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Thursday, 13 May 2004
Page: 23211

Senator BARTLETT (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (10:19 AM) —This is a very crucial matter of fundamental importance. It is of such fundamental importance that I moved on behalf of the Democrats at the first available opportunity a motion of urgency condemning the mistreatment of prisoners in Iraq and calling for action. I am pleased that the Senate shared our views and stated a shared position that this was utterly unacceptable, that action must be taken to ensure that it does not happen again and that it must be fully and properly investigated. The Democrats are totally of the view that the mistreatment of prisoners by coalition forces in Iraq must be fully investigated in every way. That includes, of course, what the Australian government knew, when they knew it and what they did about it. That must happen, and the Democrats support every mechanism being pursued to ensure that it happens.

The motion before us at the moment is specifically to establish a distinct inquiry by a Senate committee to examine some of those questions. I want to make it quite clear that the Democrats support Senate committees inquiring into these matters. Our view is the same as Senator Faulkner's: that a Senate committee will be inquiring into these matters within the next fortnight. The matter is already referred, in effect, to a Senate committee and will be examined extensively by a Senate committee through the budget estimates process. Senator Faulkner is right in saying that that will provide the best way to explore not just the questions that are put forward in these terms of reference but also a whole range of other questions and at the conclusion of that process we will be much better placed to determine what the next necessary step is. If the government's performance in the parliament this week is anything to go by, there will continue to be dodging of questions, misleading and dishonest answers and a general attempt to refuse to accept any responsibility for the behaviour of coalition forces in Iraq.

I think that is an indictment of this government—one of the biggest indictments amongst many in relation to their dishonesty on so many issues and their refusal to accept responsibility for issues that are their responsibility. I believe this needs to be done not just to hold the government accountable—that is of course essential; it is a key part of what the Senate must do always—but also because I believe that, more than anybody, our troops in Iraq deserve this to be properly investigated. These actions by coalition forces are done in our name—in the name of Australia, which is part of the coalition forces—and our defence personnel in particular are implicated by association through being part of those coalition forces.

I want to make it absolutely clear that that in no way implies that our troops have been involved in any mistreatment. I make that point pre-emptively to prevent any total misrepresentation by any government speakers now or later about my views on that. In fact, I am not aware of any evidence at all that suggests Australian troops or personnel of any sort have been involved in any of the mistreatment that has come to light. What I am saying is that, because we are part of those coalition forces and part of the governing authority, and obviously part of the invading forces, we are clearly seen to be associated with the activities of the coalition forces and it is done in effect in our name. I think our troops in particular deserve to have this matter properly investigated so that their good reputation can be maintained and so that the damage done to Australia's reputation and to the reputation of the coalition forces and, I might say, to those that seek to promote the rule of law can be minimised. That is my concern. I think it is essential that we examine it in the estimates committee. That is the best way to do it. Once that is done, then we can look at where to go next. I support Senator Faulkner's approach.

Debate (on motion by Senator Mackay) adjourned.

Senator Faulkner —Mr Acting Deputy President, I ask that it be recorded that that motion was carried without dissent.

Senator Brown —Mr Acting Deputy President, I ask that it be recorded that I oppose the motion.

Senator Faulkner —Mr Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. I have no problem with Senator Brown so recording his views on these matters so that there is a Hansard record, but when this question was put to the vote there was no dissenting voice. That is my point.

Senator Minchin —That's true.

Senator Faulkner —Of course it is true. There was no dissent in the chamber, and I completely accept that Senator Brown is opposed to the motion.

Senator Brown —On the point of order: I had, as everybody knows, just stepped out of the chamber for a moment, but my opposition was very clear and I want it recorded that that opposition stands.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —I remind you, Senator Brown, there was no opposition to your request.

Senator Brown —I had just stepped out of the chamber when the question was put. But I have come back afterwards and I am now recording the fact that I oppose the motion, even though I was not here at the time the question was put.

Senator Faulkner —Mr Acting Deputy President, the substantive motion is not opposed by anyone that I am aware of. The substantive motion has been adjourned; I am talking about the motion for adjournment. So you understand, Senator Brown, that the substantive motion has not been opposed?

Senator Brown —Yes, I do.

Senator Faulkner —The adjournment is supported. The substantive motion, as I understand it, has not been opposed by anyone at this point, so I think we might be speaking at cross-purposes here. Are we clear now, Senator Brown?

Senator Brown —Yes.