The Hon Andrew Gee MP
Minister for Veterans’ Affairs
Minister for Defence Personnel
Marcus Paul: Over the past 20 years, our nation has been unwavering in the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan. And I have to say Andrew Gee, who is the Defence Minister — the Veterans Affairs Minister, I'm sorry, says very clearly he understands many of those who served our nation in Afghanistan may feel frustrated, concerned and distressed at what is unfolding there. Andrew joins us on the program. Good morning to you, Minister. How are you?
Andrew Gee: I'm very well, thanks Marcus. Great to be back on 2SM.
Marcus Paul: Thank you, mate. Look, the pictures, I don't need to tell you how awful they are, but the people in planes and at the airport and just scrambling to get out of what's becoming a violent and horrible situation there in Kabul is just devastating.
Andrew Gee: It is devastating, Marcus. It's a tragedy that we're seeing unfold in Afghanistan. But I want to say to our veterans and tens of thousands of Australian men and women who've served over there is that what we were doing there was fighting for freedom. And freedom means something. It always has and it always will. And freedom is what separates us from other countries, and if you look through the history of Australia's armed services and previous conflicts, we've always stood up to be counted.
Marcus Paul: Yeah.
Andrew Gee: Look Tobruk where we stopped Rommel; Kapyong where we basically stopped Seoul from being captured with the Canadians. We have a long and proud history and those men and women who served in Afghanistan went and fought for freedom. They stamped out the terrorism that was there. And what they did meant something and our country will be eternally grateful for everything that they have done and we will never ever forget it and we will never ever forget the 41 Australians who made the ultimate sacrifice for our nation there.
Marcus Paul: What is your what is main concern at the moment? Obviously, the wellbeing of our veterans, defence personnel here at home and abroad and their families. A lot of — a lot of people have asked what about — where are we with repatriation of those who've applied for visas, family members associated with, you know, people who've assisted our defence personnel, like the interpreters and others? Where are we on that?
Andrew Gee: Well, that is a big operation which is ongoing. So it hasn't just started in the last 24 hours or the last week, Marcus. This has been going on for some time. So since 2013 we've granted 8,500 humanity visas.
Marcus Paul: Yep.
Andrew Gee: We've got visas for 1,800 locally engaged staff and their families and the people that helped us. Since April '15 over 640 visas for our friends and their family have been granted. And so this is not just something that has happened overnight and we haven't left it to the last minute, but there is a huge operation going on over there at the moment. So, for example, we have issued some people visas and said, "You're eligible" and they've said "Oh, we're not ready to come." Well, I think it is pretty clear that they're going to be ready now. So we have to go back in and get those folks out of there. I've spoken to the people — I'm in Canberra at the moment —
Marcus Paul: Yeah.
Andrew Gee: — and they — they have told me that they have clear visibility on who they have to get out. So there is communication between people on the ground and what's happening there. But the reality is we're sending men and women back into harm's way on this really important humanity mission that will save a lot of lives. We've got to get the Aussies out and then we've got to get our mates out. We've got to finish getting them out and that's what we're doing at the moment. But, Marcus, I just wanted to —
Marcus Paul: It's not going to be easy, is it? Look, sorry, Andrew, to interrupt you —
Andrew Gee: Yeah.
Marcus Paul: It's not — you're right: it is not going to be easy because it's no — it's no longer a safe zone and there's going to be a whole range of nations including the United Kingdom, the United States of America, who will also want to get into Afghanistan, to get into Kabul and help with a — a rescue mission, if you like, of people who are going to be leaving for the safety of those countries. I mean, there will be a — it is a big, big job. You're absolutely right. And it's a job that's being done on it — in a city that effectively has now been overthrown by the Taliban.
Andrew Gee: Yeah, it is a massive job, and people shouldn't think that this is just going to end today or tomorrow. This is going to take some time because the American operation there is huge. So, basically, the — the city has to be secured and the Taliban, as best we can, have to be kept out, and those passages to the airport kept open. The US Embassy has taken the flag down simply because what they're saying is "We're not relying on any other country to protect us, we're still here but if you try to come in, you'll be met with force." And so it's a very fluid situation.
Marcus Paul: Yeah, of course,
Andrew Gee: So commercial airline traffic has stopped simply because there is so much military traffic going in and out, and so what we've been waiting for is a slot to get in and out, and get our people organised on the ground. So our operation in the greater scheme of things is pretty small. The American operation and the numbers of people that are going to be moved out is quite huge and it's — going to be difficult because you're dealing with the Taliban —
Marcus Paul: Can we get on board with their operation at all? Is there any scope for the Australian rescue mission, so to speak, can also, I guess, be involved in the American effort?
Andrew Gee: Yeah, the Americans — everyone's working together.
Marcus Paul: Okay.
Andrew Gee: And the Americans are obviously leading it. They've got thousands of troops coming in.
Marcus Paul: Yeah.
Andrew Gee: And so it's going to be a pretty big presence there by the end of it. But what they're basically doing is saying to the Taliban, "You better back off" and they're trying to get as many people out as they can. But, you know, the scenes are tragic. You look at them, you know, the people, you know, trying to get on aircraft —
Marcus Paul: Oh, it's awful
Andrew Gee: — and falling off planes. It's just — it is very distressing and that's why I wanted to reach out to our veteran community —
Marcus Paul: Sure.
Andrew Gee: — and just let them know that there is that 24 hour a day, seven day a week support available to them for ADF personnel, for veterans and their families. It's called Open Arms.
Marcus Paul: Yep.
Andrew Gee: The number's 1800 011 046. That's 1800 011 046. And even if you don't need in-depth services, you can just ring up and just tell them what you think — try to do it politely, obviously — but if you just want someone to talk to —
Marcus Paul: Sure.
Andrew Gee: — and let them know of your distress and frustration, you can. Or if you need anonymous counselling or support, you can call Safe Zone Support 24 hours a day, seven days a week. 1800 142 072. That's 1800 142 072. That's Safe Zone Support. And I've also, Marcus, instructed the department to reach out to all of the families who've lost a loved one in Afghanistan. And there are 41 Australians who made the ultimate sacrifice. And I've also asked the department and told them that they need to contact anyone that they think may be at risk by what's happening.
So anyone who could have an adverse reaction and that they think may need more help, to get in contact with them and make sure that they know that there's support there, that we're here for them, that we understand the pain and the hurt and the distress, and we are there for them. But, on top of all of that, Marcus, I just want our veterans to know that our country is very, very proud of them.
We are eternally grateful for everything that they have done. They have served in the finest tradition of the Anzacs and the Australian armed forces and they have done us proud. And Australia can be proud of everything that we have achieved there. We have done — we have done our duty there. Our troops have done our duty. And I don't think you could ask more of Australia. We're a reasonably small country in the greater scheme of things but we punch above our weight militarily and diplomatically.
We've got a great reputation out of Afghanistan for highly trained professional troops and that reputation was enhanced in Afghanistan, and we will always be grateful for that service. And Australia should be proud that we stood up and we fought for freedom just as Australians have done for many years. And that freedom that we're enjoying now, talking on the radio —
Marcus Paul: Yeah.
Andrew Gee: — with the freedom to do that, that's been hard-fought by the men and women who've served our nation, and that has continued in Afghanistan, and I just want to say to our veterans out there and to our current ADF members, thank you very much. We will never forget it and we'll always be grateful.
Marcus Paul: Alright. Good to have you on, Andrew, to talk about this on such a — well, a sad but quite important day. They need to know that, you know, our veterans need to know they have everybody's support and certainly we're all going to, hopefully, hope and pray and look forward to some more repatriations and a rescue mission that's as safe as practical to get some people back from Afghanistan here to the safety of Australia. This afternoon you, mate.
Andrew Gee: Thanks, Marcus, and thanks for your support of our veterans and our troops, it's really appreciated.
Marcus Paul: Not a problem. Thank you. Alright, there he is, Minister for Veterans Affairs, Andrew Gee on the program.
Open Arms — Veterans and Families Counselling provides support for current and ex-serving ADF personnel and their families. Free and confidential help is available 24/7. Phone 1800 011 046 (international: +61 8 8241 4546) or visit www.OpenArms.gov.au