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Tuesday, 2 February 2010
Page: 4

Senator LUDLAM (12:45 PM) —I rise to speak briefly on the suspension motion moved by Senator Brown on Afghanistan and commend it to the Senate. I will open with a comment similar to one Senator Brown made last year on the occasion of the second report by the Minister for Defence, which is that the level of disclosure, which we had not seen under the previous government, is appreciated. I also appreciate that the minister did not try to gloss over the fact that this is a bitter conflict with casualties every single day—some of them reported, some of them not—and that we are bringing back dead or injured Australians, whom we have put into harm’s way, on a weekly or monthly basis. But the question is what people do with that information once it is made public or once the disclosures are made during estimates hearings. Where is the debate actually to be held, because it is certainly not held here? This debate has been put into a brief half-hour timeslot this morning because there is really no other time that this issue can be debated. It was not debated properly and a vote was not taken when Australia deployed troops to this conflict all those years ago, and now we find ourselves in a quagmire, in an open-ended commitment entirely contingent on the priorities of our allies, particularly NATO, and our strategy effectively contingent on priorities set in the United States—in Washington and not in Canberra. If it is not an appropriate time for this suspension motion to be debated now, then when will it happen?

Both the Minister for Defence and the shadow spokesperson from the Liberal Party, Senator Johnston, said that they appreciated these reports on our progress. As much as the regular reports are appreciated, it is not progress. We are not making progress in Afghanistan. A part of the problem is that what we hear are updates on a failed security strategy in Afghanistan and a failed electoral strategy. Increasing civilian casualties, which ADF personnel have been involved in, have turned the population in large parts in that country against the occupying troops. The United States and NATO have armed militias, have armed particular warlords and have taken sides in conflicts that have held back this country through colonial occupation for literally centuries. There is no reason to believe that there is going to be any difference this time. The military contingents have different priorities, are not coordinated and lack a common diagnosis and common strategy. This again is something that Australia finds itself caught up in and it is being held hostage to foreign policy decisions taken in foreign capitals.

One of the first things I did when I took my seat in the middle of 2008 was reintroduce a bill the Australian Democrats had had on the Notice Paper for many years around the deployment of Australian troops into conflicts. As much as this motion of Senator Brown is concerned with how to extract ourselves from one of these conflicts, the legislation which I sponsored and which the Greens have been promoting talks about how we get into these conflicts in the first place and that these decisions should not be left to the executive. There seems to be consensus from both the major parties that this is a debate that they do not want to have. Perhaps sometimes later this year we will have two hours to debate it, and I am presuming it will be voted down by both parties because the debate itself does not have the level of maturity it does in the nations of even some of our closest allies.

The decision to commit Australian troops to war is the most serious decision that can be made by the political leadership of this country. We saw in the case of Afghanistan, and even worse in the instance of Iraq, that decision taken behind closed doors on the basis of faulty and politicised intelligence. That decision put people into harm’s way and led to the ongoing quagmire we are now held up in today. That decision should have been put to the parliament. It may not have even led to a different outcome, but at least the public would have felt, through their elected representatives, that they had some stake in the debate. What we get instead is the kind of polarisation where we have hundreds of thousands of people—in the case of Iraq and smaller numbers in the case of Afghanistan—marching in protest against the decision. I know very well, because I was involved in the protests, that the community had grave concerns about committing Australian forces to Afghanistan for precisely the reasons that we find ourselves discussing now.

I support this suspension motion so that the debate can occur in a mature fashion. The Greens are not about taking sides or politicising this debate, but we want the facts on the table and we want the community to feel that they have some stake in the debate rather than simply receiving these grim updates every couple of months from the defence minister that really only serve to highlight the fact that we are in a very serious situation in Afghanistan and that there is no end in sight. I also use this opportunity to promote the debate that should be had on the so-called ‘war powers bill’ about committing Australian troops to these conflicts in the first place.