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Thursday, 20 March 2003
Page: 9837

Senator ROBERT RAY (11:17 AM) —We have heard many contributions in this debate, and it is pleasing that the Senate yesterday continued with question time, subjecting the government to appropriate scrutiny over the decision on Iraq. What a pity the House of Representatives, at the behest of the government, refused to do so. Obviously, the Prime Minister's shallow plea to direct criticism to the government was made in the knowledge that he would not be subject to criticism or examination at question time.

There has been a lively debate over many years as to who in Australia can commit us to armed intervention. Should it be the parliament or should it be executive government? Precedent suggests executive government, and practical considerations reinforce this. Any government that cannot command a majority in the House of Representatives for such a course of action would immediately fall, owing to a no-confidence motion. Therefore the question is: should the Senate be able to block a government from committing Australian forces to action? The Labor Party has never endorsed that as a viable concept. It is true that some of my colleagues have, from time to time, been tempted to argue for a parliamentary veto. But in the absence of constitutional restraint or legislative provision it is up to the government of the day to make decisions on military commitments. Ultimately, a government decision will be judged by the electorate at large.

Of course, military intervention would be more effective if it received bipartisan support. Bipartisanship is often misunderstood. It is not about agreeing on all matters to do with foreign affairs and defence. It is more about agreeing on general principles and ceding to executive government the right to make tough decisions without being subject to opportunist attack. Good governance requires detailed scrutiny of executive government. Bipartisanship is not a convenient or cosy club for the protection of the inefficient or the inept. This Liberal-National government has never fostered bipartisanship. You just have to go back to Peter Reith's speech when he was defence minister some years ago to understand that. Wherever possible, they have practised the art of wedge politics. The government's modus operandi is: do your opinion polls then seek to exploit division and prejudice. This hardly creates a climate that encourages an opposition to offer bipartisan support.

Yet it should not be forgotten just how close we came to bipartisan support on an issue such as this. Without the threatened French veto and the absence of a more concerted diplomatic effort, we may well have had a United Nations security resolution authorising the use of force. Under such circumstances, Labor was committed to support any Australian military intervention. We laid down these preconditions as long ago as last April, so this is in no way a last-minute deviation away from bipartisanship. We knew that, if the UN sanctioned use of force, in that case we would be bitterly criticised by the far left in Australia for backing the UN. Too many of the far left in Australia put anti-Americanism ahead of their international credentials. Too many pacifists spend an inordinate amount of time attacking the United States and virtually none in analysing the brutality of the Iraqi regime.

But when it comes to playing partisan politics, the Prime Minister just cannot help himself. He refers to the British Prime Minister as a `strong Labour leader', inferring of course that the ALP leader is weak. We could point, of course, to the position of the Canadian Liberal Prime Minister, whose views virtually totally reflect those of the Australian Labor Party. So we can both play that game, but nothing is achieved if we do.

Mr Howard has not behaved credibly on this issue. His constant refrain that Australia had not committed to unilateral action was a political statement. All the evidence is that the commitment had been agreed in advance. Plausible deniability is this Prime Minister's hallmark. Political spin always takes priority over telling the truth. The Prime Minister now tells us that we did not need a second resolution, that previous resolutions are sufficient basis for unilateral intervention. If this is the case, why ever have the second resolution? If the fiction is now to be believed that the numbers were there and that the resolution was not proceeded with because of the threat of the French veto, why would you not push it to a vote and then point to French intransigence? The fact is the numbers were not there.

It is interesting that France is bearing most of the blame for the failure of the second resolution. It should be remembered that both China and Russia were also opposed. The US and the UK, despite all the pressure they tried to bring to bear, simply could not muster the nine votes out of 15 to have the second resolution carried. Some people have drawn the conclusion that the second resolution was essential if any intervention was to have a legal basis. I did not think we will ever know with certainty what the legal position is. The key question is whether the action is right or wrong, not whether it is legal or illegal.

The government find it convenient to rely on Mr Michael Costello's comments. What an irony. They saw fit to sack him in 1996 but now they lionise him. I thought Michael Costello was pretty good in 1996 and I think he is pretty good today. Mr Costello has made many caustic criticisms of Mr Howard and his government. So if he is right on this occasion, was he right on all those previous occasions when he made those caustic comments? We know that, on this occasion, the government have tabled their legal advice. As always, this is a very selective process: when such advice is inconvenient, it is never tabled. But, as I said before, this is not a debate about legality; it is a debate about right and wrong, proper process and the practical implications of action.

One of the key reasons for wanting UN sanction was to act as a road map for the future. Sure, there are all sorts of precedents for military intervention, but we would like to see such intervention restricted to UN supported operations. The support of the UN will be increasingly important when it comes to establishing the peace in Iraq, both in humanitarian support and in nation building. The decision by the coalition of the willing to go it alone could be used as a precedent by other countries when it suits them. What is to stop India from a pre-emptive action against Pakistan, claiming Pakistan supports Kashmir terrorists, has weapons of mass destruction—that is, nuclear weapons—and has a poor human rights record? One could go on and cite many other such examples.

All this is against the background of the Prime Minister's monstrous mistake last year, when he said he supported a pre-emptive strike in our region under certain circumstances. This statement alone has had a poisonous effect on our bilateral relations in the region. We should be promoting cooperation between our regional partners, who are all willing to participate in eliminating terrorist threats. Mr Howard's quintessential arrogance is feeding hatred for Australia amongst Muslim extremists whose sphere of influence includes the young and impressionable.

Some of our opponents assert that our alliance with the United States demands our participation. For most of us, the US alliance is the cornerstone of our security strategy. We should be friends and partners, not toadying acolytes. You cannot find a country much closer to the United States than Canada, yet their position, as expressed by their Prime Minister, is absolutely the same as the Labor Party's. By way of interjection, the Tories in this place point to the British Labour government's stand on this issue to justify their own position. It is interesting that the United Kingdom rejected all overtures to be involved in the Vietnam conflict, yet could remain firm allies of the United States. You do not have to be involved in every fight going in order to prove your credentials as a reliable ally. It is also interesting that most of those in the UK Labour Party who voted against the Blair position support the ALP position of intervention under the auspices of UN sanction and are not just totally opposed to war per se.

In this debate, much has been made of Saddam's sadistic regime, his weapons of mass destruction, his sponsorship of terrorism and his appalling human rights record, which raises the question: why do we continue to trade with such a country? What price human rights? Do we only apply trade sanctions to a regime when it is economically insignificant?

We in the Australian Labor Party recognise that we must carefully articulate our opposition to military intervention without in any way reflecting on those ADF personnel following government instructions. It is easy to slip into antiwar rhetoric and to blast everyone in sight. We wish all the ADF personnel a safe return and will direct all of our criticism to those who made the political decision to intervene. We are fortunate that those in the ADF are a pretty robust group. They would understand that domestic differences do not extend into criticism of their role. We will, of course, be targeted by a chorus of right-wing know-alls in the media as being disloyal to our troops. We know that. Take, for example, the moronic ramblings of Miranda Devine in today's Sydney Morning Herald. She says:

Not only has Crean become the first Opposition leader to oppose a conflict in which Australian troops are fighting, he even tried to politicise the troops themselves.

This demonstrates a typical lack of historical knowledge and perspective on Ms Devine's part. Opposition leaders Calwell and Whitlam vigorously opposed the commitment of Australian troops to Vietnam, but poor old Miranda Devine doesn't even remember this. How do these commentators get their jobs when they know none of Australia's history?

As for politicising the troops—what a pathetic accusation! If Mr Crean had not attended the farewell of the Kanimbla he would have been fair game for criticism. If he had not stated his party's position, most of the troops would have regarded him as a hypocrite. Indeed, shallow critics like Ms Devine would have been the first to pounce on him and accuse him of double standards. One repeated theme that has come through in this debate is that by intervening against Iraq we have become a more likely terrorist target. Whilst this might be true, it should never prevent us from doing our duty as an international citizen.

The government's dissembling of the potential threat at the moment is motivated by political advantage rather than public duty. But we should never be coerced into passivity. As I said once before, we have to take on the sponsors of terrorism. We have to convince the United Nations to cooperate in taking on those sponsors. Without state sponsors, most terrorist organisations would wither on the vine. There are still many countries that provide financial assistance to terrorist networks. These hypocrites must be exposed. They are as guilty as the terrorists themselves. Since the F111s visited Libya, we have seen virtually no sponsorship of terrorism coming out of Libya. Following September 11, a whole range of countries have decided to very quietly end their association with terrorist networks, which reinforces the fact that if the country that sponsors terrorism is dealt with the terrorists disappear.

Whilst I respect those who oppose war at any cost, I am not one of them. This is not a debate about war or peace but is a debate about an international system that will work and will not degenerate into anarchism. Again in this debate, members of the Liberal-National Party have to some extent sought to portray themselves as the only patriots in the parliament. I believe that this is a result of their political system. They are so intimidated by their leader that few of them can speak out. As was the case in the 1960s, they will again be proved wrong. They all supported the policies of Menzies, Gorton and McMahon, but none of them today will say that they were right.

I make one final point that there seems to be some confusion as to the government's responsibility in briefing the opposition on the upcoming conflict in Iraq. As defence minister during the previous Gulf War can I say for the record that any request by the then opposition for briefings were met. Major General John Baker, then head of the DIO, briefed the then opposition leader, Mr John Hewson, on at least a weekly basis. I am sure that this government will use that as a precedent and follow suit.