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Retired former defence chief discusses open letter from 43 senior retired personnel which criticises events leading up to war in Iraq.

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This transcript has been prepared by a source external to the Department of the Parliamentary Library.


It may not have been checked against the broadcast or in any other way. Freedom from error, omissions or misunderstandings cannot be guaranteed.


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Monday 9 August 2004

Retired former defence chief discusses open letter from 43 senior retired personnel which criticises events leading up to war in Iraq


TONY EASTLEY: Po liticians are back in Canberra to attend what could be the final sitting before an election. The Prime Minister was probably hoping that this week would allow him to highlight what he sees as his Government's strengths on security and foreign policy. 


Instead he's having to debate Labor's amendment to the Free Trade Agreement and defend his policy on security and honesty in government. 


Forty-three of the country's most prominent former defence chiefs and diplomats have attacked the Government over its handling of the Iraq war. The Government has written them off as a group of anti-war critics, but it's impossible to ignore the political significance of their stance. 


The names contained in the open letter are a who's-who of the Australian defence and diplomatic establishment, headed by two former Defence Force Chiefs, General Peter Gration and Admiral Alan Beaumont, two former Navy Chiefs, as well as a retired air force boss. 


They claim that Australia is not a safer place as a result of the war in Iraq, and they say Australia joined the war on the basis of false assumption and deception.  


General Peter Gration told Chief Political Correspondent Catherine McGrath the criticisms that they've raised cannot be brushed aside. 


PETER GRATION: We're taking the Coalition Government to task for its actions and in that sense it is attacking the Government. But you will notice again that we are calling on both sides to redress this. 


CATHERINE MCGRATH: Now, as a former Chief of the Defence Force yourself, and you fought in Vietnam for example, what do you think the impact of this statement is to people fighting now? I mean, how did you feel during Vietnam when there were those calling out against the war then? 


PETER GRATION: Look, I don't think it will have any impact on those actually in Iraq at the moment. We're not talking about the excellent job the ADF have done in Iraq. We're talking about the events leading up to the war and the way the Coalition reached their key decisions on the war. 


CATHERINE MCGRATH: Foreign Minister Alexander Downer has said that the opinions of Iraqis is more important than the opinion of 43 retired people and he's discounted your comments. 


PETER GRATION: I'm not surprised that Alexander Downer said that, but let me say in return that this is the first time in my memory that 43 Australians who have held very senior positions in agencies, have been key diplomats abroad, and have been heads of armed services, have come out to make such a strong statement. And I don't think that any Government can just brush it aside by saying these are old guys and their opinion doesn't count. 


CATHERINE MCGRATH: Well, let's look at what you've said in this statement. You say that Australia's reputation has been adversely affected by the fall in international prestige of the United States. 


PETER GRATION: Yes. Well, we've come along almost willy-nilly following decisions which are taken in Washington. And I believe without question the prestige of the United States has fallen, fallen quite alarmingly and as we are following on almost as an almost unquestioning coalition partner, this inevitably rubs off on Australia. 


CATHERINE MCGRATH: You've said in your statement that Australia has not become a safer place. That's a very damaging thing to tell the Australian community now. 


PETER GRATION: Damaging or not damaging, it is simply correct. Listen to the Government's own pronouncements. The terrorism risk to Australia has increased. We have become a higher profile target, there is no question. 


CATHERINE MCGRATH: You say that Australian leaders must produce more carefully balanced policies and present them in a more sophisticated way. What does that mean? 


PETER GRATION: Well, I'm talking about the balance between our relations with the United States where we seem to be just following along, endorsing everything that comes out of Washington.  


That balancing that relationship with our commitments in the region, to the south-west Pacific and Asia, particularly south-east Asia, and also our commitments to the United Nations. We feel that we've gone just a bit too far in following what decisions are taken in Washington. 


CATHERINE MCGRATH: The Prime Minister of course denies that he took Australia to war based on a lie and he quotes the Flood report, the recent Flood report, as backing up his assessment. The Flood report found that there was no lying on behalf of the Government, but mistakes made in intelligence.  


Now, do you completely discount what the Prime Minister has said? 


PETER GRATION: No, I don't completely discount it, but let me point out. First of all, we didn't use the word 'lie' deliberately.  


But I don't believe this was an intelligence failure. This was a policy failure, because the Government is the last resort and it's the job of the Government to make decisions based not blindly rubberstamping what it put in front of them, but making a judgment on the value of that intelligence and then from that producing a policy decision. And in our view it was a policy decision failure, not an intelligence failure. 


CATHERINE MCGRATH: Well, what sort of impact do you hope to have in this? Obviously Coalition politicians are going to come out one after the other and criticise you and the other people for being simply anti- the war and anti- the Coalition Government? 


PETER GRATION: Well, be that as it may, what sort of things do I expect to come out? First of all, I think we ought to learn from our experience in the Iraqi war. And secondly, I think governments should realise that deception of the Australian people is not on, that sooner or later the truth comes out. 


CATHERINE MCGRATH: And as a former chief of the defence force, how do you feel about making this sort of statement now? 


PETER GRATION: It was a difficult thing for me to do. Until the lead into the Iraqi war, I've kept out of making statements on public affairs. I don't think it's the place of a retired senior officer.  


But I feel so strongly on this one, as do my other 42 signatories, most of whom have never made such a statement in their lives, despite being in very senior positions, that I just felt that I had to speak out.  


And I think it's a healthy thing in a democracy for governments to listen to this huge amount of accumulated professionalism and expertise in these 43 signatories. 


TONY EASTLEY: General Peter Gration, speaking with Catherine McGrath.