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Thursday, 10 March 2005
Page: 14

Senator BROWN (10:22 AM) —I will close the debate in the absence of a government contribution. That itself is an indictment of the government. The government is too gutless to come in here and defend the indefensible position of the Prime Minister, the Attorney-General and the cabinet in effectively taking part in an illegal international process which the Bush administration has taken on.

Let me make this absolutely clear: for an Australian government or minister, including Attorney-General Ruddock, to in any way be part of a process which leads to the torture of an Australian citizen is unlawful and a breach of international law as well as, if it occurred in this country, domestic law. Let me repeat that: for any minister, be it the Prime Minister or the Attorney-General, to be complicit either actively or by default in allowing a process which leads to the torture of an Australian citizen, or anybody else for that matter, where Australian intervention could have stopped it is a breach of Australian law. That is a very serious charge. It is one of the reasons why this Senate inquiry should be proceeding. I am not satisfied with Attorney-General Ruddock saying that torture under no circumstances is permissible as far as he is concerned, any more than I am satisfied with President Bush saying the same thing and then being part of a process which not only allows torture to occur covertly but also expends taxpayers’ money in facilitating and deliberately leading to the torture of people who are taken from second countries.

There is a prima facie case here that the Australian government supports the Bush administration’s policy of rendition. Have we heard Prime Minister Howard say that he opposes it? I challenge him to stand by Australian law and say that we will have no role or part in, give no support to and absolutely oppose the US administration’s use of rendition—that is, the torture of prisoners. Will we hear Prime Minister Howard state unequivocally that he upholds Australian law and will not have part in, condone and turn his back on a process by the US or anybody else that leads to the torture of prisoners? Is Attorney-General Ruddock going to make it explicit that not only he does not condone torture in any form but also he is actively working to ensure that it does not happen, and that he opposes the US policy of rendition and will not have a bar of it? No, there is silence from our government. That must result in a shudder running down the spine of everyone who believes in our democracy. SBS Dateline last night reported:

Up until a year ago, John Radsan was legal counsel for the CIA. One of his tasks was to build a legal framework around the administration’s tough new anti-terror policy. He raises the possibility that if Habib was tortured in Egypt, then Australia may also bear responsibility for what happened.

JOHN RADSAN: If my assumptions are true—and I think they are—that Australia is a part of the convention against torture, that they have similar prohibitions against torture in Australian law, and if the Australians were involved in Mamdouh Habib’s transfer, if they had control, if they had jurisdiction over him, or if they shared jurisdiction with American authorities, then I think they’re drawn into the responsibility.

He goes on to say:

The other possibility is they’ve kept a distance and they’ve been apprised that the Americans are going to transfer that person to Egypt. That may have different implications, different legal implications, but I think from an Australians perspective you would ask, ‘Shouldn’t my Government be doing more to protect me? I’m an Australian citizen—and not to allow me to go to a country that people have a fair reason to believe, tortures people.’ But that’s a political question less a legal question.

I put the political question to this chamber: should we not have a high priority—because undoubtedly we have a responsibility—to uncover all we can about this process of governments elsewhere, if not here, breaking international and domestic law? Should we not be concerned if the Bush administration breaks its own laws—specifically if, in 1998, Congress passed a law that the US could not be involved in torture within the US or anywhere else? The CIA and the Bush administration are law breakers. Are we to turn our backs if the Howard government drifts down that line?

The only way we can ensure that this parliament, which is the supreme power in the Commonwealth of Australia, remains the watchdog over government that it should be is to get the information that is required. There is only one way to get that information, and that is through a Senate inquiry. The opposition and the Democrats may say, ‘Perhaps this isn’t the best way to do it.’ Where is their alternative? That is the test, and they have no alternative. The opposition today has failed its responsibility as an opposition in this parliament because, above all, its job is to know what the government is up to. These are not just any claims; these are serious claims which question this government upholding the law. The opposition says, ‘We don’t want an inquiry into that; leastways not this way and we have no alternative.’ This Labor opposition is weak. It is failing in its duty. It is not taking on this government when it should. It is the political decision that the opposition has made, and it leaves the Greens to do its job for it. We may not have the vote, but I can tell you that we are doing the right thing here.

It is a shameful day, with the opposition welshing on its responsibility in this place in the way it is about to. It is a shameful process. The Greens made it clear that we would give the opposition more time to consider the matter—this is too serious for that not to happen—but it did not need more time. One suspects that it just wants to get it off the plate; the same as Attorney-General Ruddock wants to get it off the plate; the same, no doubt, as Prime Minister Howard wants to get it off the plate. It will come back to haunt us. You cannot turn your back on torture, having signed international conventions and led the international debate against torture, wherever it might occur, and expect no ramifications.

Let me put this clearly again: if we are going to entertain torture anywhere in the world, then let us debate it and let us set the ground rules. Let us not be cowardly about it. Let the opposition and the government come up with their proposals as to when torture is justified. I challenge them to do it. And, Madam Acting Deputy President, do you know what? They will not. They know the abhorrence with which torture is held and they know there is no defining line once you say yes to torture. You have crossed the barrier into what US commentators have called the ‘dark side’. Vice President Cheney said that we must cross to the dark side. Well, Mr Cheney, not me, not the Greens—and, I submit, nor should this parliament, nor the Australian government, cross to the dark side. Certainly if you are going to go there, take a torch with you and let the people of the country see what you are up to. The worst thing to do here is to turn your back on it and say, ‘We’ll leave it to these covert, illegal operations—this breaking of the law by governments,’ including, extraordinarily, the US administration. If we condone them doing it, we are effectively doing it ourselves.

This ought to have been a critical inquiry. This is a critical debate. The government could not even get to its feet and stand for its untenable position, because this government has no leg to stand on here. So it has gone into a silence which echoes with trouble, which is a warning to us all that there is no debating this issue, there is no defence of torture. The government cannot defend it, and it should be on its feet now, stating explicitly that it stands by international conventions and Australian law in this matter. There is no bending or twisting of it. There is no new interpretation. There are no exceptions. That is what the government should be saying, but it is not. It is the wink, wink, nod, nod terrible usurpation of the values of this nation, that the US administration has entertained and taken on board and the Australian government itself is now entertaining. It is cowardly for the government not to be standing on this issue. It is cowardly not to be answering the claims that are arising in the public debate. Thank God, we do have the fourth estate here; thank God we do have the media; thank God we do have programs like SBS’s Dateline to alert us to the matters that this Senate apparently does not want to hear aired in the form of this committee.

Question put:

That the motion (Senator Brown’s) be agreed to.