House debates

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Ministerial Statements


10:50 am

Photo of Robert OakeshottRobert Oakeshott (Lyne, Independent) Share this | Hansard source

by leave—I table the minority report that I prepared in relation to the review into the Defence Annual Report 2008-09 as part of the Defence Subcommittee work for the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade. I table that report because it goes into detail in regard to my views on this topic, which I have held from a long way back, from my work in the defence space.

After nine years of war, 21 lives lost, more than 150 soldiers injured and at least $6.1 billion of taxpayers’ money spent, Australia welcomes this parliamentary debate in the ‘people’s chamber’. Many Australians have a great understanding of parliamentary procedure, and recognise that we are debating a statement to the House by the Prime Minister rather than a motion before the House—a subtle difference, maybe, but important, as it means there will be no vote at the end of this debate. As the debate will not conclude with a vote, I therefore ask that the Prime Minister commit to making a concluding statement to this debate, in response to the many contributions from members. It would show respect for the Parliament, respect for the debate and a listening ear from the Prime Minister. I hope she does make that statement.

I listened closely to the contributions of both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, as I have listened closely to many other good contributions such as those from new members—the member for Denison and the member for Melbourne. They are all good contributions demonstrating the truth that no-one owns political and moral right in what is a complex issue.

After nine years and with a potential 10 more now on the table, with those working for freedoms exposed as propping up a less than perfect, corrupt regime, with the language of war and peace becoming tangled alongside the drift in objectives from military to civilian, with nation building being on and now off, with democratisation being on and now off, with the chase for Osama bin Laden being on and now off, with the defeat of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan being largely achieved, with the traditions of international rules of war and the challenges of nation-state versus nation-state being exposed by free movement of the Taliban between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and with increasing reports of institutional support from Pakistan itself, and with all this being dressed in an argument of ‘building a safe haven’ when Yemen, Somalia, the southern island of the Philippines at Mindanao and locations in Indonesia and many other hot spots having emerged in this same nine-year period, and with narcotics, sharia law and religious extremism thrown into the complex mix, it should be very clear to any open-minded Australian that this is all about the shades of grey and anyone arguing a black or white absolutist view on whether we should go or stay is really pushing a barrow all of their own.

We have now found ourselves in one hell of a bind. If we leave, like when the 120,000 Russian troops left in 1989, there will be a void. There will be civil unrest and there will be blood. The bad elements of the Taliban would push back and potentially again gain control. The implications for being a ‘base for terrorist groups’ would potentially re-emerge. On the upside if we leave, however, our 1,550 Australian troops are safe, our tight budget has less strain and our ability to engage on both domestic and regional defence matters arguably increases. Importantly, we must also recognise that article 4 of the ANZUS treaty would be tested if we left.

Compare this with our military staying; there would be more Australian deaths and wounded. The ‘base for terrorism’ would continue to move to alternative locations such as Pakistan, the Horn of Africa, several Asian hot spots and even into locations such as London. We would continue to work on peace and reconstruction, with gun in hand—‘shoot and talk’ as General Petraeus recently put it—and we would continue the work of clear, hold and build for at least another 10 years.

Importantly, however, if we are operating in Australia’s sovereign interests, we have to leave sometime and we cannot delay the inevitable void that will follow—not now nor in 10 years time. It is this issue—the one called Australia’s sovereign interests—that should be central to this debate. We will leave sometime so that we do not spend another $6.1 billion on questionable return. We will leave sometime so we do not continue to lose Australian soldiers for a corrupt regime. We will have to at some point accept a lesser democracy than ours and we will have to at some time recalibrate to focus on our international obligations to our region, to the many challenges that religious extremism and terrorism pose and to what we can and should be doing to develop peace and development in our own region.

The surprise argument that we are in Afghanistan in a military capacity for another 10 years is wrong. We should not be. The US is not even saying that and nor should we. We will not strike a ‘grand bargain’ in 2020, and it is wrong to pretend that we somehow can or will. This will be a messy and complex withdrawal, whether it happens now or in 10 years time. This work should therefore be on in earnest now.

It is and should be recognised as such by the Prime Minister and the parliament. NATO, right now, is escorting Taliban commanders through to the capital, Kabul, to hold peace talks. We are trying to strike a deal now, so why won’t the Prime Minister either admit these peace talks or encourage them? General Petraeus is using the language of ‘shoot and talk’ in regard to the current strategy of engaging with the Taliban. This means that with some elements we are all involved in chasing the worst of the worst down every foxhole.

But we are also talking with other elements of the Taliban in an effort to form a working arrangement and then to get out. Why, therefore, is Australian public discourse stuck on the ‘shoot’ and unable to admit and discuss the ‘talk’ that is currently going on and is the potential light at the end of this complex tunnel? We must admit to the Australian people our true strategy of the moment, and that is that we are talking to elements in the Taliban and we are hoping they will form a part of a lasting relationship in the nation-state of Afghanistan. It is this that will allow our military withdrawal alongside a US and coalition withdrawal. It is sensible work that is happening right now that should be admitted and should be supported and encouraged to draw a conclusion soon. We are talking to the Taliban and we should admit it. We should admit it because it is a sensible military and political strategy that is in both Afghanistan’s and Australia’s best interests if it is successful.

The language of ‘safe haven’ should also be challenged. It is illogical to create a safe haven in one location that creates many other unsafe havens in many other locations. That is what we have done and continue to do. Pakistan is now an obvious example. In the Horn of Africa and in our own Asian region we should not be blind to ongoing concerns about religious fundamentalism. Logically, therefore, our case of making a safe haven in one nation-state is weakened by our lack of action in many others.

One person can do a lot of damage today. None of us are safe from that one person on an unholy mission. We can only use best endeavours within government and within society generally to protect each other. It is the job of all of us to be—and I almost hate to use the expression—‘alert but not alarmed’ in all we see in the way we live our lives.

It is a lie for government to try and guarantee safety through invading one nation. This is a global challenge of trying to capture the heart and mind of that one person with evil intent. It involves all people in all countries. I am optimistic that we are doing good work on this in many locations which deserves recognition within this debate.

I mention as an example my brother John, who works for the little known Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research. He lives in Davao City on Mindanao, a southern island of the Philippines, home to some of the world’s most violent and extreme religious and antigovernment fundamentalists. John works on building economy for local farmers to try to build a long-term sustainable option other than the money to the locals that is on offer for terrorist actions. John does not carry a gun in one of the most dangerous places in the world. John is not alone and has many other Australian aid and development workers in the field in the areas of agriculture, education and health working alongside him.

It is the John Oakeshotts and the many Australians like him who are the nation-builders and who are the answer for the long-term to global terrorism. Australia’s name is strong in the southern Philippines because of this, just as it is in Cambodia, where many in the legal profession have just completed the Duch trials following the atrocities in this poorest of poor nations and the most corrupt of corrupt nations. Civil engagement, without a military engagement, can be achieved. This is how we build safe havens for the long term.

This is not to deny the military role. They have done an excellent job, and I particularly mention the faceless men of the SAS, who have been on the front line in the most difficult of conflicts. To the best of my knowledge, Australian troops and all coalition troops have won all battles. To that I say, ‘Job well done.’

But the challenge is to move beyond the ‘clear and hold’ to the build. And the build, through the peace and reconstruction trust, will be and should be through all Australian departments and all of Australian civil society—just like in the southern Philippines and just like in Cambodia. I would therefore ask the Prime Minister to reconsider her 10-year military commitment and bring that forward to at least 2014. I would ask for her to consider the civil society building that is being done in other hot spots in the world and focus on them as a model for Afghanistan. And I would ask for her to admit we are talking to the Taliban now and we are working for a peaceful settlement now. We will be a stronger democracy if she does.


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