PRIME MINISTER SCOTT MORRISON: To all veterans today, I extend my deep gratitude for your service. I will come to a statement on that in just a minute. But before I do that, can I say I greatly welcome the further reporting on the employment figures today. The unemployment rate has fallen again to 5.6 per cent, 70,000 new jobs, seeing the participation rate climb to the highest level on record. We've seen the youth unemployment rate, which is a great relief to see that falling down to 11.8 per cent from 12.9 per cent. And we're seeing the underemployment rate and the underutilisation rate also fall. This is all good news for Australians, to see jobs continue to come back into the economy. Here in Western Australia, the news is particularly good, with some 28,100 more jobs coming into the Western Australian economy and the unemployment rate now falling to 4.8 per cent from 6 per cent, and so Western Australia can say, with so many other states now, that there are more people employed here than there were before the pandemic and that is another milestone in Australia's great economic comeback from the COVID-19 pandemic recession. Those numbers, I think, will be a great encouragement to Australians all around the country. Later today I'll be heading up to that part of Western Australia that is a key part of this state's great success in the Pilbara, and I look forward to that visit over the next 24 hours or so. So those numbers are very, very welcome. I now want to turn to a very important and serious issue.
Today the Government is announcing that Australia will conclude the drawdown of our contribution to the NATO-led Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan. Over the past two years we've been reducing our military presence in Afghanistan from a high of over 1,500 personnel to around 80 personnel currently.
In line with the United States and our other allies and partners, the last remaining Australian troops will depart Afghanistan in September 2021. The decision represents a significant milestone in Australia's military history. Over the last 20 years, Australia has been a steadfast contributor to the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan. Australia has fought alongside coalition and Afghan partners to degrade the capabilities of terrorist organisations, including Al-Qaeda. More than 39,000 Australian defence force personnel have deployed on Operation Slipper and Highroad helping to protect the safety and security of the Australian people at home and overseas. But safeguarding Afghanistan's security has come at a great cost to Australia.
Since 2001, 41 Australian personnel have lost their lives while serving in Afghanistan. And many more were wounded, some physically, others mentally, and we'll be dealing with the scars, both mental and physical, of their service, for many, many years. I would like to take a moment to read the honour role of those 41 Australians who sacrificed their lives for the sake of freedom.
Sergeant Andrew Russell. Trooper David Pearce. Sergeant Matthew Locke MG. Private Luke Worsley. Lance Corporal Jason Marks. Signaller Sean McCarthy. Lieutenant Michael Fussell. Private Gregory Sher. Corporal Mathew Hopkins. Sergeant Brett Till. Private Benjamin Ranaudo. Sapper Jacob Moerland. Sapper Darren Smith. Private Timothy Aplin. Private Scott Palmer. Private Benjamin Chuck. Private Nathan Bewes. Trooper Jason Brown. Private Tomas Dale. Private Grant Kirby. Lance Corporal Jared MacKinney. Corporal Richard Atkinson. Sapper Jamie Larcombe. Sergeant Brett Wood MG DSM. Lance Corporal Andrew Jones. Lieutenant Marcus Case. Sapper Rowan Robinson. Sergeant Todd Langley. Private Matthew Lambert. Captain Bryce Duffy. Corporal Ashley Birt. Lance Corporal Luke Gavin. Sergeant Blaine Diddams MG. Sapper James Martin. Lance Corporal Stjepan ‘Rick’ Milosevic. Private Robert Poate. Private Nathanael Galagher. Lance Corporal Mervyn McDonald. Corporal Scott Smith. Corporal Cameron Baird VC MG. Lance Corporal Todd Chidgey.
The loss is great. The sacrifice, immense, the bravery and courage, things we can speak of, but not know of personally. These brave Australians are amongst our greatest ever, who have served in the name of freedom. This day, we dedicate to their memories, we think of their families, their friends, the life they would have lived. But they gave that for others they did not know. We can be so proud of them, of their service, we're so proud of the men and women who serve in our Australian Defence Forces, so many of them also represented here in Western Australia. We thank them for their service humbly and gratefully. The memories of all Australian Defence Force members who have lost their lives continue to be honoured for their sacrifice and contribution to Australia's mission in Afghanistan. We also acknowledge all those Australians who have served in Afghanistan, and the impact this has had on their lives. We commit ourselves to supporting them. The conflict has exacted an enormous toll, also on the people of Afghanistan and to President Ghani, once again, we stand with them and the complex task of making peace that lies ahead for those people. Australia continues to support the peace negotiations between the Afghan Government and the Taliban. We encourage both parties to commit to the peace process that so many Australians have died to provide for. While our military contribution will reduce, we will continue to support the stability and development of Afghanistan through our bilateral partnership and in concert with our other nations. This includes our diplomatic resources, development cooperation programme and continued people-to-people links that I know the Afghan Government is very grateful for in my own discussions with President Ghani. Training and scholarship programs amongst so many, particularly supporting women in Afghanistan. Australia remains committed to helping Afghanistan preserve the gains of the last 20 years, particularly for women and girls. I'll take a few questions. We have some other commitments today.
JOURNALIST: This is clearly an emotional moment for you, do you expect that to be the same for the families as you mark this day today, an emotional day for you in this moment and also those families today?
PRIME MINISTER: Oh, look, our emotions are of no consequence compared to those who have lost their family members. I was particularly thinking of Bree Till from my own electorate. Her son, who is also Brett’s son, is in the same class as one of my daughters and I remember when Brett was killed and I spoke in the Parliament. I was in Opposition at the time. It reminded me of what it must have been like in our country when you think back to the first and second World Wars. These 41 lives lost, so terrible and I saw so awfully the pain of Brett's widow and his surviving children and his yet unborn boy. And the hope that that gave to Bree, that story was repeated on a daily basis during those great conflicts and we have some knowledge of it through this terrible experience. And what our veterans deal with on a daily basis is they remember those who fell and so, yes it is an emotional day, but mainly, and most importantly, we must think of those who have been most significantly impacted. The families of those who were lost and that sacrifice which they live with each and every day, but also those who bore arms with them and served with them. They carry that loss with them every single day and it is a reminder to all of us to be so grateful for their service.
JOURNALIST: Was it worth it going into Afghanistan?
PRIME MINISTER: Freedom is always worth it. Australians have always believed that. That is why Australians who have served in our Defence Forces have always pulled on that uniform. As Vince knows only too well.
MR VINCE CONNOLY MP, MEMBER FOR STIRLING: Absolutely, boss.
PRIME MINISTER: Putting on that uniform, serving under that flag, defending our values and standing up for them is what Australians do and those 41 brave men have exhibited that more than any other Australian can ever hope to.
JOURNALIST: You said Australians will be pulling out in September. Will they be out by September 11 like the American Forces?
PRIME MINISTER: September is the date we are currently working to, I’m not giving any further date than that. We are obviously coordinating with the Americans in particular, as I indicated yesterday when I was asked about this matter. These are things we have been working on closely on together for some time, but obviously for operational reasons and other matters, they have remained matters of national security.
JOURNALIST: The war crime allegations in Afghanistan, could we have done better?
PRIME MINISTER: There will be time to talk about those things. Today is not that time.
JOURNALIST: How do you categorise Australia’s contribution [inaudible]?
PRIME MINISTER: One of great bravery. One of great sacrifice. One of great noble service. One of great compassion and care for the people of Afghanistan. I have spoken to many veterans who have returned from Afghanistan, who have shared with me, Andrew Hastie is another who has shared with all of us his experiences there and Phil Thompson and they speak of the Afghan people in such a caring way and empathetic way. What they were doing there was incredibly important to them. That is why they continued to serve and that is why I think we can be very thankful for their service today.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister there was a dance performance commissioned on a ship. The Governor-General says that he wasn't there when it happened but it’s been made to look like he was. The dancers now feel unsafe after the ABC broadcast. Do you have a response?
PRIME MINISTER: I am disappointed that this event was so misreported. I think that was disrespectful to the performers to suggest the Governor-General or others were in attendance there in that way, I think was very dishonest and I think standards have failed and so I think obviously Defence will look at these matters and make whatever changes they wish to in the future. I will leave that to them. But it is disappointing that Australians were so misled on that issue.
JOURNALIST: Was it an appropriate performance for the event?
PRIME MINISTER: I will leave that to Defence because it is clear much of the reporting that we have seen of that matter and that has been provided to Australians, in this case by the ABC was wrong, was false and was misleading and I think that is very disappointing. I think the ABC should be reflecting on that.
JOURNALIST: Given the Government won’t supply more money to the states to help create more mass vaccination sites are you going to ask the states to help vaccinate aged care and disability care workers?
PRIME MINISTER: The aged and disability care workers is a program we are working through right now as I indicated to you before when some of you were able to join us for the start of the meeting with the AMA and some local GPs here. I am looking forward to their further input. We have got over 4,000 doctors now, surgeries across the country which are involved directly in the rollout. National Cabinet will meet on Monday and will meet again later in the week. These are the issues that we are working through. But what I am quite confident of is that the states and the territories and the Commonwealth will just work together to get this done. That is what we did all through COVID last year and that is what we will do with these challenges. This is just another set of challenges, we have problems to solve, we have national partnership agreements in place for vaccinations with the states and territories that deal with the distribution as we do have arrangements with the GPs and pharmacists and we will work with them to get the job done. Australians want to see the job get done. I am committing to getting the job done. I am committed to working together with the states and territories and doctors and the many other health professionals in this country to get that job done. But today, but today, let us just pause in solemn silence and sadness for the great loss of those 41 brave Australians and simply say to them, thank you for your service.