Senate debates

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Answers to Questions on Notice

Question No. 2384

3:01 pm

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

Pursuant to standing order 74(5), I ask the Minister representing the Minister for Defence, Senator Bob Carr, for an explanation as to why answers have not been provided to question No. 2384, asked on 19 October 2012.

Photo of Joe LudwigJoe Ludwig (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry) Share this | | Hansard source

In this instance I am unsure of whether notice has been given. I assume that it has been given but I do not have a response at this point. What I will do is seek to ensure that Senator Ludlam is provided with a response as soon as practicable.

3:02 pm

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

I thank Senator Ludwig for stepping into the breach. This is extraordinary. As you hinted, I did tip off Minister Carr's office this morning, as is the usual courtesy, and Senator Carr has nonetheless decided to leave the chamber.

Opposition Senators:

Opposition senators interjecting

Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order on my left! Senator Ludlam, you have the call.

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

I move:

That the Senate take note of the minister's failure to provide either an answer or an explanation.

The Senate should note the absence of an answer and the absence of the Minister representing the Minister for Defence. As everybody in this chamber knows, and is generally held to, answers to questions on notice are due in 30 days. I have 10 outstanding questions on notice, several of them more than six months overdue. Senator Cash is indicating she has some—

Senator Cash interjecting

Several hundred? Senator Cash has been busy. I think it has become something of a repetitive pattern to see this kind of neglect, and prolonged neglect, of perfectly legitimate questions put through the chamber by senators on all sides. Question 2384 was asked on 19 October and I should therefore have received an answer in late November. A couple of days you can forgive. I am also aware that it is the holiday season and that public servants, as well as the rest of us, need to take a break. However, I am extremely impatient for an answer to this question because it pertains to events that are imminent, that are in fact occurring on 2 and 3 March in Oslo, Norway.

The question relates to whether or not the Australian government will be participating in a conference held by the government of Norway about the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons and their use—not their threat of use but their actual use. I think it is important for Australia to participate in this conference. I hope that somewhere in this building somebody is giving some consideration to an answer to the question. I also hope that we are intending to participate constructively, that Australia will not simply turn up in an attempt to sabotage any moves that might be made to bring forward an international agreement to ban these weapons.

Australia has played an important diplomatic and political role as a middle power in past times—starting with the Canberra Commission and more recently with then Prime Minister Rudd's joint commission with the government of Japan—to explore ways to bring the permanent nuclear weapons states together around the table, as well as those states remaining outside international non-proliferation treaty instruments and also other states that may be considering or contemplating the use of nuclear weapons, which I should say is a tiny handful of nation states relative to the number of states around the world that want these weapons phased out.

In every country in which polling has been undertaken, whether it be a democracy or not, the vast majority of the citizenry, including here in Australia, want these weapons phased out. They have no strategic military utility and they exist in a kind of limbo, where they simply cannot be used. Some instinct of self-preservation has kept fingers off the triggers through the years of the Cold War and out the other side into the 21st century. But many of these weapons are hundreds or thousands of times more powerful than the bombs that flattened Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And if we imagine that in perpetuity we can maintain stockpiles of these hideous devices and that they will never be used by accident, misadventure or design, then we are in fact delusional. The time to make the decisions to phase out the weapons is before that eventuality, not the day after we find some familiar city somewhere in the world has been turned into a field of ash and radioactive glass.

The question that I put to the minister has a number of components, including a question about the level of preparedness that the Australian government might have should such a weapon be used here. I do not imagine that that is a consideration that occupies the front of mind for most people in Australia, either in our diplomatic corps or, I suspect, in the Australian military, in the ADF. It is actually pretty unfashionable to consider a nuclear detonation occurring in Australia. It certainly was not during the Cold War, when we were engaged in a nuclear arms race on behalf of our great and powerful ally, the United States, with their counterparts in the Soviet Union in a suicide pact that lasted for 40 or so years before a number of the weapons were stood down.

The general consensus was that, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the risk of nuclear Armageddon had eased, and it has almost entirely disappeared from the public consciousness apart from in a few places. But the reason I want to bring these questions to the chamber today, in the absence of either an answer or indeed the presence of the Minister representing the Minister for Defence in here, is that these matters may have faded from public consciousness but they have not disappeared. The idea that a nuclear weapon could either be targeted upon Australia, detonated by accident or, in fact, used in this country is not impossible and does deserve a degree of public scrutiny, certainly more than it gets at the moment.

In the 2009 Defence white paper, ironically enough at the same time as Prime Minister Rudd was making what I thought were genuine diplomatic efforts with our counterparts in Japan to try to forward a consensus on the elimination of nuclear weapons, into the Defence white paper was being written, 'We support the maintenance and the perpetuation of the United States nuclear umbrella and the protection that affords Australia.' We, in fact, find that there is still strategic utility in saying that if you use a nuclear weapon on Australia, our allies the United States will erase your country and simply taking off the map. That that is present prevailing Australian security policy—genocide for genocide; if you do us, we will do you with these weapons—is the same Cold War suicide pact written into the 2009 Defence white paper. All of the permanent five nuclear weapons states that maintain the veto power on the United Nations Security Council that Australia has temporarily joined are upgrading—not merely maintaining, but upgrading and improving—their nuclear weapons stockpiles.

It may seem a little uncomfortable and it may even lead to a degree of eye rolling that I would be bothered to bring a matter such as this to the Senate chamber early in 2013, but Australia is presently involved in a nuclear arms race on behalf of our ally the United States, who, like the other permanent five nuclear weapons states, and those who have remained outside treaty obligations, are in total violation of their obligations to disarm and are, in fact, preparing for the use of these weapons which we know are simply indiscriminate.

It is not simply about the modernisation of these weapons, and this is where these issues come home. I have been engaged in debate with senior Defence officials and with MPs in here and senators on the government side about whether or not we should be calling the US military installations that are popping up across the top end of Australia and elsewhere 'bases'. You can kid yourself and describe them as not being bases if you want; you can call them joint facilities. I do not particularly care. They will have Australian flags flying over them, and I understand that is being done in order to prevent people from getting too upset. We know for a fact that Pine Gap, North West Cape and Nurrungar were nuclear targets during the Cold War, thanks to declassified ONA reports that Philip Doring wrote up in the Age last year.

So what are these plans today? These installations—Pine Gap is the one that gets a certain amount of attention—are used to assist the United States military in targeting the weapons carried by ballistic missile submarines. That is partly what it does. That is partly what occurs at North West Cape. So these Defence and intelligence facilities are deadly serious. They are not just about snooping on the phone calls of ordinary people. The idea that we are seeing these bases—and I will continue to call them that until any kind of evidence to the contrary is presented to me—may well be the site of transshipments of nuclear weapons through ports, through our harbours, through land based facilities and through airfields. Whether we imagine that US bombers on their way around the world from bases elsewhere, if they knew they were going to have to stop in at Darwin or spend six months at Tyndall, would leave these devices at home, and in the event that they needed to use them would quickly scoot back to Hawaii or Guam and pick them up, is absolutely inconceivable. We know that is not the case and I have no confidence at all that these weapons will be left at home. In fact, we may be opening the door to stockpiling or transit of nuclear weapons through Australian ports and on Australian soil.

Which of our hospitals are trained and ready for a nuclear detonation in Australia, if any? Is there any degree of preparedness? I will quickly traverse the tenor of the questions that I put to the Minister for Defence through his representative in here, Senator Bob Carr. Which of our emergency services are trained and ready? Which of our hospitals are trained and ready? One of the questions goes to how many burn beds we have. These are considerations that Australian Defence and civil emergency institutions had to contend with during the Cold War. I suspect this has all been forgotten since then. What training and readiness do our military and other first responders have in place for the possibility? Where do we think might be the targets today? Would they be the same as those in the Cold War or would they be different in a world emphasising—including our own policies—the tension between the governments of the United States and China? What contingencies are in place for agricultural lands and for food production?

The impact of one nuclear weapon being detonated is simply unimaginable. Given that those that exist today are thousands of times more powerful than the ones that destroyed those two cities in Japan in 1945, I am not sure that there is any way to be properly prepared for a nuclear attack, but it would be interesting to know whether any of this thinking is occurring at all or whether we are simply prepared to believe in a form of institutional denial that we can buy into the United States nuclear weapons umbrella and nod our heads at the idea that the nuclear weapons states will never disarm and that these weapons are with us forever, and on the other hand continue in total oblivion to the consequences of their continued existence and their use.

There are, in fact, 22,000 of these weapons in existence right now, with up to 5,000 of them poised on hair-trigger alert, the so-called 'launch on warning'. If you believe—and you might only have 15 or 20 minutes to make this judgement call, as occurred during the Cold War—that you are under a nuclear attack by aircraft or by ballistic missile, you have minutes in which to decide whether or not to launch a counter-attack, because if you do not, and that attack is real, you will then miss the opportunity to incinerate the country of your opposition. The so-called 'launch on warning'; 5,000 of these weapons on hair-trigger alert today, including in our region.

The International Committee of the Red Cross, the pre-eminent promoter and protector of humanitarian law, adopted a resolution in 2011 that emphasises the incalculable human suffering that could be expected to result from any use of nuclear weapons here in Australia, in our region or anywhere in the world, and the lack of any adequate humanitarian response capacity.

I have also asked about the situation in South Asia between Pakistan and India, the place where many military and political analysts think the most dangerous nuclear stand-off in the world today is occurring. My question is: what are the likely effects of a regional nuclear exchange in South Asia on, for example, agricultural production in Australia and in that region, water quality, and the extraordinary flood of refugees, many of them contaminated, burned, leaving the region? This is not a far-fetched conspiracy theory. India and Pakistan are in a nuclear arms race and that is why the United Nations Security Council adopted resolution 1172 on 6 June 1998 after both India and Pakistan had tested nuclear weapons. That UNSC resolution encouraged all states to prevent the export of equipment, materials or technology that could in any way assist programs in India or in Pakistan for nuclear weapons. So why is Australia, at the same time as we are taking a temporary seat on the Security Council, proposing to do just that?

I have quoted probably more than once in this chamber K Subramaniam, the former head of the National Security Advisory Board in India, who said this in 2005: 'Given India's uranium ore crunch and the need to build up our nuclear deterrent arsenal as fast as possible, it is to India's advantage to categorise as many power reactors as possible as civilian ones to be refuelled by imported uranium and conserve our native uranium fuel for weapons grade plutonium production.' That is what we are walking into in Australia with a blindfold on. We are assisting the government of India to expand, enlarge and modernise its nuclear weapons arsenal to continue its nuclear arms race with the government of Pakistan. Recently police in Indian Kashmir have warned their constituents to build underground bunkers in case there is a nuclear exchange. This notice was issued by the state disaster response force in papers headed 'Protection against nuclear, biological and chemical weapons'. It is duck-and-cover stuff from out of the 1950s in the United States. It reads very similarly; some of the advice is very similar. It tells citizens to wait for the winds to die down and for debris to stop falling. It warns about initial orientation from being under a nuclear detonation. It tells people to run towards the blast so that they are not wiped out by their tumbling vehicle. It is this sort of advice, which will come in very helpful! As we know today, caesium fallout from Australian uranium now laces the fields around Fukushima. There is every possibility that uranium from Australia would be in such an exchange.

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Northern and Remote Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Deputy President, I raise a point of order. I do not want to unduly curtail Senator Ludlam on what he obviously thinks is an interesting matter, but we have been very patient on this side. I refer you to the standing order, which says:

At the conclusion of question time on any day after that period a senator may ask the relevant Minister for an explanation on why there has not been an answer. The senator may at the conclusion of the explanation move without notice that the Senate take note of the explanation.

If that is the motion that Senator Ludlam moved, he should be talking about the explanation given by Minister Carr. We know that Minister Carr in his typical arrogance, although he had notice of this, exited the chamber. Whilst I know you allow some latitude, frankly 15 minutes on the subject of the questions rather than on taking note of the explanation I think is something that should be drawn to Senator Ludlam's attention.

Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

We have taken it that the motion is standing order 74(5)c, which is failure to provide an answer. I have conferred with the Clerk and Senator Ludlam is in order in providing the information he is providing in relation to the failure of the minister to provide an answer. Senator Ludlam, you have the call.

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

Thank you, Chair. I remind Senator Macdonald, who was actually sitting here, that I did move such a motion 14 minutes and 40 seconds ago, and it is nice of you to join us. As time is short, I will conclude my remarks and come back to the nature of the questions I put to the minister and why it is so extraordinary—it is one of the rare occasions I would agree with Senator Macdonald—for the minister to simply leave the chamber. He was given three or four hours notice that I was going to put this to him. The appropriate thing to do is to simply table the question, and that could have avoided this speech, although I probably would have found another opportunity to read it in.

In conclusion, we simply should not be fuelling these kinds of conflicts in our region or anywhere else. We should go into these matters with our eyes open. So the question I put to the minister was around Australia's participation in the conference in Oslo in early March around the humanitarian impacts of the use of nuclear weapons . We believe that there is not just massive civil society support for such an endeavour but support among many governments around the world, middle powers such as Australia who have taken these positions and others around the world representing not millions but billions of people, that there should be an international legal time-bound obligation on the nuclear weapon states, which exists on paper under article 6 of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, to abolish these weapons. When North Korea, Iran and these other so-called nuclear break-out states, even Burma for a period of time, propose the construction and deployment of these weapons, they do so because other powers already hold them. The existence of nuclear weapons in the hands of the United States government invoked the need to develop them by those authorities in the Soviet Union, which invoked the Chinese authorities, the French, the British, the Israelis, the Indians, the Pakistanis, the North Koreans and the Iranians. Even in Australia there was a move on for nuclear weapons capabilities, and every now and again that idea boils to the surface and settles back into the depths again. Will Australia send representation to this meeting in Oslo? That is a question I would have appreciated an answer to from the minister. Who are we sending and at what degree of seniority? Are we going with the intention to help engage in dialogue about an international legal agreement to ban these weapons, or are we going there on behalf of our ally the United States to frustrate and delay? I hope for and expect an answer to this question on notice very soon. I thank my colleagues in the chamber for their support in allowing me to canvass these issues, as I will do it again until this world is free of these weapons once and for all.

3:21 pm

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations) Share this | | Hansard source

The actual motion moved by Senator Ludlam highlights the complete failure of the so-called new paradigm that we were promised by the Green-Labor alliance government. I would have thought Senator Ludlam could have resolved this issue at the normal Monday morning meeting between the Australian Greens and the ALP. Given that Senator Ludlam quite rightly complains about ministerial arrogance and non-answers by the ALP ministers, I thought it appropriate to remind Senator Ludlam that he is not alone in relation to this issue.

Senators right around this chamber are still awaiting answers to 1,399 questions that were asked at the last Senate estimates process, answers that should have been provided last year in December. We are now into the second month of 2013. We are now only a matter of days away from the next round of Senate estimates with over 20 per cent of the questions unanswered. How on earth can senators who are serious about their task of representing their electorates be able to deal with the next round of estimates when there are 1,399 answers outstanding to the questions?

This is indicative of a government that has no concern for the parliamentary process. We were promised all sorts of things in this new paradigm, courtesy of the country Independents and the Australian Greens. We were promised that the parliament would not be treated with contempt, that the executive would be answerable to the parliament. What do we have? The country Independents do not ever bleat even once about the non-answers by ministers and the Greens sporadically complain on a pet topic of their own but never about the overall arrogance because it is the Australian Greens who are keeping this arrogant government in power with those country Independents. Of course, it should not be a surprise that the Australian Greens in cahoots with the country Independents are not keeping this government to account because it is the Australian Greens, who combined with Labor, have thus far guillotined over 150 bills through this chamber without proper and full debate, something that they promised they would not do.

I wind up my remarks to indicate that the coalition sympathise with Senator Ludlam's dilemma but he and the Australian Greens could actually do something if they were genuinely serious. I once again call on the government to ensure that answers are provided in a timely fashion to the questions that are taken on notice at Senate estimates.

3:25 pm

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Northern and Remote Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

I also want to support Senator Ludlam's motion. I say to Senator Ludlam: what Senator Carr has done here today is arrogance to the top degree. I cannot understand why Senator Ludlam allows that to continue. It was the Greens political party along with Mr Oakeshott and Mr Windsor who, when they agreed to support Ms Gillard as Prime Minister, made so much about accountability and the new paradigm of how the chambers would operate. It is within the power of the Greens to make that happen, but the Greens as ever are big on the rhetoric but, when it comes to the crunch, they will never do anything that in any way will impact adversely on their left-wing colleagues in the Labor Party.

I cannot believe that Senator Ludlam, who is a mature person and has been here a few years, can give Senator Carr notice that he requires an answer and Senator Carr just walks out arrogantly. I have been in this chamber a long time through previous Labor governments and through 11 years of the Howard government. Ministers would always stay and give an explanation of why they have not been able to table answers on notice. For Senator Carr to demonstrate that sort of arrogance is one thing, but for Senator Ludlam and his colleagues in the Greens political party to simply acquiesce in that is very difficult for me to understand. Senator Ludlam has the ability to do something about it but the Greens seem incapable of doing it.

I conclude by pleading with the Greens. I very seldom agree with anything they do, but the idea that they would support Gillard in exchange for a bit of democracy, honesty and integrity in the chamber and the way it operates was something that I thought was in order. The current group of ministers in the Labor Party simply ignore all the rules and standing orders and bylaws of the chamber and are a law unto themselves. I indicate—and this is not a criticism of the President because I do not criticise the President—that the way every minister in the Labor Party cannot and does not answer a question is just an appalling breach of standing orders. Again, the Greens political party will not do something about the way these ministers arrogantly treat this chamber.

This chamber is an elected chamber and the Labor ministers treat it with contempt and that is the way this government treats Australians. I urge the Greens political party to follow their rhetoric and insist upon ministers in this chamber at least discharging their duties as they should and being responsible and accountable to the elected members of this chamber.

3:29 pm

Photo of Don FarrellDon Farrell (SA, Australian Labor Party, Parliamentary Secretary for Sustainability and Urban Water) Share this | | Hansard source

Can I indicate that I have received some correspondence here this afternoon and I am advised that the Minister for Defence approved a response to question 2384 last week, but an administrative delay within Defence meant that it had not yet appeared in Hansard. The minister's office will email a copy of the response to Senator Ludlam this afternoon.

Photo of Michael RonaldsonMichael Ronaldson (Victoria, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Veterans' Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

Given that response from the parliamentary secretary, it confirms again the complete and utter arrogance of this government. Not only had Senator Ludlam advised Minister Carr of the question but also we now hear that, indeed, there had been an answer provided by Defence, yet we have the very same minister walking out of here in a contemptuous fashion. Let no-one forget that he of course was the captain's pick. Senator Carr was the captain's pick. We have seen the other captain's pick appointed in the last two weeks, when Senator Crossin—

Photo of Mark BishopMark Bishop (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Deputy President, I have a point of order. The opposition continually raises the issue of relevance. The question before the chair goes to an issue of answering, or not answering, a question arising out of estimates. It does not go at all to the issue of what the acting minister did or did not do. All Senator Ronaldson has done to date is address the latter issue, not the question before the chair. I suggest it would be appropriate for you to request—

Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! There is no point of order, Senator Bishop. Senator Ronaldson is debating the motion that was moved by Senator Ludlam.

Photo of Michael RonaldsonMichael Ronaldson (Victoria, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Veterans' Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

I have heard it all—a member of the Australian Labor Party talking about relevance! We have seen what happens day after day in question time, yet we have Senator Bishop standing here and giving us a lecture about relevance. What a nerve! That party has completely debased question time and refused to abide by the President. The new Leader of the Government in the Senate—whether he was the captain's pick or not; I rather suspect he was not, but he was owed so he got the job—on four occasions was asked by the President to come back to the question and the President was completely ignored. The arrogance of captain's pick Senator Carr in walking out of here today—he was given notice and he could quite easily have stayed here and said, 'I do not have that information yet but I will give it to you'—is just reflective and represents what we have seen in this country since the Australian Labor Party was elected in 2007.

When we talk about utter arrogance, we cannot go past the promise this Prime Minister made that there would never be a carbon tax under the government she led. She did indeed bring in that carbon tax—a gross act of irresponsibility and a clear deception of the Australian people who were entitled to rely on her. While we are talking about this, I will ask Senator Farrell why it took some 45 minutes into this debate for this information to be provided when Senator Carr, the representative minister, knew full well that this question would be asked. Either he is arrogant—we know he is arrogant—or his staff just do not care. It may well be a combination of the two.

What we see from a government lurching towards the election of 2013 is an example of a dysfunctional and divided government that is incapable of even meeting the proper processes and decencies that have been in place in this chamber for a long, long time. It is about time Senator Carr reflected on his behaviour. It is about time the Prime Minister reflected on her behaviour in relation to captain's picks of people who do not in any way understand or respect the principles and practices of this place. I know other colleagues want to speak on other matters so I will finish my comment on that note.

Question agreed to.