House debates

Monday, 9 November 2020

Private Members' Business

Nuclear Weapons

11:39 am

Photo of Josh WilsonJosh Wilson (Fremantle, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for the Environment) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That this House:

(1) notes:

(a) 6 and 9 August 2020 will mark, respectively, the 75th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki;

(b) by the end of 1945, it is estimated that 213,000 people had died in those communities, and the legacy of chronic and terminal illness, stillbirths, birth defects, survivor discrimination, and acute environmental harm and contamination continues to the present day;

(c) 2020 also marks the 50th anniversary of the coming into force of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty;

(d) the ongoing work of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, an initiative founded in Australia that received the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize for advancing a Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons; and

(e) since 2017, 81 countries have signed and 38 have ratified the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which will enter into force after the 50th ratification;

(2) further notes with concern:

(a) a number of recent developments that weaken the international system of weapons monitoring, impair progress towards nuclear disarmament, and undermine agreements to prevent nuclear proliferation and explosive testing;

(b) the fact that the hands of the Doomsday Clock have been moved to within 100 seconds of midnight, representing the greatest yet marked risk of nuclear conflict; and

(c) a 2019 report by the United Kingdom Parliamentary Committee on International Relations that warns the risk of nuclear weapons is now as great as it was during the height of the Cold War; and

(3) calls on the Government to:

(a) voice its concern about the deterioration in the multilateral framework for achieving nuclear disarmament and for minimising the risk of nuclear conflict;

(b) voice its concern at indications the United States:

  (i) intends to withdraw from the Treaty on Open Skies;

  (ii) may allow the START agreement to expire in February 2021; and

  (iii) has abandoned the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty; and

(c) increase our diplomatic focus and the resources needed to play a greater role in global efforts to reduce conflict, build regional and international cooperation, resist the further proliferation of nuclear weapons, and progress their ultimate elimination.

Photo of Steve GeorganasSteve Georganas (Adelaide, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is there a seconder for the member's motion?

Photo of Ged KearneyGed Kearney (Cooper, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Skills) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the motion and reserve my right to speak.

Photo of Josh WilsonJosh Wilson (Fremantle, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for the Environment) Share this | | Hansard source

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.

Photo of Steve GeorganasSteve Georganas (Adelaide, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the motion seconded?

Photo of Ged KearneyGed Kearney (Cooper, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Skills) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the motion and reserve my right to speak.

11:45 am

Photo of Vince ConnellyVince Connelly (Stirling, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the member for Fremantle for bringing this motion because it enables me to speak more broadly about Australia's position regarding nuclear technologies. In 1970, Australia decided to forgo the possible pursuit of nuclear weapons, by agreeing to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. However, we want the world, including Australia, to enjoy the positive benefits of nuclear technologies. But in Australia we are being held back by an outdated ideology that seeks to paint nuclear technology as inherently evil. The reality is that Australia has the largest reserves of uranium in the world, which we have been mining since 1954. We have a nuclear reactor at Lucas Heights in Sydney, operational since 1958, where we undertake cutting-edge medical and industrial research, producing radio isotopes for the detection and treatment of cancers. Australia already produces and manages low and intermediate level nuclear waste. Acknowledging that Australia is already a mature participant in the global nuclear industry, let's have a mature conversation about additional opportunities.

In the year of my birth, 1978, the average price of household power was about 4c per kilowatt hour, and by 2018 that had ballooned to 33c per kilowatt hour. Electricity is a non-discretionary purchase for Australian homes and, when the price increases, this decreases real incomes. Unless we want only the rich to have high living standards we must address cost-of-living pressures as we transition towards carbon-neutral energy. The cost of energy also deeply impacts our international competitiveness. Again, back to 1978, the average Australian electricity price was half that of France and Japan and much lower than the US, the UK and South Korea. Australian electricity is now more expensive than in any of those countries, and we compete with those countries, and energy is one of our biggest costs, making our goods far less competitive. If we are serious about being competitive in manufacturing—especially post coronavirus—we need to be serious about affordable, reliable energy.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change considers nuclear energy comparable to renewables, such as wind and solar, in terms of carbon emissions. Nuclear power plants are also a reliable source of energy, while solar and wind are intermittent and do not always produce power when homes and businesses need it. There may also be enormous potential for nuclear energy to contribute to the production of hydrogen as an environmentally friendly fuel. There are genuine concerns about the safety of nuclear power, so we must understand the actual risks and how these can be mitigated. Nobody is proposing that we build a first-generation, second-generation or even third-generation reactor here in Australia. The first-generation reactor in Chernobyl melted down and three second-generation reactors in Fukushima melted down following an earthquake and two tsunamis that knocked out the safety systems. Since these terrible events, engineering designs have reduced or removed many of the risks. So Australia should now consider the newer, safer Gen III+ and Gen IV small modular reactors.

Whilst nuclear waste is toxic, there's much less of it than from other power generation sources which can also be toxic. For example, a coal plant produces about 300,000 tonnes of ash a year. Solar panels, windmills and batteries, full of toxic metals, are currently placed in landfill at the end of their useful life. Nuclear energy is a complex undertaking and any project would be decades in the making, which is why we must start a conversation now by commissioning an independent assessment of the economic viability; an assessment of the regulation and the skills required for a safe nuclear industry in Australia; and an expert body to manage independent community engagement. And no project should go ahead without the free, prior and informed consent of impacted communities.

The Labor Party has deliberately decided to dissent from last year's report into the potential for nuclear energy in Australia, saying that this was 'a costly and wasteful distraction'. Nuclear policy should continue to be bipartisan, so I encourage the Australian Labor Party to be courageous enough to participate in the consideration of nuclear energy in Australia. We cannot afford to allow outdated ideologies to threaten the recovery of Australia's future in this complex world. Success is not assured. Rather, it depends on the maturity and the courage of all Australians to make reasoned and bold decisions in the national interest.

11:50 am

Photo of Ged KearneyGed Kearney (Cooper, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Skills) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to second the motion of the member for Fremantle, which is on the prohibition of nuclear weapons. We've just passed the anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear blasts. Hundreds of thousands of people died as a result of those bombs, including Australian prisoners of war and troops sent in immediately after VP day. Of course, the testing of nuclear weapons, whether in Western Australia, at Woomera or in the Pacific, also led to many deaths from radiation-induced disease. Nuclear weapons are weapons of mass destruction and should not be present on the face of the earth.

Australia has a proud history of opposing such weapons, especially those which are used on civilians. Out of the ashes of the war we led the way, through Doc Evatt and the Labor Party, in establishing the United Nations in the 1940s. We led the way in negotiating and ratifying conventions against chemical weapons in 1972 and against landmines and cluster munitions in more recent times. Gough Whitlam ratified the nuclear non-proliferation treaty in 1973 and that treaty is still important in stopping the spread of nuclear weapons. However, the nuclear non-proliferation treaty does not say that possessing nuclear weapons is unacceptable. Its sole purpose is that weapons shouldn't spread from those already possessing them—the 'nuclear club'—to those who seek to acquire them.

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was concluded in July 2017 with the support of 122 states. Unfortunately, Australia was one of those few countries that did not vote for that treaty. Under this government, we didn't even participate in the negotiation of the treaty, and we voted against the 2016 UN General Assembly resolution that established the mandate for negotiations. It isn't a proud record. Despite that, only a few days ago, the treaty reached the 50 ratifications needed to bring it into force. I, for one, argue in this place that Australia should work towards signing and ratifying the treaty. It sends a message to the world, including our powerful friends, that possession of nuclear weapons is not acceptable. I congratulate Nobel Prize winners the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons or ICAN, an Australian-initiated NGO, on the wonderful work they've done in initiating this treaty and getting the necessary ratifications to bring it into force.

The ALP has committed to working toward the ratification of the treaty. The ultimate environmental and human disaster would be a large-scale nuclear war. I'm horrified about the spread of nuclear weapons. I note the ramping up of Cold War rhetoric between the US, Russia, China and other countries, behaviour not seen for several decades. The Morrison government needs to show the leadership that ICAN has shown. We need to show leadership in a less rational world. Labor at our national conference in 2018 committed that Labor in government will sign and ratify the treaty, after taking into account the need to ensure an effective verification and enforcement architecture, to ensure the interaction of the ban treaty with the longstanding non-proliferation treaty, and to work to achieve universal support for the ban.

Critics of the treaty say that ratification will affect our strategic alliances, especially the US alliance. The US alliance is very important to Australia and to the Australian Labor Party. Ratifying this treaty as a sovereign state should not affect our relationship with the incoming Biden administration. Any issues should be able to be worked through. We should be able to continue our military alliances and at the same time express our opposition to nuclear weapons. I believe that support for this treaty will not affect our ability to host or participate in exercises or affect our capacity to host bases, whether listening posts or military bases. These are separate questions. But what our support will do is indicate that Australia can stand on its own two feet. We can stand on the right side of history with those who don't have nuclear weapons and say that the possession of nuclear weapons is no longer acceptable. New Zealand took a strong position on visits by US nuclear armed warships 35 years ago. That action did not impede their capacity to be part of the ANZUS alliance or to be a strong voice on international issues. I strongly support the motion.

11:55 am

Photo of Andrew HastieAndrew Hastie (Canning, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

In 428 AD, St Augustine, the father of just war theory, wrote to Count Darius, who was a court official sent to Africa to negotiate with a rebellious general by the name of Boniface. He wrote in this letter:

But it is a higher glory still to stay war itself with a word, than to slay men with the sword, and to procure or maintain peace by peace, not by war. For those who fight, if they are good men, doubtless seek for peace; nevertheless it is through blood. Your mission, however, is to prevent the shedding of blood. Yours, therefore, is the privilege of averting that calamity which others are under the necessity of producing.

How true are these words for political leaders, especially in the nuclear age and especially today in a far more fraught strategic environment. Our mission should always be to avert war and to seek peace through peace.

I want to thank the honourable member for Fremantle for this motion, and I acknowledge that it comes from a spirit of goodwill. However, I don't think it's realistic, and that's my position today. I want to acknowledge the terrible suffering that the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki experienced in 1945 with the dropping of the atomic weapons on those two cities. I also want to acknowledge the many civilians who suffered during the Second World War. I think of the 410,000 German civilians who died through Allied air raids, particularly those in Dresden, where, over a two-day period, 25,000 perished through bombing. The single most deadly bombing raid in history, in fact, is the firebombing of Tokyo on 9 and 10 March 1945. One hundred thousand people died in that raid and one million people were left homeless. So, whilst nuclear weapons remind us of how bad war can be, we often forget the cost that comes from conventional military conflict.

The truth of the matter is that war is inherently escalatory, so it's no surprise that, in total war, World War II gave rise to nuclear weapons, and I don't think there's a chance of those nuclear weapons disappearing any time soon. Our task is to manage the nations with those nuclear weapons and avert war at all costs. We've seen how mankind has managed to find ways to kill more efficiently since the advent of gunpowder. So Australia's role will always be to broker peace, to act in a neighbourly way and to bring nations together rather than pull them apart, and we do a good job of that through the multilateral institutions of which we are part, including the United Nations.

I want to focus very quickly on the motion and where it asks the government to raise its concern to the United States over its abandonment of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which was negotiated by the last General Secretary of the Communist Party in the USSR, Gorbachev, and President Reagan. It took a long time to get to there, and it was a good initiative, and of course we support it in its historical context, but the world has moved on. President Obama in 2014 wrote to President Putin about the testing of nuclear weapons on cruise missiles, and just recently the United States through President Trump has withdrawn from that. I can understand why. The development of militarised reefs and atolls in the South China Sea by the PRC has meant that the strategic environment has changed. Russia is in violation of the treaty itself.

Of course, our closest security partner is the United States, and we want the United States to be strong and be able to do its job in the Indo-Pacific, where it currently does an excellent job. The Indo-Pacific, though, is a very dangerous part of the world. We have India with nuclear weapons, we have China with nuclear weapons, we have North Korea with nuclear weapons, we have Pakistan with nuclear weapons and we have the US with nuclear weapons. We have France; there is a French submarine alongside in Western Australia today. We have the United Kingdom with nuclear weapons and, of course, we have Israel. Fundamentally, this government will always take a realistic approach to these problems, we'll always seek peace and we'll always seek to avert the great tragedy that will come with nuclear conflict.

Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

The time allotted for this debate has expired. The debate is adjourned, and the resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting.