6PR, Gareth Parker interview discussing Afghan veterans, evacuation program in Afghanistan

Tuesday, August 24 2021

The Hon Andrew Gee MP
Minister for Veterans’ Affairs
Minister for Defence Personnel

Gareth Parker: On the line, the federal Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and Defence, Andrew Gee. The minister has been consulting with veterans in recent days. Andrew, good morning.

Andrew Gee: Good morning, Gareth. Good morning, everyone.

Gareth Parker: Thanks for your time. I think that that would be right, wasn’t it? Many veterans would be saying, “Well, what was the point of this?”

Andrew Gee: Look, there’s no doubt that some are, but, as you’ve mentioned at the top of the story, I have been meeting extensively with veterans last week, and, in fact, the roundtable I held with younger veterans towards the end of last week was very interesting. And they were unanimous in their view that they know what they did made a difference and they want Australia to know that they’re proud of what they did. And when we were talking through it they spoke of all of the work that they did there — helping to build schools, medical centres and clinics. They helped people get connected to electricity, young girls given an education, women a chance to work, a reduction in maternal mortality rates. But also the mission there was to stamp out terrorism, and that’s what they did successfully for 20 years. And we’ll never know how many international terrorist attacks were stopped because our men and women went in there with our allies and stamped out al-Qaeda and made that country a better place for 20 years. So they were unanimous in that view, and that’s the message that they wanted to get out.

Of course, no-one wants to see that tragedy unfolding, and everyone in Australia wishes it could be different. But in terms of what the men and women from Australia did, they were a success in Afghanistan and they want Australia to know that what they did was a success. And I think Australia needs to let them know that we’re very proud of them and we’re proud of everything that they did and that they served in the finest traditions of the Australian armed services through the generations.

Gareth Parker: I certainly agree with that last point, because they don’t get to decide where they go. It’s politicians who send them, and they do the job. And I think they did the job they were assigned to do to the very best of their ability.

Minister, did they express a view to you about some of the Afghans who assisted our forces left behind?

Andrew Gee: There was some discussion. And, look, I’ve been talking to various veterans over the last few days about those people and helping to get people out. So obviously a number of people have been contacting veterans that they know and some of those people have been referred to me. But other MPs have picked them up as well. So I’ve been monitoring that situation very closely. And so I’m seeing when requests go in I’m hearing on the ground that help has arrived or is on the way. So I’ve got a pretty good view on how it’s going.

And, look, to be honest with you, I think what we’ve done in such a short period of time is remarkably successful in terms of actually identifying these people, getting them processed, getting them documents and getting them to the airport. But it’s not over yet, and it is — it’s touch and go because the Taliban have a list of people that they’re looking for. We know that they’re basically people picking up and interrogating them every day. These are the reports that I’m getting. We know that some people are in hide. We know that people’s families have been threatened and we know that there are still people who are trying to get out who are basically playing cat and mouse with the Taliban. So it’s a very volatile situation. And as we’ve seen around the airport in recent days, it’s a tinder box. And so it’s a very, very dicey situation for our troops.

Gareth Parker: So, Minister, how many more people would need to be evacuated, and will we be able to get that done by August the 31st?

Andrew Gee: Look, I think we’re travelling pretty well. I haven’t got — the list is changing every day. So basically, you know, we thought we had, you know, a certain number — under 200 Australian citizens — to get out. I think the original view was around 150, from memory. And then more and more people in Kabul just put up their hand and said, “Hi, I’m an Australian. By the way, I need to get out,” and we’re going, “Yeah.” And, “By the way, my family needs to get out, too.” And so there were a lot of people who hadn’t registered with us, and we didn’t know they were there. And so the folks, the Aussies there around the airport, have been just doing an amazing job with, I have to say, our allies, including the British. They’ve been terrific. And they’ve been — as soon as we’ve found out who they are they’ve been contacted straight away.

Obviously they have to be processed and checked, but they’re getting the documents and they are getting to the airport. But it’s hard to know, like, from, you know, the original list was, you know, we were going to get a few hundred people out. Well, we’ve already got 1,300 out, so it’s an expanding list, and it does change day to day as more people pop up. But I think, as I said, all things considered, we’ve done remarkably well. And I have to say the British, in particular, have been of enormous assistance to us. So we need to give them due credit, and also our US allies as well.

Gareth Parker: Just — sorry, do you think we’ll meet that 31st of August deadline that the Taliban seem to be insisting on?

Andrew Gee: I think from our point of view I’m confident that Australia can.

Gareth Parker: Okay.

Andrew Gee: But we’ve got far fewer people to move out than, say, the Americans, who are, you know, dealing with tens of thousands of people. So — but, the reality is with what’s happening on the ground and what’s happening with the Taliban, it’s very difficult to know how many we actually have to get out and where they are because it’s a war zone and there are people in hide.

Gareth Parker: Yes.

Andrew Gee: At least we do have comms with people who are contacting us. And then after that we’ll also have the humanitarian visa program continuing. So there will still be an opportunity to get people out, but obviously the imperative is to get as many out as we can in this evacuation. And it is — look, I’ve seen the messages from these people. You know, it’s heart wrenching, the stories. And you can just read the fear through the messages that are coming through, the fear and apprehension. And so it’s an all time for those folks on the ground there. But I think Australia can rest assured that we’re doing everything that we can. And I think we can be really proud of what we’ve pulled together in a very short space of time.

Gareth Parker: Okay. Minister, thank you very much for your time this morning.

Andrew Gee: Thank you, Gareth. And thank you, also, for your support for our men and women in service. And it was great to see you on the Ballarat the other day.

Gareth Parker: Yeah, it was a great experience. I was very privileged to be invited on board for the last hour or two of that mission and to see the great work that our men and women of the Navy do. So one I won’t forget, and it was great to be able to bring people that story.

Andrew Gee: You’re a good man.

Gareth Parker: Good on you. Thanks, Minister. Andrew Gee, the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs.

** End of transcript **

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