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Monday, 2 December 2002
Page: 6844


Senator BARTLETT (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (3:31 PM) —I move:

That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Defence (Senator Hill) to a question without notice asked by Senator Bartlett today relating to pre-emptive military action.

Despite the fairly flippant response from the minister and the typical gratuitous gutter-trawling interjections from some of the government senators, this is actually a very important issue. I do not know why the minister did not think it was important, but the Democrats certainly think it is important that five very important countries in our neighbourhood have all taken great offence at the Prime Minister's statement. The minister, as usual, read out a part of the Prime Minister's statement that suited his argument. He did not read out the context of it, the question that it was responding to, nor the further comments from the Prime Minister.

The Prime Minister's comments were specifically linked—particularly his follow-up answer—to a question from Laurie Oakes. He was talking about the SAS being perfectly tailored to make a pre-emptive strike in another country. He was specifically talking about Australian troops being involved in a pre-emptive strike in another country in the context of potential terrorist attacks. Of course, every government has a responsibility to do everything it can to prevent its citizens from being attacked. But when the Prime Minister suggests that part of Australia's repertoire should be the possibility of SAS troops being involved in some pre-emptive military action in another country in our region, it is not surprising that countries in our region would get very perturbed by his statement.

It is astonishing that the government and the minister did not take the opportunity to say, `We did not say that at all.' I would have thought that there is no problem at all and that it would be completely appropriate and responsible for the government and the minister to take the opportunity to clarify that statement by saying to our neighbours, `This was not the intention; this was not what we meant; this has been unclearly interpreted.' I would have thought that was a natural part of appropriate communications. Instead, we just get a continuation of the bluster. We have seen Minister Downer saying, `If people misinterpret the Prime Minister's comments, that's their problem,' and specifically that those countries `have to live with the consequences of their misinterpretation'. The people who will have to live with the consequences are the Australian people who will once again be perceived in a negative light across vast parts of our region. Basically, in his response to the question from the Democrats, the minister is saying, `You are stupid for misunderstanding what the Prime Minister said; he didn't really say it.' That, by extension, is saying to the governments of Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines: `You're stupid as well; go get a life.'

That is the sort of approach they take to dealing with our neighbours. If we have learned one thing from the tragedy in Bali, surely it is that we need to be more sensitive than ever to how we are perceived in our region and more sensitive than ever to the possibility that we are perceived as an aggressive B-grade cowboy trying to be the US deputy sheriff in the region. We have seen these sorts of diplomatic gaffes before from the Prime Minister and from Minister Downer. Yet, not only do they not learn but, at a time when it is all the more crucial for the security of Australians that this sort of impression is corrected, they increase that perception, refuse to clarify it afterwards and then tell everybody, `If you misunderstand, that's your problem; you can live with it.' We have had the Thai government saying that no country should do anything like that which Mr Howard suggested. The Philippines national security adviser said that Mr Howard's comments were completely unacceptable, that this is the 21st century, not the 19th century. Malaysia's defence minister said that he will not allow foreign intervention in the fight against terrorism, and there was also criticism from Indonesia.

Despite some of the shallow jibes from the government, the Democrats are certainly not suggesting that we should allow our foreign policy to be run by other countries, although the government is quite happy for our foreign policy to be run by the US. But the Democrats do believe that, if you are not going to be sensitive to the perception of other countries in our region, if you are simply going to say to them, `If you misunderstand us, that is your problem,' if you make statements such as the Prime Minister did, which clearly inferred possible involvement of SAS troops in a first strike in circumstances down the track, then you have got to expect this sort of response, and when you get this sort of response you have to at least clarify your comments. The Prime Minister should withdraw the statement and apologise, but at a minimum he should clarify the statement so that Australian people do not have to keep wearing being massively misinterpreted and misunderstood in our region. (Time expired)

Question agreed to.