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Wednesday, 16 June 2004
Page: 23948

Senator BARTLETT (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (4:30 PM) —by leave—I move:

That the Senate take note of the statement.

I would start by noting that the minister did not even have the courage to formalise his additional explanation as a ministerial statement but seemed to want to do it in a half-hearted manner—a half explanation, half tabling. Despite whatever half mechanisms and half approaches the minister wants to take, the bottom line is that the lies and the dishonesty continue.

The fact is that this government has cut and run from its responsibilities and its obligations as an occupying power and as one of the few nations on this planet that pre-emptively invaded Iraq against international law. As Senator Faulkner quite rightly pointed out, no-one, and certainly not the Democrats, has alleged that the ADF was involved in the prisoner abuse or is at fault for the prisoner abuse. It is not only false and another deception to allege that that is the case; it is grossly insulting. The implication of the minister's statement that the men and women of the ADF have our government's full support is that the ADF do not have the full support of the opposition or the Democrats. That is also dishonest and false.

Indeed, the Senate has been very careful and, I would suggest, very responsible to state repeatedly, overtly and clearly that, despite all our disagreement with this government's actions, policies and deception, we still support our troops. I believe that should be noted, because in an issue as emotional, as crucial and as important as this it would be very easy for those who are concerned about the government's approach to involve our troops in some way. The Democrats and certainly everybody in the Senate have been very careful not to involve our troops in this political debate. It is very important to emphasise that. That is why I am particularly offended by the continual implication and sometimes blatant and misleading statements by this government that they are the only ones that support the ADF or that these are allegations against defence personnel.

Indeed, I would say that, more than anybody else, the people who deserve the truth and deserve a straight explanation from this government are the defence forces themselves. I believe that the Senate owes it to the men and women of the Australian Defence Force, more than anybody else, to clear up this matter. It is their reputation that is being besmirched. When this government continually suggests that the Geneva convention is an optional extra that does not necessarily apply, it is actually slurring the men and women of our defence forces, because I have no doubt that they are well and truly aware and committed to enforcing and upholding the Geneva convention.

As part of the small number of countries that, regrettably, were part of the invading force, we have an obligation to ensure that the Geneva convention is upheld not just by our own troops but by everybody involved in the coalition that we are a part of. That is why the government's dodgy legal fictions that they are using to avoid responsibility do not hold any water. The fact is that we are part of that coalition—everybody on the planet knows that—and therefore we are jointly responsible for ensuring that all the coalition forces uphold their responsibilities under the Geneva convention and other areas of international law. Just because we broke international law in being part of that invasion—certainly that is the Democrat view, even if it is not the government's—does not mean that we can ignore international law from then on.

Indeed, that is one of the reasons why the Democrats have differed from some others who opposed the invasion, by saying that our troops should stay in there and that we should not withdraw them straightaway, as has been called for by some in the community and some parties in this place. We have recognised that, even though we opposed the war, once we were involved in it and were part of the invasion, we had a moral and a legal obligation to stay there and ensure a transition occurred to a local governing authority to assist with rebuilding security. That is clearly a moral obligation, I would suggest, but it is certainly a legal obligation under international law.

The same applies with something as crucial and central as the Geneva convention. It is not an optional extra. It is not something that we can make passing note to, with the government and the minister continuing to suggest that we do not actually have to legally follow that or stating that we do but we are not obliged to. That is not the case. We are obliged to and we are also obliged to ensure that our coalition colleagues stick to it. Even if you want to go outside the international law argument, surely commonsense suggests that, if we are fighting a battle against terror—a battle against oppression and injustice, as the Prime Minister likes to repeatedly puff up his chest and say—the strongest weapon in that battle is to uphold our own standards of justice and the rule of law. If we allow ourselves to ignore fundamental laws like the Geneva convention, we are simply asking for it. We cannot credibly criticise, complain or seek to persuade others to follow that approach if we do not do so ourselves. That is why this is so important.

I stated that we owe it to defence personnel more than anyone else to clear up this matter, and that is why the minister and the government have failed so dramatically again. Even this morning, Mr Howard said at 9 o'clock, according to AAP, that Major O'Kane, who obviously knows more about this issue than any other Australian, will still not be allowed to give evidence to a Senate committee. The Prime Minister said:

... it is not normal in Senate inquiries for somebody in that position to be interviewed.

That is wrong. I am sorry, but it is certainly a practice—

Senator Ferguson —It's not an inquiry; it's estimates.

Senator BARTLETT —It is also a practice in estimates, where personnel come before the committee to answer specific questions. There have been repeated examples of committees requesting certain people who are likely to know the most about a particular area of inquiry to appear. If the government's argument is that it wants us to set up a specific reference on this matter, then it will complain about us wasting the time of the Senate. The opportunity is there, the precedent is there and the Prime Minister is simply wrong in saying that is not normal practice. Frankly, with the greatest of respect, I very much doubt that the Prime Minister has much idea at all about what happens in Senate inquiries. I suspect he has never attended one. I very much doubt that he knows much about Senate procedure, Senate precedent and Senate practice. In one sense, why should he? I do not know much about the House of Representatives procedures and practice. But he is once again being inaccurate with the Australian people.

The simple question is: why not let this guy speak? What is it that the government are trying to hide? They are simply providing the information they want to let out and nothing else. Again, the minister has the gall to complain about `this atmosphere of suspicion' being generated by the questions that are asked, as though it is a crime to ask questions. Seeking information to reveal the truth is blamed as generating an atmosphere of suspicion. What generates the atmosphere of suspicion is the government's longstanding record of being loose with the truth, of covering up the facts and, most distressingly of all from my point of view, of failing to correct the record. All of us make mistakes; all of us occasionally say things that we later discover are wrong; but the key, simple, fundamental principle when that happens is that you correct the record at the first available opportunity.

Even with the example that preceded this statement, the record was not corrected at the first available opportunity. The record was not corrected for two days after the mistake was said to have been discovered. It was corrected just before the Prime Minister was about to jet out of the country. It was corrected after a day and a half of questioning at estimates rather than at the start of it. The Prime Minister allowed it to happen just before he was about to jet out of the country and left the Defence Force behind to be the scapegoat. It is clearly another example of not correcting the record at the first available opportunity.

There are many who say that you can tell when things are getting bad with a particular government when it starts to adopt a rule that lying is only a problem if you get caught trying to cover it up. I suggest that this government has gone even further than that and that even that unacceptable tenet has been turned on its head. It is running an administration that consistently tries to cover its tracks with misinformation rather than admit to misleading. It consistently tries to cover its tracks with the sort of dishonest abuse that Minister Hill, and even more so Minister Downer, uses. Anybody who raises a concern is criticised as being unpatriotic, as not supporting our troops or as supporting Saddam Hussein. It happens time and time again. Frankly, I am absolutely sick of seeing Minister Downer every time I turn on the television implying that anyone who does not support the war in Iraq, anybody who is criticising the government's policy, does not support our troops and is somehow supportive of Saddam Hussein. That is the sort of shallow but very offensive level of debate that this government has sunk to because it is trying to divert attention from its own clear failings, its litany of dishonesty and the misleading statements that it has made.

This is another example. After weeks of denying any knowledge about the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners prior to January, we have now seen some statements where the government have been forced to admit that was wrong. But they have tried to point the finger of blame everywhere else. As I said, the mistake was not corrected at the first available opportunity. It is part of that record of, instead of admitting to the deceit, continuing along a path of further evasion, further red herrings and, in this case, seeking to blame failings within the Australian military and the Department of Defence.

The Prime Minister has tried to protect himself from criticism by denying any fault along the lines, as many people have pointed out, of the tried and true path of the `children overboard' affair of simply saying, `I wasn't told.' But we all know that the message is out loud and clear now throughout the Public Service and the defence and intelligence communities: do not pass on something that you know people do not want to hear. The clear example behind the whole Commissioner Keelty episode was not specifically to pull him into line but to send the message loud and clear to every other public servant not to step out of line in any way, shape or form.

There were the false weapons of mass destruction allegations against Iraq and the deception that was given to the Australian parliament and the Australian people was that Saddam Hussein was attempting to purchase uranium. The Howard government's attempt to deflect all responsibility for its deceptions onto the defence department and the military is a deliberate attempt to cover up. At the same time we have the government claiming that it only first learnt of Public Service intelligence and we have military officials as scapegoats.

For the past few weeks the government has claimed to have provided information to parliament and the public based on briefings it received from the Department of Defence. What would have happened if we did not have the Senate estimates committees? It is a clear example once again of the immense value of the Senate committee process. If we did not have the Senate empowered to reveal the truth, then these facts would not have come out and the deceit would have continued. It has only been through the presence, the activity and the independence of the Senate that the truth has been able to come out, but there is clearly more that needs to be revealed.

In March 2003 a joint agreement signed by Australian, British and American military leaders conferred obligations on Australia under international law to ensure the welfare of Iraqi prisoners and detainees. This agreement stated that all captured Iraqis must be treated in accordance with the Geneva convention. Australia was also obliged to appoint liaison officers to monitor the treatment of prisoners that Australian troops had handed over to the US forces. In a further litany of evasion, the Prime Minister has denied any responsibility for ensuring the proper treatment of these prisoners by stating that he believed the government had discharged all of its moral responsibilities. The government has confirmed it was not interested in finding out the full story about evidence of abuse of Iraqi prisoners of war.

At the Senate estimates hearings the week before last, Minister Hill was asked about whether they had followed up reports of female Iraqi prisoners being raped and tortured and was told that a US secret inquiry had confirmed the abuse. These were public allegations that were made repeatedly in a number of media outlets. Did the minister make any effort when those allegations became public to find out whether they were true, to determine the accuracy of them? Not at all; he did not. We had another red herring continually put up by the minister at estimates that by asking these questions we were trying to subvert the US justice process. Again, nobody is trying to get the Australian government to run a parallel trial. What we are trying to do is ensure that the Australian government finds out what has happened because we have a responsibility to ensure that people are treated properly, to find out if they are not and to ensure that, if that does happen, justice is done—that that is identified, the guilty are punished and it does not happen again. Unless you find out what has happened, you cannot know whether or not that has been done properly.

It is a pretty straightforward issue and a pretty straightforward fact, but it seems to be something that, even now, the government does not seem to be able to comprehend—this simple fact that if you do not try to find out what is going on you have no way of credibly being able to state that all is above board. That is why this government is able to go around repeatedly and confidently asserting that everything is being done appropriately and according to proper procedure and according to law. Because they do not try to find out and make sure that that is the case, they are not going to know if it is wrong. That is simply not good enough and it is, in effect, dishonest—but it is characteristic of the government's conduct during the entire course of the lead-up to, and then the invasion and occupation of, Iraq. This is not just a debate about semantics. This is an issue that has involved the killing or wounding of tens of thousands of Iraqis and the destruction of their homes, property, schools and infrastructure, which is not mere collateral damage. Of course, all we get again are inferences from government backbenchers that, somehow or other, by pointing this out we are supporting Saddam Hussein.

Senator Sandy Macdonald —Well, you are.

Senator BARTLETT —There we have it again: another one saying that we are supporting Saddam Hussein. That is the level of debate. By pointing out the human cost of this, by pointing out the dishonesty of the government's approach, somehow or other you are an apologist for Saddam Hussein. That is as good as the government can come up with.

Senator Brown —Mr Acting Deputy President, I raise a point of order. There are serial interjections coming from the government and some of them are very low quality indeed. I ask that that stop so that the rest of the chamber can hear the speech being made.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Lightfoot)—That is not a point of order. I will determine whether the level of interjection is contrary to what we normally accept.

Senator Brown —It is a point of order.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —I will determine whether the level is contrary to what we have accepted in the past, and it has not reach that stage yet, Senator Brown.

Senator BARTLETT —It is because of the concern and total condemnation that the Democrats and, I am sure, all in the chamber have for the human rights abuses conducted by Saddam Hussein that any form of abuse, however less severe, should also be identified and condemned. You do not want to run the risk in fighting an evil to in any way concede ground to that evil. The fact is that we went to war based on a false premise given by this government that they then changed after the fact. The facts speak for themselves. The record is there clearly in the Hansardof repeated statements in the parliament that then changed and of the shifting of gears from the excuse, beforehand, of weapons of mass destruction to, after the fact, talking about regime change. That is clear to all. The bottom line with this issue is not about whether you are for or against the war; the bottom line is honesty with the Australian people and standing up for the reputation of our defence personnel, who would in no way have truck with this suggestion that we do not stand for upholding international law and ensuring that our coalition colleagues and anybody we engage in joint operations with should also be required to uphold international law. That is something Australia has had a proud record of in the past, and the Democrats will continue to push at every opportunity to have our country return to upholding international law. (Time expired)