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Thursday, 4 December 2008
Page: 12562

Mr TURNBULL (Leader of the Opposition) (12:14 PM) —One of the fundamental tests for any government of this country is to be able to say to the people of Australia that the policies it has adopted and the actions it has taken have given all Australians every confidence that they and their families will remain safe and secure. It is the primary responsibility of the national government to ensure that our borders are strongly, securely protected; to ensure that our people can live and work freely, untroubled by threats; and to ensure that the lead agencies on which we rely to safeguard Australians and their interests are well run, well managed and properly resourced.

On our side of the House, we are proud that the coalition government left Australia stronger and more secure. We invested massively in our armed forces and security resources, which had been neglected by our predecessors in government. We secured and strengthened key alliances. And when we left government last year Australia was stronger, better defended and more respected around the world.

It is in the interests therefore of all Australians that this government, like its predecessor, proves itself to be capable, vigilant and sure-footed in its exercise of these heavy responsibilities, and that is why we have in Australia the tradition of a bipartisan approach wherever possible to the vital questions of protecting Australians and their interests from any threats that may emerge. As opposition leader, I am therefore ready and willing to pledge our support whenever and wherever we can to those in our armed forces, police and other agencies of whom we ask service and sacrifice in the performance of their very difficult and dangerous jobs, and to ensure our national security arrangements are in the very best working order so that Australians can continue to go about their lives with confidence and security from threats.

The critical underpinning of national security is rigorous analysis and assessment of those threats now and into the future and the setting of clear priorities in determining our policy responses on how best to manage and minimise those threats. It means ensuring that all of our security agencies are aware of the scope of their mission and their responsibilities, each in its own specialised area, working efficiently, in partnership, in the national service. It also means consolidating and strengthening our key international partnerships to ensure that we can work with like-minded nations and governments to reduce the threats to free societies such as our own. Security in a globalised world is indivisible.

The most effective means of advancing and protecting Australia’s interests in the world is to leverage off our nation’s strengths and work energetically through international partnerships with our major allies—the United States, Japan, China, Indonesia, India—and of course our kindred allies, our historically closest allies, such as New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Canada.

Whether the threat of terrorism, the proliferation of mass destruction, the challenges of climate change or the need to advance global free trade, Australia can engage best in strong, principled action when, alongside allies and partners, it can build the critical mass for an effective international approach. For Australia’s security, its economic, political, military and security ties with the United States are of fundamental importance. Today we have a new president-elect in the United States and we wish him well. It is a critical time for consolidating this alliance and ensuring the world’s leading democracy remains engaged in the stability and the security of the Asia-Pacific region. On all of this, the Prime Minister and I will heartily concur, as I am sure all members of this House will.

I must, however, raise the very critical issue of the Prime Minister’s management of our alliance with the United States. It is deeply troubling and perplexing to all Australians how and why the Prime Minister’s office involved itself directly in the leaking of details of a private conversation with the President of the United States. This false story, both a breach of confidence and a breach of trust, was fed deliberately and cynically into the public domain to make the Prime Minister appear the font of all knowledge, a know-all, a diplomatic encyclopaedia, and to make the President of the most powerful nation in the world look ill-informed or worse. It breached all of the accepted protocols and practices of international diplomacy. It raised serious question marks over the Australian government’s reliability and trustworthiness not only among Americans, whatever their political persuasion, but across the wider diplomatic community.

There is a sense of bewilderment around the world that an Australian Prime Minister would undertake this course of action. We have had no explanation for it, no apology. The Australian newspaper, which published the Prime Minister’s self-serving account of his conversation, has never been asked to publish a correction or a retraction. There is no doubt at all that this self-serving story, so demeaning of our strongest ally, our greatest ally, was fed into the Australian newspaper completely heedless of the consequences it would have for our relationship with America. This is simply no way to conduct diplomacy with any nation, let alone our most important ally, and I fear Australian ministers and prime ministers will be reminded of this breach of faith for many years to come when they go to Washington. It was a tragic error.

On Japan too, our biggest trading customer, our biggest trading partner and an increasingly significant partner in other fields of endeavour—security, environmental matters and so forth—there has also been serious mismanagement. The Prime Minister neglected to incorporate Tokyo in the first of his many overseas trips. And then he unleashed his environment minister, Mr Garrett, for a series of over-the-top PR stunts against the Japanese government, a number of which he has had to retreat from subsequently. Nonetheless, they were as offensive to Japan as they were ultimately futile and humiliating for Australians.

And what of the bundle of absurd contradictions that is Labor’s policy on the mining and sale of uranium which is holding back closer economic and strategic relations with India? Even in China, where the Prime Minister undoubtedly has special experience, our relationship has not been all plain sailing. What possessed the Prime Minister to be so extravagant in his language as to describe China’s investments in its military as ‘part of an arms race in Asia’, a remark that earned a very swift rebuke? Likewise, his grand plan for an Asia-Pacific community has fallen flat in capitals around the region, not least because he sprang it on everybody—including, it would appear, his envoy, Mr Woolcott—by surprise and without consultation.

As to his plans to secure a seat for Australia on the United Nations Security Council, I simply make the observation that perceptions often become reality in international politics as they do, indeed, in domestic politics. It would be very troubling indeed if others came to perceive Australia’s recent change—the decision by the Prime Minister to change Australia’s longstanding position by voting on two resolutions against Israel at the UN General Assembly—as having something to do with our need to garner support for a Security Council seat. I have to say that in many circles that is how it is perceived. The Prime Minister will need to address that at some point. I make these criticisms more in sorrow than in anger—indeed there is no anger at all. I make these criticisms constructively because I believe errors have been made, it is our job to hold the government to account and they need to learn from these errors.

It is a fundamental reality of Australia’s role in the world that to have a significant influence we must have a significant voice. That will be determined by the quality of our ideas and the expertise of our diplomatic representatives. Critical to this is that we not come across as presumptuous or too big for our boots. There is a fine line between boxing above your weight, which is what Australia has always sought and almost invariably been able to do, and being seen to be presumptuously or pompously lecturing the world. There is a very careful balance involved in this.

One good example in recent times, from last year, where we were able to make a significant difference in matters relating to our neighbours, particularly Indonesia, with a high-quality idea was the Global Initiative on Forests and Climate, where we brought together advanced technology, satellites and radar, to help ensure the development of sustainable forestry in the developing tropical rainforest countries both in our neighbourhood and around the world. That was a case where the quality of our ideas was well respected. We did not have the muscle as a middle power to enforce a scheme like this on the world, but it was the quality of the idea and the technology that we were able to offer that saw it taken up. I note that the new Rudd government have continued this initiative, although naturally they rebranded it so that not too many people imagine it had its origins with their predecessors.

In the 21st century Australians have every reason to be secure, confident and self-assured about our place in the world. We are one of the top 15 world economies and in the top 10 for average per capita wealth. We are one of the world’s oldest and most successful democracies, proud of our commitment to political and economic freedom. We have a well-educated workforce, thriving cities, an independent judiciary, a robust free press and a society very strengthened and enriched by its diversity. That is one of our greatest strengths, of which we have often spoken in this place—and I know the Prime Minister and I have the same view on that. We are a significant country in science, commerce, medicine, sport and the arts. There is a great deal to celebrate, and we should do so. Very often I think Australians are too hard on Australia. We should often speak more positively about our achievements. There is much to protect—and that, therefore, is the key responsibility of those we elect to govern us.

The government has taken more than a year in office to produce this statement delivered by the Prime Minster in the House today. It has taken the government more than a year of protracted deliberations to identify and articulate its priorities. As an opposition we have been prepared to wait patiently for a well-considered and well-constructed outline of policy. We have been prepared to wait patiently for the Prime Minister to display the command that he reminds us he has of all things international. We have been prepared to wait patiently for him to deliver on his big promises. As I said, these matters should be, wherever possible, bipartisan. But I must say—again in a tone of constructive criticism—that prime ministers who seek bipartisan support for matters of national security should be prepared to be open. Only last week my office contacted the Prime Minister’s office to seek a briefing on the statement that he intended to deliver on these vitally important issues for our nation’s wellbeing. We received no briefing, and I simply note without comment that this 40-page document was handed to my office just after the stroke of 9 am today.

As to the statement itself, we note that the Labor Party has abandoned its election pledge to create a department of homeland security. This is one broken promise for which we can all be very thankful. It was a very poorly conceived idea—a cheap copy of an American experiment. It was crafted more to capture campaign headlines than as a serious public policy reform. But before we give the final last rites to the Prime Minister’s department of homeland security let us recall the critique of our, the coalition government’s, national security apparatus by the then opposition spokesman on homeland security, Mr Arch Bevis. I quote him from 3 October 2007. Mr Bevis said:

New threats have emerged that demand a rethink of our nation’s strategic and tactical response.

The Federal Government saw the importance of combining critical security agencies under one command in the lead up to the Sydney Olympics, yet it has avoided the difficult decisions in restructuring its own departments to provide a similar single structure for homeland security.

The Howard Government’s continuing insistence on splitting these functions over a number of departments invites overlap, wastage, confusion and missed opportunities.

The logic of those who argue that civilian security should be administered in separate departments responsible to various ministers is reminiscent of those who argued forty years ago, that Australia should maintain separate Ministers for Army, Navy, Air Force and Supply. No one today would disagree with the decision in the early 1970’s to create a Defence Department with a single Minister for Defence. The same clear sighted vision for non military security agencies is required today.

He concludes this trenchant assault on the Howard government’s mismanagement of national security by saying:

Interdepartmental committees are not a substitute for a single minister with clear responsibility for a Department of Homeland Security …

So that was to be the template for a Rudd revolution to overhaul in its entirety our national security establishment. According to Labor’s critique, the coalition had been putting Australians in harm’s way by allowing each of our security agencies to operate within its own area of specialisation. Labor’s answer was to bring it all into one gigantic superbureaucracy, and today the Prime Minister himself has exposed that proposition as the hoax it always was. The truth of it is that what Labor was proposing was a wasteful and costly exercise in bureaucracy. It would have meant reinventing well-established patterns of cooperation and coordination between our key security agencies and confusing and complicating the existing practice of reporting lines within and between those agencies.

So it is welcome that the Prime Minister is prepared to jettison one of the key planks—possibly the key plank—of the national security policy he took to the last election. For this we can thank the sound, determined and intelligent advice of our professionals in the field. The Prime Minister was strongly advised as far back as July, in the report by the former Secretary of the Department of Defence Mr Ric Smith, that he should not go ahead with his plans for this Rudd security revolution. It took the Prime Minister a long time to swallow this particular medicine, but the fact that he has now agreed to the unceremonious dumping of this centrepiece of Labor’s national security policy is a victory for common sense.

So what is now the centrepiece of this national security policy? What are the policy breakthroughs that will fortify our nation against future threats unknown? First, we have a reannouncement of the defence white paper, which the minister promised would be delivered by the end of this year but which is now not expected until as late as May. Then we have an undertaking by the Prime Minister to commission a white paper on counterterrorism to be delivered at an unspecified date next year. Let me just note that the Howard government released a white paper on terrorism less than four years ago: Transnational terrorism: the threat to Australia—112 pages of detailed, state-of-the-art analysis of the threat posed by global terrorist groups, an exploration and discussion of what motivates their murderous attacks on free societies like our own and a wealth of rigorously researched policy responses across domestic, regional and international arenas, incorporating all agencies seeking to meet that challenge. So we have to ask whether this announcement of a new white paper on counterterrorism is not simply a response to the inevitable wake-up call from last week’s murderous assault in Mumbai. Was it then that the Prime Minister realised that his own national security statement had been caught rather light on in how it dealt with the central challenges of counterterrorism? So, to disguise the lack of energy and application he has devoted to this, the main contemporary threat to free societies such as our own today, he is asking for another leave pass to have another go at it and make yet another statement.

In his statement, the Prime Minister says that Australia’s diplomacy must be the best in the world—and we agree with that, and to achieve that capability it must be properly resourced, but our security agencies are critical to protecting Australians at home and abroad—and that his government is committed to ‘ensuring that our agencies are resourced appropriately to meet the challenges of terrorist threats’. We would all say amen to that, but let us measure the Prime Minister’s rhetoric against the reality. In his first budget, the Rudd government cut $1.3 billion over five years from government departments and agencies involved in national security. Four hundred and twenty-one million dollars has been cut through the application of the government’s one-off two per cent efficiency dividend. Nine hundred and thirteen million dollars was stripped from departments and agencies by the Minister for Finance and Deregulation’s razor gang—that includes $680 million from the Department of Defence and $232 million from the Department of Immigration and Citizenship. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has lost nearly $120 million over five years from its budget, including 305 jobs from the section of the department ‘whose outcomes reflect the department’s primary responsibility for developing and implementing foreign and trade policy on matters of international security, trade policy and global cooperation that advances Australia’s national interest’. This is despite the Prime Minister saying he wants Australia to be more involved with the Pacific, that he wants to step up engagement with Asia, that he wants to pursue a seat on the Security Council and that he wants to create a European Union-style Asia-Pacific Union. The Prime Minister has simply not put his money where his mouth is.

When we look at the Australian Federal Police, it is much the same story. Labor in opposition promised to fund an increase in Federal Police numbers by 500, yet we find in the Australian Federal Police’s annual report that the AFP had an operating loss for 2007-08 of $43.5 million. How can it be argued that this government is providing sufficient support to Australia’s premier law enforcement agency, which is on the front line of the counterterrorism effort?

Then we have the finance minister’s attack in parliament only last week over what he said was an oversupply of computers to public servants. The finance minister was critical of public servants having two computers on their desks. What the finance minister appears not to understand is that those working within our security apparatus often have a legitimate need for two computers or more. If the government begins stripping agencies of computers for their offices, how will this improve our agencies’ security and intelligence operations?

We trust that the appointment of Mr Duncan Lewis as the Prime Minister’s national security adviser will see the Minister for Finance and Deregulation quickly disavowed of this superficial analysis of that question. We warmly welcome Mr Lewis into his new role. He is an experienced professional and has long been an outstanding contributor to our national security effort. Indeed, there will be a considerable continuity between the job he has been doing for some years and this new title role that he is being given. We must also note that this appointment appears to signal the centralising of the national security responsibility in the Office of the Prime Minister. We remind the Prime Minister of the onus this places upon him. The buck will certainly stop with him. The opposition will reserve judgement of much of the detail in this document until we have had a chance to fully explore it and, hopefully, had the benefit of the briefings we sought and were denied only last week.

I note that there are several instances of rebadging about to happen. That is a common theme with the Rudd government—in particular, the renaming of the Australian Customs and border protection service. What does this mean for the existing agency, known as Border Protection Command, which is currently led by a rear admiral and coordinates defence, Customs and fisheries. Is the Navy about to become an appendage of Customs? One would think not. How is that going to work? The paper says that it will create a capability to task and analyse intelligence and to coordinate surveillance. Border protection command already does this, and very capably, with assets such as Coastwatch, Navy and Customs patrol vessels. In other respects, this statement offers a precis of the widely accepted realities of Australia’s strategic outlook—the rise of China and the emergence of India as the two key dynamics of shifting power balances in our world. But it continues the Rudd government’s tradition of deferring action into the future. There is a foreign policy statement to come, a defence white paper to come—I could have said that it is coming like Christmas; but it is going to come well after Christmas—an energy white paper to come, a counterterrorism white paper, a new one, to come, along with the National Energy Security Assessment.

The Prime Minister says officials need ‘greater institutional agility’, and yet his paper adds new layers of management and centralises activities, without stating what problems exist or what benefits centralisation delivers. The Prime Minister has touched in passing on a number of threats to security in our region. He made some remarks about climate change, the consequence of climate change on developing countries and the impact that may have for national security. I would say to the Prime Minister that there are very serious issues associated with drought—and water scarcity, in particular—across the region. The impact of climate change is there. But there has also been massive and unsustainable overexploitation of water resources in the two largest countries in our region, India and China. There is considerable evidence, for example, that the agricultural production capacity of the North China Plain, which feeds 400 million people in China, will be severely diminished by the depletion of the groundwater resources there. What are the implications for China—for its political stability, for its relations with the rest of the region—if there are very significant reductions in its capacity to produce the food to feed its population?

Similar comments could be made about overexploitation of water in northern India. And this is why, when we were in government, we went to great pains to ensure that we worked closely with our neighbours—in particular, China—on these issues of water scarcity. Because, while we must collaborate in terms of climate change mitigation and achieving an effective global agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we must also recognise that achieving the adaptation to climate change and to problems like water scarcity internationally can be just as important for us. Of course, we delivered a world-leading initiative here in Australia with the previous Prime Minister’s National Plan for Water Security. It may be that, in the decades to come, water scarcity in China and India will be as significant an issue for Australians as water scarcity in our own country is. That is why the cooperation that we initiated has been so important.

This underlines an element that I believe was missing from the Prime Minister’s statement on national security and that is this: it is a vital element of our national interest—as well as, I believe, being in our interests to play a constructive role in our region—that Australia maintains, and indeed enhances, its capacity to produce food. We must recognise that food security is going to be a critical issue. It is perfectly plain that a larger global population will need more food. It is equally plain that a wealthier global population will need a bit more food and, in particular, more grain because of the growing inability to afford meat. It is also clear that in many regions, as I have stated, the ability to produce food is diminishing because of water scarcity. We must be clearly focused on ensuring that Australia’s ability to produce food is not diminished. That is why we differ from the government in its approach to the implementation of our National Plan for Water Security. Too much emphasis is being given by this government on buying back water entitlements and not enough is being given to improving the efficient use of water and enabling us to produce more food with less water—in other words, to make every drop count.

This is not simply a domestic issue; it has very significant international ramifications. That is why we should be very focused on ensuring that we, prudently and in an environmentally sustainable way, are able to expand agriculture in the north of Australia, where, of course, we have most of our nation’s water resources. Having said those things, we must reserve our judgement on much of the content of the Prime Minister’s statement. Much of it, of course, is uncontroversial, but there are a number of initiatives, as I have noted, that we will need to look at more carefully and on which we will need to obtain a briefing from his officials.

This statement is a lengthy one, but it is not by any means a bold or particularly clear step through the intellectual fog. Not even the Prime Minister would describe this as swift and decisive, although he may well do so—he is very fond of doing so. I can see that the Prime Minister is thinking to himself, ‘Watch me, mate; I’ll do that.’ The statement does not adequately and unequivocally describe what the government intends to do about the main security challenges facing us in the years ahead. So much of it is thrown into the future, into new structures, new reviews and new reports. As yet, it has not offered us—and we would encourage the government to do this—a clear and concise explanation of the strategic doctrine to which the Rudd government is working, if indeed such a doctrine exists.

Debate adjourned.

Ordered that the resumption of the debate be made an order of the day for the next sitting.