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Tuesday, 25 March 2003
Page: 10067


Senator BARTLETT (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (2:20 PM) —My question is to the Minister for Defence, Senator Hill. The minister would no doubt agree that it is clear that Australia is not going to be committing any more troops to the war in Iraq in addition to the existing deployment of 2,000 troops. In that context, could the minister comment on the accuracy of a report in the Australian Financial Review on Saturday entitled `More anthrax shots for troops' that claims that the Australian defence forces are urgently importing enough additional anthrax vaccine to supply an additional 10,000 troops and are also seeking permission to import 5,000 tablets that are antidotes to agents typically used in chemical warfare? If true, are these vaccines for rotating forces, other peacekeeping troops or are they planned for troops in Australia? Or is the report without foundation?


Senator HILL (Minister for Defence) —I also noticed the article. I have not followed it up because it made sense to me in terms of the new strategic environment in which we are living where our forces are having to face up to threats of weapons of mass destruction, including chemical and biological weapons. As the honourable senator I think has conceded, our force of approximately 2,000 is going to be maintained at that size. If the conflict continued for some time, there may be a need for rotation of forces. It would therefore be prudent to ensure that forces that might need to be rotated in due course are covered. I should say that there has been no decision made in that regard. In relation to our forces on the ground and our Air Force, I do not envisage it to be likely. In relation to our ships, they, of course, have been rotated regularly for the last 12 years, and it would be reasonable to assume that Navy has a tentative rotation planned in that regard. These anthrax vaccine imports may well be in part to ensure that any future rotation of ships enables sailors to be prepared to combat this risk. If the honourable senator wants more specific information, I can get it for him, but there is no hidden agenda in relation to this matter.


Senator BARTLETT —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Is the minister seriously suggesting he did not bother to follow up this report despite the fact that it was from an unnamed defence department source? Firstly, would that alone not concern him—that his department is leaking such material to the media? Secondly, I assume, by him saying he did not bother to follow it up, that he thinks importing 10,000 anthrax vaccines is routine and that applying for antidotes to chemical weaponry is also routine. Is it genuinely the case that this is now a routine matter, which he does not bother to verify when he reads it in the media?


Senator HILL (Minister for Defence) —I have answered the question really, that I think that in this new world where our forces have to face up to threats of biological weapons—in the case of anthrax and other such types—we have to be prudent. We have demonstrated in relation to the current deployment that we are not prepared to have forces in theatre unless they are properly protected against both chemical and biological threats. To note that the ADF is continuing that prudent approach for the future strikes me as being quite sensible.