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Monday, 30 August 2021
Page: 12

Senator STEELE-JOHN (Western Australia) (11:15): [by video link] The Defence Amendment (Parliamentary Approval of Overseas Service) Bill 2020 comes before the parliament at a vital time, as the Australian community looks on with sadness and great frustration as a humanitarian crisis unfolds in Afghanistan. At the end of Australia's longest war, it is vital for us to immediately analyse how it came to this and take urgent steps to ensure that we never again are involved in a colonial war of aggression.

There are many aspects and many issues that led to the Australian engagement in Afghanistan. It's a complex topic that has been the subject of much academic debate in the last two decades. However, it is clear that one of the key factors which led to our initial engagement and continual presence in Afghanistan—under conditions where there was a profound lack of mission clarity, in that the enemy was unidentified and the general purpose of the deployment unclear—was that the Australian people were taken to war via the unilateral decision of a prime minister. In the ensuing 20-year period, there was no requirement to seek the authorisation of the Australian parliament to continue that deployment, and there were very few mechanisms by which, publicly, the aims of the war—its scope, its duration and its legal basis—could be transparently analysed.

This is not a situation that is unique to Afghanistan. It is the case that, right now, the Australian Prime Minister and cabinet is empowered to unilaterally take Australia to war. In the previous decades we have seen this happen on multiple occasions: first in Vietnam, then in Afghanistan and also in Iraq. In each of these conflicts, there is a connecting thread. It is a connecting thread of allegiance and of self-interest. We went to war in Iraq and Afghanistan for one reason and one reason only: because it served America's strategic interests and it therefore served Australia's strategic interests. John Howard took us into those colonial wars of aggression because it suited the United States and it therefore suited him, strategically and politically, and we stayed there for 20 years, in the case of Afghanistan, because it suited the United States and, therefore, it suited the Prime Minister of the day and the Labor Party. We are now leaving primarily because it suits the strategic interests of the United States and therefore it suits the strategic interests of the Morrison government.

Any and all arguments as to the humanitarian nature of these engagements—putting aside the oxymoron that is the idea that you can bring peace and humanity at the end of a gun—are made to justify and to overcover the central reason for the presence. At this moment, there is an urgent need for this parliament and for this government to act in a multiplicity of different ways to support the people of Afghanistan in the middle of this unfolding humanitarian crisis. We must also look to the legislative mechanisms that would, in the future, prevent such a war from being engaged in, and one of those mechanisms is this bill.

This bill would do a few very simple yet powerful things. It would require a vote of both houses before Australian personnel could be deployed overseas and it would require—should that resolution and empowerment be given—the Australian defence minister to provide to both chambers a comprehensive report, every two months, speaking specifically to the scope of the engagement, the legal basis for the engagement, the duration of the engagement and what is being done to ameliorate, to end, the conflict and crisis, to enable the resolution to be withdrawn. This would have a couple of effects—and I note here that, within this legislation, there are very carefully crafted carve-outs and instances to allow for emergency situations, and I also note that this bill speaks specifically and exclusively to the deployment of Australian forces beyond our territorial boundaries. The bill would have a number of beneficial effects. It would play a number of roles in ensuring that we do not end up in a situation like Afghanistan again—and let me be really clear: when I say 'we do not end up in a situation like Afghanistan', I am also talking about ensuring that no nation is ever again subjected to the humiliation and degradation of colonial occupation.

So the bill would do the following things. Firstly, by placing the authorisation for an armed conflict within the parliament, it would put many a barrier between the authorisation to deploy overseas and unscrupulous, egotistical and misguided politicians who may seek to exploit a national or international crisis for their own personal or strategic aims. It would require every senator and MP to actively scrutinise the case for war and to actively scrutinise the intelligence being placed before us, because we know what happened without this level of scrutiny and accountability, particularly in relation to the purpose of armed conflict deployments and the impacts on the nations in which they are deployed. If parliament is not given the opportunity—if the public are not given the opportunity—to scrutinise legislation, then we go to war based on lies. That is what happened in Iraq. That is what happened in Vietnam. We went to war based on lies because we were not able, as a community, to scrutinise and get to the bottom of the case being put to the people.

I also note that this ability to maintain clarity and to have accountability in relation to the purpose, scope and legality of an engagement also serves the purpose of maintaining greater scrutiny and accountability of the armed forces. I note here the comments from Justice Brereton's report, that part of the culture that developed in our armed forces in Afghanistan—part of the toxic mixture that came together to enable such horrific alleged war crimes in Afghanistan by our special forces—was the lack of mission clarity and the nature of fighting an unidentified enemy in an insurgency environment for a prolonged period of time. This legislation would give us the ability to be continually scrutinising—continually asking the questions: Why are we there? What are we doing? What is being done to get out? These are the urgent questions that need to be considered. We need to put these barriers between politicians and their ability to deploy the ADF to armed combat, because 20 years of war have shown that they cannot be trusted with this power.

The Australian Greens have the view, alongside the community, that we should, as I say, never again participate in one of these colonial wars of aggression. Our goal must always be peace, and it is not lost on any member of our community that at the time of both of these engagements there was great community uprising and opposition to them, which was blunted again and again by the absence of an opportunity to pressure members of parliament into reflecting that view in the parliament, in their chambers. This bill would ensure that, should America or any other power ever ask us to go with them into war, should an Australian Prime Minister ever again come before the nation and make a case for war, that would have to be fully and transparently scrutinised by the parliament not once but continually over the life of the deployment, the goal being to bring that deployment to an end and restore peace.

Perpetual war at the behest of the United States must be a thing of the past. We must consign it to the dustbin of history. The blood that has been spilt, the lives that have been ruined, the countless decimated villages of Afghanistan and Vietnam and Iraq call on us to take this action, as do the mortally wounded, the maimed psyches of so many of our returned service personnel, who did a job that they should never have been asked to do, in an environment they should never have been asked to work in, to an unclear brief that was beyond their skillset or their training. The worst thing of it all, the worst shame of it all, is that prime minister after prime minister, defence minister after defence minister, one after another, the politicians in this place, knew. They knew that there was no point to these conflicts other than serving America's interests. They knew that there was no way out. They knew that there was no clear purpose, yet they kept sending Australian personnel over there and they kept a presence in a nation which caused incredible harm and damage.

There must be political transparency. There must be political accountability. This parliament, representative of the community, must take upon its shoulders the full responsibility of ADF deployment. It is not good enough that the closest many MPs get to the reality of warfare is shaking the hand of a veteran on Anzac Day or participating in carefully stage-managed exchanges in nations like Afghanistan. It is not good enough. If the families of Australian service personnel have to sit up through the night wondering whether their loved ones are okay, if the families of folks in Afghanistan have to sit up through the night wondering whether the throw of that chopper means the Red Beards are inbound, that of their loved ones is going to be taken, then MPs too should sit with that burden, should sit up through the night wondering if the case was good enough, feeling the responsibility. This we must do. This is what this legislation is focused on, and I commend it to the Senate.