GARETH PARKER: The rescue operation continues in Afghanistan. It is a race against time with that hard deadline set by Joe Biden of August 31. Australian troops managed to evacuate another 750 people yesterday. That brings the total number of people that we have managed to airlift out to 2,700 or so. The Taliban say they’ve got no intention of giving us more time to get people out. They say any extension beyond August 31 would represent a red line. One Taliban leader said overnight that they’re not happy about a number of Afghans who are fleeing the country. Other countries are also racing to complete their missions by the end of the month. The US has evacuated 58,000 people in 10 days. On the line, a man who fought in Afghanistan and who is now the Assistant Minister for Defence. Andrew Hastie, good morning.
THE HON ANDREW HASTIE MP, ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR DEFENCE: Good morning, Gareth, to you and your listeners.
PARKER: Thanks for your time. As someone who was boots on the ground trying to build a democracy there, how do you feel about what’s happened in the last two weeks?
HASTIE: Like many veterans, Gareth, it’s tough to watch, but I’m mission-focused at the moment, as you can imagine, and that is getting Australians out and our Afghan allies out of Kabul. And to update the figure you read earlier, we’ve ticked over more than 3,000 people out of Kabul since August 18. So, our ADF are doing a fantastic job. Our aircrew aboard the C‑17s, the C‑130s and the KC-30s, our SAS on the ground, our supporting troops from 1 RAR, our Department of Home Affairs and, of course, DFAT are doing a superb job on the ground in very trying circumstances. And to update your listeners as well, the situation has deteriorated so much now that the US, Australia and other countries, have told people moving to the airport to turn back because the risk of a suicide bomber is so high, the threat situation is increasing.
PARKER: So, the official advice is now, don’t go to the airport?
HASTIE: That is correct. That is correct. So, you can see how dangerous it is, and we’ve got troops and Australian Government personnel in harm’s way, so we’re mission-focused, and that is getting as many people out as we can, but as I’ve just said, the situation has changed again overnight.
PARKER: But if the advice is don’t go to the airport because you might be killed by a suicide bomber, there’s five days left until the withdrawal deadline, how do we get people out?
HASTIE: Well, that’s something we’re working on, Gareth, and the situation is constantly changing. The National Security Committee of Cabinet will be meeting today, and they will be making decisions on the updated information. But like I said the mission is to get Australians out, Afghan allies out, there are still people out there and we’re thinking about how we can do that and we’ll have more advice, of course, as the situation changes yet again probably.
PARKER: Are there any alternatives to Kabul airport? Bagram Airfield, for example?
HASTIE: Well, Bagram Airfield is not under our control. Our toehold is in Kabul and that’s where we’re working from at the moment. But, look, there are some very positive stories that have come out over the last 10 days or so, some incredible operations to get people out. There’s a small group of Australian Army officers who have close contacts with the Afghan National Army, in fact, through someone who trained at Duntroon. About 10 days ago, they just started working with locals on the ground and they’ve managed to escort about 300 people to evacuation points. They’ve managed to get a whole range of Afghans and Australian citizens to the airport, and these are just a couple of guys with intelligence and strong planning backgrounds with whole-of-government networks doing amazing work. One of them is a close mate of mine. And so there’s a whole range of things going on, good stories, and I’m sure that will come out in due course.
PARKER: Obviously, it is highly sensitive operationally at the moment, but I take it that we’re finding alternative ways to get people to the airport than just turning up via road?
HASTIE: Well, certainly it’s foot or road at the moment and there’s been some very brave Afghan people who have been going out and escorting Australian citizens to the airport at risk of their own life, and that’s the story that will be told. Look, there’s been MPs and Senators across the country who are working around‑the‑clock to help people. I know in my office that we’ve had local Mandurah people over there. My office has been working around‑the‑clock to even remain in contact with these people and get them to the airport to marry up with these elements who are looking for them. I have a 22-year-old staffer in my office who was a toddler when the war started and is now helping people evacuate. So, this is a long war. It’s touched a lot of lives and our mission, again, is to just get as many Australians and Afghan allies out, and that’s what we’re doing; more than 3,000 so far since August 18.
PARKER: Do you have a sense of how many Australian citizens are still on the ground who want to get out of there, plus Afghan allies who would like to get out of there and who are likely to qualify for humanitarian or other visas; and what happens beyond the 31st of August?
HASTIE: Well, that’s the next step of planning, and that’s what Government is working on right now. And it’s a fluid situation, as I said. And things will become clearer as advice is updated and the situation continues to evolve. And people just need to be patient. Our ADF, our DFAT, our Home Affairs people are doing the very best that they can in very trying circumstances.
PARKER: That’s quite extraordinary. It sounds like it is a very fast-moving situation and we’ll hear more as those plans come to fruition.
PARKER: There are just a couple of other matters I want to raise with you. There are reports today in The West Australian that the quarantine facility that the Commonwealth government is partnering with the McGowan government on will be moved to Bullsbrook. Is that because there were problems with aviation approvals at Jandakot?
HASTIE: Look, my understanding is Bullsbrook is a good location. Just to make it clear with your listeners, it’s not RAAF Pearce; it is about three and a half kilometres away. The Department of Finance has done an independent feasibility study of the use of the Bullsbrook location, which includes looking at environmental, historical, cultural, and waste management factors. At this stage, I understand it’s good to go and I’m sure the Minister for Finance will have more to say on that. But, in the end, the State Government want a quarantine facility, the Commonwealth is keen to meet that need, and so we’re working closely with the state to get this going.
PARKER: And it appears that you’re going to be drawn into a defamation case involving prominent businessman Greg Poland. When you were asked about that in a press conference the other week you said, “bring it on”. What did you mean by that?
HASTIE: Well, I’m not going to comment on the specifics of it, Gareth, but I’m very relaxed about it if this goes to court – and it’s a big if. But, look, I’m a big believer in transparency and accountability. Our Federal Government is a Westminster system of Parliament, which means we’re held accountable and at the State and Local levels the same principles work with those respective governments. That’s why State and Local Government members have to declare donations, there are codes of conduct and indeed they are also subject to legislation, and you also have Government entities like our regional commissions which have boards which also are governed by legislation. So, I’ll close with this: I’m relaxed because I believe in transparency and accountability and, therefore, I welcome a thorough, searching, examination in open court.
PARKER: It sounds like you’re suggesting there’s some skeletons in some closets somewhere.
HASTIE: Not at all. I’m just saying transparency and accountability is something I believe in, and it’s good practice to do at Federal, State and Local Government levels.
PARKER: Alright, Minister. Thank you very much for your time.
HASTIE: Thanks very much, Gareth.
PARKER: The Assistant Defence Minister, Andrew Hastie.