I have fond memories of working with you twenty years ago when we planned the regional AIDS Conference. You represented the then Howard government on our organizing committee, and were very supportive, even though neither you nor Malcolm Fraser could persuade Howard to come to the closing ceremony, held in the shadow of September 11.
I knew you as a Liberal in the tradition of Peter Baume and Petro Georgiou, men for whom I had enormous respect. While I have never voted for your party, I have always believed that it should be possible to work across party lines when basic human rights are in jeopardy.
But in the aftermath of the Afghan debacle that seems no longer possible. The extraordinary response of your government to the humanitarian catastrophe now unfolding is shameful and unforgivable. Not only are we accepting far fewer asylum seekers than other western countries, we are accepting them within the existing refugee quota, already cut quietly in last year’s budget. Nor is the government prepared to guarantee permanence to those Afghans already in Australia but living—surviving—on temporary protection visas.
In warning President Bush about the impending invasion of Iraq, Colin Powell is reported to have said: You break it, you own it. No such reservations seem to have been expressed around the decision to enter Afghanistan. Unlike the Iraq War, participation in the attack on assumed Al Quaeda strongholds in Afghanistan was a bipartisan position.
The most cogent defence of our involvement came from John Howard, who was clear in speaking on 7.30 that it was aimed at preventing further terrorist attacks protected by Afghanistan. Given the involvement of both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia in sheltering terrorists this seems somewhat far-fetched, but it is far more honest than Scott Morrison’s nonsense about defending freedom.
The refusal of the Taliban controlled government to hand over Osama bin Laden gave the US a pretext to invade, leading to new justifications: the US-led forces would, they vowed, support democracy and human rights while eliminating the terrorist threat. Ironically when bin Laden was finally killed he was sheltering in Pakistan, not Afghanistan.
In arguing this was a war for democracy against the forces of repression, the United States conveniently overlooked its support for fundamentalist Islamists in Afghanistan in the earlier military incursions of the Soviet Union. In claiming the war would crush terrorism, western governments ignored the reality that intervention would itself breed hatred of the west and new forms of terrorism.
The massive misjudgements that have underpinned American interventions in Vietnam, in Iraq and in Afghanistan will be judged by future generations. In all three cases Australia involvement was as much about buying favour with the US as any realistic appraisal of the situation; Labor to its credit opposed the first two involvements.
I understand that you as Defence and then Foreign minister inherited the Afghan commitment. Indeed, your finest hour may well be when you stood up to Mike Pompeo in Washington and declared that: ‘We make our own decisions, our own judgments in the Australian national interest and about upholding our security, our prosperity, and our values.’
It is the failure to live up to these values that is now so shamefully on display in our attitude to Afghan asylum seekers. You closed our embassy in May because you feared for the safety of our employees. How is it possible that there were no plans already in place as the Taliban advanced on Kabul to rescue the hundreds of people to whom we owed a moral obligation?
I am the son of refugees, both my parents having found refuge in an Australia that was a very different country then to what it is today. In 1938 the Lyons government allotted 15,000 visas for ‘victims of oppression’, many of them Jews fleeing Nazi Germany. In 1980, the Fraser government offered an amnesty for illegal immigrants in Australia, which allowed those Vietnamese who had failed to meet the refugee definition but had remained in Australia to legalise their status.
This is the tradition of your side of politics of which you could be proud. Marise, is it possible that you might find the courage to assert that tradition today in light of the disaster unfolding in Afghanistan?