Monday, 9 November 2020
Private Members' Business
In this extraordinary year we are 75 years on from a whole series of historical events, because, of course, 1945 was itself extraordinary. It saw the end of the most awful conflict in human history, but, unfortunately, the awful punctuation point of the war signalled the beginning of the nuclear age. On 6 and 9 August 1945 the United States dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Those cities were not decisive military targets; they were urban centres full of civilians. Nothing justified that action. As President Truman's chief of staff, Admiral William Leahy, said, in dropping those bombs the US 'had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages.' The explosions resulted in the deaths of more than 200,000 civilians by the end of 1945. In the aftermath survivors staggered through the streets, hair and skin gone, in many cases scorched to the bone, crying out for something to drink. It is appropriate and heartbreaking that above the Nagasaki peace memorial hall there is a basin always brimming with water.
We've travelled in time 75 years away from those nuclear events, but there is a risk that we assume such catastrophes are now safely in the past when in reality we may be travelling towards the next one. The truth is no-one watching recent developments in relation to nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation could feel optimistic. No-one watching North Korea or watching as the US considers a resumption of nuclear testing or as Russia openly develops new tactical nuclear weapons can be sanguine about the state of the world when it comes to our nuclear safety.
So what needs to be done? We absolutely must be engaged as citizens in the cause of peace and disarmament to be, as the Australian poet John Forbes said, a spanner in the works of death. We cannot allow matters of military policy procurement and engagement to be areas of assessment and decision-making that are preserved for some insider security elite. One of the principles of liberal democracy which I think we've all had cause to consider over the past few weeks is that a defence and security apparatus must always be at the service of and subordinate to civilian government. We must defend and uphold that vital principle of democratic structure and culture at every turn.
While we take nothing away from Australia's high-calibre agencies and personnel, it should never be the case that any person in the broader community, let alone any person in this place, feels hesitant to question defence or security policy, orthodoxies and decisions. The idea that those matters should be left exclusively to defence and security insiders, especially inside government, without proper scrutiny is dangerous. Australia has made wrong and harmful decisions of that kind. We allowed the British to explode nuclear bombs in this country without any proper parliamentary process. We went to the war in Iraq on the basis of faulty intelligence and through unchallenged decisions of the executive that ignored evidence provided in our own intelligence assessments. It's always worth remembering with regard to so-called military solutions that to the person with a hammer every problem looks like a nail.
In the time since this motion was lodged, the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons has received its 50th ratification, which means it will come into force in January. At a time when the multilateral framework for disarmament and nonproliferation has frayed, any prospect of taking normative and practical steps towards the elimination of nuclear weapons should be welcomed with open arms. Australia has a strong tradition of leading work to limit the danger of nuclear weapons. Traditions need to be maintained and renewed. Diplomatic efforts on that front should be more purposeful and better resourced. We should regain our position as a country that is prepared to be out of step with the status quo in the cause of peace.
I continue to support the consideration of a war powers act to better shape and constrain how this country decides to be involved in military conflict where Australia is not directly under threat. I am glad that Labor's position is to sign and ratify the nuclear weapons ban treaty through work to address its interaction with the NPT and to build wider international support.
In 2016, I had the privilege of meeting Taniguchi Sumiteru in Nagasaki, with a group of his fellow 'hibakusha'—nuclear survivors. As a teenager, Mr Sumiteru was blown from his postal delivery bike by the blast. A photograph of his back, stripped of flesh, became one of the signature images of the bomb. Until his death in 2017, he was an unstinting anti-nuclear activist and in his memoir he writes:
Let Nagasaki be the last atomic bombed site; let us be the last victims. Let the voice for the elimination of nuclear weapons spread all over the world.