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Monday, 7 March 2005
Page: 57

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) (4:02 PM) —I seek leave to move a motion in relation to the statement.

Leave granted.

Senator CHRIS EVANS —I move:

That the Senate take note of the statement.

Today’s statement by the Prime Minister in the House of Representatives and by the Minister for Defence in the Senate regarding the additional deployment of some 400 troops and equipment to Iraq is much more than a change in position, as described by the minister. It is a major foreign policy deception by the Howard government. It was only last April—27 April 2004, to be precise—that the Prime Minister, Mr Howard, declared on the John Laws radio program:

I can definitely say we won’t be adding hundreds, I can definitely say that we’re not going to have a capacity to put more regular soldiers on the ground, we just don’t have that and I’ve made that clear to the Americans and the British all along, it goes back to the beginning of last year.

This was a clear, unambiguous statement that defined the limits of our military capacity to undertake further deployments to Iraq. It was an expression of finality, which denoted in unmistakable terms that Australia had done enough. It was also a political statement designed to close down the domestic debate before a federal election, no matter what changes there were in strategic circumstances.

Labor does not support the deployment of these additional troops. Our argument is not with the troops; they have our absolute support and commitment. We wish our troops safe return and hope their mission goes well. We will do our level best as an opposition to make sure they want for nothing. Having said that, we now face the situation where 450 ADF personnel are replacing a 1,600-strong Dutch force.

Labor’s primary concern whenever Australian troops are deployed overseas is, first and foremost, the safety of our troops. The safety of our troops should be the end product of careful and deliberate planning—planning which encompasses the input of intelligence assessments on the situation in Iraq, particularly covering the area into which our troops are to be deployed; planning which guarantees that our troops are properly trained and prepared for the military tasks that they will undertake; and longer term planning which ensures that our troops have the best equipment that the nation can provide.

In all these aspects this deployment is too hasty and made on the run by the Howard government. They describe it as ‘a change of policy’, made supposedly on the basis of a request from the government of Japan—the origin of which remains to be explained—despite having known of the long-anticipated Dutch withdrawal since mid-2004 and despite having declined a United Nations request for additional military support during 2004 and having been dishonest about the details of that request.

The Australian government had been under pressure from the Americans for a long period of time, but the Prime Minister had made our position clear. Now, he has committed more Australian lives to risk. There is no evidence that any serious intelligence assessments were carried out before cabinet made this decision. A force deployed in this kind of environment needs tanks; it needs armoured fighting vehicles and artillery; and it needs helicopter fire support. That is what the Dutch had in this part of Iraq. They had six Apache attack helicopters which could provide timely responses for combat operations. When our forces were last engaged in this sort of work—in Vietnam—they had overwhelming fire support.

Where are the government’s reasons for approving the deployment of 450 Australians to replace 1,600 Dutch combat troops? We know from leaks from Defence headquarters that the deployment of just 450 was the smallest option that was proposed. We know that our defence chiefs believed that 450 was far below what is needed and offered four more alternatives—

Senator McGauran —The British are doing chopper surveillance.

Senator CHRIS EVANS —Senator, you might be happy with the British troops providing security for ours. We have always adopted the policy that we ought to provide our own security. That is what General Cosgrove said was the ADF’s motivation in all previous deployments. But if that is another change of policy I am interested to hear it. What we have is 450 troops replacing 1,600.

Senator McGauran —I am quite satisfied.

Senator CHRIS EVANS —You are quite satisfied that the troops are safe? I hope you are right. I would like to know what intelligence you received before you came to that conclusion. On our part, we are concerned. Ill-informed contributions from you, Senator McGauran, are not a replacement for good, sound policy. The government had a position. It has changed its position and there has been no adequate explanation of it.

We know that defence chiefs believed that 450 is far below what is needed and offered four more alternatives, all including much larger force levels and combat power. Cabinet ignored these four and chose the minimum option. Even the 44 ASLAVs, the light armoured vehicles that will support the troops, will not be fitted with full internal armoured linings. The spall linings provide the most effective protection. Initially we were told that up to 20 of the vehicles would only be fitted with internal curtains—a second-best solution to the lack of long-term planning in vehicle preparation. Today’s statement by the minister and the Prime Minister seeks to hide behind operational security reasons in not providing detail on the ASLAV enhancements. The minister gave quite a different answer again in Senate question time today. It is not at all clear to me or the Australian public whether the ASLAVs have been fitted with adequate protection or whether in fact some will be substandard and will increase the risk to Australian troops.

We should not be surprised about this. What we do know is that the Defence 2003-04 annual report reported that the 1st Brigade, where the bulk of the troops and equipment are to be drawn from, is suffering from significant inadequacies with regard to personnel shortages, insufficient equipment, ammunition shortages and training deficiencies. This is a report from the government’s own department. We in the opposition want nothing more than the safe return of our troops to Australia, and we hold the Howard government accountable for the effectiveness with which they pursue the safety of our troops. That is one of the reasons that we question the longer term motives of the Prime Minister, who has refused to declare his exit strategy.

Where is government policy going in Iraq? We hear that there has been a change in policy in making this deployment. If the Sunni and Shia populations of Iraq come to an accommodation then we may be fortunate. But if they do not, what then? Effectively, the Australians are protecting the Japanese and the British are protecting the Australians. If the Ukrainians or the Poles, for instance, withdraw their troops, will Australia be asked to contribute to their replacement? Will we be required to commit even more troops? If the British are forced to replace the Ukrainians and the Poles and cannot provide as much protection for the Australian forces, will the government reinforce the new Australian contingent with the protection they need? These are the unanswered questions that permeate this ministerial statement. This government is silent on the future, and the lack of a clear, unambiguous exit strategy has warped the Howard government’s policies and made planning on the run the norm. When will this government give a definitive assurance as to when our forces will come home? Why won’t it?

The opposition do not support this deployment. It is a wrong decision, taken without reference to Australia’s primary strategic needs. There is a direct reversal of everything that the Prime Minister has said about our involvement in Iraq for the last two years. Our priorities do not lie in Iraq; our priorities lie here in our region. But with this deployment we risk becoming even more deeply involved in an area outside our strategic priorities. Our efforts should be concentrated here. This deployment policy is wrong, and the Labor Party stand against it. We hope, though, that our troops return safe and that they find the situation in Iraq does not put them at any unnecessary risk. But, as I say, this change in policy by the government needs much more explanation. We need much more reassurance about what we are getting into in terms of this commitment.