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Tuesday, 30 March 2004
Page: 22270

Senator CHRIS EVANS (4:20 PM) —In the midst of the political debate about Australia's strategic direction, on 1 May this year a very senior parliamentarian had this to say about Australia's role in postwar Iraq:

Well, the task of rebuilding Iraq will be essentially a civilian task ... we are committed to play a part in the reconstruction of Iraq, but it won't be predominantly a military contribution; it will be predominantly a contribution provided by the private sector.

That was not Mark Latham. It was the Minister for Defence, Minister Hill, expressing the government's view about what it saw at the time as its role in Iraq. It is one of a number of assurances the people of Australia were given by this government that our involvement in Iraq would be short, that we would be out quickly and that we would be making no contribution to peacekeeping in Iraq. Mr Howard made it very clear he would not be embroiled in Iraq, that we would not be there for the long term—we would be there at the sharp end, for the invasion phase and the occupation, but as soon as we could we would be out. It was his very clear intention that was repeated on a number of occasions, supported by Senator Hill and Minister Downer, that we would be out of Iraq.

How is it that we have gone from that to this hysterical debate of the last few days, with people like Senator Boswell making such claims as bin Laden has been given comfort and terrorists have been encouraged? I remind Senator Boswell and some others that bin Laden was last reported seen in Afghanistan, not Iraq. I also remind him that we currently have one member of the ADF in Afghanistan, compared to 400 or so in Iraq, because this government made a decision, which it said was in the national interest, to remove our military commitment—our SAS soldiers—from Afghanistan because we had played our role and it was time to do so. This government said our military involvement in Afghanistan was no longer a priority, and it made the decision to withdraw. No-one pretends the security situation in Afghanistan is safe. No-one pretends that democracy is not under threat. No-one pretends that there are not very serious problems there. This government, after having the support of the Australian Labor Party for its involvement in Afghanistan, made the decision to withdraw its military contribution and it justified that decision in terms of Australia's strategic priorities.

The government are now trying to run the argument that Labor arguing the same case with respect to our military commitment in Iraq—that is, that we will withdraw our commitment at a time of our decision—is somehow giving comfort to terrorists. That is a complete nonsense. An alternative Labor government would have the ability to make a decision about our national strategic interests. We have decided, we have announced publicly and we will argue up until the election that military involvement in Iraq is not a strategic priority for Australia. It is a not a defence priority for this country. We have played a role in Iraq in a military sense, and we ought to withdraw our military commitment from Iraq in order to address other priorities for our defence forces—which the government say are and have been stretched for some time. That is a legitimate opinion for an opposition to hold. It is legitimate for an opposition to say that, as an alternative government, we have an alternative position which we will advance if in government.

What I really find difficult about today's debate is the way the Prime Minister has again tried to politicise defence. The first part of the Prime Minister's motion in the House of Representatives talks about support for the troops. This chamber and the House of Representatives have unanimously supported our troops in Iraq before, during and since the war. We have worked very hard to achieve a—

Senator McGauran —We have not!

Senator CHRIS EVANS —Senator, I will take your interjection, because we have and those troops value it. Idiots like you who do not pay attention to those sentiments—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Brandis)—Order, Senator Evans!

Senator CHRIS EVANS —I withdraw, Mr Acting Deputy President.

Senator Ferguson —You're getting steamed up here!

Senator CHRIS EVANS —I do get steamed up, because I know how important it is to the troops that they have bipartisan support. I know how much they value it. I have been to the farewells and I have been to the welcome homes. Despite knowing there was a difference of political opinion in this parliament on this issue, they have appreciated the fact that the ADF have not been drawn into that and have not been made the butt of the political debate. The Prime Minister today, in a low, sneaky attempt to create division, was to wrap up in a motion support for the troops with support for his stance on when they might be withdrawn. He would not split the motion. He would not agree to allow the parliament to express its view about the troops—to express our support for their professionalism, their integrity and the job they have done—because he wanted to try to create a cheap political debate. I think he has lowered himself. He has demeaned himself, and he has demeaned the Liberal Party and the National Party. We have always made it very clear that, despite our opposition to involvement in Iraq, we have supported the troops wholeheartedly. I have been at pains to make that clear to them, and it has been appreciated.

That has not changed. Today's debate marks a new low in the Prime Minister's attempts to hold onto government. He has refused to set aside the issue at the centre of the political debate. We have had a genuine political disagreement about withdrawal of troops from Iraq. The alternative government, the Labor Party, have an exit strategy. We say that at the end of the year it will no longer be a military priority for us to be involved in Iraq. We gave a commitment to the Australian people about that. Labor's position on this has been consistent. We opposed the war and from the day we opposed the war we said we would bring the troops home, and we have said that on the occasion of every decision. The Leader of the Opposition the other day defined the timetable for that with respect to when Iraq got its own independent government. He said that if there was a June handover to an Iraqi government and if a Labor government were elected in, say, September we would hope to have the troops home by Christmas.

Senator Ferguson —He didn't say `we hope'.

Senator CHRIS EVANS —He did say `we hope'. He said that very clearly. He made a commitment. He said, `We'll bring the troops home.' We are saying this is what a Labor government will do. We are out there with a very clear policy that we will bring the troops home.

Government senators interjecting—

Senator CHRIS EVANS —Mr Acting Deputy President, am I speaking or are the other senators interjecting? I just want to be clear. I know how fastidious you are.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —I am sorry, Senator Evans. I was talking to the Clerk. I ask senators on my right to hear Senator Evans in silence and with courtesy.

Senator CHRIS EVANS —Thank you, Mr Acting Deputy President. It is important that we have this public policy debate, and there is a genuine division between the parties on this issue. That is a good thing in some ways, because it allows us to have a proper debate. Labor have an exit strategy. We have made an honest commitment to the Australian people that we will bring the troops home. We say we have other priorities. We are far more concerned about the war on terrorism and about its impact on Australia and on Australia's strategic and defence needs. The war on terrorism will be our priority, along with our ongoing commitments in Timor and the Solomons. We supported the government's commitment in the Solomons because of our responsibilities in the region. We have other priorities, which this government has previously recognised and argued for. This government made a strong argument against providing more peacekeepers for Iraq and resisted American requests for that because it had other priorities. The government has made public on a number of occasions its commitment to bringing the troops home as soon as it can.

Funnily enough, it seems that the government has now changed its mind. It had a view that we ought not have peacekeepers in Iraq. It had a view that we ought not be caught up in Iraq for a long period of time. But something happened last week that made it change its view. Now it is very committed to staying in Iraq for a longer period. It is pure opportunism to now try and reverse what has been for a long period of time a very sound policy to not provide peacekeepers in Iraq. Labor's priority is to withdraw those troops and to prioritise our commitments in the region and to the war on terrorism. Labor's priority is to make the same sort of decision that the Howard government made in relation to Afghanistan. The government made a contribution to the military invasion of Afghanistan and then said that Australia had other more pressing priorities closer to home and that we could not continue to supply military forces to Afghanistan. Labor's argument is much the same with respect to Iraq. We say we will maintain our commitment to the war on terrorism and we will continue to make very strong contributions to that as well as fulfil our role in the region. Our priorities lie in the defence of Australia and in our involvement in the region and in the war on terrorism.

Those are our defence and strategic priorities, and we are prepared to argue them. We think that the war on terrorism is a much greater priority for Australians and for Australia's defence efforts and that the growth of terrorist cells in countries to our immediate north requires a concentration of effort and a concentration of defence resources directed at that. What we have seen with the war on Iraq is a diversion from the fight against terrorism and a diversion from the war on terrorism, with thousands and thousands of resources being poured into Iraq against what could have been used on the war on terrorism.

What we know is that we have a very small commitment to Iraq—albeit a very effective commitment of highly professional ADF soldiers—of about 400 ADF members compared to the total of 130,000 British, American and other troops inside Iraq. Our contribution is small. We are not providing peacekeeping; we are not providing security for the Iraqi people. As the minister is fond of saying, we are providing some niche capabilities. Each of those niche capabilities can be withdrawn without impacting on the security of the Iraqis or the security situation inside Iraq. The minister has already indicated that the air traffic controllers will be coming home as soon as the function is moved to a private contract. Clearly the weapons search team are coming home. They have been searching and searching for a long time; they have not found anything. I suspect that if they have not found anything by Christmas it is reasonable to say, `Come home, chaps. There is nothing to find.' As for some of the other detachments we have got inside Iraq, clearly these forces can safely be removed without impacting on the security of Iraqis or the security situation inside Iraq.

This is an important debate. Labor is very committed to providing a strong defence policy but one centred on our priorities: the war on terror, security in our region and defence of Australia's interests. We say that those are our priorities, not Iraq. We have an alternative defence posture to the government's. We are entitled to that, we are entitled to argue it and it is important that it be argued, because we say Australia's interests do not lie in a long-term military engagement inside Iraq. There is no walking away from the Iraqi people but it is reasonable to withdraw from our military commitment. (Time expired)