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Thursday, 9 February 2017
Page: 433

Senator FARRELL (South AustraliaDeputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) (11:35): I rise to speak on Defence Legislation Amendment (Parliamentary Approval of Overseas Service) Bill 2015, and I would like to welcome Senator Ludlam back to the Senate. I know he has had some time off. I used to work very cooperatively with Senator Ludlam during the time that the Labor Party was in government on some very key pieces of legislation, including some TV recycling legislation which was one of the few examples of all of the parties getting together to work on a very important piece of legislation which continues to work very well in recycling TVs and computers even to this present point in time. Welcome back, Senator Ludlam.

Unfortunately, we cannot support your legislation today. I would like to go into the reasons for that. Before I do, I might take up a point that Senator O'Sullivan made about World War II. I think it is worthwhile pointing that, as he said, the Greens were not in government, but Labor was in government. A great wartime leader from your home state, Deputy President, was in charge: Prime Minister Curtin. Australia was in very safe hands under his very wise guidance during the period of the war, which, of course, we successfully worked through.

We cannot support this legislation. It aims to ensure that Defence Force personnel are not sent overseas to engage in warlike activities, without the approval of both houses of parliament. The existing practice in Australia is that any decision to deploy members of the ADF beyond Australian territorial limits is at the sole prerogative of the executive of the Commonwealth. That has been the long-standing practice, and the Labor Party continues to support that practice. We certainly did so in government. It is a long-standing constitutional practice and the Labor Party does not support any proposals to change that practice, and in particular does not support this proposed legislation.

I will go through some of the background to this and deal with some of the times that this has been debated in the past. The first point to make is that, as we did in government, have always done government and continue to do an opposition, we fully support ADF personnel who are currently involved in operations at various places around the world. I suppose it is fair to say that it is becoming a more unstable world, and some people speculate that it will become even more unstable into the future. But we have men and women who are doing great work on behalf of this country and I know that they are undertaking their various roles with terrific professionalism. I also take this opportunity to state that Labor fully supports the principle that it is the role of the parliament to debate issues of concern and to act as a focal point for discussions that take place in the Australian community. That role is particularly important when we are discussing issues like the deployment of Australian Defence Force personnel. Labor has consistently supported open debate on these issues. In 2015, when the Labor Party announced its support for the extension of Operation OKRA into Syrian air space, we also called on the government to outline to parliament its long-term strategy for the defence of Iraq and to follow up with appropriate parliamentary discussions of that strategy.

Ministers for defence should, of course, provide the parliament with regular and detailed ministerial statements regarding overseas operations and deployments, as we certainly did in our time in government. That is what the Australian community expects in this place. They expect to have a discussion in the parliament on important issues and to allow all points of view to be expressed and debated, as they should be. But it is imperative that in this debate we not confuse the requirements of parliamentary approval for the deployment of ADF personnel.

Labor believes that supporting this bill would risk serious unintended consequences. The government of the day must always retain the necessary flexibility to allow it to respond quickly and efficiently to threats to Australia's national security. To require a vote of parliament or a proclamation from the Governor-General, prior to deploying ADF personnel and assets, would unnecessarily increase the risk to the operation and to the personnel involved. As has been noted in previous debates on this issue, the government of the day also has access to classified information that this parliament does not have access to, and, given the nature of that information, cannot have access to. Australia's defence and national security agencies provide information to the government that must remain classified for a whole range of reasons, including the safety and security of the military personnel involved.

I would also like to reiterate our concerns, and in particular the concerns expressed by former senator and defence minister John Faulkner, in 2011, regarding how defence operations that may be clandestine in nature and may be considered preparatory deployments would be accommodated within such an arrangement as is being proposed by Senator Ludlam. That is particularly where the definition of 'warlike' and 'non-warlike' military service can be clear, and perhaps ambiguous at the outset.

Bills very similar to this one have been introduced into the parliament on a number of occasions in recent years. The first of those was the Defence Amendment Bill 1985, which the Democrats introduced. That bill did not pass this parliament. Since then the Democrats and the Greens between them have introduced similar pieces of legislation to the Senate—in 2003, twice in 2008, and again in 2010. The Greens also introduced a bill into this house in 2010. The parliament gave due consideration to all of those pieces of legislation and none of them were passed.

Labor supports a robust debate on this issue, but we do not support the substance or the intent of this legislation. We want to have a robust debate, but at the end of the day we believe that the current constitutional practice is appropriate and we will continue to support that practice. For that reason we do not support this bill.