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Tuesday, 30 March 2004
Page: 27561

Mr LATHAM (Leader of the Opposition) (3:25 PM) —I move:

That paragraph (2) of the motion be omitted and the following paragraph be substituted:

(2) is of the opinion that:

(a) Australia's international security policy should have as its principal priorities:

(i) the on-going war against terrorism;

(ii) enhancing the security and stability of our immediate region; and

(iii) the protection of Australians both at home and overseas;

(b) any Australian Government committing Australian forces overseas should have a defined exit strategy for the eventual withdrawal of those forces;

(c) the Howard Government has previously provided public undertakings to the Australian people ruling out a post-war Australian military commitment in Iraq altogether or else limiting that commitment to months, not years;

(d) Australian military forces in Iraq should be withdrawn from that country as soon as practicable once Australia's responsibilities as an Occupying Power have been discharged with the intention of returning our forces to Australia by the end of 2004;

(e) Australia should continue to provide strong levels of humanitarian assistance and economic reconst-ruction assistance to the Iraqi people for the rebuilding of the Iraqi nation; and

(f) all members of this Parliament express their unqualified support for the courage and profession-alism of the members of the Australian Defence Force deployed to Iraq and the surrounding region.

This is a government arguing against itself—a government that in the past has set time lines for the withdrawal of Australian troops from Iraq but now for political reasons wants to throw that policy out the window. This is a debate motivated not by Australia's best national interests but, as ever, by the Liberal Party's political interests. For political reasons, the government is now planning to hold our troops in Iraq longer than they need to be there—longer than the government said that they would be there.

This is a desperate government looking for a political issue, and now it wants to extend the deployment in Iraq indefinitely. This is the government that found it so easy to rush into the war in Iraq saying there were weapons of mass destruction, which in fact did not exist. Now it is a government that is saying it does not know how to get out of Iraq—a government that is committing itself to an indefinite deployment. This is a shameful exercise in party politics instead of the best interests of our troops. It is a shameful exercise in party politics instead of our best national security interests.

I say these things because the government and the Prime Minister have said them. As recently as two days ago on the Sunday program, the Prime Minister outlined a timetable for the withdrawal of the air traffic controllers in Iraq. He said they would be out by May or June. He was asked by Laurie Oakes:

But - but a third of our contingent could be out by May or June?

The Prime Minister answered:

Well, the air traffic controllers could be.

In his language: cut and run for the air traffic controllers in May or June. What is more—talk about cutting and running—this is what the defence minister, Senator Hill, said in January of this year:

We expect all requirements to be met in about May or June this year and at that point our air traffic control contingent can look forward to rejoining their families in Australia.

No ifs or buts and no talk about cutting and running. This was the defence minister, Senator Hill, in January setting a time line for the withdrawal of the air traffic controllers from Baghdad. How can the government move motions against time lines when it has been a government consistently setting time lines for withdrawal out of Iraq?

Have you ever seen a greater public policy inconsistency than a Prime Minister on a Sunday saying the air traffic controllers are out in May or June and then coming into the House of Representatives on a Monday and putting forward a motion saying time lines are inappropriate? You will never find a greater piece of public policy inconsistency, double standard or rank hypocrisy than a Prime Minister on a Sunday saying, `Look, here is my timetable for getting the air traffic controllers out. It's May or June,' and then coming into the House the following day with a motion that says, `Time lines like that are totally inappropriate. There will be no arbitrary time lines.' What is more, a day later he is here moving the proposition in the House.

This is a government that has set time lines in the past. There was Senator Hill not only setting the time line for the troops but talking about the joy of the troops as they would rejoin their families in Australia. Now it is a government reneging on the commitment to the troops. It was `build up the expectations for the air traffic controllers, who will be home rejoining their families in May or June'. Now it is a government that wants its members to vote in the House to say there will be no arbitrary time lines. The members opposite should have a bit of compassion for the air traffic controllers. They should honour the word of Senator Hill in January, honour the word and the commitment to rejoin the air traffic controllers with their families and vote down the Prime Minister's hypocritical proposition two days later that we should not have any time lines for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq.

This is a government reneging on its commitments. It is chopping and changing on defence policy. It had a time line for the air traffic controllers in January, and that time line goes out the window just two days later in the House of Representatives. A government that is chopping and changing with defence policy is a government that does not deserve the trust and confidence of the Australian people. If it cannot make up its mind about something as basic as time lines for the withdrawal of troops out of Iraq, it does not deserve to be in government—it does not deserve to be running the defence policy of this country. You would not see a greater inconsistency anywhere in the management of public policy.

But it gets worse. If you think that is bad—if you think it is bad to have a time line on Sunday and move a motion against it on Tuesday—then think of what the Prime Minister had to say to the Bulletin magazine on 11 February last year. He was asked by the journalist:

So our forces would be in and out [of Iraq] fairly quickly?

The Prime Minister replied:

Oh, yes, very much so. If there is a final Australian military commitment, it will be of a scale that I've mentioned, and we would see it being of a quite short, specific, duration. I don't see any increase. I don't see any peacekeeping.

So the journalist, just wanting to get a bit of clarity from the man of the short, specific duration, asked:

What time frame do you have in mind?

The Prime Minister replied:

A very short period of commitment. But I won't try to put weeks and months on it. It will be short.

There is the Prime Minister of the short time line—the Prime Minister of the short time line for the air traffic controllers last Sunday, and the Prime Minister of the short time line in his interview with the Bulletin magazine in February 2003. Then of course, to back up the short time line for withdrawal out of Iraq, in May 2003 in New York, in the United States itself, the Prime Minister was asked about our commitment in Iraq:

Do you see it as months or years ...

He replied:

Well I certainly don't see it as years.

Committing, again, to months—the short, specific time line of the Australian Prime Minister.

But it goes beyond the Prime Minister. If you want some time lines, do not look just at the Prime Minister; go to the Minister for Foreign Affairs. This is what Alexander Downer had to say in March 2003:

Well the Australian military will continue to make a contribution where it usefully can at the level of the three services and once the war is finished there'll be of course no further contribution for them to make ...

Not even a time line but rather `no further contribution for them to make'. Then the foreign minister in April 2003 said:

... the Prime Minister and I have always said we'll have a role in assisting with the reconstruction and rehabilitation of Iraq but not a military role.

He did not even get to cut and run. There was no military role planned in April 2003. They were not there to cut or run. Then the foreign minister in September 2003 said:

... we made it clear to the Americans right at the outset, early this year before the war began, that whilst we would make a contribution to the war ... we weren't intending to stay on there for any period of time.

Not even a short, specific duration; no period of time. Then the foreign minister said the Americans understood that. So much for damaging the alliance by having a disagreement with the United States! The government says months not years and the foreign minister says the United States understands that, but when Labor says months not years the government is trying to make out there is some crisis brewing in Australian-American relations—again the double standard and the hypocrisy of the Howard administration, which has had time lines in place and now, for politically opportunistic reasons, is throwing those time lines right out the window.

All Labor are doing in moving this amendment and upholding our policy is holding the government to its initial timetable. When the Prime Minister said `months not years', we thought he meant it. It is a pretty simple proposition: when the Prime Minister said `months not years' in May 2003, we thought that is what he meant—a short, specific duration: months not years. That is what Labor are saying now. This is a government that is chopping and changing for political reasons, and I wonder what could have changed the Prime Minister's mind. What could have changed his mind in the last couple of days? What could have changed his mind since that very clear commitment in May 2003? I wonder if the Prime Minister had a bit of politics in mind. I wonder if he had in mind a withdrawal from Iraq.

Honourable members interjecting

Mr LATHAM —No? Am I being too hard on him by saying that a desperate man—a desperate politician—would have a bit of party politics on his mind?

The SPEAKER —The Leader of the Opposition will address his remarks through the chair.

Mr LATHAM —Did the Prime Minister, Mr Speaker, have in mind a withdrawal from Iraq in months not years—later this year—and perhaps a welcome home parade, perhaps even in the middle of a federal election campaign? Am I being too cynical? Am I being too sceptical about this man to say that he might have possibly had that in mind? And the thing that has changed his mind in the last couple of days is that his little political tactic has come off the rails. That is why all his time lines—all his short, specific durations: months not years; get the air traffic controllers out—have gone out the window.

He has lost his parade and he has lost his policy in the election campaign. That, quite frankly, is the basic reason why this Prime Minister always changes his mind: it is always for political opportunity and always for trying to put false arguments out about the Australian Labor Party. He says that withdrawal is a sign of weakness, but he never applied that to himself. When he said two days ago that the air traffic controllers were coming out in May or June, was that a sign of weakness? No. This is the double standard and hypocrisy of a Prime Minister who will say one thing on the Sunday and move a motion against it on the Tuesday. Was it weak to say months not years? Not according to the Prime Minister. Was it weak to say the air traffic controllers would be out in a time line of May or June? This is the hypocrisy of a Prime Minister who will say or do anything for political reasons. He has lost his parade and now he has lost his policy. The time line policy of the Howard administration has gone straight out the window.

The weak and ineffective thing to do in the war against terror was to engage in the folly of the Iraq war in the first place. It is time to judge this government's policies by its outcome. This is the government that said the primary purpose for going to war in Iraq was to find the weapons of mass destruction. Remember the weapons of mass destruction? Internationally everyone is looking for them, but they know they ain't finding them—and Senator Hill said as much last week. None of the weapons of mass destruction was used in the war itself and none has been found since. Young Australians were sent to war for the wrong purpose. They were sent to war under a false doctrine—the doctrine of pre-emption. As it turns out, there was nothing to pre-empt in Iraq. There were no weapons of mass destruction.

We heard the warnings by the minister for health before the war when he said that this conflict would make Australia a bigger target. Since the war, we know that the truth of that proposition is now widely recognised by the Australian people. This was going to be the big neoconservative production to make the world safer. But they could not find the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Their doctrine of pre-emption exploded like a cigar in their own face. The `axis of evil' rhetoric has been conveniently forgotten about, but, unhappily for the Australian people, there is now a recognition that the minister for health was right that the war in Iraq would make Australia a more dangerous place and would increase the risk level in this country. So let us judge the government's Iraq policy on the results.

The third, final and perhaps even most damaging result is that the conflict in Iraq diverted time and resources from the real task. The real task in the war against terror is targeting the terrorists themselves: breaking up their networks in Afghanistan and north Pakistan, catching bin Laden and countering JI in South-East Asia—not waging wars for weapons of mass destruction that do not exist, not waging wars against nation-states but actually targeting the terrorists themselves. The Prime Minister, in his contribution, said something that on this side of the House we found quite surprising. It was his assertion, and it was the first time he has ever said it—what advice has he received and when did he receive the advice?—that the task in the war against terror is now completed in Afghanistan. Where did that assertion come from? Internationally there is a recognition that the war against terror is still very much alive in Afghanistan and on its boundaries.

The SPEAKER —Member for Griffith, I do not discourage people from supporting their leader, but I will not tolerate interjections.

Mr LATHAM —But here is the Prime Minister, in his political moment in the House, coming up for the first time with his assertion that the task has been completed in Afghanistan. Most international experts and most international opinion will say that that is not right. In fact, there is more work to be done, and if this government had not diverted time and resources from the real task the work in Afghanistan could be done more comprehensively—that is, breaking up the networks in Afghanistan and north Pakistan, catching bin Laden and, in our part of the world, countering JI in South-East Asia.

Twelve months ago, Labor opposed the war in Iraq, and it is hardly surprising, given the government's policy failures—failure after failure after failure—that we have not changed our mind one little bit. In fact, the situation for Australia has grown worse. The level of danger has increased as a result of our involvement in the Iraq war. So the choice for the Australian people is simple. The Howard government had a policy of foreign adventurism for a purpose that was not true, for weapons of mass destruction that did not exist, and now, to top it off, it wants an indefinite deployment in Iraq. It has changed its line, it has got rid of the time lines and it now wants an indefinite deployment in Iraq.

Labor's policy has a different set of priorities. Our policy has as its priority the defence of Australia and targeting the terrorists in the war against terror. That is the way in which Labor want to use the defence resources of this nation. We want our troops involved either in the defence of Australia or in the war against terror—not tied up in the defence of another country. For Labor it is always the defence of Australia first—it is always Labor that is putting the defence of Australia first. It is hardly surprising that Labor—having opposed the war in the first place and having had our critique of the war confirmed by subsequent events—want our troops back here. It is hardly surprising, given that background. The Prime Minister can quote all the politicians in the world who actually supported the war, but for a political party that opposed it, in all the circumstances it is hardly surprising that we want our troops back here.

The end of Australia's role as an occupying power at the end of June obviously provides the opportunity. At the end of June, Iraq will have a new sovereign government that is ready to govern. As the shadow minister for foreign affairs, the member for Griffith, said in November:

The early establishment of an interim Iraqi government would also provide Australia with an appropriate exit strategy from its current formal responsibilities as an Occupying Power ... At present we do not have such an exit strategy.

That is what the member for Griffith said in November. Now Australia does have such a strategy; it is Labor's strategy—our intention to have the troops home by Christmas. We opposed the war for the right reasons, and now we want our troops home for the right reasons as well.

Quite frankly, we are used to the critics. It is the same old faces, the same old names and the same old voices that criticised us for opposing the war in the first place that are now opposing our intention to have the troops home by Christmas. We have heard it all before and we are not deterred, because the last time they said these things, time after time as the conflict in Iraq unfolded, they were wrong. And it does not give Labor any joy to say that we were right. There is not any joy in saying that we were right in the circumstances, because resources and time have been diverted from the war against terror, and Australia has become a more dangerous place, and young Australians were sent to war for a purpose that was not true. It does not give us any joy at all to say that those things have come to pass. So too it does not deter us for a moment from the convictions we have now. Defence policy is about choices, and the government is always saying that Australia is overstretched.

The Prime Minister himself has said that UN peacekeepers in Iraq are inappropriate. I think his words were, `It's not Australia's cup of tea.' He is always recognising that we are overstretched internationally. It is appropriate to withdraw our troops from Iraq at the end of the year under the time line and the scenario that the Labor Party have pointed to. This has always been Labor's intention following the election of a Labor government. We have consistently said that we want our troops home as soon as possible. When we said we wanted them home as soon as possible, we meant it—especially given the advent of a new Iraqi government. This is very much a commonsense approach that makes a choice and basically says we are going to put the defence of Australia and the war against terror ahead of the priorities of the coalition government.

We heard the Prime Minister say earlier on that we cannot have a timetable to get out of Iraq because he is worried about what al-Qaeda might think. Prime Minister, we are never going to hand our policy over to al-Qaeda. We are not going to hand our sovereign policy and commitments over to al-Qaeda. The logical extension of the Prime Minister's argument is that, if he makes Australian policy according to what al-Qaeda thinks, we will have an indefinite deployment in Iraq; there will never be a time in which the Australian troops can come home. The Prime Minister is handing over the sovereign policy of this country to what al-Qaeda thinks. On that reasoning, he will never find a time on his politically convenient schedule to bring the Australian troops home.

Labor will never surrender to that type of reasoning. Labor will never surrender the sovereign policy-making of this country to al-Qaeda and what they may or may not think. We are not going to go down the Prime Minister's path. We are going to do the right thing and put up a different strategy to the Howard government—a strategy that says that we do not need the doctrine of pre-emption; we need to target the terrorist networks themselves. We want to build up Australia's self-reliance. We believe in the American alliance. We founded it during World War II under the great Labor Prime Minister John Curtin. We want to be an equal partner with the United States, not a deputy sheriff. We want our troops here to protect us against potential threats on our own soil, in our own region. That is Labor's commitment to self-reliance within the terms and conditions of the American alliance.

So, too, a Labor government would never take its eye off the neighbourhood. If this government in 1996 had not taken its eye off the Pacific, it could have been anticipating events—worries and insecurities in our own part of the world. Instead of cobbling together rescue packages six or seven years later, it should have been anticipating events—it should have been going to the Pacific forum; it should have been working with PNG and the Solomons well before the problems reached a head. A Labor government always had a proud record of engaging in the neighbourhood, engaging in the region, and we will do that again when next in government.

A Labor government also wants a department of homeland security—a one-stop shop. They trot this stuff out that we are anti-American. Here we are learning from the American model—a department of homeland security in a federated nation, a one-stop shop where you can get national security coordination between the national government and the states and territories. We also want to upgrade our airport and port security. I have been to airports at Devonport and Burnie where they have 70,000 to 80,000 passenger movements a year but no screening devices for passengers or their luggage. We do not want reviews of port security; we want action. We want a government that takes action for the benefit of the Australian people, instead of an endless supply of reviews and reports.

When it comes to national security, you cannot trust the Howard government. It is more interested in its own security of tenure than the security of the Australian people. At the end of these debates, the Tories always puff themselves up and say, `We are Tories. You've got to trust us with national security.' When has that ever been true in Australian history? It was not true during World War II; it was not true during Vietnam; it was not true during the Iraq war. You cannot trust them at any turn, at any opportunity, when it comes to the best national security of our great nation.

This is a government that will always put party politics ahead of policy. This is a government that had time line after time line to take the Australian troops out of Iraq that were there for a short, specific duration, but that went straight out the window the moment the Prime Minister could sniff what he thought was a political opportunity. It is a government that sets time lines and then abandons them a couple of days later. Labor's approach is entirely reasonable. It is the approach that was set out in November, the approach that we have stuck to since the conflict ended last year. There are precedents for these things, precedents for withdrawals. The government did it itself out of Afghanistan in 2002. It happened out of Somalia under the last Labor government in the mid-1990s.

If the government itself can have withdrawals out of Afghanistan and have time lines initially in Iraq, there is no objection to a Labor government coming in and saying `Unlike the Prime Minister, when we said months not years, we meant it.' I urge the House to support the amendment that I have moved. It is in our best national security interests. You cannot trust this government when it comes to our security. (Time expired)

The SPEAKER —Is the amendment seconded?

Ms Macklin —I second the amendment and reserve my right to speak.

The SPEAKER —The original question was that the motion be agreed to. To this the Leader of the Opposition has moved as an amendment that paragraph 2 of the motion be omitted with a view to substituting another paragraph.

Mr Andren —In accordance with standing order 178, I request the chair to put the question in the alternative form that the amendment be agreed to.

The SPEAKER —The chair can follow that course if there is no objection from the floor of the House. There is an objection. The question now is, therefore, that the words proposed to be omitted stand part of the question.