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Thursday, 10 February 2005
Page: 126

Senator BARTLETT (5:23 PM) —I am not sure I have ever heard such a large collection of straw men and furphies put together to misrepresent what the Defence Amendment (Parliamentary approval for Australian involvement in overseas conflicts) Bill 2003 [2004] is about and what is contained in it to then be used as excuses for opposing it. Basically, a lot of it boils down to the fact that, historically, both Labor and Liberal governments have had this power to themselves and—as is not surprising—they want to keep it. The fact is that this legislation, if it came into operation, would not have stopped us deploying troops to Bali as quickly as the government wished to. It would not have stopped our involvement in Afghanistan, because that was supported by the Senate. It would not have stopped plenty of other deployments of troops. I am surprised they did not get around to using the furphy that it may stop defence personnel leaving the country for holidays or something. It does not do any of those things. This bill simply says that, if Australia is going to send our men and women to engage in a war overseas, it should get the support of both houses of parliament before doing so. That is all it says, so let us focus the debate on what it is about.

I think it is worth mentioning that this proposal has been around in a large range of forms since 1981, when it was first moved by former Democrat senator Colin Mason. It is certainly not a knee-jerk response to concerns about the government’s decision to send troops as part of the invasion of Iraq. It has been made more urgent and important because of that decision, as that was the first and only time so far that an Australian Prime Minister decided to send Australian troops to engage in a war without the support of the parliament. That had never happened, and I think most people assumed that it was not likely to happen, so it was a bit of an academic debate.

Contrary to what I think Senator Sandy Macdonald suggested, the deployment of Australian troops to Iraq was not supported by the Senate or the Labor Party. What did happen was that, once the deployment was made, not just the Labor Party but the Democrats as well supported our troops in their task. The decision about whether or not we should go to war is very different from supporting those troops in their task once the decision to deploy them is made, regardless of whether that was made through a good or a bad process. That is what both the Democrats and the Labor Party did. I think that we should all note that, despite what was a very strong debate with a lot of strongly held views, that debate managed to be conducted in a way that did not result in members of our defence forces coming under widespread attack from people in the Australian community, as sadly happened in the case of the Vietnam conflict. I think we all learned a lesson from that situation.

People who sign up to the defence force do so because they are willing to defend their country through the military. That is a significant decision to make, and they should be supported in that very important role regardless of whether or not we support the decision of the government, which, at the end of the day and through whatever process, has to make the decision about what the military does. This bill simply requires the government to get the approval of the parliament before it does engage troops in overseas conflict. That is not that big a deal. As Senator Allison pointed out, plenty of countries do have such a requirement, and they seem to manage okay. Opponents of this bill argue that Australia would not be capable of doing it, that the world would fall apart and that all these practical problems would prevent anything ever happening. I think they very sadly underestimate the strength of Australian democracy and the Australian parliament. That was part of what came through in some of the contributions to this debate.

I invite Senator Ferguson in particular to step back and have another look at his contribution. The bottom line of what he said is that we have a democracy, people vote every three years and, if they do not like what the government did, they can throw them out. People do not just vote in a government; they vote in a parliament and, unless you suggest that the parliament should basically sit back and rubberstamp everything it does, that parliament needs to be a check and a balance on the decisions of the government. That is a fundamental part of our system of democracy. Is Senator Ferguson saying that we should abolish the parliament? Quite frankly, that argument holds no weight at all. I hope it is not a sign of things to come when this government gets control of the Senate come July. I hope it does not act with even more disdain for the parliament.

Senator Ferguson also said that this is the sort of bill you get from minor party senators because they are never going to know what it is like to be in government. He is probably right there; we are not likely to know what it is like to be in cabinet. He said that we will never know what the reality of cabinet debates is. As I said, this proposal was put forward in 1981, first by Colin Mason and then by Senator Don Chipp, who was not only in cabinet but also a minister with responsibility for one of the defence portfolios. I think he was Minister for the Navy in the 1960s, around the time of the Vietnam War. He subsequently acknowledged his error in supporting that war as part of the government at the time. So it has certainly been put forward in this chamber by someone who has not only been in cabinet and, therefore, knows what it is like but who has been a minister in a defence portfolio in cabinet.

I suggest to Senator Ferguson—and I am not saying this by way of following the lead of some of his colleagues and engaging in gratuitous attacks and slurs on other senators—that he is not likely to know what it is like in cabinet either. I think he devalues the role of senators who are not in cabinet by making arguments like that. He is a good example of somebody who is not a minister and presumably is not likely to ever be a minister but who performs a very valuable role as a senator in this chamber. He is a government senator in this case, and I think he has been an opposition senator in the past. To say that because you are not going to be in cabinet your proposed legislation therefore has no validity is actually, probably unwittingly but nonetheless unfairly, criticising not just people like me but indeed people like Senator Ferguson himself. It is a silly argument that tries to distract attention from the substance of the issue.

The simple fact is that there are few things more serious than sending Australian men and women to war. I repeat the fact that, for the first time in our nation’s history, we have a Prime Minister who committed Australian troops to a war despite the opposition of one of the houses of parliament. That to me says that, while it is a system that may have worked well up until now, it has its problems. It is particularly problematic because, as is no secret, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that some conflict of a similar nature may arise again in the not-too-distant future. I am sure we all hope it does not, but there is continual talk around the globe of the possibility of further active acts of aggression against countries such as Iran. I want to make sure that the same thing cannot happen again. It is one thing to make a mistake, as clearly happened with the decision to go to war based on information that was clearly not correct, but to do nothing about that mistake, to not even acknowledge it and to leave us open to doing it again moves beyond folly and becomes dangerous neglect.

This bill creates a simple mechanism to provide the check that would require the government to make to the parliament the case for sending Australian men and women in the Defence Force to put their lives on the line. To suggest that the parliament should have no role in such a fundamental decision is an approach that does not recognise the fundamental importance of the parliament. It is not surprising that the government of the day wants to devalue the role of parliament—whoever is in government likes to devalue the role of parliament so they can have all the power for themselves—but I think that, in matters of sending Australian men and women to war, some things are more important than keeping power for yourself: ensuring that the decision is at least required to be scrutinised and accepted by the parliament.

All the furphies that this mechanism might lead to a double dissolution are nonsensical. It is clearly not the case, based on what is in the legislation. In many ways I think that what we see here is a number of different debates being run alongside the core aspects of this legislation. We have had a debate running about justifying or criticising the decision to go to war in Iraq. We have had a debate running about the role of the parliament versus the right of the government to do what it likes once it is elected. But the bottom line is that, on something as fundamental as this, there are no practical problems that cannot be overcome to prevent this sort of measure from being put into place. The precedent we now have of a Prime Minister willing not only to engage Australian troops in a war but to be part of instigating a war by invading another country which was no threat to us makes it all the more important that we at least require the case to be put to parliament to get its support.

I note again, for the record—because I notice, even from some of the other contributions, that the distinction is fudged—that opposing the decision to go to war is not the same as opposing the troops. Indeed, it is not the same as having a position, once the war has started, of wanting to reverse and bring the troops back. I do not think I have ever heard a government speaker acknowledge the fact that the Democrats consistently said, once the war had started, that our troops should stay there and that we had a legal obligation under international law, as well as a moral obligation, to help restore the country. I think it is a great sign that some form of elections have been held in Iraq. There are clearly still major problems there and it would be silly to ignore those, but it would also be silly to ignore the fact that, in the face of a lot of difficulties, some form of election has happened—with great success in some parts of the country. Particularly for the Kurdish people in the Kurdistan area in Iraq, there are some real opportunities.

Despite having very strongly opposed the decision to invade Iraq, on grounds that I believe have been proven correct, I hope very strongly that the attempts to build a democracy in Iraq succeed. I think the price has already been too high. The price of 100,000 lives—and double that number of lives or more beyond that permanently damaged in the most awful way—is a price that I think is too high to pay, particularly without other avenues being explored. But the fact is that the price has been paid already, and the task of all us, whether we supported or opposed the war, is to do what we can to try to get the situation in that region moving to a better state, with more stability and a brighter future for the people in that region.

We have always said, and I have always said, that our troops should stay there to help rebuild. Now that the first election has happened—which is part of moving on to the next stage—sending clear signals that it is time to withdraw personnel involved in those sorts of activities is the way to go. That is a separate debate to what is contained in this bill, but those matters have been raised by others during this debate and I think it is appropriate to put them on the record in this context.

I do not believe the invasion should have happened. I think the damage has been enormous. I think the risks are still very high that things are going to go further downhill, but it would be stupid and churlish and the most extreme example of cutting off your nose to spite your face that I could think of if you did not not only hope for but do everything possible to encourage the best possible result in Iraq and the region.

Coming back to the specifics of this bill, I think one aspect of doing something to encourage the best prospects for a good result in the region is to ensure that we have protection here in Australia in legislation to ensure that a future government or this current government cannot again engage Australia in an aggressive action against a country in that region or anywhere else without at least making its case successfully to both houses of parliament—some sort of protection against those decisions, some sort of obligation to wait on the evidence being used to justify the decision to be tested in some way. That can be done in a way that does not prevent necessary actions happening promptly.

On the Sunday program on 1 December 2002—before the Iraq deployment—the Prime Minister himself, when asked, ‘If the war starts can you recall the parliament?’ said, ‘There is always the capacity to recall parliament if you have to.’ He did say that if he was going to send troops he would allow parliamentary debate. There was a debate but with no impact on the decision. The decision had already been made and, of course, as senators know, this Senate did not support that decision. Parliament can be recalled quickly. We were recalled quickly for visits by overseas heads of state.

I do not think any potential difficulties or hypotheticals should be used as a straw man to shoot down the substance and the core principle of this bill. The bottom line is that it is a simple principle: we should not send our troops to war unless both houses of parliament agree. People can argue against that and they may wish to, but I do not think it helps to just put a whole lot of incorrect assertions into the bill that are not there. Making the case on the substance of that core principle is the best way to go forward.

Can I finally say that, given the length of time this legislation has been around—it was first introduced back in 1981, which I think was the last time that the coalition had control of both houses of parliament, and the situation changed not long after that—some things never change; some things come back to haunt you again. We need to look at the things that have changed in that period of time. One of the things that has definitely changed is that we now have a precedent of a government willing to go to war without the support of both houses of parliament. That had not happened before and I, for one, would like to ensure that it does not happen again.