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Thursday, 27 May 2004
Page: 29379


Mr RUDD (2:08 PM) —My question is to the Prime Minister. Prime Minister, when were Australian personnel in Iraq, either civilian or military, first made aware of allegations of prisoner abuse in Iraq?


Mr HOWARD (Prime Minister) —This question is obviously prompted, as most opposition questions are—the first three or four—by something in the newspapers. Can I deal with this question by first of all stressing that there is absolutely no suggestion whatsoever that Australian soldiers or other military personnel serving in or around Iraq have been involved in any way in the abuse of Iraqi prisoners which we have seen portrayed in the media. I have already answered questions on this subject as to my knowledge, and so have the Minister for Defence and the Minister for Foreign Affairs. The advice consequent upon the story in the Sydney Morning Herald today that we have from defence is that the ADF has not been involved in the incarceration or interrogation of Iraqi prisoners. Even more significantly, defence has publicly stated that no ADF member witnessed any mistreatment of detainees.


Mr Wilkie —When did you know?


The SPEAKER —I warn the member for Swan!


Mr HOWARD —The suggestion made in today's article in the Sydney Morning Herald of a cover-up is quite absurd. It is also highly offensive in that it seeks to imply a link between Australian personnel and these appalling abuses. To illustrate that point, could I read from one particular part of the story. It says, inter alia:

... Major O'Kane's role suggests that assurances by the Defence Minister, Robert Hill—


Mr Rudd —Mr Speaker, I rise on a point of order.

Government members interjecting


Mr Rudd —I find it curious that the foreign minister asks people to grow up—


The SPEAKER —Is the member for Griffith raising a point of order?


Mr Rudd —On the essential question—


The SPEAKER —Is the member for Griffith raising a point of order?


Mr Rudd —Yes, I am, Mr Speaker. The point of order is relevance to the question, which asks simply this: when were Australian personnel in Iraq aware of allegations—


The SPEAKER —The member for Griffith is a relatively new member to this chamber—certainly compared with the time that I have spent here—but even he will be aware that, by any interpretation of the standing orders, the Prime Minister's answer is relevant to the question.


Mr HOWARD —I will return to the paragraph. I will take a moment to answer this question, because I assume it is accepted as an important matter, and I therefore intend to deal with it in a detailed fashion. I will return to the Herald article, which says:

... Major O'Kane's role suggests that assurances by the Defence Minister, Robert Hill, that Australian military personnel were in “no way associated with these abuses” may be misleading.

I just want to say that that is a pretty contemptible and pathetic attempt by the Sydney Morning Herald to imply some kind of guilt by association. That is what that story is into, and can I say that some of the member for Griffith's questions go dangerously close to doing the same thing. Can I specifically go to the substance of this issue: that I am advised that a report by the International Committee of the Red Cross in October of last year covered general concerns about detainee conditions and treatment. Major O'Kane, as part of his work in the coalition headquarters in Iraq, prepared a draft response to that report. A separate report by the Red Cross, in February of this year—and once again this answer is based on the current advice of the defence department—raised allegations of ill treatment of detainees.

It would appear at this stage that the article in the Sydney Morning Herald has either inadvertently or deliberately conflated those two reports—the one in October and the one in February—and has blurred the two of them and, in the process, could well have done a serious injustice to Major O'Kane. To suggest that, because Major O'Kane drafted a response to the October report, he or the Australian government were in some way aware of the more serious allegations to follow in a separate report some months later is quite nonsensical.

I am in fact advised that Major O'Kane witnessed no interrogations or mistreatment of detainees and has previously reported to the defence department that he believed internees were being treated with humanity and in accordance with the Geneva convention. I repeat that: I am advised by the defence department that Major O'Kane witnessed no interrogations or mistreatment of detainees and has previously reported to Defence that he believed internees were being treated with humanity and in accordance with the Geneva convention.

We are now all aware of the photos of incidents of serious abuse which have been displayed in the media. Our government have made it very clear how concerned and appalled we are by these incidents, and we very warmly welcome the strong and decisive action that has been taken by the governments of the United States and the United Kingdom to investigate these incidents and to bring those responsible for them to justice.

Let me repeat that, as I indicated earlier, the first time I became aware of the scale of the alleged abuses was at the time most other Australians did, sometime in April when the photographs emerged. There was a CNN report in January. I may or may not have seen that at the time—I cannot specifically recall that. It has already been indicated—and I would have to check the record to get the precise language used by the defence minister, the foreign minister and perhaps me—that various reports were sent back by our people on the ground in Baghdad during the early months of this year. But I would have to recall the record to attest precisely to what those details were.

Let me finish by stating again that there has been no Australian involvement in these incidents. No Australian personnel have been involved. All of this is about trying to imply some guilt by association, because that is the stock in trade of the Australian Labor Party. They do not like to be reminded of it, but it is the stock in trade of the Australian Labor Party. Just as the overwhelming majority of the 139,000 Americans who are serving bravely and in very difficult circumstances in Iraq cannot be held responsible for the appalling abuses of a few, so it is the case that the 850 Australian defence personnel serving in and around Iraq should not in any way be associated with those abuses. There has been no Australian involvement. Australia was not an occupying power. Australia did not detain or accept prisoners in Iraq. Up until the circumstances which brought this matter to international prominence broke, Australia had not been given any reports from the ICRC, although not formally but informally I understand a report or some reports have subsequently come into the hands of the Australian government.