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Thursday, 27 March 2003
Page: 10320

Senator BARTLETT (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (9:41 AM) —I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

I seek leave to have the second reading speech incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted

The speech read as follows—

The Defence Amendment (Parliamentary Approval for Australian Involvement in Overseas conflict) Bill is introduced jointly in the names of myself as the Leader of the Australian Democrats and Defence spokesperson, and Senator Natasha Stott Despoja, the Democrats' Foreign Affairs spokesperson.

The purpose of this Bill is to place the responsibility for the decision to send Australian troops overseas with both Houses of Federal Parliament subject to exceptions covering the movement of personnel in the normal course of their peacetime activities and the need to take swift action in an emergency.

In an emergency, the Governor-General may require defence force personnel to serve outside Australia's territorial limits, provided the Government then obtains parliamentary approval within two days.

The Bill excludes overseas service by members of the defence force pursuant to their temporary attachment as provided by section 116B of the Defence Act; as part of an Australian diplomatic or consular mission; on an Australian vessel or aircraft not engaged in hostilities or in operations during which hostilities are likely to occur; for the purpose of their education or training; and for purposes related to the procurement of equipment or stores.

I know that, over current events, many Australians have been shocked to discover that the Prime Minister has the power to send our troops to a conflict without the support of the United Nations, the Australian Parliament or the Australian people. But presently, the Prime Minister, under the guise of cabinet decision, and the authority of the Defence Act, has exactly that power.

Neither the Cabinet not the Prime Minister are mentioned in the Commonwealth Constitution, but the executive power of the Commonwealth is generally understood to include what are called the prerogative (common law) powers of the Crown. These powers include declaring war, making peace and deciding about the disposition of troops. The Defence Act now regulates much of the exercise of the royal prerogatives in relation to defence.

So despite what it says in section 68 of Australia's Constitution—“The command in chief of the naval and military forces of the Commonwealth is vested in the Governor-General as the Queen's representative”—the Governor-General Peter Hollingsworth did not sign anything to authorise the current war on Iraq.

If there is a formal declaration of war the Governor-General makes a proclamation but it should be noted that Australia has not made a formal proclamation of war since 1939. Since then there has been the Korean war, the Malayan emergency, the Vietnam war, the 1991 Gulf War and the current war on Iraq, as well as numerous other smaller conflicts where Australian troops were involved.

For some time now, by convention, the view is that the Governor-General's role is a `titular' one. Therefore the decision to go to war is a decision by cabinet under the Defence Act.

At the time of the 1991 Gulf War the cabinet of the then Prime Minister Robert Hawke made the decision, forces were committed, authorised and, then, the Prime Minister formally notified the Opposition leader and Governor-General, of the Government's action. Under public pressure and political pressure from the Australian Democrats, the issue was subsequently taken to a recalled Parliament for debate. It is this precedent that Prime Minister Howard has pointed to many times in past months.

Of course there is an important difference between 1991 and 2003, in that in 1991 the majority of the Parliament, though not the Democrats, supported the decision to commit Australian troops to the Gulf war. This was not the case in 2003. Last week the Senate clearly voted against the decision to commit Australian troops to war in Iraq.

The Howard Government has been the first Government in our history, to go to war without majority Parliamentary support.

It is time to take the decision to commit troops to overseas conflict, out of the hands of the Prime Minister and a subservient cabinet, and place it with the Parliament.

The Democrats first proposed in 1981 that the Australian parliament's consent be needed to commit troops to overseas conflict, through seeking to move amendments to the Defence Act. Subsequently Senators Colin Mason and Don Chipp sought to achieve the same result through a Private Senator's Bill.

The example they pointed to then, was the Vietnam war, which Senator Mason described as: “One of the most divisive issues that has ever oppressed our history”. During that decade of war from 1962 to 1971 almost 500 members of the Australian forces were killed and many thousands injured. But it was the fact that a large section of the Australian community opposed the war, that made it much more difficult for those veterans to begin healing.

Indeed the costs of that war and all 20th century wars continue to this day, in physical and psychological damage, in the broken lives and broken families of too many veterans.

That is why it is so important that we repeatedly make the point that we support the troops presently involved in the war on Iraq, and we must support them when they return. We must let them talk and we must listen, and we must always remember that they have shown a willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice for this nation. It is not fair to ask them to also determine Government policy.

I support of this Bill, the example we point to today is that of the current war on Iraq. And it is a much more pronounced example of the Executive, and in effect the Prime Minister, making a decision to commit troops to overseas conflict, without the support of the Parliament or of the people of Australia.

It is the Democrats belief that this war is unwise, immoral and illegal under international law. Even if we were to believe the Government's case that this war is legal, it would set a precedent that makes it easier and therefore more likely for Governments to go to war.

The fact that the Government is pursing a doctrine of pre-emptive strike makes this Bill all the more important.

In March last year the PM—while in London— reportedly stated his belief that the Australian public would support extending our involvement in the war on terrorism to other theatres such as Iraq.

The Democrats first questioned the Minister for Defence that month—12 months ago—about Australia's potential involvement in a war on Iraq. We called, as long ago as May and June of last year, for full Parliamentary debates on this issue and for there to be a conscience vote on any deployment or involvement of Australian troops. We have since then asked many questions and moved many motions, some of which got ALP support, some—for example our motion in August to refer the matter to the Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee for inquiry—that the ALP would not support.

It took till 17 September 2002 until the Foreign Affairs Minister put a statement on Iraq to the Parliament for debate and it was not until 4 February this year that the Prime Minister stepped forward and made a statement to the Parliament.

That statement did not make the case for the extreme action of committing Australia to war.

By the time the Prime Minister made his statement to the Parliament in February, he had already offered up the use of Pine Gap and Australian facilities and ports to US warships. Then he offered up our troops.

He effectively handed over the decision of whether Australia would go to war to someone that no Australian voted for—US President George Bush.

All the time the Government continued to deny that they had committed us to war. Despite the fact they had already drawn up the Budget— which they refuse to disclose, admitting only that the deployment—not the war—but the deployment alone would cost “some hundreds of millions of dollars”. The Treasurer now claims that the entire war will cost “several hundred million dollars”. I will be surprised if it in fact costs under one billion dollars.

It is clear the Prime Minister failed to convince the Australian people of the case for this war, despite a 12 month campaign—run largely on talkback and current affairs shows instead of the Parliament—to convince the Australian people that this is a just war, a necessary war or a war that Australia should be involved in.

But I ask Senators to consider not just this conflict, but ask `where next?' The Government's Defence White paper update released recently, reflected the new reality, that this Government is willing, even eager, to play a military combat role, that is politically outside of United Nations' multilateral efforts and geographically, far beyond our own Asia Pacific region where there are many significant security issues.

Inevitably this will be at some cost to our focus on our own region. The fact is our military and other security resources are limited and we have to make choices as to how and where they are deployed.

It took a long time before the Australian Government finally intervened in the humanitarian disaster of East Timor but it was astonishingly quick to decide it would assist in regime change in Iraq.

The Executive should not be able to involve Australian troops in an overseas conflict if they have not been able to successfully make their case at least to the Parliament. What the Democrats are seeking is for the Parliament, as the voice of the people, to have some control over the situation.

This initiative, as it does in other countries, will lead to a more reasoned basis for sending defence force personnel overseas, and ensure it occurs only where it has majority support outside the Cabinet.

Certainly the Prime Minister did belatedly put the matter of war against Iraq before the Parliament, but we did not have the power to stop it. The Democrats are asking the Parliament to give itself that power.

The provision for parliamentary approval of overseas service of troops applies in many other countries.

There should be no doubt of the high human and economic costs of war. It is arguably the most serious decision that is made on behalf of a nation. That decision should be made only with the support of the Parliament community.

I commend the Bill to the Senate.

Senator BARTLETT —I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.