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Thursday, 26 November 2015
Page: 9159

Senator LUDWIG (Queensland) (16:41): I too rise on the motion put forward by Senator Siewert today. The motion notes that the war in Syria has led to more than 250,000 deaths, and millions of people have become refugees fleeing this war-torn country. I think it is worth just going back a little bit to where this particular issue started. It started as pro-democracy protests during the Arab Spring, which have now turned into a bloody civil war and sectarian war. While it looked like the regime in Syria was going to fall as part of the domino effect that had taken hold in nearby Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, Yemen and Bahrain, the same did not eventuate in that regime changing in Syria. The ongoing conflicts and uprising across the Middle East since that event started in 2011 I think have been described by some as the Arab winter, with no end of the violence in sight.

After the brutal crackdown by the Assad regime, many opposition forces took up arms to defend themselves. It did start, I think, as something that could be described as a two-dimensional conflict between those supporting the Assad regime and the rebels opposing it, but now I think it is very clear that the conflict has taken on a sectarian angle, with fighting also pitching President Assad's Alawite Shiah against the majority Sunni population. It is also being further complicated with the appearance of the Islamic State terrorist group, which is looking to carve out territory for a so-called caliphate. The conflict now is a multifaceted web of sectarian, rebel and terrorist groups vying for control of this country, while, sadly, the people of Syria suffer under the strain of a five-year-long civil war.

The human rights violations have been mounting since the start of the conflict. They include murder, rape and torture. The Assad regime has been accused of blocking access to humanitarian aid such as food, water and medical supplies. The use of chemical weapons such as the nerve agent sarin has also been widely documented and has added to the bleak nature of this conflict. The Assad regime has been condemned resoundingly by Western nations. It does seem to be a regime that does not care about the welfare of its own people. It is a regime that has broken the social contract between the people and those in power, and if anyone considered that it did have any legitimacy, it certainly does not have it now.

The complexity of the conflict has been added to further with the involvement of Russia, and that has added to the tension in the region not least because its air strikes have largely been focused on targeting anti-Assad rebel groups instead of the Islamic State terrorist group. The recent downing of the Russian passenger jet, which Islamic State claimed responsibility for recently, and the shooting down by Turkey of a Russian warplane demonstrates not only the complexity of the area, which it now is, but also the increasingly crowded and dangerous area that is the Syrian conflict. In response to that, it goes without saying that as a citizen in the world Australia does have a role to play.

I want to go through some of these issues in Syria in seriatim, but I will deal with the refugees from Syria first. This is a reaching out from Australia's heart in a conflict which at this point knows no end. It is appropriate that Labor welcomes the government's announcement that it will provide an additional 12,000 places for people fleeing persecution in the Middle East. It is an appropriate response from the government, and we support it on the basis that these would be genuine humanitarian places offered as quickly as possible. Australia and Labor called on the coalition to do more, and this response is welcome in that regard.

Australia does have a role to play in dealing with significant humanitarian crises that have seen the biggest number of displaced persons since the Second World War, and it continues to be vital for Australia to play that role on an as needed basis without qualification and without discrimination. And, of course, with all of this Australia remains guided by the UNHCR, as they see appropriate. The coalition have indicated—I think more strongly than they need to in some parts—how they will meet this challenge, and I welcome and congratulate them for doing that. But it is an area which I think needs more clarity from this government. According to the UNHCR, the number of displaced people fleeing from war, conflict or persecution is the highest since World War II, and Labor's view is that by the close of 2014 there would be an estimated 59.5 million individuals forcibly displaced around the globe as a result of persecution, conflict, violence and human rights violations. Labor does believe, as I said, that Australia can do more to address this global humanitarian crisis. Labor is compassionate and outreaching in this respect. Our approach to asylum seekers enables refugees to progress their claims safely and securely.

By 2025, we on this side think the increase in Australia's humanitarian intake should be 27,000, almost double the current intake of 13,750 under this government, and, as part of our commitment to demonstrate leadership in our region, a portion of the program would be dedicated to resettling refugees from the region. Notwithstanding that, we also believe that the UNHCR should have additional funding to assist them in this work. It is not going to solve the problems. With all due respect, and I know everyone is dealing with this in a sensitive and sensible way, one of the issues with this motion, and I think it stands out, is that we are suggesting in the motion that we all work towards a peaceful settlement to the conflict. It goes without saying that everybody would want to work towards a peaceful settlement of the conflict. I do not think the way the Greens have put that forward is sustainable to achieve, but I do think it does not exclude the ability for Labor to put forward a plan to deal with the results of the conflict and to deal with assisting the UNHCR to work with and through humanitarian needs and find solutions in that regard.

One of the ways we can work towards the ultimate goal of collective peace is in taking a leadership role in South-East Asia and the Pacific to build a regional humanitarian framework to improve the situation of asylum seekers. It would of course include supporting the UNHCR in providing health and education and services. And in dealing with the broader issue of ensuring the protection of the interests of children in detention, Labor is committed to providing a strong, independent voice with the government to advocate for the interests of children seeking asylum.

In this area, it is important to then talk about what the Greens would ultimately want out of this motion, which is to de-escalate Australia's military presence in Syria and Iraq. I do not think anyone would disagree with a de-escalation of Australia's military presence in Syria and Iraq if there were peace in that region, but there is not. Unfortunately, Australia does have a role to play as a global citizen. There is no more important a duty of a government than to keep its people safe and no more serious a decision to take than to deploy our armed forces and place them in harm's way. The peace, security and stability of our region and the world is in Australia's national interest.

It is also in Australia's national interest to be a good international citizen, and Australia has a long record of contributing to a secure and stable international order. No-one underestimates the complexity that is Syria and Iraq today. The extent of the conflict is enormous, and Australia has been asked to help Iraq defend itself. We do need to consider carefully not only the implications of assisting Iraq but also the consequences of doing so. I think it was best summarised in a speech by Mr Bill Shorten, the member for Maribyrnong, when he said:

Today the crisis unfolding in Syria presents us with a new and important decision, a decision that Labor never takes lightly.

What he was describing was how our involvement in this issue would play out. He went on to say that there was:

clear advice that Iraq has the right to defend itself against cross border attacks, given that the Syrian government is unable or unwilling to prevent such attacks by Daesh. Iraq also has the right to request help from other nations, under the United Nations principle of collective self-defence, and has done so.

Mr Shorten reaffirmed, on 9 September, Labor's bipartisan support for Operation OKRA and paid tribute to the brave professional soldiers that are serving on that mission. It is not an easy mission. Notwithstanding the complexities I have outlined, any conflict comes with significant challenges. In fulfilling our duties as good international citizens, it demands the respect of the United Nations. We are members and we are, I think, obligated to meet those reasonable requests.

I think it is fair to say that there is not unanimity on this issue. People do have concerns. They have concerns about the extent of the mission, how long the mission will be and, of course, whether there is an exit strategy around the mission. These are all legitimate questions that should be asked, debated and discussed. There are many who are concerned about how Daesh will recruit and drive its agenda, and these concerns have to be met and discussed as well. It is clear that there is much to be debated here today and as we go forward. So I do not complain about the motion by the Greens. I think it is an area where we all should think very deeply and seriously about what is happening in that country, what our response should be to the unfolding humanitarian crisis and, of course, in responding to the humanitarian crisis we also should consider carefully what our response should be militarily.

The key reason for Australia's military engagement in Iraq and Syria and our participation in an international mission against Daesh comes down to a clear responsibility as a global citizen to respond to the Iraqi government's request for assistance in the fight against Daesh. We have seen the unfortunate results of Islamic State's work and we condemn it. We stand, as the Prime Minister has said, shoulder to shoulder with France in condemning those horrendous attacks. I think it goes without saying that in putting our soldiers in harm's way we should acknowledge that and thank the brave men and women of the Australian Defence Force for the professionalism with which they are carrying out their duties. They are a true credit to this country.

Labor's support for the campaign in Syria and Iraq is fundamentally based on the humanitarian requirements that are unfolding in Syria today. The figures in the motion underscore how important it is to make a contribution. As the Prime Minister said yesterday and as Labor has consistently argued, ultimately we all want a solution in this region. It is not one that is going to come from Australia de-escalating its military involvement and suddenly peace will jump out from behind a wall in this region. As the Prime Minister said, a political solution is needed in Syria and only this will allow attention to turn more fully to eliminating ISIL as a military force.

We do want, and the government should articulate, a clear strategy for Syria and Iraq, a plan to defeat Daesh and a plan for the day after that, to support a government and to support in a humanitarian sense the people in that region to form a viable, vibrant democracy. This strategy does need to include a strong and coordinated military response to prevent Daesh perpetrating horrendous crimes against humanity. As I said, a political solution in both Syria and Iraq ultimately guarantees the rights and privileges of ethnic communities, minorities and humanitarian support which underpins that. As Hillary Clinton said recently,

If we have learned anything from 15 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, it's that local people and nations have to secure their own communities. We can help them, and we should, but we cannot substitute for them. But we can and should support local and regional ground forces in carrying out this mission.

I think that goes without saying. I think Hillary Clinton has summarised that in a way that says in one short comment what would probably take me 20 minutes to say.

I would add, though, that we do have to have a clear objective for this assistance—a plan for now and a plan for when we leave. I am hoping that during this debate the government can articulate some of that plan as to how this will play out. We have seen terrorist attacks this month and this year which painfully show that we must all combat the threat of terrorist attacks within our borders and, more globally, assist those outside our borders, because we all have a common cause of encouraging peace and ensuring that people can have a vibrant democracy, can live safely and securely, and can feel secure within their own borders. In my closing seconds I send a welcome to France. (Time expired)