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Tuesday, 24 September 2002
Page: 4735

Senator BARTLETT (3:31 PM) —I move:

That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Defence (Senator Hill) to a question without notice asked by Senator Bartlett today relating to parliamentary debate on any involvement by Australia in military action against Iraq.

That question was about the fundamental issue of whether the government would guarantee a conscience vote for Liberal parliamentarians in the event of any such vote being put in relation to a war on Iraq. Senator Hill, not surprisingly, dodged that question comprehensively by saying it was simply hypothetical and therefore not one that he needed to enter into.

But the fact remains that, as the minister himself said, the Prime Minister will seek the support of both houses of parliament for any decision that he makes or cabinet makes to engage Australia's troops in any form of war on Iraq. If the Prime Minister is genuinely seeking the support of parliament then he should make sure that that support is genuine. The only way of ensuring that it is genuine is to allow it to be a conscience vote or a so-called free vote. Having a vote that is not free will not give a true representation of the views of the parliamentarians and therefore, I suggest, the views of the Australian electorate. It is the concerns of the Australian electorate that many parliamentarians are reflecting in the various concerns that they are raising and continue to raise.

I draw the Senate's attention again to comments made, for example, by Liberal MP Peter Lindsay, the member for Herbert, an electorate that has one of the highest concentrations—if not the highest—of Defence and military personnel in the country. That applies to my electorate also, in terms of being the state of Queensland. Mr Lindsay, who last time I looked did not have a reputation for being a hardline extremist left-wing pacifist, raised significant and genuine concerns about Australian involvement, particularly in a pre-emptive strike against Iraq. I quote from the AAP report. He said:

... I utterly reject the notion of a premature pre-emptive strike by the United States. I think that would be foolish, and I hope that Australia would have no part in that.

I very much agree with Mr Lindsay's comments, as do all the Australian Democrats, and I congratulate him on making them. The problem is this: what happens in a couple of months time if Mr Howard decides to sign Australia up to supporting a pre-emptive strike? He will move a motion seeking the parliament's support. If there is no conscience vote, then Mr Lindsay will be required to vote, one would assume, against his beliefs and statements of today. That, therefore, would indicate that the vote would not be a genuine reflection of the parliamentarians' votes, let alone the views of his electorate.

It is no coincidence that Mr Lindsay's electorate is made up of a significant number of military personnel. Military figures such as past Australian military leaders General Peter Gration, Admiral Alan Beaumont and Admiral Michael Hudson—some of them involved in the previous Gulf War back in 1991—have all expressed grave reservations about Australia's involvement in a war against Iraq, particularly if it is a first strike pre-emptive involvement. Given that the government is refusing to rule that out— quite specifically refusing to rule out Australian support for such an action—then we need to take the concerns of senior military leaders genuinely. Obviously, again they are hardly people who can be put in the pacifist camp. Their concerns are serious and genuine—as of course are those expressed by pacifists, I hasten to add.

Similarly, some of the loudest concerns have come from the veterans' community— from RSL organisations. There is widespread concern across the community about Australia potentially getting involved in an action such as this. Surely the least that people can ask is that when their parliamentarians debate and particularly vote—the ultimate expression of their views is how they vote on an issue in this place—they will be able to do so in a free way. We have seen conscience votes in the past on so-called life and death issues—abortion, euthanasia, and the stem cell debate that is happening at the moment. Surely a vote on whether Australia should go to war is equally a life and death issue.

I remind parliamentarians, particularly the leader of the government and the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Crean, that there are widespread positive reports from the media and the public about the nature and style of the debate in the stem cell legislation because it was a free vote—because parliamentarians were able to express a wide range of genuinely held views. Everybody recognised that that made the debate far more interesting, far more genuine and far more reflective of the range of community opinions and far more appropriate for the complexity of that issue. Surely we can do the same for any engagement of Australian troops with Iraq. (Time expired)

Question agreed to.