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Monday, 2 December 2002
Page: 6860

Senator BARTLETT (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (4:39 PM) —by leave—I move:

That the Senate take note of the document.

I think it is appropriate to take note of the response to the resolution passed by the Senate on 22 October—a motion moved by my colleague Senator Stott Despoja. The Prime Minister has responded and I think it is appropriate that the Senate take note of that response. It was a pretty straightforward resolution concerning military action against Iraq and was supported, if my memory serves me correctly, by the Labor Party, the Greens and of course the Democrats. It basically outlined in a very straightforward way a request for the Prime Minister to rule out Australia's involvement in a first strike against Iraq or any other country without clear-cut evidence that that country's support for international terrorism, its weapons of mass destruction capability and its threats represent a real and present danger to our collective security. In other words, it was a request for the government to rule out Australia breaching international law. That is pretty straightforward, one would have thought, and yet the Prime Minister refuses to respond to the thrust of the resolution.

Every time the question is raised, the Prime Minister makes lots of general statements and says: `That's all hypothetical. We haven't been asked yet by the United States or anybody else. Therefore, I'll make a decision when that time comes.' The resolution of the Senate said, `Fine, make a decision when the time comes, but make a statement now that Australia won't support any action that breaches international law.' That is a pretty simple thing but the Prime Minister refuses to do it. Despite what Mr Howard says about considering it at the time et cetera, we know what his response will be at the time any response comes from President Bush. If a call comes from President Bush, Mr Howard will say, `Yes, we support you.' No-one in this country would think otherwise. So a decision about what Australia's response would be, in terms of support, has basically already been made. A decision might not have been made about the type of support, but there is no doubt that this government would support the United States of America if it chose to launch an attack on Iraq, even if it was pre-emptive military action against Iraq without clear-cut evidence that that country's capability represented a real and present danger to our collective security.

It is a simple thing but the Prime Minister refuses to make a clear statement that we will maintain and stay within international law. He also leaves us in the situation where how we act as a nation, in terms of supporting such an attack against Iraq, is dependent on a decision made by the leader of another country. I think that is an inappropriate situation for Australia to be in.

Senator Ferguson —If you sent someone to Foreign Affairs, you might be able to get some more information.

Senator BARTLETT —If you supported a Senate committee inquiry, the public would be able to get more information—that would be much more useful. And if you provided us with more places on those committees then you also might provide more opportunity for the public to be aware of what is going on. As usual, Senator Ferguson tries to divert attention away from the real topic at hand, which is the Prime Minister's response to a resolution of the Senate—

Senator Stott Despoja —From 1 January, Robert.

Senator Robert Ray —You've got two in the electorate—

Senator BARTLETT —I am happy to rectify that situation.

Senator Stott Despoja —He's happy to rectify that one.

Senator Robert Ray —So we can get an extra quorum member—

Senator Stott Despoja —I will make it to the quorum.

Senator BARTLETT —I will leave you to do that. I am being distracted terribly by the three-way interjections surrounding me. The point at hand is that the Senate made a simple resolution calling on the Prime Minister to rule out Australia's involvement in any pre-emptive military action. That is the view of the Senate. The Prime Minister, by way of response, did not even say that he disagreed; he just ignored the resolution altogether and continues to avoid the question. I think it is the issue of avoiding the question that is really the problem. If the Prime Minister wants to make a case as to why Australia should support or leave open the option of supporting pre-emptive military action then he should do so. He should not just keep dodging it and saying, `Well, we haven't been asked yet. We'll decide that at the time,' and all those sorts of things. Everybody in the country knows that. You have only to look at the thousands upon thousands of people in the streets of capital cities around Australia over the weekend to see the level of public concern about this issue and the level of apprehension about where we are going to be led—or where the Prime Minister is going to allow us to be led, which is even worse. Let him make the case. Let him show some leadership, but not just sit back, dodge the question and leave the future direction of our country to be determined by the leader of another nation.

The Democrats are not an anti-US party; we are a pro-Australian party. We believe we should be making our own decisions in our own national interest rather than subjecting ourselves to a situation where the direction of crucial foreign policy decisions will be determined by leaders of other countries. So it is a disappointing response from the Prime Minister. It does not go to the thrust of the resolution of the Senate. I think it is worth noting that there is a very real prospect that, by the time the Senate finishes sitting at the end of next week, our nation may well be at war. Our Prime Minister may well support our nation's involvement in war before we return.

Senator Ferguson —You're a scaremonger.

Senator BARTLETT —Again, all you get are shallow interjections from the government saying, `You're a scaremonger.' There is a pretty real prospect of war out there. If Senator Ferguson is not aware that there is a prospect that we might be going to war, I think there are plenty of other people who are. That is why they are marching in the streets. That is why they want to make their voices heard in the same way that the Senate made its voice heard with this resolution. I think it is very disappointing that the Prime Minister has chosen not to respond to the heart of the resolution but to continue to dodge the question. Let us at least get a position clearly out in the open so the Australian public can be informed and so we can have a more informed debate rather than the toing-and-froing, the dodging and weaving and the backwarding-and-forwarding that we have from the Prime Minister and his foreign affairs minister.

We have had the Prime Minister not only ignoring this resolution of the Senate but over the weekend suggesting we actually need to expand the definition of self-defence under the UN charter. I do not think there is any clearer indication that the Prime Minister knows that the existing definition of self-defence under the UN charter would not justify an attack against Iraq. That is why he wants to argue the case that the definition needs to be changed. This is a classic case of trying to change the rules after you have already made your decision—that is the Prime Minister's approach to this. It is very disappointing that he has chosen not to respond to the substance of the Senate's resolution on what is quite clearly one of the most fundamental questions facing the Australian people and the Australian parliament at this point in time.

We do welcome the Prime Minister's commitment over the weekend to have a parliamentary debate on this issue. But, again, we say that that debate should happen before a decision is made; we should not be asked to ratify a decision after it has been made. We also repeat our call that any vote on Australian involvement in a war on Iraq must be a conscience vote. Today we have already had the quite positive experience of witnessing a conscience debate and vote on stem cell research and the like. I do not have a problem with that; it is obviously an important moral issue for many people. But I do not think you get many moral issues bigger than going to war or having one's nation support a war. Certainly, there should also be a conscience vote in relation to any issue concerning military engagement in Iraq.

The Democrats will continue to try and get further examination of this issue in the parliament. We will try and pressure the government to take a stronger stand and show some leadership rather than just try to keep its head down and sneak Australia into war by default. We will continue to apply pressure in that regard, and I welcome others in the Senate who are also continuing to work to get this issue properly addressed by the government.