's really incumbent upon the Australian Government in working with coalition partners to do everything they possibly can to evacuate those who worked so closely with the Australian Defence Force, in many cases in our uniform to undertake this mission. It is critical now the Government expedites the process.

Federal Labor has been calling upon the Morrison Government for months now to ensure that those Afghan nationals that worked so closely with our forces would be provided haven in this nation. It would appear that the Government has dithered and delayed the process of ensuring that many of those Afghan nationals are provided with sufficient protection. Therefore, it's important now that whatever can be done is done, working with the US forces and others to ensure the evacuation from Kabul of those people.

Our heart, of course, goes out to the people of Afghanistan, in particular those women and girls who face a brutal regime. And indeed, our hearts go out to the Afghan Australians who would be feeling this acutely.

So too of course, will our veterans and their families who, in some instances, made the ultimate sacrifice insofar as working in this very important area. And for them, who are watching these tragic circumstances unfold, they will be feeling desolate and I'm sure feeling very upset and distressed.

It is also important therefore that the Australian Government reach out to our veterans, not just veterans of Afghanistan, but veterans in general to ensure that they feel sufficiently supported. The Government recently has made a decision to have a Royal Commission into veterans suicide and that was a good decision, but it underlines the mental state of many of our veterans.

And of course, what we're witnessing now in Afghanistan can only exacerbate the feelings and the hurt that they've experienced and we ask the Government to do whatever they can, through their departments, and through government agencies and non government not for profit agencies to provide succour and support for our veterans and their families at this time.

This is, as I say, a tragedy, a humanitarian tragedy and therefore, it is also incumbent on the Government to explain what it will do to provide support for those Afghans who are fleeing their country or who are certainly worried about their future. It is important that the Government consider what humanitarian response they can determine, and to provide such support.

I note that the Canadian Prime Minister has already made a clear offer of support for refugees of that country and I think it's important that the Government entertain those matters as quickly as possible, as I'm sure the United States and coalition partner countries will also be thinking to do the same. I

t's really important that we were a significant part of that mission and I think we have an obligation therefore, to be a significant part of the humanitarian response that is required given the awful circumstances that we have witnessed in less than two weeks.

I'm happy to take questions

JOURNALIST: The Opposition has received a briefing from the Government on the situation in Afghanistan, have your concerns or any concerns that you might have raised been addressed?

O'CONNOR: Well, certainly it was important to have a briefing from the Government and agencies and we thank the Government for that. But certainly the public reports about the logistical difficulty of undertaking this task of rescuing people that worked so closely with the Australian Defence Force is complex and challenging. That's pretty clear to anyone who's watching what's happening.

We've been given assurances that every effort will be made to rescue those people that are seeking to find haven in Australia and of course, have a legitimate reason to be a priority of the Australian Government. That includes the Australian citizens and permanent residents that reside in Afghanistan, that includes also the Afghan nationals who worked so closely with the Australian Defence Force and other Government agencies, including our embassy, and their family members. So that's a significant task.

Now the Government has advised and has declared publicly that there have been efforts to ensure that some of those Afghan nationals and their families would be and have been brought to Australia. Yet, there are hundreds, at least hundreds, if not more, that still require to be rescued in this situation. And of course, we've impressed upon the Government that we would hope that they will do everything they possibly can. I guess we'll have to wait and see now, given the very precarious circumstances in Kabul, what can be done.

But I'll make the point again, we did call upon the Government, as far back as the beginning of June, if not even earlier, that they must expedite the process of transferring those Afghan nationals to Australia, given the circumstances. Now, that was because of the possible worst case scenario. Well, unfortunately, the worst case scenario has been realized and as a result, we have a lot of people waiting to be rescued by the Australian Government, and we call upon the Government to do whatever it can.

JOURNALIST: And just on temporary visa holders from Afghanistan that are currently in Australia, the Foreign Minister this morning said that, at this stage, they won't be asked to leave or made to leave the country. Should we be opening a permanent pathway for them to reside in Australia?

O'CONNOR: Well, I think firstly, the Government needs to articulate its humanitarian response in relation to those that currently reside in Afghanistan as a priority because their lives are in danger. And they should be indicating what they can possibly do, consistent with what other countries, like minded countries, are doing in relation to providing haven for people fleeing Afghanistan.

As for the Temporary Protection visa applicants who of course reside on those visas indefinitely, there should be a complete unequivocal undertaking not to return them to Afghanistan because, of course, it would be fair to say that their lives would be endangered if they were to be returned to Afghanistan. And arguably, it could be a fundamental breach of the Refugee Convention for them to be returned and I would suggest that was likely.

I understand the Foreign minister has indicated they would not be returned in these circumstances. I think, too, because of the changing nature in Afghanistan, the fundamental shift, the control now by the Taliban, that the assessments of refugee applications by people holding Temporary Protection visas have to be reassessed.

It may well be that they did not get a refugee status because of circumstances in Afghanistan, but circumstances has so fundamentally changed in that country that those on Temporary Protection visas no doubt they would be making new applications under that convention for the Government's consideration. The Government should consider that and ensure that their assessments are consistent with the Refugee Convention that we are signatories to.

JOURNALIST: Defence Minister Peter Dutton this morning said that the efforts of our troops have prevented major terrorist attacks over the last 20 years. What do you make of that comment? And does it foreshadow that we might start seeing more terror or more violence outside the Middle East?

O'CONNOR: I think it's fair to say that the early efforts by the coalition did reduce the chances of attacks occurring, and indeed reduce the chances of al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations being able to find safe havens. Tere's no doubt that in 2001, the Taliban controlled Afghanistan was a haven for such terrorists. And to that extent the fact that the Taliban were removed 20 years ago, the fact that Osama bin Laden was killed and was removed from terrorist activities diminish the likelihood of such actions.

However, it would be wrong to say that there's no continued threat and of course, no doubt, with the return of the Taliban to Government in Afghanistan, it may well lead to potentially more dangerous circumstances, both within the region and globally.

But time will tell. That is not really the focus, and should not be the focus of the Government, or governments today/ The focus today should be the evacuation of Kabul and parts of Afghanistan to make sure we do whatever we can to provide safe haven for those that are under immediate threat. There'll be certainly plenty of time, in the days, weeks, months and years ahead to assess the relative success, or otherwise, of that mission.

But it would be, fair to say, that it will be defined unequivocally as an abject failure if we do not respond to the humanitarian needs of that nation, and, in particular ensure we provide support for Afghan nationals who provided so much support to us.

JOURNALIST: Was the war worth it?

O'CONNOR: Well again, as I say, it's something for consideration. But there's no doubt that in the early years it did stabilise the region. It did remove a very brutal and cruel regime. It did remove the safe harbour that was being afforded to terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda. I'm sure there will be, of course, assessments made about the relative success, but certainly, it was a UN sanctioned response. And it involved many, many countries under that UN sanction. And to that extent, that's why Federal Labor did support the need for us to be involved in that conflict.

As a visitor to Kabul and to other parts of Afghanistan as Home Affairs Minister in 2011, I got to see girls go to school that were not able to go to school under Taliban regime. I saw women teachers, university students, police officers, which would not have happened under the Taliban regime. So a lot of good was coming from stabilising that country. And I guess that's why it's so tragic to see the collapse of the Afghan Government and the return of the Taliban forces, because that does worry, everybody, that this is not going to be good for the citizens of Afghanistan, in particular, women and girls.

Thanks very much.