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Monday, 28 April 1980
Page: 1814

Senator WRIEDT (Tasmania) (Leader of the Opposition) - We are debating today a matter of public importance. Of course, that is the formal description it is given. It might be more appropriate to call it a matter of national importance, because it is certainly of national concern and of international concern. We in the Opposition have been stressing for more than three months the grave dangers inherent in the situation in Iran, not only the personal perils which the American hostages face there but also the wider regional and, indeed, global dangers which flow from that illegal and deplorable detention. I reminded this chamber of that warning. It was only on 23 January this year, three months ago, that I pointed specifically to the military implications of developments in Iran. I said in that statement that when the Prime Minister (Mr Malcolm Fraser) arrived in Washington he would find that the United States Government viewed the situation in Iran as a much more serious crisis than the Afghanistan issue. I went on to say that Afghanistan does not carry any implications of military action for the United States but that Iran does.

After the attempt to rescue the hostages by military actions has failed, we meet here today in an atmosphere of very real international tension, uncertainty and, indeed, foreboding. The United States is today moving two more aircraft carriers and their escorting vessels towards the Arabian Gulf. Already a large American naval force is in those waters. The reinforcements will make that fleet the largest United States fleet in any part of the world at present- in fact about one-third of its total operational naval strength. Already in that troubled area there is similarly a heavily armed Soviet naval force. We also meet within a few hours of the resignation of the United States Secretary of State, Mr Cyrus V Vance, whom many of us in this Parliament have met. He is a most distinguished diplomat known for his moderate and mature views, lt is reported that Mr Vance resigned because he had opposed the decision to attempt a rescue of the hostages. It seems clear that he has resigned as a consequence of that attempt and its tragic results.

Senator Peter Baume - Are you certain of that?

Senator WRIEDT - I understand that he has resigned. I can go only by the information available to me. That is the position as I understand it. I take this opportunity of recording the regret of the Opposition at the deaths of eight or possibly more American servicemen in this mission. We extend our sincere sympathy to the American Government, the American people and to the relatives of the dead servicemen. They are the first, and we hope the last, fatal casualties of the American ordeal in Tehran.

The Opposition has called for this debate today for four main reasons: Firstly, to call on the Iranian authorities, divided and diverse as they are, to release the American hostages who have been unlawfully detained since last November. Their detention has brought us to the brink of a crisis far wider than that being suffered internally in Iran, which is suffering the agonies of a national revolution that is by no means over. The Opposition repeats its condemnation of the seizure and detention of the hostages. Secondly, today the Opposition wishes to repeat and to strengthen its warnings to the Government to exercise the greatest caution in going along with policies and measures which it is clear do not by any means command universal international support; nor, as we have seen today, do they command full support at the very highest levels in the United States Administration. It is one thing to support an ally- in this case our American ally- but obviously it is another thing to support an ally without question and without counsel. It seems that the Australian Government has been doing that up to the present time.

The Opposition 's third purpose in raising this matter today is to repeat and to enlarge the counsel it is pressing on the Australian Government to state what it believes our Government should be saying to our American allies.

Senator Knight - Do you think we should have universal international support for anything we do?

Senator WRIEDT -I have limited time in which to speak. I have only 1 5 minutes available to me. If the Government were prepared to allow debate on this issue the points that Senator Knight is making could be debated. The fourth and final point I wish to make is that the Opposition has called on this debate in an attempt to get from the Government a full statement of its policies on Iran. The country knows little or perhaps nothing of the Government's analysis, its attitude or its estimation concerning the Iranian position. If we are to judge the situation by the Government's actions, it is making policy as it goes along. It tends to react to events but does not think about the implications of those reactions. Given the present and obvious dangers, it is clear that Australia would be better served and would be better placed to contribute to their solution if there were a bipartisan policy on this issue. I have risen today not to speak in partisan terms and to make political points. The Opposition certainly has not called for this debate simply so that it can say: 'We told you so'. But the dangers mount and the urgency of the need for restraint increases.

In answer to a question today I was very pleased to note that the Minister for National Development and Energy (Senator Carrick) emphasised the need for restraint, wise counsel and cool heads. I commend him for those sentiments. The Opposition's purpose certainly is not to exploit what some critics of the United States see as a moment of weakness and confusion in Washington. One does not kick someone when he is down. One certainly does not attack an ally in adversity. The United States and Australia have long been allies. They still are allies and I believe they will continue to be allies. There is no partisanship in the Opposition's questioning of Government policy on Iran but that is not to say that there is a bipartisan policy. We believe there are serious faults in government policy- at least in that part of which we are aware- but, of course, we do not know much about the Government's policy. We have been deluged in this chamber and elsewhere in Parliament, as well as in statements made outside by Government speakers, by words and warnings on Afghanistan and the need to support the Olympic boycott.

In regard to Iran, the problem is acute and the possibility of military pressure and response by the United States is much more likely- indeed, it has now occurred- but the Government has said very little. Step by step it has responded to American requests for diplomatic and economic support in sanctions against Iran. Presumably, the Government has explained to the United States its view of events in Tehran. Presumably, it has explained why it feels able to apply the requested sanctions. Presumably, it has asked what are America's intentions. But none of this has been explained even in the broadest waywithout breaching security and confidentiality- to the Australian Parliament or the Australian people, nor did the Government seek the support of the Opposition as it set out on what may well be a collision course in the Arabian Gulf, the Middle East area generally, and possibly an area even wider than that; nor has the Government taken the lesser course of consulting the Opposition, or even of offering, until asked at the weekend, to give a security and intelligence briefing on the complex and turbulent chain of events that led inevitably, it now seems, to the tragedy in the Iranian desert last Thursday.

Last Friday, on Anzac Day- the one day of the year on which Australians share and celebrate their national remembrance of past wars and their hopes that there will be no more- the news from Iran burst on us. It is no exaggeration to say that, in that moment of remembering other wars, thoughts of new conflict would have been the first reaction of most Australians. I think also that it is no exaggeration to say that over the weekend, national anxiety, the anxiety of millions of men and women, reached heights, or depths, that fortunately we have not experienced for some years. I suggest that that anxiety would have been less if in recent weeks and months the Australian people had received from the Government information which reflected the true position as the Government understood it. That information should have been given in this Parliament. In bringing on this debate, members of the Opposition are responding to public anxiety, amongst other things. We are responding to a public need to know where the Government, and thus the nation, stand and where they are going. It is clear that there is come disarray in policy. There are differing views, differing voices, and apparently this situation also exists in the United States. The apparent resignation of Secretary of State Vance is a dramatic symbol of the tragic differences that exist there also.

Obviously there are no divisions in either the United States or Australia on the proposition that the American hostages must be released from their ordeal. The debate and division relate really to how this can be best done. As I said in this chamber last week, it is our view that what is at stake, what is the absolute priority, is the safety of the hostages. What is not at stake, on any proper analysis of the situation, is the political future of any political leader in any country. What is not at stake is the saving of anyone's political face or foreign policy. I can only repeat what I said last week, that it would be cynical in the extreme if politics were allowed to take precedence over the safety of the hostages. We believe that this is a situation in which the greatest wisdom lies in the greatest patience. Looking back some 10 years to the case of the United States naval ship Pueblo, the American Government waited patiently for some 300 days to secure through diplomacy the release from North Korea of the crew of that ship. We all remember that that wait was successful. It was successful in two ways: The captives were released and the risk of hostilities was avoided. It was not a dramatic solution, but it was a safe one. There was indeed a triumph of caution. In advocating caution the Opposition ignored the thoughtless attitude that confuses patience with weakness. Last week we repeated our call and our view that the Government should urge on the United States at every stage the need for caution. I am pleased that today Senator Carrick indicated a much greater realisation on the part of the Government of the need to act in that manner.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs (Mr Peacock) has made a quite serious error in accusing the Opposition's policy on Iran of being a mirror of the policy of the Revolutionary Council in that country. I deeply regret that the Foreign Minister saw fit to make that statement. The last thing we need in a debate of this nature is polemics. I am afraid that the Foreign Minister is guilty of that. I am glad that the tragic and bloody events of the weekend have brought the Government to a much closer position to our own of calling for greater restraint by all parties. Both the Foreign Minister and the Government are now compelled, as a result of the tragedy of the weekend and the resignation of Mr Vance, to make some reappraisal of their approach to this great problem. We believe support can come just as effectively in the form of a question as it can in the form of an instant agreement. We believe support and sympathy for an ally can come just as effectively in the form of counsel and discussion as they can in the form of an immediate approval to every decision.

We are not saying that this Government approved or was even asked to approve the American action at the weekend. Because of the needs of military secrecy, information about that decision no doubt had to be restricted to a very small circle of American leaders. In approving step by step every preceding action that may have been taken, we may well have given the United States the impression that we were willing to go along with any decision that it may make and that we always trust its judgment. I do not wish to presume or to analyse, on the basis of imperfect information, the military details of the failure of that mission which, to our deepest regret, cost those lives. In urging the Government to consider more carefully in future the implications of its uncritical eagerness to accept certain policy judgments, we would again urge the greatest caution.

The following question is being widely asked: What can be done? Is it possible at this stage of development for the Iranians and the Americans to find a way out of what is now a dangerous dilemma for both countries? It would be presumptuous of anyone to come up with a ready-made solution. The matter is now far too complicated for that. It would seem that even if a breathing space, what may be called a holding position, can be achieved- I am speaking politically- that would give both parties time to reflect on the horrendous possibilities that are now unfolding. It can be a starting point for all of us to recognise the enormous emotions which now exist in both countries. Emotions have been building up in Iran over an extended period in which the people believe that they have been aggrieved. Similar emotions have developed in the United States because its people also believe that they have most certainly been aggrieved by the taking of hostages. If those emotions can be dampened and if governments of goodwill throughout the world- most if not all of which must recognise the possibility of themselves becoming involved- then perhaps we will have a chance of achieving that breathing space.

The great majority of people feel a sense of bewilderment and helplessness in times such as these. They can only look to their leaders, elected or otherwise, to find some sensible, reasoned way out. I believe it is not beyond the wit of world leaders to find that way out. It is very difficult in these circumstances to continue expecting forever restraint and a more conciliatory attitude. How much Australia as a nation can contribute is doubtful, but whatever we can do we must do. We owe it to our country and to the world at large.

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