House debates

Wednesday, 23 June 2021

Private Members' Business

Nuclear Weapons

11:40 am

Photo of Andrew LeighAndrew Leigh (Fenner, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Treasury) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That this House:

(1) acknowledges that July 2021 marks the 30th anniversary of South Africa's dismantling of its nuclear arsenal in early July 1991;

(2) notes that:

(a) this represents the only instance in history when a nuclear power has voluntarily renounced nuclear weapons; and

(b) the decision to create nuclear weapons was made in the early 1980s, and the decision to terminate the program (which then included six weapons) was made by President FW de Klerk in 1989, and implemented over the following years;

(3) commends South Africa on this momentous decision, which stands as a proud example to other nuclear weapon states; and

(4) calls on:

(a) all states that possess nuclear weapons to take measures that will lower the chance of nuclear war, including reducing the size of their stockpiles, taking weapons off hair-trigger alert, installing kill switches in all missiles, and committing to a no-first-use policy; and

(b) the Government to work in international forums to achieve a world free of nuclear weapons.

Watching the awesome power of the first nuclear tests, scientist Robert Oppenheimer was reminded of a line from the Hindu scripture the Bhagavad Gita: 'Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.' At the height of the Cold War there were 70,000 nuclear weapons. There are still some 14,000. Those that currently exist are, in many cases, based on fusion reactions, in which the fission reaction is just the percussion cap that sets off the big explosion. The B83, the United States's most powerful nuclear weapon, is 70 times more powerful than the atomic bomb that killed 100,000 Hiroshima residents. There are scientists now looking at creating weapons that are 100 times more powerful than the B83. Nuclear war would, of course, kill hundreds of thousands, potentially millions of people, through the direct impact of weapons and their fallout, but the flow-on could be worse still: a so-called nuclear winter, which might reduce temperatures by some 20 or 30 degrees Celsius, wiping out crops and causing millions to die of starvation.

Across the world, there are nine nuclear powers. The United States and Russia hold the vast bulk of the 14,000 nuclear weapons—around 13,000 between them—and then, among the remaining powers, Britain, France, China, India and Pakistan have a few hundred each. North Korea and Israel probably have fewer than 100. But it only takes one nuclear weapon to devastate a city. It is appropriate, then, that we acknowledge the 30th anniversary of a time which is unique in human history: the decision by South Africa to voluntarily renounce its nuclear program. South Africa acquired nuclear weapons in the mid-1980s, but under FW de Klerk, who would go on to share the Nobel Peace Prize, voluntarily made the decision to renounce them in 1989 and, over the next two years, went about dismantling its stockpile. You might say that's not entirely unique. It is true that, after the break-up of the Soviet Union, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus transferred nuclear weapons to Russia. But, in terms of a single state, the decision made by South Africa is an extraordinary one, and we should celebrate them for doing that. If the world's nine nuclear-weapons-owning countries were to become eight or seven or six, it would be a safer world.

Listening to this speech in the Chamber today are two work experience students in my office, Emily Rowe and Kasia Pownall. I want them to live in an Australia which is safer for having reduced the scourge and the risk of nuclear weapons. Former military analyst Daniel Ellsberg has proposed a Manhattan Project II, in which states go about taking steps that would reduce the risk. Part of that is in reducing stockpiles, because every missile is a potential point of failure; the potential for an accidental launch or theft by a terrorist goes up with the number of weapons. But it is also important to think about the fact that in three of the nuclear-weapons-owning countries—the United States, France and North Korea—launch authority resides solely with the head of state.

It would be useful for other countries to adopt the approach of not using nuclear weapons unless attacked by nuclear weapons. China has had this approach since 1964 and India since 1998. The United States is wrong to have canvassed the possibility of nuclear weapons being used to respond to a cyberattack. A declaration of 'no first use' isn't an admission of weakness; it's a reflection of strength and confidence in your non-nuclear forces. The motion also speaks about the importance of a self-destruct feature in missiles to allow them to be recalled.

Denuclearisation is no radical peacenik view. Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, William Perry and Sam Nunn have written about the importance of a world free of nuclear weapons. It is a goal to which we should aspire.

Photo of David GillespieDavid Gillespie (Lyne, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is there a seconder for the motion?

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

I second the motion and reserve my right to speak.

11:45 am

Photo of Ken O'DowdKen O'Dowd (Flynn, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Nuclear has two places in this world: one is as a clean energy source and the other is as a weapon of destruction. It is a weapon of destruction that we're here to talk about today, and it's a no-go as far as I'm concerned. I congratulate South Africa for banning the use of nuclear weapons 30 years ago come July this year.

I had the fortune—or misfortune—to go to Kazakhstan in about 2012 with the then Speaker, Harry Jenkins, and Gareth Evans, the former foreign affairs minister. They both could see the perils of nuclear weapons. There were 105 countries that attended that conference in Kazakhstan. I visited a place called Semipalatinsk in north-east Kazakhstan, very close to the Chinese-Russian border, and that told me what devastation nuclear testing has done to that country. I've been to places like Hiroshima and seen the aftermath of what happened in 1945. I haven't been to Nagasaki, but it was a similar event, where hundreds of thousands of people were killed outright and others were affected for many years after. On that trip to Kazakhstan, I noticed that there are still high radiation levels in a lot of areas, whether in the soil, in the agriculture fields or in the rivers. Some rivers today are still blocked from entering other rivers because it would be very toxic if this water went into those streams.

In 1947, 1948 and 1949 Russia and Kazakhstan were part of the USSR. The USSR tested nuclear weapons on Kazakhstan's soil for something like 40 years. From 1948 to 1992 it tested its nuclear weapons. Similar events happened around the world, whether in the Nevada Desert, in Australia at Maralinga or in the atolls controlled by the French. That was when I was only a young lad—a while ago now. In that week in 2012, 105 countries gathered in Kazakhstan, and we learnt the horrors that the people of Semipalatinsk suffered and how they are still suffering. In 1949 the Russians did not tell the Kazakhstanis what they were doing, and when the first explosion went off all the people could see was this great big mushroom across their land. The animals—cattle, horses and dogs—all took off in fright, never to return to their farms. Some Kazakhstanis stopped in their homes—they didn't know what was going on—and others went outside and looked in amazement to see this big mushroom. They didn't know what it was and they weren't told. The sad thing is that about four years later the women of Kazakhstan around Semipalatinsk started to have deformed babies. The foetuses were terrible. They are still on display in a laboratory in Semipalatinsk. I've seen them firsthand, and they'll stick in my mind until the day I die. The people of Semipalatinsk have actually changed the name of their town because it had such a bad name, and they now call it another name very close to Semipalatinsk, but they also call it 'Stinks'. The people came out in their streets in their hundreds, and, as we walked around and talked to them, they were all still crying—actually crying—and saying: 'You must stop nuclear weaponry.'

So that is why I congratulate South Africa—the only country that has voluntarily given up nuclear weapons. Places like Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine gave them up after they separated themselves from the USSR. Nevertheless, nuclear weapons are still a scourge on our society. We cannot let happen again what happened in Hiroshima or in Nagasaki. We just can't contemplate that ever happening again. And God help us if it does.

11:51 am

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

I'm grateful to the member for Fenner for allowing us to mark a significant anniversary in the vital cause of nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation, and I thank all members for participating in this debate. In 1991, South Africa made the courageous and principled decision to walk away from nuclear weapon capability at a point at which they already possessed six nuclear weapons. It meant that the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons came into effect under the promising star of a decision that showed what could be achieved through the commitment to mitigate and then undo the existential threat posed by weapons that should never have been used and can never be acceptable.

As we mark this act of national courage from 30 years ago, we'd not be honouring that courage or according proper respect to that achievement by being passive and rosy-eyed about the present situation with respect to nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation. The NPT, for all its cooperative innovation, early success and hopefulness, has, in recent years, run out of steam. Countries like the US and Russia are investing in updating their arsenals and investing in the development of new, so-called tactical nuclear weapons. The deep idiocy behind those devices is the idea that you could make and potentially use a nuclear bomb that might be sufficiently small to not trigger Armageddon.

Until the end of the Trump presidency, there was the real prospect that both the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty would fall apart. As Arms Control Today noted, that would have meant that, for the first time in nearly 50 years, there would be no legally binding limits on the world's two largest nuclear arsenals. Fortunately, the election of President Biden has meant at least an extension of the START agreement.

In March this year, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom announced he intended to increase the cap on his country's nuclear arsenal by 40 per cent. That is not consistent with article 6 of the NPT. It's a shame the present Australian government remains silent about the deterioration of international agreements and norms that promote disarmament and work against nuclear proliferation. It used to be a distinctive feature of Australia's principled, skilful and influential middle-power diplomacy. We made a difference on this absolutely critical issue, and I'm glad that Labor is resolved to do so again if we're elected to government.

Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, now Chair of The Elders, a group of independent global leaders working for peace, has said, in relation to Prime Minister Johnson's announcement:

While the UK cites increased security threats as justification for this move, the appropriate response to these challenges should be to work multilaterally to strengthen international arms control agreements and to reduce—not increase—the number of nuclear weapons in existence.

In his 1998 address to the UN General Assembly, President Nelson Mandela reflected on South Africa's nuclear disarmament leadership by saying:

We must ask the question, which might sound naive to those who have elaborated sophisticated arguments to justify their refusal to eliminate these terrible and terrifying weapons of mass destruction—why do they need them anyway!

In reality, no rational answer can be advanced to explain in a satisfactory manner what, in the end, is the consequence of Cold War inertia and an attachment to the use of the threat of brute force, to assert the primacy of some States over others.

Mercifully the nuclear weapons ban treaty is another example of cooperative innovation. It's no surprise that South Africa signed the TPNW, as it's known, on the day it opened for signature and then ratified it in 2019. It's heartening that this week in Canberra the Australian Local Government Association resolved unanimously at their national general assembly to support the TPNW and to call on the Australian government to do likewise. I applaud that decision, and I acknowledge and thank ICAN for their all-day, everyday advocacy and campaign work.

As someone who in the course of my time as a councillor and deputy mayor in the City of Fremantle was fortunate to participate in the Mayors for Peace initiative and visit Hiroshima, where that powerful antinuclear campaign began, I'm not surprised, but I am quite proud, that the City of Fremantle was one of five movers of the ALGA motion on the ban treaty this week. Right now the nuclear weapons ban treaty has 86 signatories and 54 state parties. It came into force on 22 January this year. I believe the significance of that day will grow and grow in the years to come, and I hope we're able to mark that anniversary soon for the achievement of the treaty's purpose. We should all hope so, because, until we achieve the elimination of nuclear weapons, we are, unfortunately, marking time until they are used.

11:56 am

Photo of Susan TemplemanSusan Templeman (Macquarie, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It's probably hard for anyone who wasn't already a teenager or older in the 1980s to imagine how the threat of nuclear war hung over us. The fear that the then USSR and the US were only a hop, skip and a jump from pushing buttons was palpable at times. I remember it well, and I wasn't surprised several years ago when documents were released that showed that there were 10 days in November 1983 when the United States and the Soviet Union nearly started a nuclear war. Documents from the CIA, NSA, KGB and senior officials in both countries revealed just how close we came to mutually assured destruction, really, over a military exercise, which was called Able Archer 83. It simulated the transition by NATO from a conventional war to a nuclear war, and it culminated in the simulated release of warheads against the Soviet Union. That was happening in the early 1980s.

At this time there was also an enormous pressure on South Africa to end apartheid. As a young journalist, I attended the 1986 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London with Prime Minister Bob Hawke. This was a special meeting held in between the biennial CHOGMs in order to consider the recommendations of the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group regarding economic sanctions against South Africa. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher refused to support mandatory sanctions, and it resulted in a very acrimonious meeting. It was quite an extraordinary event for a young journalist to be covering, especially with Australia leading the charge in support of sanctions, which were ultimately agreed to a year later. So that was the context in the eighties in which South Africa was making its own decision to create nuclear weapons.

Much occurred in the short intervening years. By 1989 President FW de Klerk decided to terminate the program. They'd had six weapons by that stage. This is the only instance in history when a nuclear power has voluntarily renounced nuclear weapons. The 30th anniversary of that decision is coming up in July, and it's one we can be very grateful for. It brings us to where we are now.

The world has enforced multiple treaties, but, from this year, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons has not been signed by Australia. The ambition for a world free of nuclear weapons is one that Labor shares. I know it's an ambition that the students at Kindlehill in Wentworth Falls share, too, and I've been pleased to support their call to the government to sign the treaty. Labor is committed to signing and ratifying the treaty, obviously after taking into account the necessary things like effective verification and enforcement architecture, and also working to achieve universal support on it. But right now you have to ask yourself what progress is being made and what role we as a country that is known to be able to help broker complex world negotiations, as we did in the eighties around South Africa, are playing in the progress. I think 'not a lot' is probably the best way to describe it at this moment.

Among the things that have been interesting to see recently are that North Korea has been very active and, in the US, Joe Biden ran on a platform opposing nuclear weapons. But I've seen commentary that his defence budget actually backs two controversial projects put in motion by former President Donald Trump. Obviously, Russia is openly developing new tactical weapons. So I hope the recent meeting between President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva represents progress and a welcome change in the tense relationship that has existed between those two countries. The summit saw the leaders discussing a range of issues, including nuclear weapons and arms control. The future of global nuclear non-proliferation is really dependent in a lot of ways upon the commitment from both the US and Russia to work towards building agreements and collaborating on limiting and, I would hope, ending nuclear weapons. The two nations together possess over 90 per cent of the world's nuclear weapons.

For Australia, the big question is: what is our role? Australia can and should lead international efforts to rid the world of nuclear weapons, and we can do that by calling on all states that possess nuclear weapons to take measures to lower the chance of a nuclear war. That's something we can be doing.

Photo of Sharon BirdSharon Bird (Cunningham, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

There being no further speakers, the debate is adjourned and the resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting.