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Thursday, 14 November 2002
Page: 6449

Senator BARTLETT (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (7:23 PM) —It is also important to note this report, entitled Visit to Australian forces deployed to the international coalition against terrorism: parliament's watching brief on the war on terrorism. As the title of this report suggests, there was a visit by members of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade to some of the Australian forces that are in the Middle East region at the moment, deployed as part of the battle against terrorism. It is particularly relevant now, even more than it was at the time of the visit, because of the tragic incident in Bali. There has been a lot of debate since then about whether Australia should be focusing the use of our armed forces and resources much more in our own region. To that extent, this report is valuable because it gives an idea of the extent of the deployment of Australia's armed forces in countries such as Afghanistan, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, the Persian Gulf and Dubai and whether that is the best way for us to contribute to the ongoing battle against terrorism. It is also particularly germane because, as this report itself mentions, the issue continually being raised in that region is whether there will be further and much larger conflict through an attack on Iraq by the US with support from other nations.

Again, because it quite rightly points out the value of combating terrorism, it begs the question: why is our government allowing itself to be put in a position where it will be giving support to a war where no case has been made that it would contribute at all to our campaign against terrorism, while a reasonably good case has been made, from the Democrats' point of view, that an attack on Iraq would make the fight against terrorism more difficult? A war would destabilise the region enormously. Iran, just next door, which is obviously no friend of Saddam Hussein, is likely to be destabilised by it as well. Iran is likely to get another huge influx of Iraqi refugees, such as it has had in the past. Such a war is likely to weaken the position of the reformers in Iran and restrengthen the position of the fundamentalists and clerics, which would make the fight against terrorism that much more difficult. Instead of lending support to a country like Iran and giving support to those people there who are trying to reform and improve that country in terms of its attitudes—to make them less extreme, more reasonable, more moderate and more workable with the rest of the world—a war will do the one thing that will cut the ground right out from under those people and make it much more likely that terrorists and extremists will again get institutionalised support from countries like Iran.

There are plenty of arguments as to why engagement in Iraq by the United States would make our battle against terrorism more difficult. That is particularly relevant in terms of the commitment that we are already making. It is being irresponsible to the commitment that we are already making in the campaign against terrorism for our Prime Minister to be in a situation where he is basically advocating the right of George Bush to engage in war with Iraq with our country's support. Everybody knows that, if George Bush asks Mr Howard to support his attack on Iraq, Mr Howard will say, `Yes.' And everybody knows that President Bush is mighty keen to continue to prosecute the prospect of war against Iraq. In effect, our country's commitment to the campaign against terrorism is being put at risk, and our government is doing nothing about it. Our government is helping to put that campaign at risk by willingly supporting the actions of President Bush, who will undoubtedly cause even more damage to the campaign against terrorism if he does go ahead with this.

In the Democrats' view, that is very irresponsible. It is globally irresponsible. It sells out Australia's interests, particularly. But, for those members of our armed forces who are putting themselves in danger as we speak in countries such as Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan and the like, it is basically betraying all of their effort. We owe it to them, as much as anybody, to not support actions that will devalue the work that they have done for the benefit of, and on behalf of, all Australians. The views of, and the impact on, the armed forces are sometimes neglected in debates that we have about armed conflict. In a way, that is understandable. When people sign up for a Defence Force role, they go where they are sent. That is what they agree to do when they decide to enter the Navy, Army or Air Force. Nonetheless, we owe a particular obligation not to commit those people to conflict situations except as an absolute last resort. We also owe it to those people to ensure that, when their actions have concluded and they are back in Australia as veterans, their needs are adequately met.

I think that is one of the flow-on issues from reports like this, which show the good work that our armed forces do. It highlights again how unacceptable it is that our armed forces, who do such valuable actions and put themselves in such situations, do not always have their needs met when they return to Australia and are often put in a situation where they are made worse off than they should be as veterans. That is something that should also never be forgotten when we are looking at debates about and reasons for engagement in military conflict.

We saw earlier this week the fairly chilling news reports of Osama bin Laden allegedly broadcasting a radio message. I do not know whether it was him or not. People who know a lot more than I do say it was. I am not sure it matters particularly. It is fairly obvious that the message is aimed at extreme elements of the Muslim community. Of course, that message specifically mentioned Australia, Bali and the like. For that matter, it even mentioned East Timor as a reason why the Muslim community should rise up against Australia. I think it is important to emphasise that Osama bin Laden and his group are not representative of Islam or the Muslim community, as is readily and widely acknowledged by them. But again it raises the question: if these threats are real, as they obviously and tragically are, and if there is ongoing momentum for extra extreme activity in our region and the targeting of Australians, amongst others, why in that context will we then support the US's desire to engage in war on Iraq?

Senator Ian Macdonald —What is your solution?

Senator BARTLETT —There is this idea that war is inevitable, as though we cannot figure out what else to do, so we may as well drop some bombs on the guy and worry afterwards about what happens. There are plenty of other broad solutions that should be pursued. War should be a last resort.

Senator Ian Macdonald —So you would give in to terrorism?

Senator BARTLETT —When you say, `Let's try other solutions,' the typical response is some sabre rattling from governments, who say that you are not patriotic and that you are giving in to terrorists. The reason I mentioned East Timor in particular is that the suggestion from the radio message was that Australians are being targeted in part because of what we did in East Timor. Nobody in Australia would suggest that we therefore should not have helped East Timor because we might have made ourselves more vulnerable to extremists. I am sure Senator Ian Macdonald would agree with that. Of course, the Democrats' view is that we should have helped East Timor a lot earlier.

Senator Ian Macdonald —What are you saying, then?

Senator BARTLETT —I am saying that you should not make the case against or for war on the basis of threats from terrorists. I agree with the minister on that. You make the case for or against war on its merits. As I have said for the last 10 minutes, there has been no case made for the desirability of war on Iraq, particularly in the context of the battle against terrorism, and there has been a strong case made that war on Iraq will make our battle against terrorism much more difficult. We need to make the case on its merits.

Senator Ian Macdonald —At the moment, we are not going to war.

Senator BARTLETT —There is a very merited case for staying right away from a war on Iraq. This government is not making any case at all. It is putting Australia's future in the hands of President Bush, which is one of the scariest concepts I can think of. Our armed forces deserve a lot better than that.