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Thursday, 10 February 2005
Page: 109


Senator FERGUSON (4:04 PM) —I also rise to speak on the Defence Amendment (Parliamentary approval for Australian involvement in overseas conflicts) Bill 2003 [2004]. I listened very carefully to what Senator Allison had to say in relation to this bill. I have also read the second reading speech of Senator Bartlett. It is pretty obvious that the people promoting this bill have never been involved in executive government and they are unlikely to ever be involved in executive government.

The one thing that Senator Allison said that I totally agree with is that democratic accountability is an integral part of the democratic process. Senator Allison, I could not agree more. That is why we have elections every three years. We have elections every three years so that the government can be held accountable for its actions. If the proposal put forward by the Democrats almost two years ago carried any weight at all with the Australian public—if what they say is true and is accepted by the Australian people—then you would have thought the Democrats, instead of going from six or seven per cent down to a mere two per cent in the election, would have gone to over 50 per cent, but that simply is not so. Understanding democracy is more than suggesting that, every time somebody comes up with an idea, you have to go to the people so that they can decide on every single issue.


Senator Bartlett interjecting—


Senator FERGUSON —Senator Bartlett, I sat very quietly while Senator Allison made her speech, most of which I totally disagreed with. So I suggest that Senator Bartlett, having made his contribution, might do the same thing. There are other issues that Senator Allison has raised. I say what I am saying because, as a minor party—and possibly they will be supported by other minor parties—they have never been in the executive; they have never been part of a government. Because they have never been part of a government, they do not understand the processes that are required by executive governments to act.

The actions taken by an executive will be judged by the Australian people every three years. I am sure Senator Bartlett is well aware that the Australian public have made their judgment on the decisions taken by this government. They made their decision on 9 October last year, and they overwhelmingly endorsed the decisions taken by the Howard government over the past three years and returned them with an increased majority. It is just a small matter that Senator Bartlett and Senator Allison seem to have overlooked in their own demise, knowing that the support that they have has diminished to such a low level. I noticed that Senator Bartlett, in his incorporated second reading speech, said:

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.

What a load of bunkum! Nothing has changed in the last 100 years. People have always known that the executive has had the power to make those decisions. In fact, when those decisions were made by the former Labor government, on a couple of occasions but most particularly in the case of the first Iraq war, the executive made that decision. True, the first Iraq war decision was later ratified by this parliament, and I am sure that the Prime Minister of the day knew he had the support of the opposition to go into partnership with the United States in that coalition, but the executive made the decision. That kind of decision is made for a whole range of reasons, some of which are never available to members of parliament, to minor parties or to the Australian public. I am talking about the intelligence advice that is given to governments on a confidential basis—and which can only be told to the government of the day, with some information being provided to the opposition of the day as well—as to the reasoning behind certain actions being taken.

Once you make all of that information public, you do not have any intelligence. Intelligence can only be gained and guaranteed to be genuine and not something that we all know about if it is told to as few people as possible, and particularly to those in executive government. Australia’s record over the past period of years has been so sound that we are now in possession of a wider range of intelligence because they know that Australia can be trusted, that successive Australian governments can be trusted with what they do with information that is supplied to them.

Senator Bartlett says that Australians were shocked to discover that the executive could commit us to deploy troops overseas. I say that is a load of bunkum, because I do not know anybody who was shocked to find that the Australian government could make that decision without having it referred to anybody else. A number of issues have been raised by Senator Bartlett and by Senator Allison. One of them was:

It is time to take the decision to commit troops to overseas conflicts, out of the hands of the Prime Minister and a subservient cabinet ...

I notice one of our cabinet ministers, Senator Vanstone, is in the chamber today. I am quite sure that Senator Bartlett, because of his position as a minor party member, would not know the robust sorts of debates that go on in a cabinet. Senator Vanstone would be the last person that I would call a subservient member of cabinet. I know a lot of her colleagues debate decisions very robustly, whether it is in cabinet or outside of cabinet. To talk about the Prime Minister taking decisions and to talk about subservient cabinets is a load of rubbish and should be treated with the contempt it deserves.

I have heard the Prime Minister himself say on many occasions, ‘Don’t think it was an easy decision for us to make.’ He personally agonised, along with members of his cabinet, over the decision we made to deploy troops to Iraq. That sort of decision is never easy. We live in a democratic society and that decision was made in the knowledge that, at some stage later, the Australian people will make a judgment as to whether the decision was warranted or not.

Rather than criticising the decisions made by successive governments, particularly the Howard government, Senator Allison should be lauding the successes of Australian troops who have been deployed overseas in recent years. I think of the wonderful successes of our troops in East Timor, Bougainville and the Solomon Islands. All of those troops are playing a very important role and, in many cases, were invited because of the quality of the work that they do and the responsibility that is placed on them. Instead of criticising decisions to deploy troops overseas, Senator Allison and Senator Bartlett should be praising the decisions that have been made by this government and the wonderful work done by our Australian troops that have been deployed overseas in recent times, who have acted at all times in the best interests of this country.

We have had these speeches by Senator Bartlett and by Senator Allison talking about democracy and what democracy can do and saying that, if we are going to commit our troops overseas, nothing can be done without first debating a bill through the parliament. Sometimes that simply is not possible. I think it is worthwhile putting into Hansard some of the purposes of our defence power. The authority to pass legislation in respect of defence matters flows from section 51(vi) of the Constitution, which relates to naval and military defence of the Commonwealth and of the several states. It allows the authority for the Commonwealth parliament to make laws in relation to defence, if it chooses to do so. However, the defence power is not based on legislation but is an inherent part of the executive power under section 61 of the Constitution. The defence power is exercisable by the executive government—which is something that Senator Allison and Senator Bartlett seem to overlook—and the nature of the power expands and contracts depending on the nature of the emergency or the situation that has to be dealt with. That is why it is an executive power—because it expands or contracts depending on the nature of the situation.

The defence power is very elastic. In peacetime it is very limited and there must be a close link to essential defence matters for exercise of the power to be justified. However, in a time of war the defence power can be exercised very broadly and almost anything which assists the prosecution of a war effort can be justified, subject to the controls of parliamentary approval through legislation. In order to actually engage and fight an enemy, the Commonwealth—and hence the ADF—needs no emergency legislation nor any formal declaration of any sort such as an emergency, defence emergency or war. In addition, the ADF needs no formal documentation, whether by way of legislation, regulations, proclamations, declarations, call-outs et cetera to undertake its business of engaging a hostile enemy in the defence of Australia. The defence power essentially depends on the nature of security situations. Courts are more likely to give a restrictive interpretation during times of peace and a broad interpretation in a situation of war or of armed conflict.

Senator Allison also mentioned the United Nations. I think much of the discussion that has taken place, particularly in the past 12 or 18 months in relation to our involvement in military conflict in Iraq, has related to the United Nations and whether or not we breached international obligations. Arguments can be put on both sides of the case, but in fact Iraq was in breach of a United Nations resolution. That is well known. Since it was in breach of the resolution, it will be argued that the deployment and the conflict that took place were therefore not a breach of any international obligations.

Having spent the duration of a United Nations General Assembly in New York some four or five years ago at a time when many things like this were being discussed, I came away with a very complex view of the ability of the United Nations to deal with potential armed conflicts throughout the world. I think the United Nations does wonderful things in some areas: it is very good at education, it is very good at world health issues, and it is very good where there is cooperation between the peoples that are trying to be helped. When it comes to solving armed or political conflicts the United Nations has been a dismal failure; otherwise, why would we still be negotiating peace agreements in the Middle East 50 years after the United Nations first tried get a settlement between Israel and its neighbouring countries? If the United Nations were as capable as people suggest, it would not take 50 years for a political conflict like that to be resolved.

What about all the other areas in the world where tragedies have occurred in the past 10 or 15 years? What about Kosovo? How long did it take the United Nations to react or put anything in place to stop the tragedy that occurred there? Think about all the others: Rwanda, Somalia, Ethiopia and the Sudan—when has the United Nations been able to solve political and civil conflicts where tragedies have occurred time after time? In recent times it has been the role of the United Nations to come in and clean up the mess after the tragedy has occurred, but rarely has it ever prevented a tragedy. It has taken, in many cases, the intervention of a superpower like the United States and other strong military powers to try and stop these tragedies occurring.

I have always been very disappointed that, on the role of the United Nations, which is played so publicly, people say, ‘Everything should be left to the United Nations.’ As I said, some things the United Nations does very well, but in avoiding conflicts, preventing military conflicts and preventing the kinds of tragedies where we have seen hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people actually killed over the past 15 years, it has proved to be almost helpless in each of those situations.

There are times when as world citizens we have to make sure that we are involved in decisions which we hope will provide betterment for mankind. If those people in this place who have been so critical of Australia’s involvement in Iraq are so keen on improving the democratic process, they need only look at the elections which took place in Iraq a couple of weeks ago where, against all expectations, some 60 per cent of that population exercised their democratic right to vote—the first opportunity they have had for years. Each one of those people who fronted the ballot box knew there was some danger in doing so—I do not know many Australians who would go to the ballot box if they thought there was some chance of being harmed—but they were determined to be able to exercise their democratic right. If you asked any one of those people, they would say they were very glad that the intervention took place. They might not always like every aspect of it or what has happened, but each one of those people would be very glad that an intervention took place which enabled them to have the democratic right to vote.

It is very important when we are looking at the overall issue of our involvement in military conflicts, the role of the United Nations and all those other issues which are raised and thrown into the melting pot in order, sometimes, to try and cloud the issue, that we take it back to the people—and the people in this case do know what democracy means. Senator Allison started off today by saying that democratic accountability is an integral part of our democratic process. I hope for those people who have suffered under an intervention that was necessary some two years ago that in 12 months time they will have another chance to exercise their democratic right when some democratic accountability will take place. In Australia democratic accountability takes place every three years. Don’t talk about the democratic process on a daily basis; talk about the democratic process the way it has been instituted in Australia and has been successful for the past 100 years.


Senator Bartlett interjecting—


Senator FERGUSON —Senator Bartlett, if you can name me more than five countries that have had a continuous democratic process as successful as Australia’s in the past 100 years, I challenge you to do so. There are no more than five other countries that have had a longer continuing democracy than Australia. Our democratic process has proved itself. We have had stability for all those years. Everybody has a right to free speech. You are allowed to come into this place and say the sorts of things that you say when in half of the countries in the world you cannot. Our democratic process is healthy. It always will be healthy as long as we continue on the path that we have over the past 100 years.

I oppose this bill. It is unnecessary. It goes against the successful operation of governments of both political persuasions for the past 100 years. I am sure my colleagues on the other side of the chamber will know that, even during their time of government, they used executive powers successfully in deciding whether or not our troops should be deployed overseas, and they had the support of this side of the house whenever they did it. With those words, I oppose this bill in total.