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April 25, 2021

KIERAN GILBERT: Joining me in the studio is the Shadow Defence Minister Brendan O'Connor. You were at that Dawn Service in Canberra.


GILBERT: We're returning to some normality. There were some 4200 people there, but it was still restricted given the COVID elements. Did you get a sense it was back to what it should be there?

O'CONNOR: It's a remarkable place to be on this day. The fact that there were some restrictions made it a little more difficult, but given what happened last year, where people had to commemorate in their driveway or at home it was nice to see people come together, the Prime Minister, the CDF and other distinguished guests. It was great to be there.

GILBERT: Do you get the sense that this year has a different focus for many of the veterans? As I spoke to Darren Chester, we are preparing now for the end of what has been a 20-year operation effectively in Afghanistan?

O'CONNOR: Yeah, look it's hard to believe when that war commenced and we were involved in that war. It's hard to believe now it's now become our longest war, 41 ADF personnel died in pursuit of stabilising the Middle East. Obviously at the time there was great fears that Afghanistan would become a haven for terrorism unchecked. Whilst there's no perfect way to end a war or certainly withdraw forces I think we're doing the right thing following the decision of the United States to withdraw.

Of course we should continue to provide succour and support, advice to maintain as much stability as possible. That was the reason we went in, as you know Kieran, to stop that haven for terrorism developing which would have been a great threat to many parts of the world.

GILBERT: Obviously there were many casualties, Australian casualties there across two decades. Tragically we see that the casualties happen on our own soil upon their return. And this is a day of grief for many families in that sense as well, as we prepare now for a Royal Commission into veteran suicide.

O'CONNOR: That's the thing that we haven't really had a proper conversation about, that there are far many more ADF personnel after leaving the force who have self-harmed or suicided. I think we need to work out ways to prevent that from happening.

Today is a day of commemoration for the service and sacrifice of ADF personnel, not just in the Afghanistan war but also of course every conflict since Gallipoli. I think that's what we are focusing on today. But I do think you're right.

We have so many contemporary veterans today. If you go to any service around the country of course you see young veterans from Afghanistan, Iraq, and other wars and I think that's a reminder that we need to do whatever we can to help defence personnel and veterans from this day.

GILBERT: Indeed. And the other challenge that we face and I spoke to Matt Anderson the director of the War Memorial about this, is how to grapple with the very serious allegations against a few. The vast majority served with great distinction as we know and a nation is proud of then. There are allegations against a minority. Matt Anderson said his job is to document the truth.

O'CONNOR: They say that truth is the first casualty of war. We need to make sure the full story is told. Today is a reminder that most people that wear the uniform are indeed ones who make the sacrifice and service to this nation and that is indeed the overwhelming number of ADF personnel.

But if there are serious allegations, as there are, arising out of the Brereton Report we need to deal with that too, not just for the country but indeed the many thousands of ADF personnel who did the right thing. It's important that that is examined properly, that we get to the bottom of that. But never forget overwhelmingly our ADF personnel do the right thing and really serve this country with distinction.

GILBERT: Exactly. It's partly to honour those people. That needs to be dealt with the credibility it warrants. Now, it's also Anzac Day, a warning for the current generation as well to wherever possible avoid conflict, given how appalling the ramifications are?

O'CONNOR: I think that's right. I think that's the point of the commemoration, not only to remind ourselves of the ultimate sacrifice of so many that have come before us, but it's also really a time to say, well, war has to be a decision of last resort and if we can avoid war through diplomacy, engagement in our region, if we can maintain peace and stability that has to be our primary aim and I think that's a good reminder too because war is hell for too many.

GILBERT: It is indeed. Brendan O'Connor, Shadow Defence Minister Thank you.

O'CONNOR: Thanks Kieran.