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Tuesday, 30 March 2004
Page: 27588

Mr RUDDOCK (Attorney-General) (5:11 PM) —I support very strongly the motion moved by the Prime Minister and particularly its continued expression of support for and confidence in the 850 Australian Defence Force personnel currently deployed in and around Iraq. I support strongly the resolution that no elements of the contingent of Australian Defence Force personnel should be withdrawn until their respective tasks have been completed and that no arbitrary time should be set for such withdrawal. I have looked at the amendment proposed by the Leader of the Opposition, which is essentially to substitute for the expression of opinion that the Prime Minister has invited us to support—that is, that Defence personnel should remain until their tasks have been completed—the expression of support for a defined exit strategy. The government does have an exit strategy: it is reflected in the fact that personnel have been withdrawn, tasks have changed and, as it is possible to make changes in the context of the broader strategic situation, they have been made.

The rub of the matter is in paragraph 2(d) of the amendment, where the opposition express very clearly that their view is that our obligations will only have been effectively discharged with the intention of returning our forces to Australia by the end of 2004. In other words, what the opposition have confirmed through the amendment proposed by their leader is that they are quite determined, as we have said, to cut and run before the tasks are finished, because they have provided for an end date, an arbitrary date—one that bears no relationship to the job that has to be done or the tasks to be undertaken.

I agree with the Leader of the Opposition in one respect and also, I think, with the comments from my counterpart the member for Barton, the shadow minister for homeland security, that principal in the approach that we should take in this matter is Australia's national interest—in other words, the judgment we should always make is what is in Australia's best interests. The fact is that, if you look at the role that Australia has been involved in, our troops have been performing important tasks, vital to the future and the security of Iraq and the region. Our view is that it is not enough to remove Saddam Hussein and then walk away—it is wrong to start the job and not finish it. If you look at comments that have been made, a comment made by the member for Griffith after he had visited Baghdad was that protective security, as it relates to the wellbeing of several hundred Australian troops still in the country, is of paramount importance. The fact is that Australians are playing a very important role. It is a continuing role. The tasks may vary, but I cannot see how, in an environment that has not been secured, anybody can responsibly argue—particularly in the case of the defence forces that provide for the security of Australian diplomatic and other personnel—that those people should be removed by an arbitrary date.

The fact is that the opposition, by supporting this resolution, is making it clear that it is prepared to stand by its leader—and I think he is weak and ill informed on these matters—whatever the cost. The fact is that the opposition has changed its position in relation to Australian troops in Iraq. It has demonstrated, by doing so, its inability to deal with complex and challenging issues. It highlights the unwillingness of the Leader of the Opposition to seek advice, particularly from those who are expert in these matters—the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Department of Defence generally.

The opposition leader has shown his inexperience and weakness in dealing with these matters. That was demonstrated today by the support that the member for Cunningham gave to the position taken by the opposition in this matter. The comments made by my colleague the Minister for Foreign Affairs pointed to the fact that Labor has been influenced in these matters by the Greens' 10-point plan. That is quite clear. Their 10-point plan was about ending Australia's involvement in the war in Iraq by bringing our troops home by Christmas, and of course we heard in a radio program the Leader of the Opposition essentially being flushed out in relation to the setting of that timetable. It is quite clear that, even if it had been discussed by the opposition, no decision had been announced 12 months ago on a troop withdrawal. If you look at some of the comments made by the member for Griffith, standing on their own, you would have to ask yourself, without any other corroboration, whether that assertion is in fact true.

I found that the most disingenuous comments today from the Leader of the Opposition were those in terms of the sceptical approach he took to critics. I have been quite surprised by the way in which on this issue commentators have almost universally condemned the approach taken by the Leader of the Opposition. There is a wide range of them. I do not intend to mention all of them, but I think to refer to them as `the same old critics' belittles people who have a very substantial and independent capacity to comment on issues and for whom I have some respect. I refer to Michelle Grattan. I have a great deal of respect for her, because I have found her to be one of the most professional journalists in checking the authority of the quotes that she is going to use. She said:

The precise nature of the Opposition pledge became clear only in response to questions, which contributes to the perception of ad hocery. Earlier in the week, the impression was that the whole of the ADF contingent was coming out.

And the details remain fuzzy.

In other words, she was making it very clear that, in her considered view, looking at the circumstances surrounding this matter, the opposition leader was making policy on the run, because he is an inexperienced leader on these matters and does not believe that he should take advice from not only his colleagues but also the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Department of Defence on these matters. The other person I would like to quote, and who I believe has very considerable credibility, is Paul Kelly, the editor-at-large of the Australian.

Mr RUDDOCK —I hear some opposition interjections and I assume they see Paul Kelly as lacking in credibility. You speak for yourselves on those matters. I do have very considerable respect for the comments that he makes. In relation to this matter he says:

Latham must realise that this stand will define him not just in the eyes of Australians but of the world. His stand will attract global attention since it means that Australia will follow Spain and quit Iraq upon a change of government. Yet there is a chilling sense this week that Labor's leader does not comprehend the meaning of his position.

He goes on to say:

This is the decisive break between Labor and the US. It will enrage the Bush administration ... It cannot be accepted by Democratic contender John Kerry, who has called on Spain's new Socialist Government to abandon its pledge and keep its troops in Iraq.

He goes on to say:

Latham's policy must be judged by its consequences. It will be welcomed by terrorists around the world. There is no point Labor getting upset about such criticism when so much of the manifest purpose of the terrorist campaign has been to produce exactly this sort of equivocation among coalition nations.

Tom Friedman wrote in The New York Times this week that “if Spain goes ahead, every terrorist in the world will celebrate and every democracy will be a little more endangered”. Just swap the word Australia for Spain. It is equally true. If Labor cannot grasp this, then it lives in a fantasy dome.

Kelly goes on to say about Labor's new position of an Australian withdrawal by Christmas:

This is contrary to the interests of Iraq and its people, the interests of the US and its allies, the needs of the UN and the community of nations, the outlook of NATO and the global struggle against terror.

(Time expired)