Senate debates

Wednesday, 21 March 2007

Matters of Public Importance


Photo of John HoggJohn Hogg (Queensland, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

The President has received a letter from the Leader of the Australian Democrats, Senator Allison, proposing that the following matter of public importance be submitted to the Senate for discussion, namely:

the Government’s emphasis on troops ‘staying the course’ and meagre contribution to rebuilding efforts are in contrast to the opinion of senior defence personnel and human rights organisations who believe the solutions lie in the pursuit of non-military strategies; and
due to Australia’s contribution to the conflict we have a special responsibility to assist in the rebuilding of Iraq.

I call upon those senators who approve of the proposed discussion to rise in their places.

More than the number of senators required by the standing orders having risen in their places—

I understand that informal arrangements have been made to allocate specific times to each of the speakers in today’s debate. With the concurrence of the Senate, I shall ask the clerks to set the clock accordingly.

4:13 pm

Photo of Lyn AllisonLyn Allison (Victoria, Australian Democrats) Share this | | Hansard source

After four years of mayhem and bloodshed, the time has now come for a new strategy on Iraq. Mr Downer said this morning that we should give the surge—that is, the extra 20,000 American troops going to Iraq—a chance. Mr Howard says that this is now a fight against terrorists and will no doubt say tonight that we must stay the course until the job is done. What they do not say is that the fight has been a miserable, terrible strategic failure. The war on Saddam Hussein was won four years ago by military might and by destroying most of Iraq’s infrastructure and at least 60,000 of its citizens. But the war between longstanding Sunni and Shia enemies and against the occupation cannot be quelled by the military might of the United States and the rest of the coalition by greater fortification of the green zone or by training more Iraqi troops in methods of suppression. Like the so-called war on terror, there is no clearly defined enemy. Civilians are the biggest losers and the conflict is complex and ideological. Iraqis who welcomed Saddam Hussein’s demise now say this occupation is far more repressive.

Australia and the rest of the coalition misjudged this war in Iraq from the start. There were no weapons of mass destruction. Iraq was no threat to any other country, much less Australia. The UN did not give its sanction. The Australian parliament was not part of the decision. They also took no account of the internal forces that would be unleashed. There was and still is no exit strategy. The surge of 30,000 more soldiers will not work while the morgues are full in Baghdad and the hospitals are overflowing with people injured in the violence. Prisons are overflowing with insurgents. It will not work while the two million Iraqis who fled Iraq and who are trying to survive in Syria and Jordan remain there. At the present time 50,000 people every month are leaving Iraq.

The United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq says that 15 million Iraqis are now considered extremely vulnerable. Four million people depend on food assistance and only 60 per cent have access to the public food distribution system, 80 per cent do not have sanitation, 70 per cent have no water, 50 per cent are unemployed and 23 per cent of children are chronically malnourished. There is relentless insecurity and poverty in Iraq. Senior US military officers admitted last week that they were not able to stop what they described as ‘smart, agile and cunning’ insurgents from destroying heavily armoured vehicles and aircraft.

The people of Iraq remember the abuses at Abu Ghraib. Iraqis did not approve of their parliament recently handing long-term control of Iraq’s oil to foreign multinational oil companies. They see the Iraqi government as a puppet of the United States. According to the Pentagon’s latest report, Measuring stability and security in Iraq, the level of violence has reached the highest on record. Attacks on coalition forces as well as civilians rose to almost 1,000 a week. The military tactics of the 200,000 or so occupying forces for repressing the violence are not stopping that violence. This new war cannot be won by shooting more people.

The government talks about staying the course until the war is won. But the Prime Minister does not say what winning means or how long it will take. Military experts here and elsewhere say that this war is exacerbated by our presence, and the Iraqis also say they want us out. So just what should the new strategy be? Firstly, we say that Iraqis must be given a time frame for troop withdrawal, at least by the end of the year, Australian troops should come home at the end of their current tours of duty and control of the country must be handed over to the Iraqis.

Secondly, Iraq’s sectoral leaders and neighbouring countries such as Iran and Syria must be invited to the table and they must be invited by the United Nations. Agreement has to be reached on a way forward for Iraq. This should then be put to the Iraqi people. Thirdly, the United Nations should be brought into the reconstruction effort and many more countries around the world should participate. Iraq needs hospitals, it needs power supplies, it needs water, it needs sanitation, it needs food, it needs schools, it needs housing—and it needs much more. That will be a massive undertaking, but it will probably be a lot cheaper than what the occupation has cost. A report in the Australian the other day suggested that so far $3 billion has been spent by Australia on this war, including debts waived against Iraq.

Fourthly, the broader Middle East is part of this regional strife and a peaceful, fair, two-state solution must be found for Palestine and Israel. Fifthly, Australia must make its own decisions and it must engage with the United States in a much more robust manner on Iraq. And it should engage in that sense with Britain as well. Finally, Australia must never again attack another country without the support of the United Nations and the Australian parliament, and our law in this country should reflect that. The Democrats have in fact tabled a bill in parliament that would require Australia to seek the approval of the whole parliament before ever again attacking another country.

4:19 pm

Photo of Sandy MacdonaldSandy Macdonald (NSW, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am very pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to this MPI on Iraq and the way forward because it is the future that is important, not the past. It is important for Iraq, it is particularly important for the Middle East and it is important for the world generally. Australia is committed to contributing to the security, stability, reconstruction and rehabilitation of Iraq. Our assistance is at the request of the Iraqi government, which assumed responsibility on 31 December 2005 following the elections. Our assistance is endorsed by United Nations Security Council resolution 1723, passed in 2006 and extending its mandate well into 2007.

What is entirely clear is that, if the United States-led coalition were to withdraw precipitately from Iraq, it would strengthen terrorists everywhere, damage the global fight against terrorism and abandon Iraqis, including the more than 70 per cent who voted for democracy in the December 2005 election. Unilateral withdrawal from Iraq, however appealing it may appear, is a dead-end policy. The political victory of Hamas in Gaza after the Israeli withdrawal is a recent, clear Middle Eastern example of this. The tragedy of the jihadists and others in Iraq is that they are not powerful enough to govern nor strong enough to defeat the United States but they are powerful enough to spoil. Australia cannot be seen to be, nor can it be, part of any move to strengthen their aims. As an aside I think it is worth making the point that the impact of the Middle East problems on Muslims everywhere cannot be underestimated, particularly in South-East Asia and in Australia’s nearest neighbour and our friend Indonesia, which is the largest Muslim state on earth.

The Senate would be aware that on 10 January 2007 President Bush announced a new surge policy. This comprised additional troops to assist with the security situation, particularly in Baghdad, and a package of over $11 billion in additional funds for reconstruction. The Australian government strongly supports the new security plan. We consider it is the best hope for the Iraqi people. Our desire is that the Iraqi government be given the chance to step up to the plate with this historic opportunity to provide a better life for all Iraqis—and I mean that seriously. Not only should they be given the chance to step up to the plate; they should take it. I think there is some evidence that that is now occurring. To give this historic opportunity a chance, however, the Iraqi government requires the ability to secure itself from increasing criminal and sectarian violence.

What is the progress to date? Iraq now has a democratically elected government that includes representatives from the Shia, Sunni and Kurdish populations. The new security plan for Baghdad is designed, structured and led by Iraqis with US support. The crucial part of the plan is the provision of essential services, and the Iraqi government is expected to spend around $US11 billion on reconstruction and infrastructure projects. Though early in the process, there are some indications that the coalition is disrupting the planning and operations of the terrorists and sectarian militias.

Iraq recently hosted the neighbours conference—and I take up what Senator Allison said about the importance of Iraq engaging her neighbours. The neighbours conference was held on 10 March this year. It was attended by countries neighbouring Iraq as well as other Arabic representatives and the five permanent members of the United Nations. The conference was conducted in a positive atmosphere and resulted in the establishment of working groups to deal with security, refugees and fuel supplies. Further meetings are expected to take place possibly as early as April of this year. Regional cooperation is absolutely essential not just to finding a solution to the Iraq problem but also to balance the other competing major power in the region—namely, Iran.

Additional indicators of some of the progress being made in Iraq are that over 320,000 Iraqi police and soldiers have been trained and equipped. The Brookings Institution in New York says that per capita GDP has increased by over 20 per cent since 2002. Brookings also indicate that there has been a 27 per cent increase in the number of children enrolled at high schools since before the war—that is an incredible number. Nearly 3,000 schools have been re-established since the war; crude oil production is at 2.3 million barrels per day, which is about 7½ per cent higher this quarter; oil revenues are higher than projected and latest figures show that they exceeded annual targets by $US1.7 billion in terms of barrels; electricity generation averaged 11 hours per day over the quarter across the country, which is up by two per cent on the last quarter; and 5.3 million Iraqis—which is an increase of one million people since August 2006—now have access to potable water.

What role does Australia continue to play in Iraq? We have two roles: one is our aid project and the other is the role the ADF plays in supporting the Iraqi security forces, particularly in the training of those forces. The coalition continues to make progress in southern Iraq, with two of the four provinces now under Iraqi security control. Australian troops are providing overwatch in these two provinces through the Overwatch Battle Group, are continuing to engage with local leaders and are available as back-up to the Iraqi security forces. The ADF is confident that the battle group will continue to receive the coalition support it requires to safely conduct its operations after the UK partial drawdown.

The situation in Iraq remains of grave concern but progress is being made in developing Iraqi self-reliance. We are proud of the contribution the ADF is making as part of the coalition to establish security and stability. The ADF is playing an important role in training the new Iraqi security force, providing security for Australian diplomatic missions, conducting maritime interdiction operations and air surveillance patrols, and contributing to coalition operations. Australia is also making a strong and effective contribution to the humanitarian needs of the Iraqi people and the reconstruction of Iraq.

Since 2003, Australia has contributed over $173 million in aid: $66 million towards immediate humanitarian needs and $52 million towards reconstruction in the agricultural sector, water sanitation, food supply and distribution, human rights, and law and order. Australia has agreed to forgive some $US850 million in debt. A large part of the aid program is provided through multilateral agencies such as the World Bank and the UN, which have proven operations in Iraq; and Australia has supported them.

As I mentioned, the ADF in southern Iraq also provides assistance, including the provision of water supply, health clinics, power supply, agricultural assistance, upgrading printing facilities for local newspapers and road repairs. The Australian Federal Police also has a contingent deployed to Jordan to the international police training centre in Amman assisting with training new Iraqi police recruits.

This is a big effort for Australia in helping the Iraqi people build a secure and safe Iraq. There is no way we can look back; we must look forward. We must contribute in the ways that we are both in training the Iraqi security forces and in providing the aid that is necessary to reconstruct Iraq. It is a big effort, as I said. We will continue to do it, and there are signs that there will be a very hopeful and encouraging outcome as we move forward in the next few years.

4:29 pm

Photo of Chris EvansChris Evans (WA, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

I indicate at the start that Labor does not support the exact wording of this matter of public importance, but it is useful that the Democrats have put the matter up for debate today. I want to make some remarks about Labor’s views. I would like to start with one of the things that Senator Sandy Macdonald referred to towards the end of his speech, which is the fact that, while there is political disagreement in this country about our engagement in Iraq, there is cross-party 100 per cent support for our troops there. We know they are operating in very difficult circumstances with a very high level of professionalism. They continue to do Australia proud. Our argument is with the political decisions that govern their deployment.

Let me reiterate from the outset what Labor have been saying for many months. Labor have always been opposed to the war. We voted against Australian participation. We spoke out against the government’s refusal to abide by the United Nations charter and its defiance of the United Nations Security Council resolution, and we strongly opposed the Howard government’s haste to involve our military forces in the war. Labor’s position, and that of the millions of Australians who oppose the war, has in part been vindicated by the horrific events that have occurred since the 2003 invasion.

However, I would like to stress that the debate on this matter is very important not just because it is the fourth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq but because the Howard government’s Iraqi policies continue to feed the civil war that we are now witnessing. The Howard government’s policies have to change. Indeed, the perspective of four years of violence since the invasion just reinforces how wrong the government’s decision has been. Remember the Prime Minister’s reasons for going to war in the first place? He submitted multiple reasons for the ill-conceived 2003 invasion, and each and every one of those reasons has been discredited.

The Prime Minister’s first reason for justifying the invasion was on the basis of eradicating Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. That has been totally discredited. Weapons of mass destruction were not found—they did not exist—and the invasion occurred before the United Nations was permitted to conclude its weapons inspection program.

The second reason for the war was justified by the Prime Minister when he said that military force was necessary because the international sanctions regime had failed. The Prime Minister stated:

The old policy of containment is eroding. Saddam Hussein has increasingly been able to subvert the sanctions.

That has been discredited. It is pretty rich when you realise that the Australian Wheat Board was one of those most active in discrediting those sanctions. The Australian Wheat Board rorted the UN sanctions regime to the tune of $300 million and, furthermore, allowed Saddam Hussein to buy guns, bombs and bullets with the proceeds.

The third reason that the Prime Minister advanced was that we needed to save the Iraqi people, stabilise the country and bring about democracy in Iraq and in the wider Middle East. There is no evidence that that has been delivered either. Iraq is a security mess. There is a violent civil war in Iraq. Almost half of the total violent civilian deaths that have occurred in Iraq over the last four years have occurred in the last 12 months. Mortar attacks have quadrupled since the beginning of 2006. Massive bomb blasts, killing more than 50 people at a time, have nearly doubled in the last 12 months. Fatal suicide bombs, car bombs and roadside bomb attacks have also doubled in the same period. In February 2007, weekly civilian casualties averaged nearly 1,000 a week. The Pentagon’s own statistics show that weekly attacks have increased by 15 per cent since January 2006. The Lancet estimates that over 600,000 Iraqis are dead from the war and its effects. These are terrible statistics.

What is the result? According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, more than 1.6 million Iraqis have been displaced internally and more than 1.5 million have fled to Jordan and Syria. These are significant numbers from an Iraqi population of some 26 million. The security of the Iraqi people has been severely diminished.

The fourth reason the PM has given to justify our role in Iraq is to fight terrorists. Again, the rhetoric does not match the reality. What is disappointing is the reluctance of the Prime Minister to acknowledge what is happening right now in Iraq. Our Prime Minister continues to misrepresent what is happening on the ground. The United States Ambassador to Iraq recently said that the ‘principal force of instability for Iraq was sectarian violence’.

A recent US defence intelligence estimate concluded that parts of Iraq were in a civil war. The evidence is now overwhelming. The classic strategic indicators of a civil war are all present in Iraq: a weak political power of the central government, increasing refugee movements, a level of societal violence and a declining national economy. Iraqi society is enmeshed in a fight between the Shiite majority and the displaced Sunni minority for the geopolitical control of Iraq. That is why Iraq requires a political solution.

Achieving a political solution requires two things—neither of which the Howard government has addressed. First of all it requires the putting of pressure on the Iraqi government to make the necessary political compromises and start governing in the national interest rather than pandering to sectarian interests. There is little evidence that Nuri al-Maliki’s government is willing to take on the militias that have emerged. The Mahdi Army, for example, is his power base. His administration will need to cut links with the Shiah militia death squads and the equally compromising links with Tehran.

The primary way to put pressure on the Iraqi government is to initiate a phased withdrawal of troops that makes the government assume more responsibility for what is happening to Iraqi society. Filling the gap makes for real pressure. This is precisely why Labor endorsed the phased withdrawal strategy recommended by the expert and bipartisan Iraq Study Group, chaired by former Republican Secretary of State James A Baker.

The second way to achieve a political solution is through encouraging Iraq’s neighbours, the other states in the region—like Iran, Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia—to help stabilise the pressure on Iraq and take a responsible and proactive interest in bringing about a sustainable peace. This means Australia should have been engaged in the Baghdad security conference which was recently held over the weekend of 10-11 March. But, despite all its rhetoric about how important Australia’s role is in Iraq, the Australian government was not invited and did not attend. Note how little comment was forthcoming from Foreign Minister Downer on the Baghdad conference. It begs the question as to why Australia did not actively engage by participating. One would have thought that it would have been in the national interest to participate and protect the interests of the Howard government’s policy of military commitment.

Prime Minister Howard said back in May 2003 that Australia would be in Iraq for weeks and not months. He ruled out additional combat deployments during the 2004 election. Despite this, the Prime Minister has constantly moved the goalposts about the role of our commitment of troops in Iraq. First it was about dealing with weapons of mass destruction. Then it was about regime change. Then our engagement was about protecting the Japanese engineers in the al Muthanna province. And then the role of our combat troops became one of ‘security overwatch’. The bottom line is that there has never been a clearly articulated mission statement for our military deployment, just as there was never the careful post invasion planning that is essential to all military operations.

Iraq has been a disaster. The cost in monetary terms of the Australian military commitment is now over $2 billion and rising. The cost to the Iraqi people can never be measured. It is they who have suffered, and it is they who will continue to suffer unless policies change. The Prime Minister in his speech today will again claim that Australia must stay the course in Iraq—whatever that means. But he will not say how it is in our national interest to stay the course in the middle of a civil war. He will not say how he is putting real pressure on the Iraqi government to find a political solution. He will not say what the mission statement for our combat troops is. He will not say what the contingency plan is if the surge strategy fails and the United States decides to begin withdrawing its troops. Australia does not need rhetoric about the past or the future. We need the government to acknowledge the realities. What is John Howard’s plan for our troops in Iraq? Who knows? Certainly Australians do not know. (Time expired)

4:39 pm

Photo of Bob BrownBob Brown (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

The Greens support this matter of public importance, and I go back to the period in 2002-03 when the Prime Minister of this country, on his own, made a decision to involve Australia in the illegal invasion of Iraq. He made no reference to the Australian parliament, and he ignored massive protest by people in the streets of Australia’s cities. One of the forecasts from international organisations at the time was that a war could lead to the deaths of up to 500,000 civilians. When I spoke about those figures in this place, government members rolled their eyes and laughed. But that is no longer the case, because the casualties, the sheer bloodshed, the terror, the awful inhumanity, the cruelty, the beheadings and the tortures in Iraq have exceeded anything in the Howard government’s experience under Saddam Hussein. And on it goes.

We now have President Bush saying that he will send an extra 20,000 troops to Iraq at a time when countries like Poland, Denmark, Spain and, more latterly, Britain have withdrawn and are withdrawing large contingents of troops from the country. The fact is that we have seen a political imperative to try to overcome increasing odds to win a hopeless war in Iraq. It is not going to happen. But we have President Bush, night after night, changing his position to try to accommodate his failed past pronouncements on the war and, extraordinarily enough, our Prime Minister simply following in his wake. It has been a blight on this nation and the independent regard that Australians hold themselves in that we have had a cipher of a prime minister—a sheriff, as President Bush described Prime Minister Howard when he was on his way to this parliament in 2003.

I remind members that when I spoke to President Bush in our parliament in 2003 about his need to uphold international law if he were to regain the respect of the world—and he broke that law in invading Iraq—the majority voted to have me removed from the chamber. How things have changed now. In 2007 a majority of people in Australia, a majority of people in the United States and a majority of Iraqis want the foreign troops withdrawn from Iraq. The repeated, almost bleating, statements by President Bush about democracy are denied by the hubris of people like President Bush, Mr Blair and Mr Howard, who deny what the public thinks. Mr Howard is worst of all, because he never referred his plans to send a contingent of Australian defence forces, good and true, to President Bush’s adventurism in Iraq to this parliament.

They had to do that in the United States. It was debated in the United Kingdom. But here, it was a decision made by the Prime Minister, arrogantly defying the better interests of this nation. Now, some four years down the line, he does not have the stature to say: ‘I made a mistake. I should bring the Australian troops home.’ Those Australian troops, who have served this nation so wonderfully, should never have been sent to Iraq for the political reasons that the Prime Minister had, and they should be brought home now for the national reasons that are in the best interests of this great country of Australia.

If you look at the upheaval and the insecurity in Iraq, you can see that one great promise that the Prime Minister made—which was that, by fighting in Iraq, we would make the world a safer place—has turned out to be blatantly untrue. Today, on a New South Wales radio station a child read out her essay marking the fourth anniversary of the Howard government’s misadventure in involving Australia in and sending troops to Iraq. In her essay she said that she and her friends felt less safe. They were worried that their bus might be blown up. They did not have a feeling of security. They have an increased sense of insecurity because of Prime Minister Howard and in the wake of President Bush and their failure as leaders to make decisions in the interests of their nation.

This world is a less safe place. Andrew Wilkie, from the Office of National Assessments, had the courage to leave that department, to sacrifice his job and his career—and an honourable career it was—to warn that there was no evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq well before the invasion began. For his trouble, he was vilified by this Prime Minister and this government. And, in the event, it has been shown that the government was wrong and, along with the Bush administration, lied to the citizenry. It has also been shown that the evidence of weapons of mass destruction was false. Prime Minister Howard said that he would not take part in a war in Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein—that he was not about regime change. So he cannot use that excuse now. What a mistake he has made. (Time expired)

4:47 pm

Photo of Marise PayneMarise Payne (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Today when we look at the nation of Iraq we see a nation in the middle of a significant transformation—a transformation after decades of neglect, corruption and oppression by a brutal regime. How and whether or not we act now will determine whether that transformation can be one to a nation that can stand up and move forward. It is vital in the context of this debate, and in the view of the Australian government, that Australian troops remain in Iraq to secure and protect that reconstruction process. No-one pretends that it is a simple task or a small challenge, but it is one that we are prepared to meet where we can.

In contrast to previous speakers—excepting, of course, my colleague Senator Sandy Macdonald—I want to acknowledge some of the very important things that the Australian government, our troops and our representatives in Iraq are actually doing. As the head of the national coordination for provincial reconstruction teams, US General Eric Olson, retired, is reported in the Bulletin magazine of last week as saying:

A withdrawal would be devastating for a province like Dhi Qar

one of the provinces where Australia is present—

The US has decided that it does not operate in Dhi Qar anymore because it has gone under provincial Iraqi control. If it weren’t for the Australian Army, I couldn’t have a provincial reconstruction team here and we’d lose all influence and virtually all presence here.

That is a pretty clear statement about the role that the Australian presence plays in Iraq right now.

The Iraqi government itself has only been in office for just over 10 months. It is operating in an extraordinarily difficult security environment, but that government is endeavouring to work for the improvement of the Iraqi people. It is managing a range of issues like security, political and economic challenges, national reconciliation and reconstruction. In that context, the assistance of governments like Australia’s comes at the request of the Iraqi government. It is endorsed by UN Security Council resolution 1723. Our commitment is contributing to the security, the stability, the reconstruction and the rehabilitation of Iraq—and it is a commitment from which we do not intend to walk away.

What is clear is that, if the coalition were to withdraw precipitously, it would embolden terrorists everywhere—not just in Iraq. It would damage the global fight against terrorism. Most importantly, as far as I am concerned, it would abandon Iraqis—70 per cent of whom chose to vote and to exercise a democratic right, which we hold so precious, in their elections in December 2005. I cannot countenance that abandonment and I cannot agree with the proposition that we would help the Iraqis by leaving.

If you examine it critically, you see that the security situation for those in the two provinces of Anbar and Baghdad—where 54 per cent of the violence is occurring—is absolutely devastating. Has that been mentioned in the chamber this afternoon by those who speak in support of this matter and others? I do not think so. It is an important statistic that gets left out of the reporting time and time again.

Our commitment to Operation Catalyst in Iraq and more broadly in the Middle East includes the Australian Joint Task Force Headquarters of about 70 personnel; a security detachment of about 110 personnel, including ASLAVs, providing both protection and escort for government personnel who work in our embassy in Baghdad; and the Overwatch Battle Group West, based in the southern Iraqi province of Dhi Qar, which comprises around 520 personnel, a headquarters, a cavalry squadron, an infantry company, ASLAVs and Bushmaster vehicles.

The men and women involved in that job are extraordinary Australians doing an extraordinary job. The timetable for withdrawal of those people should be based on conditions on the ground, as the Prime Minister and the Minister for Defence have said, not on arbitrary calendar dates. No-one who says that we should withdraw or that we should pursue other options, including some of those discussed here today, is able to draw a picture of where that leaves the Iraqis. Day to day, where does that leave them? Does it leave everything to militants and terrorists, whose only desire is to bring down any foreseeable democratic process in that country? Is that what we are supposed to do? Is that the alternative with which we are left? I think not.

Our troops have a very important role in training and supporting the Iraqi security forces—previously in Al Muthanna and now in Dhi Qar province. We have recently announced an additional 70 trainers to help rebuild the capacity of the Iraqi security forces, but we cannot take our eye off the main goal of that military commitment: it is a sustainable transfer of security responsibilities to Iraqis. It is about progression for Iraq.

In terms of the humanitarian focus to which this matter of public importance refers, it is not possible—in my view, in the view of many commentators and in the view of the government—to pursue a strong humanitarian focus without security. That is why our role is so important. I go back to the words of General Eric Olson, which I mentioned at the beginning of my remarks. Our contribution has been in humanitarian terms—from immediate humanitarian needs early after 2003, towards reconstruction in the agriculture sector, in water and sanitation, in food supply and distribution, in human rights, and in law and order. A large part of that commitment has been provided through multilateral agencies like the World Bank and the UN, which have proven operations in Iraq.

I think we should acknowledge it. I think we should talk about it more. I think we should let the Australian people know more about the importance of that focus, and about its importance to the humanitarian advancement of Iraqis. There are some real success stories in all of that, because work has been able to be carried out, particularly in areas where security has been addressed. Services have been restored in large areas of Iraq, despite repeated acts of sabotage by terrorists who seek to undermine the reconstruction.

In terms of basic health services, in 2005 alone emergency campaigns immunised 98 per cent of one- to five-year-olds against measles, mumps and rubella—something we take completely for granted in Australia—and 97 per cent of children under five against polio. We have been training staff at community based health centres, in conjunction with the international effort. More than 600 primary health care centres have been provided with ‘clinic in a box’ kits of key equipment and furniture, and 2,500 primary health care workers have been trained to expand the availability of essential primary health care services to children under five. In the agriculture sector where we work, we have done extraordinary things in training in the safe use of pesticides to help develop agriculture.

I can do little better than conclude with the words of one our soldiers on the ground in Iraq. Quoted in the Bulletin article was Major Jason Harley, an Australian CIMIC officer, who said:

I personally think Southern Iraq can be a success story. Nation-building is a big strategic operation and civilians do it a lot better than we do, but there can’t be any reconstruction if there’s no security. We’re here to facilitate that, but at the end of the day we’ll need to transition out and the civilians can come in for full reconstruction.

That is from a person doing the job on the ground. (Time expired)

4:55 pm

Photo of Steve HutchinsSteve Hutchins (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Yesterday marked the fourth anniversary of the excursion into Iraq, and yesterday the leader of the federal Labor Party, Kevin Rudd, said that one of his first actions on becoming Prime Minister later this year would be to speak to President Bush and ask him for an exit strategy. I do not think that is an unreasonable request for one of America’s most loyal and longstanding allies to make. We have been allies with the United States formally since the 1950s, but we have had a long relationship with them. They should understand, as I am sure their administration does, that we may not necessarily agree all the time on the actions that they take. It is only right and proper that we seek and demand what the strategy to exit Iraq should be. It is only natural that we should expect it for a military excursion like this, which has been carried out finely by our troops in that part of the world.

The greatest effort by our armed forces since World War II was in East Timor. That is where we had probably the most of our armed forces committed in one single action. Are you telling me that, over in Russell Offices and DFAT, there were not scores and scores of committees and meetings held by those honourable public servants and military officers working on an exit strategy for East Timor? Are you telling me that they were not working out, chapter and verse, what would be the next step for our men and women to come home?

We still have a military presence in East Timor, but we do not have the thousands of troops, air men and women, and sailors that we did when we first went in there, because our people sat down and worked out how we were going to get back. We did that in Vietnam. Even before the Whitlam government was elected in 1972, our troops were on their way home, because those same public servants and military officers worked out what our exit strategy was going to be. So why shouldn’t we demand to know from the United States what their exit strategy is and what ours should be? We have an entitlement to do that.

Senator Payne talked about a ‘nation of Iraq’. Iraq was created after World War I at the peace conferences at Versailles. It is as much a nation, in that part of the world, as any of the other ones created after World War I—and we have seen the disastrous consequences throughout the Middle East and south-east Europe as a result of that. We are seeing a civil war that has been underway on and off for some time, with divisions within the Shia and the Sunni Muslims—let alone the Kurds, who have been demanding their own independence, as they have for some time. So let us not get distracted by the notion that this is about the nation of Iraq. Iraq did not exist before World War I, and it is slowly crumbling now.

Let me also point out certain issues about the exit strategy. President Bush’s father has been criticised because the neo-conservatives claim that during the first Gulf War he should have not stopped at Kuwait but continued through and dealt with Saddam. I wonder why he and his military officers and civil servants did not do that. I imagine it was mainly because the Americans did not know what they were going to do once they got there. They did not have any exit strategy. Their strategy was to kick Saddam out of Kuwait and reinstate the government that had been overthrown. They knew what they were doing there—and it was a success. The state of Kuwait still exists, its government is still in charge there and, for all I know, it is still as antidemocratic as it was before Saddam’s time there.

That leads me again to the fact that government senators have got up here and talked about that part of the world and about America, saying that it is trying to put democracy into Iraq. I wish it luck, because what has happened as a result of America’s excursion into Iraq? For a start, it now has to have relationships with some of the most autocratic and antidemocratic regimes in the world. Where are its relationships with any of these democracies in the Middle East? Maybe Professor Trood will enlighten us when he gets the opportunity to contribute to this debate. It has no such relationships. It is dealing with the most autocratic and antidemocratic regimes in the world, trying to impose—

Photo of Trish CrossinTrish Crossin (NT, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Hutchins, I remind you that Senator Trood has the title of ‘senator’ in this chamber and I ask you to remember that.

Photo of Steve HutchinsSteve Hutchins (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I will take note of that. I am sorry, Senator.

Photo of George CampbellGeorge Campbell (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Professor Trood.

Photo of Steve HutchinsSteve Hutchins (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Professor Trood. It is dealing with some of the most autocratic and antidemocratic regimes in the world. One of the other reasons for our support of the actions in Iraq is associated with an understandable reaction to terror. But is the world safer? Senator Bob Brown said today that young women are ringing up radio stations in Sydney, concerned that they cannot travel on buses. Is the world safer from terrorism now? Has what has happened ended terrorism? Do we have a situation now where most of the Muslim world thinks that America and its allies are not to be trusted or, in fact, where it despises them? Are we not in a situation now where all those belonging to Western nations are slowly seeing their civil liberties eroding as a result of this conflict with terrorism? Haven’t we also seen that religion is being used now as a vehicle in ethnic struggles in Russia, China and India?

This is the result of what is going on in Iraq at the moment, and we rightly demand of the government and of our ally the United States to know what exit strategy there is. As a result of the money that is being poured into trying to prop up this regime in Iraq—they still have poverty of enormous proportions in that country—how long do you reckon it will be before the American people say to their own government that this is no longer tolerable? Maybe it will be at the next election. When do you reckon they might work out that it is more important to, say, raise test scores in Washington DC or in any other part of the United States, because of the money being diverted to actions being carried out internationally that should be carried out domestically?

I think the situation that we are being confronted with is frightening because it may mean that one of the leading democratic powers in the world, the United States, will go back into the isolationism it went into after World War I. Do we really want to see that country no longer engaging in the world? There are plenty of instances where our great ally has done the right thing—where it has used military force against the interests of other people to ensure that there were humanitarian outcomes. I think merely of what it did in Kosovo, when Dutch peacekeepers looked on while Serbs massacred ethnic Albanians. The Americans went in there and bombed them. That made the Serbs stand up, listen and stop what they were doing. The Americans are in difficulty here and it is our difficulty as well—because if we let them withdraw from their international engagements, we as a nation will suffer, as will all democratic countries in the world.

Senator Payne finished on a quote and I would like to finish on one as well. Francis Fukuyama, who wrote an article entitled ‘The Neoconservative Moment’, said:

The poorly executed nation-building strategy in Iraq will poison the well for future such exercises, undercutting domestic political support for a generous and visionary internationalism, just as Vietnam did.

(Time expired)

5:05 pm

Photo of Russell TroodRussell Trood (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I welcome the opportunity this afternoon to contribute to this matter of public importance debate on Iraq, particularly because it seems to be wholly ill conceived. It seems to proceed on a profound misunderstanding of the nature of Australian policy in Iraq. That policy, of course, is founded on the proposition that we are engaged in reconstruction, rebuilding efforts and non-military activities in Iraq at this time. The matter asserts that we have a special responsibility for assisting in Iraq-building. One wonders who denies this. The government acknowledges that it has special responsibilities in Iraq. It acknowledges that it is a principal party to events there. It is precisely because of this acknowledgement and its determination to fulfil its responsibilities in assisting Iraq towards a politically stable and economically prosperous future that it undertakes this role.

Despite counsel coming from just about every side of Australian politics, including what we have heard in this chamber this afternoon, that we should ignore our responsibilities, neglect our friends and leave the Iraqis to themselves—in other words, desert them—in their time of greatest trial, the government’s commitment is to assist the Iraqis towards a more hopeful, stable, democratic and prosperous future. The debate on this subject in the other place yesterday and in the chamber this afternoon has tended to be preoccupied—at least among those on the other side, but not among my colleagues—with the history of Iraq. This is a pointless exercise. We have to deal with the realities on the ground that exist in March 2007. There is no point debating the past. It is irrelevant to the circumstances with which we are now confronted.

The reality is that we are facing an internecine struggle, a conflict, between the Sunnis and the Shiites, a remnant of the Baathist regime that is trying to reassert its position in Iraq and, most importantly, elements of al-Qaeda and its fellow terrorist travellers. These are the very same parties, the very same fellow travellers, who were implicated in the bombings in London, Bali, Madrid and New York and are supporting the insurgent cause in places all around the world. In recent years terrorist activities have taken place not just in the Western world but in parts of North Africa. That is the reality we are facing, and no-one doubts that this is a volatile mix. No-one suggests that it is anything other than a very difficult and challenging situation. No-one suggests—certainly not on this side of the house—that this is anything other than a very grave set of circumstances. And no-one doubts in that context that the Iraqis are suffering as a consequence of this very difficult situation.

But where in any strategic textbook do we find the proposition that you can improve a situation of the kind that exists in Iraq today by a premature withdrawal of forces? Where in any strategic culture is the idea, the thought or the suggestion that giving a notice of intention, as it were, to leave the battlefield—to withdraw at a certain time—is considered a sensible strategy? Where in any strategic textbook is that said to be a way of advancing a position? That seems to be precisely where the opposition is coming from on this matter.

Insofar as the opposition’s position is clear, the proposition it has put to us is that, once the federal election is held and should it win government, it will begin the process of withdrawal from Iraq. So the question arises: where in the annals of strategic thinking is there a proposition that you should yield a strategic advantage by telling the enemy ahead of time that you propose to depart? Where in Chinese strategic thinking, American strategic thinking, British strategic thinking, Persian strategic thinking or even European strategic thinking is that proposition stated? Of course it is not stated anywhere. Until this moment it had not existed in the context of Australian strategic thinking either. So a proposed Rudd government is putting to us a proposition to change strategic thinking that has existed for generations—thousands of years—that is, the importance of surprise and of maintaining the initiative. It will no longer support that proposition and, instead, we will yield the battlefield. It makes absolutely no sense.

We will withdraw from Iraq in due course. We will end our commitment in Dhi Qar province and Al Muthanna. As the government has made clear, it is not our intention to remain in Iraq indefinitely. The proposition has been put by those on the other side of the chamber today that the Iraqis want us to leave. The reality is far from it. Mr Maliki told the Prime Minister last week that he wishes that Australian forces will remain as long as they can to assist his country. We will withdraw our forces when conditions permit, and when we judge that we have assisted the Iraqis as much as we can to give them a secure future and the prospect of stability. (Time expired)

The Acting Deputy President:

Order! The time for the debate has expired.