Senate debates

Tuesday, 2 February 2010


Suspension of Standing Orders

12:33 pm

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

Pursuant to contingent notice, I move:

That so much of the standing orders be suspended as would prevent the senator moving—That:

Senator Bob Brown may immediately move a motion on the involvement and deployment of Australian troops in Afghanistan; and
the motion have precedence over all other business until determined.

I take this move at the outset of this parliamentary year to be able to have a parliamentary debate on the deployment of Australian Defence Force personnel to Afghanistan. We have had a series of government statements on the matter and, indeed, on the extremely sad 11 occasions when Australian Defence Force personnel have been killed in Afghanistan, we have commemorated their bravery and their service to this nation, but I think the parliament of the nation of Australia, alone amongst the parliaments that have troops represented in Afghanistan, has had no debate and there should be.

It is self-evident that when a nation involves itself in a war—and that is what we have done in Afghanistan—it should not be just a matter for the executive; it should be a matter for the parliament to debate. If this motion is successful, I will move for the Senate to call on the government to begin safely and securely withdrawing Australian combat troops from Afghanistan. The majority of Australians in opinion polls support that point of view, yet there has not been a debate which allows that point of view, which is represented by the Australian Greens, to be aired in this parliament. As one of the four oldest continuous democracies in the world we ought to be fully and amply debating the deployment of our troops overseas, particularly into the war situation that pertains in Afghanistan, and then serially debating their representation of this nation and the impact of events in countries like Afghanistan as they unfold.

We never had an adequate debate on the deployment of Australian troops to Iraq and nor is there a requirement that our parliament debate the deployment of troops to war, but the Greens staunchly advocate that parliament should be involved. This is not just a matter for the executive or for the Prime Minister of the nation. Australia has some 1,550 Defence Force personnel currently in Afghanistan. Their primary commitment is in Oruzgan province in the south, which is very volatile and indeed dangerous. Our troops train the Afghan army. They conduct security operations and combat the Taliban. They construct and restore civilian infrastructure such as schools, waste management facilities and medical facilities.

Besides the 11 Australian Defence Force personnel who have given their lives in the service of this country, there have been many injuries. On an international basis, 1,600 military personnel have been killed since 2001. That includes almost 1,000 Americans. The number killed each year is rapidly climbing: there were 232 killed in 2007, 295 in 2008 and 520 last year. We can expect that this toll will continue to rise.

I have raised in this chamber, with my colleagues, our distress at the corruption which infests Afghanistan’s politics, not least the Karzai government. We had a very short, peremptory debate about the circumstances of the last election and whether or not the current government is legitimate.

The Australian Greens take the strong point of view that we should be giving support to Afghanistan and to the Afghani people so they can have their freedoms and have police back in that country. We ought to be looking at the Canadian precedent, where the Canadian parliament have determined that, by 2011, their troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan. We should at least be debating this issue. We owe it to our troops, we owe it to the nation and we owe it to the Afghani people, and indeed to NATO and other troops who are in Afghanistan, to have a full, mature and informed debate in this parliament. I hope the Senate will agree.

12:38 pm

Photo of John FaulknerJohn Faulkner (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Vice-President of the Executive Council) Share this | | Hansard source

Let me first, in this debate, touch on a couple of points regarding Australia’s commitment to Afghanistan and in Afghanistan. In today’s world, Australia’s national security interests extend beyond our borders and beyond our region. The Australian government is committed to our efforts in Afghanistan, where we are working alongside 42 international partners, all working under a United Nations mandate. The Australian government has clearly set out the specific goals underlying Australia’s commitment and military involvement in Afghanistan. They are helping to stabilise the country through combined and coordinated military, police and civilian assistance; training sufficient Afghan security forces in Oruzgan province to allow Afghan authorities to take over within a reasonable time frame; and helping to prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a training ground and operating base for terrorists.

In response to any call for Australia to withdraw our troops, all I can say is that the job is not yet done. Abandoning it half finished is not my idea of responsible government. We all know how difficult and dangerous this task is—11 Australian soldiers have lost their lives in Afghanistan—and of course we do not want to be and we have no intention of being in Afghanistan indefinitely. That is why, earlier last year, the government in fact increased our troop commitment to Afghanistan to around 1,550. That increase included more ADF mentors and trainers for the Afghan National Army, with the express intent of increasing the number of Afghan National Army trainees to ultimately boost the security forces. Our efforts will help to bring Oruzgan province closer to the point where the ANA can provide security there.

In terms of Senator Bob Brown’s motion to suspend standing orders to bring on a debate about our involvement in Afghanistan now, I note that after taking the Defence portfolio I made a commitment that as Minister for Defence I would give the parliament regular reports on our progress in this conflict. I have made two such comprehensive statements, on 12 August and 26 November last year. I want to ensure that the Australian parliament and the Australian people are properly informed and able to make considered judgments about our involvement in Afghanistan. Both those statements provided the Senate with an opportunity for debate. I welcome the bipartisan support expressed at the time by the shadow minister for defence, Senator Johnston, and Senator Bob Brown also took the opportunity to respond to the 26 November statement. I intend to continue to provide the Senate with these regular updates and I will welcome debate on the subject throughout the year ahead.

Opportunities for debate are not limited just to these ministerial statements. We have, as you know, Mr Acting Deputy President, matters of public importance, urgency motions, general business—all of which provide senators with the opportunity to debate important issues. Afghanistan has also, I might say, been canvassed in detail during the Chief of the Defence Force’s opening statements at Senate estimates. Here the CDF, the secretary of defence and other departmental and ADF representatives are ready, willing and available to answer any questions about the issue from senators. There will be a further opportunity at Senate estimates next week. Given the pressure of other business before the Senate at the moment and the many other opportunities to debate our involvement in Afghanistan, the government will not be supporting this suspension motion at this time.

12:43 pm

Photo of David JohnstonDavid Johnston (WA, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Defence) Share this | | Hansard source

The reasons and justification for our mission in Afghanistan need no explanation or qualification. The mission and task are in a just and proper cause. In our democracy in Australia, the opposition can achieve very little in terms of practical outcomes, but one thing we can do is help and participate actively in defining what will or will not become national political issues. From an opposition perspective, our continued role in Afghanistan will not, so far as we are concerned, be or become a national political issue. The Minister for Defence has very properly and appropriately informed the Senate of the progress of our mission in Afghanistan on a regular basis. I thank him and commend him for that. I also thank, in this very brief response to Senator Bob Brown’s motion, the very fine men and women of our Australian Defence Force and their continued commitment to our mission. I commend them for the exceptional work that they are doing. It is simply outstanding. We are very proud of them. Accordingly, we see no reason to debate this issue at this time.

12:45 pm

Photo of Scott LudlamScott Ludlam (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak briefly on the suspension motion moved by Senator Brown on Afghanistan and commend it to the Senate. I will open with a comment similar to one Senator Brown made last year on the occasion of the second report by the Minister for Defence, which is that the level of disclosure, which we had not seen under the previous government, is appreciated. I also appreciate that the minister did not try to gloss over the fact that this is a bitter conflict with casualties every single day—some of them reported, some of them not—and that we are bringing back dead or injured Australians, whom we have put into harm’s way, on a weekly or monthly basis. But the question is what people do with that information once it is made public or once the disclosures are made during estimates hearings. Where is the debate actually to be held, because it is certainly not held here? This debate has been put into a brief half-hour timeslot this morning because there is really no other time that this issue can be debated. It was not debated properly and a vote was not taken when Australia deployed troops to this conflict all those years ago, and now we find ourselves in a quagmire, in an open-ended commitment entirely contingent on the priorities of our allies, particularly NATO, and our strategy effectively contingent on priorities set in the United States—in Washington and not in Canberra. If it is not an appropriate time for this suspension motion to be debated now, then when will it happen?

Both the Minister for Defence and the shadow spokesperson from the Liberal Party, Senator Johnston, said that they appreciated these reports on our progress. As much as the regular reports are appreciated, it is not progress. We are not making progress in Afghanistan. A part of the problem is that what we hear are updates on a failed security strategy in Afghanistan and a failed electoral strategy. Increasing civilian casualties, which ADF personnel have been involved in, have turned the population in large parts in that country against the occupying troops. The United States and NATO have armed militias, have armed particular warlords and have taken sides in conflicts that have held back this country through colonial occupation for literally centuries. There is no reason to believe that there is going to be any difference this time. The military contingents have different priorities, are not coordinated and lack a common diagnosis and common strategy. This again is something that Australia finds itself caught up in and it is being held hostage to foreign policy decisions taken in foreign capitals.

One of the first things I did when I took my seat in the middle of 2008 was reintroduce a bill the Australian Democrats had had on the Notice Paper for many years around the deployment of Australian troops into conflicts. As much as this motion of Senator Brown is concerned with how to extract ourselves from one of these conflicts, the legislation which I sponsored and which the Greens have been promoting talks about how we get into these conflicts in the first place and that these decisions should not be left to the executive. There seems to be consensus from both the major parties that this is a debate that they do not want to have. Perhaps sometimes later this year we will have two hours to debate it, and I am presuming it will be voted down by both parties because the debate itself does not have the level of maturity it does in the nations of even some of our closest allies.

The decision to commit Australian troops to war is the most serious decision that can be made by the political leadership of this country. We saw in the case of Afghanistan, and even worse in the instance of Iraq, that decision taken behind closed doors on the basis of faulty and politicised intelligence. That decision put people into harm’s way and led to the ongoing quagmire we are now held up in today. That decision should have been put to the parliament. It may not have even led to a different outcome, but at least the public would have felt, through their elected representatives, that they had some stake in the debate. What we get instead is the kind of polarisation where we have hundreds of thousands of people—in the case of Iraq and smaller numbers in the case of Afghanistan—marching in protest against the decision. I know very well, because I was involved in the protests, that the community had grave concerns about committing Australian forces to Afghanistan for precisely the reasons that we find ourselves discussing now.

I support this suspension motion so that the debate can occur in a mature fashion. The Greens are not about taking sides or politicising this debate, but we want the facts on the table and we want the community to feel that they have some stake in the debate rather than simply receiving these grim updates every couple of months from the defence minister that really only serve to highlight the fact that we are in a very serious situation in Afghanistan and that there is no end in sight. I also use this opportunity to promote the debate that should be had on the so-called ‘war powers bill’ about committing Australian troops to these conflicts in the first place.

12:50 pm

Photo of Nick XenophonNick Xenophon (SA, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I indicate that I support this suspension motion moved by Senator Brown on Afghanistan. The question here is not whether or not you support Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan but whether it is appropriate at this stage to suspend standing orders to debate this important issue, and I believe it is. I agree with Senator Ludlam that there is no more important decision a government can make than putting troops in harm’s way. In a democracy, the best place to debate these issues is right here in the parliament. In the United States—our closest ally—you need an act of congress before troops are committed to war. The Greens are not even asking for that here; they are simply asking for a debate. I do want to pay tribute to the Minister for Defence, though, for his candour and transparency—hitherto, we have not seen that level of candour and transparency about this conflict—and that is a good thing. The opposition has also commended the minister for that.

Today the issue is whether we should debate this issue now. I believe we should. I am concerned about the comments made by independent observers such as Peter Galbraith from the United Nations about the Afghan elections and the flawed process there. I think that is important in the context of such a debate. I think we ought to have this debate in this place, in this context and we should do that today.

Question put:

That the motion (Senator Bob Brown’s) be agreed to.