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Thursday, 7 July 2011
Page: 4398

Senator MARK BISHOP (Western Australia) (17:25): In my contribution to this debate on the Defence Amendment (Parliamentary Approval of Overseas Service) Bill 2010 I want to some extent to go over ground already covered but address a range of issues that are relevant to the discussion. I want to discuss the submis­sions, the history of the debate, the history of the bill, what I believe to be the real purpose behind the bill—as opposed to its ostensible purpose—leading to a discuss­ion on the role of the executive and why I believe that the current practice of the executive making decisions as to the deployment of Australian forces should be retained and then perhaps conclude, if time permits, by making some comments about the role of information and its disclosure and what I believe to be common ground; that is, the necessity for extensive public debate on these matters where we deploy troops or service people overseas into war zones, conflicts, wars or however the area is properly described.

At the outset, let me express some comments that I have not to date put on the public record. When the committee's report was delivered to the Senate, for reasons that I do not recall, the three principal speakers were each limited to four or five minutes in the comments they could make. There may have been some time restrictions, for whatever reason. I had intended to make some comments about the decision of the government or the Department of Defence not to make a submission to the inquiry and, for whatever reason, I failed to do so. I do think it has been a glaring omission in this particular bill inquiry that our government or the Department of Defence—and, arguably, the Attorney-General's Department—deliber­ately chose not to make a submission to the inquiry. I have a memory of approaching both Dr Watt and then Minister Faulkner and requesting them to authorise the department to make a decision. I was assured that a submission would be received but none was forthcoming.

Why is that important? It is important because this has clearly been an issue in this parliament since at least 1985. There have been successive attempts by minority parties to change the current practice of executive decision making and shift it to one or both houses of parliament as to the deployment of troops overseas—if I can characterise it in that way—and a range of present and past senators have put their thoughts on the record. Indeed, I much appreciate the contribution just put by Senator Feeney, the Parliamentary Secretary for Defence, because his contribution, to a significant extent, did address some of the core issues as to why my party and the opposition party—although I cannot speak for them—are resolute in our opposition to changing the practice of the executive making decisions. He outlined those details, the reasoning, the history and the thought processes involved more than adequately.

It would have been most useful if the department or the government had chosen to put that material on the public record in the bill inquiry organised by Senator Ludlum, because they are important reasons, they are germane to discussion and they heavily influence the deliberations of a whole range of people in this parliament and outside the debate. There is no reason ever for govern­ments or departments not to put their reasoning in an informed way on the public record as to how decisions are being made—and it is regrettable that that did not occur.

I must also, I suppose, be somewhat critical because, if this issue is as important or as critical as Senator Ludlum, on behalf of the Greens, suggests that it is, I would have anticipated that there would have been a groundswell of community interest, support or agitation around the issue apart from that expressed by political representatives of the Greens in debates in this place. In fact, it is my observation that there has been minimal interest and minimal commentary, apart from the aficionados who pay attention to this debate, for many years. I draw the conclusion that that is because, in the wider Australian community, there is, by and large, satisfaction with the processes that success­ive governments have adopted for the commitment and deployment of armed personnel into war zones and to participate in warlike activity in war zones.

Indeed, because the government chose to not make a submission to the inquiry when we were going through that process, I paid more than ordinary attention to the 30-odd submissions that had been put in by interested groups and individuals. Normally I glance at them, make myself familiar with the main arguments and put them away for use in public inquiries. This time I paid a lot of attention. I was surprised, because of the 31 submissions only 12 or 13 supported the notion of prior parliamentary approval, but those 12 or 13 submissions were one-page form letters and merely asserted the need to have parliamentary approval as opposed to executive determination.

Assertions are fine and they reflect the belief of a group or an individual, but you need more than mere assertion on a point to carry the point. One would have thought that, after four or five lengthy debates in this place and a huge amount of material on the public record, the groups and individuals who assert the need to change a system that has been around for hundreds and hundreds of years would have more than mere assertion as the justification for change. Unfortunately, that was not the case. Indeed, six of the 31 submissions supported the bill by reference only to its content, eight proposed alternative forms or amendments of substance, and four or five opposed the bill. Having made those comments, only some six, eight or 10 submissions of the 30-odd addressed the content of the bill and the technical deficiencies, shortcomings or amendments thereto.

If one tracks back on the debate that occurred today and previous debates—at least four or five, going back to 1985, and I think the first was by an Australian Democrat senator—governments and oppo­sitions constantly identified technical deficiencies in the bill. That was put in written reports and it was requested that the submitters attend to those deficiencies. What that indicates is that the government of the day or the opposition of the day show a mature approach to the argument, give it consideration, say that there are a heap of issues and problems, and ask: what is the solution to them? And we get no response. That led me again to the conclusion that those who position themselves for change in this debate are perhaps not as serious as they might think they are, because they choose to not do the hard work of addressing either technical deficiencies in drafting or strategic and technical considerations that are necessary considerations as part of the process of deploying troops overseas.

As has been identified by other speakers in this debate today, and it is certainly attested to in discussion in the committee report, there have been many years of consideration of this matter. A host of passing senators in the Australian Democrats—Senators Mason, McLean, Chipp and Bartlett—used, in substance, the same bill every time they reintroduced the bill. Indeed, the bill being put forward by Senator Ludlam today is in substance—at its heart, at its core—identical, or that close to identical that it does not matter, to previous bills advanced by parties that have been subsumed by the Australian Greens.

Let us now turn to what I surmise to be the core purpose of those advancing this bill—today by Senator Ludlam and the Greens, and in past debates, by and large, by various representatives of the Australian Democrats. It is always paraded as being about issues of participation and democ­racy—that the parliament is the supreme decision-making body in this country and it should participate and decide if we are going to send troops to war. As Senator Feeney said, it is a somewhat attractive proposition. But I think the real purpose behind this bill, and the real purpose behind its incarnation in previous forms, is to simply prevent the Australian government from having the ability to send armed services overseas under any circumstance. I say that upon consider­ation and reflection. I come to that conclusion simply because those who put forward the issue for change never, ever move beyond the point of assertion in their debate.

What is the current position? It is as Senator Feeney outlined. If we are going to send people overseas, it is a decision of the executive, the Prime Minister and cabinet, and that is an inherited position from the Crown. If the government of the day gets it wrong, or gets it bad, or messes up, or is incorrect in its reasoning, it can pay a terrible price. Every three years or every six years, if our commitment to troops overseas is proving to be fallible, or unwarranted, or unnecessary, or too costly, or not satisfying original purpose, we, particularly in the major parties, face the ultimate test. If it is a matter of such consideration, the people will just say: 'You're wrong. You're no longer justified being in government. We will give the other mob a go.' That is the first point.

The second point I want to address in more detail goes to the heart of the debate. It goes to the issue of security, confidentiality and military matters. It goes to issues of deployment, issues of numbers, issues of capability, issues of disposition and issues of purpose. They are all considered in the context of a strategic and military decision making. Why, in the final analysis, do a lot of members of the government and a lot of members of the opposition say, 'The proposition of the Australian Greens is simply a bridge too far'? Why do we say that this decision making should be retained to the executive and not transferred to 220-odd elected members in both houses of parliament? We say it for this reason: consideration by the executive is necessarily secret and confidential. It goes to the deployment of assets of a capital nature and personnel. It involves them going into war zones where they are likely to be injured or killed. We say that that process of decision making is properly kept secret and properly retained only in the hands of the executive and properly only known to those who need to know it.

Whilst we as members of parliament might think that we are so important that we should be consulted or that we should know what is going on in Afghanistan or Iraq in terms of operations, that is a sop to our vanity—that is all. Because if we do wish to know what is going on—and as Senator Ludlam well knows, because he is a member of the Senate foreign affairs committee, and I know because I have been on that committee for many years—regularly, we and the joint committee receive private briefings from senior officers on a whole range of operational matters, on capital acquisition matters that go to commercial-in-confidence, on security matters and on a whole range of other things. Indeed, regularly—three times a year in estimates—senators will ask questions of CDF, Chief of Navy, Chief of Army, whoever is there, and occasionally we are told: 'Listen, Senator, that goes to matters that are not properly in the public domain. If you want to know, we are more than happy to provide a private briefing and take you through what you want to find out.' And our committee and other committees of this parliament from time to time take up the offer and we are informed on a range of matters occurring in the military or the security field that are not appropriate to be on the public record.

So it is not a matter of this body in the executive having only and sole knowledge. Representatives of the broader population can avail themselves of that knowledge, but it is done in a different way, in a private way, because those whom we seek to inflict harm upon or who seek to inflict harm upon us do not need to know how we are going to do it or when we are going to do it or why we are going to do it.

In that context, I must say that there is precious little in the Australian defence forces that is not publicly known and not on the public record. Indeed, in more latter years, I have come to the view that perhaps there is too exhaustive inquiry into a lot of matters that are going on in Defence—too many committees covering the same game. We regularly in this place have ministers of the Crown making public statements on deployments in Iraq or Afghanistan or East Timor or the Solomons. We go through the estimates process three times a year, particularly the May budget. It is no mean feat to sit there for two days, 12 hours each day, on defence and have officers on the other side of the table literally facing hundreds or thousands of questions as to all aspects of their work. There are a large number of committees that regularly inquire into a whole range of aspects that go to capability, capability acquisition, disposition of forces and procurement matters. There are particular intelligence and security committees that in this parliament are charged with the oversight of agencies that engage in that sort of activity.

Members of parliament, particularly in the last five, six or seven years, have been more than diligent in examining and questioning the senior officers of the Australian military forces in the most public of forums, where every word is written down and is often examined by 10 or 12 senators or members of parliament at once. That is a very effective regime—a very, very effective routine—of obtaining information.

The conclusion, again, that I draw is that a lot of information that perhaps in past decades may not have been readily available or had been covered up or not disclosed for a range of reasons is now regularly put out in the public domain. Indeed, I regularly read the opinion polls and, not surprisingly, I think a majority of people in this country are opposed to our involvement in Afghanistan. I do not really quarrel with that conclusion. I think probably a majority of the population does not favour the government's decision to put troops there, keep troops there and keep them there for a number of years into the future. But because this government and previous governments—ministers of the Crown, regularly—and those who are engaged in this national security debate regularly make speeches on these sorts of topics, a lot of information is out there, and the wider community is not concerned that it is being misled, being misinformed, being underinformed or does not know what is going on. They know why we are in Afghanistan. They know why we are fighting there. They know the cost. They know the number of deaths. They know the justification. There is considerable public information. So the process of parliamentary review, parliamentary oversight, parlia­mentary knowledge is absolutely essential; Senator Ludlam is correct on that point, but— (Time expired)