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Thursday, 10 March 2005
Page: 9

Senator BARTLETT (10:02 AM) —by leave—I move:

At the end of paragraph (a), insert “, after September 2001”.

At the end of paragraph (b), insert “, after September 2001”.

Senators may not feel that it is necessary, but the amendment specifies that the motion relates to any potential activity or Australian involvement after September 2001. That seems as good a cut-off date as any, purely because allegations could potentially be made about Australian involvement in various practices overseas stretching back to the Boer War. It is simply to clarify that the focus is on recent developments.

It is important to clarify the substantive motion before the chamber. We have a motion to refer a matter to a Senate committee to examine and report back to the Senate by the end of June. The matter that the Senate committee is being asked to examine is Australian involvement in or knowledge of the practice of sending people for interrogation to countries which allow torture, such as Egypt, and any potential Australian involvement in torture in overseas countries. I should say at the outset that the Democrats will support the motion. We think it is a fundamentally important matter, and certainly it is crucial to ensure that as much light as possible is shed on it.

It is not my job to defend the ALP—I hope that they remember that I am about to do it—but I understand the views that Senate Ludwig has raised. Whether or not this is the best process to get the maximum result on these matters of very serious public concern is something on which there can be different valid opinions. Whilst Senate committees are very powerful and very important, it should not be suggested that they are all-powerful and can get any information we would like. As we all know—Senator Ludwig and I probably know this more than many others because of some of the migration committees we have been involved in—a lot of the time you cannot get the information you want, even from government departments, let alone when it involves issues that undoubtedly would be portrayed as involving national security. That is a big barrier to getting adequate information on some important matters.

It may well be that committees like the ASIO, ASIS and DSD committee may be more effective in that regard. Having said that, there are counterarguments. Firstly, there is no crossbench representation on that committee, which I believe should be altered. Secondly, a lot of the time you have that catch-22—you can get some of this confidential information but only if you do not tell anybody about it—which is not of much use if what you are told is seriously concerning. You actually become complicit in, and in some respects an accomplice to, knowledge of a practice that you do not support but that you can do nothing about. They are difficult questions.

It is not helpful—if I can provide some gratuitous advice to Senator Brown—to imply that anybody who does not agree with a particular process is therefore soft on the issue, does not care about the issue and is welshing on it. I mention as an aside that one of my staff who has a Welsh background objects to the word ‘welshing’. I do not know whether that is where it comes from but they always make the point to me, so I thought I would pass it on.

As people would know—and I would hope that the media that run with stories like this one would also know—a lot of work has already been done in estimates committees, including by Labor. It is easier for them to do it because they have got more people, but nonetheless they have done a lot of work. Senator Nettle has also done some work in asking questions about this. Some information has been provided, more questions have been asked and more information will come forward, I trust. I suspect it will not answer the questions fully, particularly the answers from this government, because the other shortcoming that we face in the Senate is—and we have seen this repeatedly—that even when answers are forthcoming they tend to be incomplete, misleading and, some of the time, simply wrong. We certainly saw that with, for example, the ‘children overboard’ committee and in answers about this whole area of activity to do with what is happening in Iraq.

We have seen that time after time—the weasel words and the deliberate distortion of the facts by the careful choosing of words to misrepresent things. It has happened time and time again, and that makes life more difficult for us as well. That is why it often takes a long period of time—not just overnight—to ask the questions, test the information, go back and test it against something else and come back at the next hearing and pursue it further.

Whether or not a references committee with a reporting date in three months time would be able to do that is open for debate. I think those issues are relevant. I would also point to the example of Senator Allison, who, earlier this week, was successful in establishing a select committee on mental health. That is something that took a few weeks and a fair bit of negotiation with a range of senators in this chamber. At the end of it, we were able to get support not just from the opposition but from the government for an inquiry into what is a very important issue. This issue is equally important, I believe, although very different.

Here is a bit more gratuitous advice: if you genuinely want to get support for an inquiry, it helps to negotiate with people in advance rather than to create a situation where the first time they hear about it is when they receive calls from the media saying, ‘Do you support the motion for an inquiry?’ which is then moved the next day. Apparently, there were erroneous reports on the ABC about the ALP’s position, given that they are not supporting it, I gather, and they were reported as saying they would. Those sorts of things do not help in trying to get constructive cooperation, and neither does insinuating that people who do not support the specific process therefore do not care about the issue.

Having said that, I should remind people that the Democrats are supporting this motion. I think it is sufficiently important and, given some of the other circumstances around at the moment, appropriate to have a focused, honed examination of this particular aspect. Part of what influences my view on this matter is what I referred to before—the performance of this government in areas like the debate about interrogation et cetera. Senator Evans from the Labor Party successfully moved for an inquiry into that matter earlier this week. Again, in that case, he consulted the other parties and ended up moving the motion to set up that inquiry jointly with Senator Allison and Senator Brown. That is an example of cross-party support.

In that example, we saw extraordinary dissembling and ridiculous word play from the government and the Minister for Defence, Senator Hill, about whether we had interviews or interrogation. The people who were actually there on the ground were saying, ‘I was involved in interrogation,’ and the minister was saying, ‘No, they were interviews.’ I know who I would go with, and that is the person who was actually there and can say what occurred—the people who are sufficiently experienced and capable that our government and our defence forces chose to put them in these positions. They are obviously people of high capability. As soon as they come out and say something that embarrasses the government, they get dismissed. There are insinuations that somehow or other they have hidden agendas, they are not capable or there is some other problem with them. You get insinuations and character attacks on the people involved.

That is one area that the Senate has chosen to examine further, because there are clearly a lot of question marks there. I think this is another area that the Senate should choose to examine further. In fact, whilst there are some differences, there is an argument for merging the two inquiries or issues. There is also an argument to the contrary, I might say, but I think it could at least be considered, because there are overlaps. Paragraph (b) of the terms of reference refers to ‘any Australian involvement in, or knowledge of, the practice of torture overseas’. Interrogations do not necessarily involve torture except in their more extreme form, but there is obviously a continuum there about what Australia knew and, indeed, what Australian involvement, if any, there was in some of these clearly unacceptable practices. These practices clearly breached international law—which, as Senator Ludwig rightly pointed out, the Australian government has until recent times been quite strongly promoting. So there is some overlap there.

Whilst the Democrats are supporting this motion, it appears it will not be passed. I suggest that that should not be the end of it. We should continue to explore ways in which these matters can be examined as effectively as possible. I think that can and should still be done. The matter is not whether people support this practice, because clearly we do not. The opposition does not and, one would hope, the government does not. The question is how we most effectively investigate it, so I think this approach suggested here would be useful and would bear fruit.

Obviously, this has some links with Mr Habib in particular. Mamdouh Habib presents some very vexed issues for people involved in public debate. The Democrats, particularly my colleague Senator Greig, have spoken out strongly over a long period of time about our concerns about the way Mr Habib and Mr Hicks in particular have been treated. Of course, when you do that, you are portrayed by the government as supporting people who are allegedly terrorists or involved with terrorists. Often it is at that time when it is most important to defend people’s rights. When people are unpopular and may have done heinous acts, that is when you should be particularly strong on defending people’s rights. It is easy to defend the rights of people who are popular. You have to defend the rights of all people equally because, when you are defending the rights of people such as Mamdouh Habib, you are defending the rights of all Australians. It is a simple fact that circumstances can always conspire in various unanticipated ways, where somebody’s rights can be at risk. Those rights need to be defended and, if they are not defended when it is more difficult, then there is a much greater risk that people in the community whose rights are being breached will also suffer when they should not have to.

Given the ongoing statements being made through the media by a range of people, including Mr Habib himself, I think it would be useful for him to have an opportunity to present before a Senate committee and have some of his claims tested. I am not sure whether that would end up being a positive or a negative for him, but that is not the issue for me. The issue for me is to try and get the facts out in the open and ensure that due process is followed from all perspectives. Clearly, the situation of Mr Habib is presenting ongoing difficulties for some people in the Islamic community who are torn between wanting to defend this person’s rights and being concerned about how public perceptions of their wider community are perhaps being distorted at the same time. So something that can get this matter more fully out in the open and more comprehensively tested across the board could be much more widely beneficial than just for the sake of Mr Habib. It could also be more beneficial to get the facts about what the Australian government or their agencies have or have not been involved in or what knowledge they do or do not have. I think it is sufficiently serious that it needs proper examination.

Another factor that has to be put into the mix is that, as we all know, the Senate composition will change at the end of June. The government will have the numbers and inquiries such as this will become more difficult to set up. That does not mean that we should be setting up a whole range of ill thought out inquiries just so that we have them all in place. Inquiries can continue, certainly until at least August, if they are set up before the end of June. I suggest that it would be at the government’s peril if they sought to close down any inquiries that had already been established. I think it would be highly unwise of them to do that, even though they would technically have the power to do so once the Senate reconvened in August.

In other circumstances there would be an argument for doing this in a more measured, drawn out way. The estimates process has already been mentioned. That is a less exciting process that does not get headline stories as regularly and does not get splashes on morning radio as often, but it is often more thorough. It is often drawn out over a range of different hearings—often over years—to get to the truth of matters. There are questions and answers, and then questions often follow on from the answers given. It can take a long time. Media interest tends to move on, but the substance of the matters is as important as ever, and taking that time often produces better results.

I assume that estimates committees will still operate after the government gets control of the Senate. One would certainly suggest that it would be highly inappropriate for those committees to be closed down or curtailed in any way. So that process would still be open. Most of the people who would provide information to an inquiry such as this would be the people who also appear before Senate estimates committees. There would not be too many people who would have knowledge of these matters, other than the government agencies themselves who appear before estimates. The key difference between the estimates process and this inquiry is that the inquiry will allow others to put in submissions or to appear before the committee—whether they are well-known people, such as Mr Habib, who have already made allegations or other citizens who may have information that they wish to provide to the committee and the committee may wish to test at a public hearing. That is the key difference between this inquiry and the estimates process. That is one reason why, on balance, this approach should be supported.

I suggest to all senators—in particular, the opposition and even the government—that this is a matter that should continue to exercise people’s minds, even if it does not succeed today. It is an incredibly serious issue. We are continuing to see more ways of getting around long-established, accepted standards of how people should be treated, in time of war and outside of it. I do not accept that just because the phrase ‘war on terror’ is used it means we are at war. Again, I think that is false word play that should be resisted. But it does not dispute the fact that we do have a serious challenge in the face of terrorism and it presents tests of those long-established standards of how we should behave.

As the UK courts quite wisely decided towards the end of last year, in many ways it is at that time that you need to most strongly defend the freedoms, standards, rights and traditions that our societies and democracy have been built on. Democracy was not established overnight, despite what the government might occasionally suggest has happened in Iraq. Democracy evolved literally over centuries. Those freedoms evolved with it, and you do not want to water them down or toss them out at the first sign of a threat. That is at risk of happening here. That is why this is such an important and fundamental matter and why it should be examined. In that sense, I very strongly support and endorse the very passionate comments of Senator Brown, as we support this motion.

Given that the motion is not likely to succeed today, I think we—and, I would hope, even the government—need to look at ways to engage more cooperatively. It is in all of our interests in the long term to ensure that these sorts of practices do not develop and that not only we are not involved in them but also we strongly work against them in the international community as well as in community debate in Australia.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Sandy Macdonald)—The question is that the amendments moved by Senator Bartlett be agreed to.

Question negatived.