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Monday, 30 August 2021
Page: 17

Senator PATRICK (South Australia) (11:52): [by video link] I want to briefly comment on one of the things that Senator Fawcett said in his contribution to this debate, talking about the need for us to go to war in Afghanistan in response to an attack on the United States. It is worth noting that at the time we chose to go to war the goal was in fact to honour our ANZUS commitment but also to rid Afghanistan of the al-Qaeda threat. Somewhere along the way, the mission evolved into something different, and I think we need to recognise that as we discuss this further.

I want to speak on the Defence Amendment (Parliamentary Approval of Overseas Service) Bill 2020. I strongly support the aims of the bill—that is, to make overseas deployment of the Australian Defence Force subject to parliamentary approval by both the House of Representatives and indeed the Senate. I commend the Greens for bringing this bill before the Senate, picking up, as they acknowledge, the initiatives of the former Australian Democrats, going back as far as 1985.

Six years after the first proposal, the Hawke Labor government committed the Australian Defence Force to the first Gulf War, back in 1991. In the three decades since, we've seen further overseas ADF deployments, notably as peacekeepers in East Timor in 1999 and in the Solomon Islands in 2003, and in the war in Afghanistan from 2001 and in Iraq from 2003. Those deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan have now thankfully come to an end, with the war in Afghanistan being the longest-ever overseas military conflict for Australia.

Engagement in military conflict overseas is a potentially momentous national decision with far-reaching consequences, not only in terms of potential casualties and economic costs but also in terms of political and social division. Such decisions should not be the exclusive preserve of the executive government or, as is actually the case, the highly secretive, exclusive club of the National Security Committee of cabinet.

This bill includes provisions for immediate executive actions in times of emergency, subject to subsequent referral to the parliament for approval by both the House of Representatives and the Senate. I note that that is an approach adopted in some overseas jurisdictions. It also requires regular reporting to the parliament on ongoing overseas deployments. There may be argument about the details, but the underlying principles of this bill support democratic accountability.

There should be no doubt about the authority of the Australian Defence Force to act in its own defence—for example, in naval exercises involving freedom of navigation. We also need to think about the potential involvement of allied military facilities in Australia and the use of Australian and joint facilities here. The Joint Defence Facility Pine Gap is not only a strategic intelligence collection facility; it directly supports intelligence collection of high tactical relevance. The Joint Defence Facility Pine Gap will be directly involved in any military conflict the United States is engaged in across Asia and the Pacific. The Naval Communication Station Harold E Holt at North West Cape supports the US Navy's submarine operations in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. US marines and other US forces are now a permanent presence here in Australia, in the Northern Territory.

We also have to carefully consider Australia's changing strategic circumstances. For more than a century, with the exception of the war in the Pacific from 1941 to 1945, Australia's military engagements have taken the form of sending expeditionary forces overseas to fight alongside either the United Kingdom or the United States. The design of this bill broadly reflects historical experience. In the future, Australia may face a much more strategically contested environment much closer to home. We need to think carefully about precisely how enhanced processes of democratic decision-making and parliamentary approval of military operations will function in our changing strategic circumstances.

The coalition government and the Labor opposition are not supportive of this bill. They are at one in the view that decisions of war and peace should be in the sole hands of the executive government. However, this is an issue that cannot be swept aside and should be the subject of further debate and consideration. For that reason I believe the next appropriate step would be for this bill to be referred to the Senate's Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee for inquiry and report. I do note what Senator Keneally said about a referral in the next parliament. I don't understand why the Labor Party always target measures in the next parliament; they always procrastinate. I accept what Senator Keneally says about the need to examine this issue in more detail, but there is no reason to wait until we enter into a new parliament. I commend the Greens for bringing this bill to the Senate.