Monday, 1 September 2014
Iraq and Syria
On behalf of the Prime Minister, I table a ministerial statement on Iraq and I move:
That the Senate take note of the document.
Speaking to that, if I may, can I first of all inform the chamber that Australian aircraft have participated in humanitarian airdrops to people trapped on Mount Sinjar and just yesterday to the besieged inhabitants of the small town of Amerli in the north-east of Iraq. Yesterday's airdrop was mounted in conjunction with American, British and French aircraft. In coming days, Australian aircraft will join an airlift of supplies, including military equipment, to the Kurdish Peshmerga regional government in Erbil. American, British, French, Canadian and Italian aircraft will also be involved. The involvement has been at the request of the Obama administration and with the approval of the Iraqi government. So far, we have met requests for humanitarian relief and for logistical support. So far, there has been no request for military action.
In line with important speeches made on behalf of the opposition this morning, on a motion to suspend standing orders, the government will continue to keep the opposition leader and opposition spokesperson informed on these matters through the briefing process. I think that is incumbent on the government for it to retain integrity and credibility on this matter. I think that this prime ministerial statement goes a long way towards satisfying what has become best practice in such matters, as adopted previously by ministers for defence—indeed, may I say, by former Minister for Defence Faulkner.
Having said that, I will deal very briefly with precisely what has been undertaken so far. On 31 August, a Royal Australian Air Force Hercules C130J aircraft located in the UAE completed an airdrop to isolated civilians in the Amerli region. The aircraft delivered 15 bundles of Australian humanitarian supplies, including high-energy biscuits, bottled water and hygiene packs designated to feed and hydrate some 2,600 people. They are capable of sustaining them for some 24 hours. This is the second humanitarian aid drop that Australia has conducted.
On 14 August, a Royal Australian Air Force Hercules C130J transport aircraft located at Al-Minhad Air Base in the United Arab Emirates delivered supplies to the Yazidi civilians trapped on Mount Sinjar by ISIL forces. The cargo delivered to Mount Sinjar included 150 boxes of high-energy biscuits and 340 boxes of bottled water, which is enough to sustain 3,700 people for 24 hours. We continue to talk to our partners about how we might further contribute to international efforts to protect people against the advance of ISIL terrorists.
There is a huge humanitarian disaster potentially unfolding in the Levant, across Syria and in Iraq. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, has said that Islamic State and allied fighters were committing 'grave, horrific human rights violations on a daily basis.' Dr Pillay said that these include targeted killings, forced conversions, abductions, trafficking, slavery and sexual abuse. Among those directly targeted have been Christians, Yazidis, Shabaks, Turkmens and Shias. Human rights groups say that abductions, arbitrary detentions and torture are all strategies used by ISIL militants. The victims include people suspected of simple crimes like theft and drinking alcohol.
The UN reports that ISIS has reportedly killed hundreds of Yazidi men and kidnapped Yazidi women and girls. Hundreds of, mostly Yazidi, individuals were reportedly killed, with up to 2,500 kidnapped at the beginning of August this year. Of those who refused to convert, witnesses report that the men were executed, while the women and their children were taken as slaves and either handed over to ISIL fighters as slaves or threatened with being sold. There are also reports of Yazidi women being used as human shields.
Christians in Mosul were reportedly directed to convert to Islam, leave or face execution. Yazidis have also reportedly been order to convert to Islam or face death. ISIL has reportedly executed 700 members of the al-Sheitaat tribe in north-eastern Syria. Members of the Shia Turkmen community in Amerli have been besieged by ISIL and associated armed groups since 15 June. Residents are enduring harsh living conditions with severe food and water shortages and a complete absence of medical services.
I turn to what we all have seen more recently: ISIL's video of 19 August showing the beheading of US journalist James Foley and the threat to kill another captured US national, Mr Steven Sotloff. A photo reportedly originating from the Twitter feed of Australian Khaled Sharrouf, a member of ISIL, shows a young boy—reported to be his son—holding the severed head of a man reported to be a Syrian government soldier. The human rights office of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq has verified reports of a massacre of up to 670 prisoners from Mosul's Badush prison on 10 June. May I say that there are many, many more examples that I have to report to the chamber of the sorts of atrocities that we have come to understand are being used in a tactical, deliberate and considered way by ISIL terrorists.
We have responded to requests from the United States, as have other friends and allies, to assist in the provision of heavy-lift aircraft to provide the humanitarian relief that we have. I pause to say that this is an extremely serious and difficult situation for the country of Iraq. They have been taken by surprise to some extent. As I said this morning during the motion to suspend standing orders, the only force that appears to have had any real success in resisting this onslaught has been the Peshmerga Kurds. So it is that we have said that we will support them in the provision of vital ammunition should that be required.
I commend the Prime Minister's statement to the Senate. I think it is very important to be viewed as setting out Australia's current situation with respect to the unfolding situation in Iraq. It establishes the benchmarks and the basis for the action that we have taken so far. I underline the fact that there has been no further request made to Australia for military support of military action. Having said that, I again commend the statement of the Prime Minister to this chamber and say that this is a most grave and serious situation that requires right-thinking nations to respond appropriately. Given what I have said to the chamber this afternoon, I believe that Australia has done just that.
I rise to speak on the motion to take note of the Prime Minister's statement. Decisions to send Australian service men and women into theatres of war or regions affected by military conflict are amongst the most difficult and serious decisions—if not the most difficult and serious decision—that any government can make. They are the most serious and difficult decisions because they involve placing the men and women of our defence forces in harm's way and asking them to undertake dangerous and risky missions on behalf of our nation. They are also amongst the most important decisions that any government can make because they involve our nation's security, safety, values and role as a member of the international community of nations.
I rise to indicate that the opposition supports the decision by the government to deploy members of the Royal Australian Air Force on a mission to provide supplies to the Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq. These supplies will help Kurdish fighters to defend their territory and their people against the vicious assaults that we have seen from ISIL forces in recent weeks—and these have been shocking and vicious assaults. They amount to a program of ethnic cleansing by ISIL against minority groups. There have been massacres, there have been women forced into sexual slavery, there have been forced religious conversions and much more.
The RAAF has already played its part in humanitarian missions in Iraq over recent days. These missions have delivered food and water to besieged groups of civilians trapped on Mount Sinjar and in the town of Amerli in northern Iraq. The Prime Minister has announced that Australia will now join other countries in an airlift of supplies, including military equipment, to the Kurdish authorities in Erbil. The opposition supports the government's decision. We do so because we believe it is in Australia's national interest to play an appropriate role in the international efforts to help potential victims of ISIL—to help assist and protect them, and to help them defend themselves.
Mr Shorten, the Leader of the Opposition, set out in the House earlier today three key principles which motivate the Labor Party in this matter. The first is the responsibility to respond to humanitarian crises and to take action to prevent genocide. Australia is a country which believes in helping others. In times of natural disaster at home and abroad, we have played our part in helping those who are affected. In times of security crises, civil strife and military conflict in our region and beyond, Australia has accepted the responsibility to be part of international action to protect the innocent and the vulnerable. Over the years, we have taken part in such missions in places ranging from Cambodia to Rwanda, from Somalia to East Timor. Where there is a threat of genocide against a whole population it is important for the international community to take action.
Australia's former foreign affairs minister Gareth Evans has been at the leading edge of thinking in recent years about the international community's responsibility to protect people facing such a threat. The tests for assessing whether intervention is justified to protect threatened populations which have been suggested in these debates include whether a genocide or potential genocide is imminent, whether the intervention is a proportionate response to the threat and whether the intervention has international support. Labor believes those tests are satisfied in the circumstances we now face. There is a clear risk of massacres and persecution that would amount to genocide. The intervention that has been proposed is a proportionate response. It involves Australia participating in an airlift of supplies to help Kurdish forces to defend those who are at risk. The intervention is also at the request of the United States administration and is supported by the government of Iraq. The airlift will also have the participation of Britain, France, Canada and Italy.
The second key principle for Labor is the need for a democratic government of unity in Iraq—a government that can provide cohesion for that country and can protect its minorities. The third principle for taking a stand is to remove the motivation, and deny the opportunity, for Australian citizens to travel to that part of the world as foreign fighters. It is for these reasons that Labor supports the government's decision.
There are some who have made comparisons between the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq and today. It is well known that the Labor opposition at that time opposed Australia's participation in the Iraq war. Today, I lay on the record—as did Mr Shorten—a number of key differences. Today the Iraqi government is speaking with the international community, seeking our humanitarian assistance. Today we have a United States administration adopting a more methodical and internationally inclusive approach. Today we can also look to the nations of the region, the Arabic leaders, for their part in the solution to this problem. As I said, there are significant differences between the Australian involvement in Iraq in the early 2000s and what is being proposed by the government today. The US-led intervention did not have widespread international support and did not have the support of the majority of the Iraqi population. That is not the case with the current intervention.
The opposition also acknowledges the consultation and briefings that have been extended by the government. In coming days, I urge the government to be as open and transparent with the parliament and the public as is possible. As my colleague Senator Faulkner, a former defence minister, has indicated, the public and the parliament should be provided with information and updates about the mission and its outcomes. It is consistent with the approach that we have articulated on a number of occasions, including most recently this morning, that Labor has sought the government's agreement for this debate—a structured and sensible debate.
In the debate this morning on the motion to suspend the standing orders that was moved by the Greens, Senator Faulkner reiterated Labor's position. We believe under our system of government a decision to deploy members of the ADF, whether for combat operations, peacekeeping or disaster relief, should be made by the executive government; however, we also believe that a government should be as open and transparent as possible and provide to the parliament regular reports on Australia's role. As Senator Faulkner said this morning, Labor strongly commend this approach to the government and, consistent with that desire for appropriate debate, we sought agreement from the government for this two-hour debate today.
In many ways the most important people—the people who are most in our thoughts today—are those Australians who are directly affected by this decision. The people most affected by these decisions are not members of parliament, the media who report on these decisions and the experts and pundits who comment on them; they are the men and women of the Australian Defence Force and their families. These are the people most affected in the most profound way. This is why those of us who make these decisions and debate these decisions should do so in a sober, serious, considered and responsible manner. I say to members of the ADF who take part in this mission: we are extraordinarily grateful for, and humbled by, your service.
I rise today to comment on the Prime Minister's statement that has been tabled in the parliament. It is a statement that tries to justify the engagement of Australian military aircraft in supplying arms to the Kurdish fighters fighting ISIS in northern Iraq. I think we have to step back from a lot of the language that is being used by the Prime Minister to justify Australia's engagement. The fact of the matter is that before you commit troops anywhere you need to have a very clear understanding of what is in the national interest, what is likely to be achieved and what the risks associated with that engagement are and look at where we have been in the case of Iraq up until now. What is the strategy? When asked last week President Obama himself could not answer the question: what is the strategy? He did not have a strategy.
The real concern that Australians have is that this is another case of Australia just running straight after the United States. We have had it throughout our modern history. Nobody who remembers the Vietnam War will forget 'All the way with LBJ'. That was the way it was presented. We saw exactly the same with John Howard, George Bush and Tony Blair—weapons of mass destruction lies. Now we have a circumstance where there has been no attempt to justify why it is in Australia's national interest to be engaged in military involvement in Iraq and how it would not be counterproductive—and I am most interested to hear from the government why it would not be counterproductive given that ethnic tensions in Iraq have gone on for hundreds of years and will continue to do so. There is a lot of equal debate as to the extent to which the involvement of Americans, Australians and the British in Iraq will unite the jihadist Sunnis against the Shiahs even more so and that is especially because of the involvement of Saudi Arabia.
Whilst I appreciate the horrendous abuses of humanity and the offensiveness of those to Australians as we see the beheadings, the cruelty and the killings that have been going on, I can tell you that there were horrendous killings in Sri Lanka during the civil war and there is ongoing killing of the Tamils right now, and not only do we not intervene but we appease that regime. There are horrendous crimes being committed in the Congo and we have stood by and not thought it was appropriate for Australia to intervene there. What about Boko Haram? Let us go to them for a moment. We know that they are an equally jihadist, extremist Islamic organisation. They are disappearing women and young girls, raping them and selling them in Nigeria yet we have not intervened in Nigeria.
Let us talk for a moment about the chemical weapons used against the Syrians. I want to return to Saudi Arabia because Saudi Arabia regularly beheads people, regularly crucifies the bodies of those who have been beheaded and engages in extremism. You cannot consider this whole debate without considering the role of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia. The West has been happy to stand back and not intervene in Saudi Arabia. In fact, where is the West calling out Saudi Arabia in the current circumstance? As recently as a week or so ago we had reports from Saudi Arabia applauding ISIS fighting the Shiahs in Iraq.
So before we get into military engagement in Iraq we had better ask some serious questions. Why are we there? I would argue that we are going to be there because we are blindly following the United States. Is there a clear and achievable overall objective? I do not believe so. Afghanistan in 2003—and Iraq now—demonstrates that there will not be an overall objective, except trying to retreat at some point in the future because nothing the West can do is going to end the ethnic division in Iraq. What we should have been doing is challenging the government of al-Maliki to be inclusive of all the ethnic minorities—to actually be an inclusive government. But we allowed that government to get away with preferencing the Shias consistently and excluding the Sunnis. So it is hardly surprising that the spoils of victory seem to be taken on one side of the ethnic divide or on the other side of the ethnic divide.
The Greens are asking, first of all: what is the legal justification under international law for us to be engaging in military action? Humanitarian assistance is one thing—we totally support humanitarian assistance and did support the dropping of water, food and so on. That was critically important and continues to be so. But once that crosses the line and we start transporting armaments—the SAS troops will no doubt be there, then we have the Super Hornets on high alert—it will morph into military action. My question is: how is that legal? There are only two ways that could be legal. One is if the UN Security Council were to pass a resolution. The other is if the government of Iraq has asked for it.
Today I asked a direct question of the Minister representing the Prime Minister about whether the Iraqi government had requested Australia to be a part of a mission to take munitions and weapons to the Kurdish communities fighting ISIS—and did not get an answer as to whether Australia had been directly invited. Why does international law matter? The Prime Minister said:
Australia is not a country that goes looking for trouble but we have always been prepared to do what we can to help in the wider world.
… … …
In good conscience, Madam Speaker, Australia cannot leave the Iraqi people to face this horror, this pure evil, alone or ask others to do so in the name of human decency what we won’t do ourselves.
If we do not abide by international law, however, how can we ask any other country to abide by international law? That is the point. International law applies to everyone or it applies to no-one. If we speak to North Korea, to China or to anyone else about international law, we expect the same law to apply everywhere—not to run a different line when it comes to Iraq.
As to our culpability in Iraq, there is no doubt. After the 2003 engagement in Iraq, we left a major vacuum which has been filled by this ethnic violence and tension that has gone on ever since and, I would argue, has been made worse by the nature of the al-Maliki government. The question is whether the Iraq's new government will be strong enough to be able to be inclusive enough to start to reduce the level of tension. I have some very serious concerns. I do not think it is good enough for the government to just say, 'These are shocking atrocities; therefore we will go in.' That has not been our position in Sri Lanka, Congo, Nigeria or Saudi Arabia. But it suddenly is our position in Iraq. I want Australia to have a foreign policy that is independent and asks: 'Why is this action in the national interest? How is it legal under international law? What is the plan and where will it end? What are the risks? Are we simply cementing a stronger jihadist movement against the West; therefore acting against our long-term security and our long-term national interest?' I speak for many Australians— (Time expired)
Labor supports the deployment of ADF personnel to Iraq based on three key principles outlined earlier today by Mr Shorten. There is no more difficult decision a government can make than putting Australians in harm's way. It is a decision that should never be taken lightly. It is only ever done following careful consideration. In opposition, Labor has been constructive and cooperative when it comes to the decision to deploy Australian Defence Force personnel to support the humanitarian effort in Iraq.
I want to put on the parliamentary record that the government did provide the opposition with some advance notice of these actions before they were announced. The opposition has also received briefings from the government and Defence officials. The Prime Minister himself has said he will consult with the opposition on these matters. I trust that will continue. It is appropriate that matters of national security should remain above politics. As I mentioned this morning, it is Labor's view that debates like these should take place in the parliament. I am pleased that there is now an opportunity for this important issue to be debated in the Senate and that senators who wish to make a contribution are able to do so.
There will be differences of opinion in this debate, but all voices should be heard—which leads me to some frustration I have with some of the reporting of this morning's debate. It was very clear that this morning's debate was not about stopping a debate on our involvement in Iraq. It was about whether or not a motion should be passed calling on an entirely different but related matter. The reporting this morning indicated that Labor voted against a debate on this issue. I want to put on the record that that is completely inaccurate. We are here now today because both the government and the Labor have a commitment to transparency, to ensuring that all senators get an opportunity to have their say.
Labor fully supports the actions of the federal government to deploy Australian Defence Force personnel to Iraq to support humanitarian operations. There are many vulnerable people in Iraq who need our help and who need it now. Islamic State is a barbaric organisation that is engaged in the massacre of innocent people. The Australian people have seen what sort of brutality they can inflict. Disgusting images of beheadings have been beamed into our lounge rooms. There have been crucifixions as well as the mass murder of people who do not bow to their demands to convert to their extremist version of Islam. There are people living in northern Iraq who face potential genocide. Ancient cultures face being wiped out.
As a country we have a responsibility to protect people who are faced with such a grave situation. We have a responsibility to protect people who are being systematically persecuted for their beliefs in the most horrific ways imaginable. We have a responsibility to protect civilian populations from potential genocide and ethnic cleansing. Labor is proud to support the efforts of the Australian Defence Force as they embark on a humanitarian mission. The Kurdish Peshmerga have been an effective fighting force encountering IS forces and preventing, as much as possible, the atrocities being committed by IS. Providing arms and equipment to the Peshmerga will help them continue these efforts.
As we also know, a Royal Australian Air Force C130J Hercules aircraft has delivered 15 bundles of Australian humanitarian supplies to the isolated Turkmen civilians in the northern Iraqi town of Armili. The mission provided support to as many as 12,000 residents of the town who have been besieged by IS for more than two months. This included food, bottled water and hygiene packs. This follows the aid drops undertaken to the Yazidi civilians trapped on Mount Sinjar. The people we are helping are in desperate need of assistance. Australia should always be willing to provide humanitarian assistance wherever and whenever it can.
Our RAAF personnel are doing a tremendous job, and they can be rightly proud of the work they are doing. Whilst this is a humanitarian mission, we cannot overlook the dangers involved for our service men and women. Like they always do, they are performing their tasks with great professionalism and dedication, and with the full support of the Labor Party. I have been lucky enough recently to meet some of the pilots and crews of the C130s, one of the aircraft being used for these humanitarian missions and, can I say, Australia's mission in Iraq is in safe hands. They are doing and will continue to do Australia proud.
Their work is part of a global effort. Australia is not acting alone. We are acting at the request of the United States and with the support of the Iraqi government. Other countries involved include France, Italy, Canada and the United Kingdom. Labor continues to support this multilateral humanitarian approach that has been adopted by the international community. It is important that we continue to work with other nations to provide humanitarian assistance to Iraq following the establishment of the new government, expected to be next week. The need for a fully functioning and united Iraqi government cannot be understated. While the international community must do what it can to support the humanitarian action in Iraq to prevent genocide, ultimately it is the Iraqi government that must take on the threat posed by IS.
I am pleased that the minister has provided a statement to the parliament and I note his commitment to continue providing updates to the Senate. As part of these updates, it is important that the parliament be provided with detailed information about our mission parameters in Iraq. As this deployment continues, it is also vital that the government continues to keep the Australian people and the parliament in its confidence so that the overwhelming support for our deployment is maintained.
I want to reiterate: Labor supports this deployment. We have a responsibility to do what we can to protect people from potential genocide and ethnic cleansing. It is important that we continue to keep working with our friends to ensure that we are providing assistance when and where it is needed. We can do the most good when we work together towards a common purpose. One thing we must ensure is that we continue to focus on the people who need our assistance. Furthermore, let us all continue to support our men and women in uniform who are out there helping the helpless in Iraq. I thank the minister for his update.
I commend the opposition, the Australian Labor Party, and opposition leader Mr Shorten, and join the remarks made by Senator Conroy in acknowledging that it is a responsible and very appropriate position the Labor Party has taken with respect to this very complex and vexed question.
When I came to this place I promised myself I would make every effort not to buy into raw politics wherever I could. But I have to confess I am finding it increasingly difficult to stare down the devil of temptation. I have to say that the position taken by the Greens on this issue completely confounds me. Had Australia—and other free nations—adopted this sort of position during the course of the Second World War, the argument would be that we should not have attended and we should not have participated—that we should have sat by, idly, whilst 5.7 million people of the Jewish faith were subject to the most horrific genocide that has ever been reported.
In modern times, governments have taken similar attitudes where, in my view, they have been too slow to respond. All of us can remember the events in Somalia, the Balkans, recently in Syria, Afghanistan and Cambodia. Indeed, if the argument being presented by the Greens were to be adopted, the USA would not have responded to the horrific events with the World Trade Centre incident.
It defies logic that, at this point in time, while there are tens of thousands of people who are confronted with this behaviour by the Islamic State, we could be discussing finite matters about whether we attend it or we do not. We ignore the fact that there are 11,000 nationals across the world from free nations like Australia who have taken up arms in this. Australians born to this soil—to this country that you suggest we need to hold proud—are over there decapitating citizens in the Middle East. Not one word from colleagues in the Greens, not one word, with respect to that behaviour—
If Senator Di Natale has a couple of minutes later, I am happy to go through a little spelling program. My name is O'Sullivan; I wear it proudly.
Emotions run very deep on this. I suspect that, in the time that we have been here debating these issues, there are people in the Middle East in these conflicts who have lost their lives, and that will continue unabated while we talk. This is not a time for talk. I have gone on the public record encouraging my own government to consider an expansion of humanitarian measures, including lifting the number of refugees from that region who could be removed from that conflict and brought here immediately. I feel very strongly about these issues. I feel very strongly about the position the Greens have taken—the same party who supported policies that saw over a thousand refugees die on the high seas, drowned; men, women and children. I say to you: you need to consider these issues as if you had a personal interest in the people on the ground in Iraq, as if your heritage was Kurdish.
I've got a few bob. I am happy to buy them all a ticket to the front line, where the Kurds are fighting this at the moment—
Senator Dastyari interjecting—
and we will see whether the attitudes being presented do not change.
A coalition of all the free nations, all the important free nations—Canada, Italy, France, Britain, the United States and ourselves—have for once, in my view, moved responsibly, in a prompt fashion. We responded early with humanitarian support, where we provided these people with the basics of life: food, water and limited access to shelter. Now we are confronting the issue of being able to equip them so they can respond to defend their lives. It is as simple as that.
Yet there are those who want us to debate this to the death. There are those who want to bring our parliament, both the House of Representatives and this Senate, to a standstill for days, when they know full well that that opportunity would turn into an absolute political free-for-all. It does not matter how many days, weeks or months we spend in this place; I have a sneaking suspicion that I will never agree with the policies that you pursue. For saving the lives of people, you should be making the argument about increasing refugee intakes in this particular circumstance and keeping them alive long enough—
My apologies. Our government, the coalition, have responded in, I think, a very even, measured way, with the support of the opposition, the Australian Labor Party, who I often disagree with but never on the issue of their social soul, never in relation to some of the arguments for those people who are most in need. This is a time for us here, for our government, to extend hope to these people. This is a time for us to support the people who will be engaged in our military response, in the assistance we are providing to the Kurds. This is a time for us as a nation to come together as one, with one voice, to do whatever is available to us within our broad bailiwick to provide the best and most comprehensive humanitarian services to people who are right now facing their mortality in the face of evil. This is a time for consolidation. This is a time for us to operate with our hearts and to provide support to these people in whatever fashion we can.
I want to begin by saying that these are never easy debates. These are never easy issues. I do not envy anyone who has the responsibility for making these kinds of decisions, especially when they relate to the lives of others. I want to say, though, that I respect the fact that good people can disagree with each other, that different views can be held and that, while my view may not concur with all views that are expressed in this parliament and in this chamber, I certainly respect the fact that in a debate like this good people with good intentions can have different views from the one that I will be sharing with this chamber.
I rise today to join my colleagues in this parliament in expressing, in the plainest terms, my great concern for the lives and livelihoods of the people of northern Iraq and north-western Syria, who are being butchered with medieval brutality by the so called Islamic State.
A lot of my friends in this chamber who know me well, know my story. They know that when I was five years old I fled Iran during the Iran-Iraq war to come to this country. I came to this country because it was a place of peace, a place of hope and a place of opportunity. I also came here because I wanted to be part of a country—party of a society—that would not turn its back on others. I believe the Australia of today has a responsibility for those who are suffering in northern Iraq and Syria. I believe that Australia, as an independent middle power, has a responsibility to do what we can, in a reasonable and sensible fashion, to minimise and, wherever possible, stop genocide, stop hurt and stop suffering.
There are senators here today who have raised the fact that previous governments and the current government have perhaps not done enough in other areas, in other conflicts. Senators have raised the spectre of Sri Lanka or sub-Saharan Africa. Let me put my view on the record. I believe Australia, as an independent middle power, should and can do a lot more in a lot of different areas. We should be using our aid budget. We should be using our resources. We should, where appropriate, be expressing our influence and our power to do the right thing by those who are suffering. But that debate, which is a separate debate, does not negate the fact that there is horror, genocide and brutality going on right now. And right now there is something we, as an Australian parliament, can do about it.
Two weeks ago today, I was standing in a refugee camp in Jordan not far from the Syrian border, hearing the stories of the tens of thousands of people who have fled Syria and a few who have fled Iraq. They were fleeing the horrors of the so called Islamic State but also the horrors of the Assad regime. These people had given up everything to flee the brutality that they were facing.
And only a few days ago, I met a man who had just arrived in the camp with his entire family from northern Syria. He was unshaven. He was scarred. He was burnt by the sun. He had been walking for 30 days with his three children and his wife. He was fleeing. We have a responsibility to those people. As global citizens—as a global middle power—we have a responsibility to do what we can to make sure that the suffering of those people does not go on.
It is an honour to be part of this kind of debate. As other colleagues have reiterated, there is no greater responsibility in the service of our nation than any decision to deploy the men and women of our defence forces. It is always a serious and difficult decision. I accept the fact that different people will come to this with different views but I want to reiterate the statements made by others in the opposition to affirm our appreciation for the fact that the government and the Defence officials provided us with briefings before this was announced. I add my voice to others in this place in condemning the actions of the barbaric murderers who have butchered their way across the Kurdish territories.
We cannot simply stand by and allow actions like this to proliferate in our world. This is not a situation that should be allowed to be tolerated. The fact is that we can have a different debate about what decisions have been made in the past and about what actions have or have not been taken. We can debate about the initial entry into Iraq and whether it was or was not appropriate and, if we could do it all again, what should or should not be done. But the fact remains that right now, right here, there is something the Australian government can and should do.
I also want to raise my voice in support of the many Syrian, Iraqi and Kurdish nationals who are living in Australia, whose stories are not that different from mine. Many of them faced brutality under the Saddam regime when they migrated to this country, in way that is not dissimilar to the experiences of my family when I migrated to this country. They voice concerns and worries about what is going on in Iraq and northern Syria.
None of this should be conflated, in any way, with some kind of endorsement of the actions of the Assad regime or of al-Nusra or of any of the other players in that regime. No; what we are saying is: if there is genocide going on in the world and we can stop it, we have a responsibility to stop it. If there is horror, pain and suffering and we—as an independent middle power—have the ability and the opportunity to do something about it, we should not shy away from that simply because it is too difficult or because the local politics make it all too hard. This is about doing what is right. This is about doing what we have all been sent here to do. Frankly, this is what Australia does best.
I appreciate the right of the government to make these decisions; I also appreciate that this is not a government that has made this decision likely, that it has the support of the defence forces and that it has taken the relevant and necessary steps to properly brief the opposition before making this announcement, as it appropriately should have done. I call on the defence minister to keep his commitment and maintain a level of dialogue with the opposition as these events unfold, and I also want to reiterate what the leader of the Labor Party, Bill Shorten, said earlier. In support of the decision he outlined two tests for the opposition—firstly, whether this is about responding effectively to the humanitarian crisis in Iraq to prevent genocide and to relieve suffering; and, secondly—I think this sometimes gets overlooked—are we doing what we can to promote a unity government in Iraq that is inclusive and that can achieve national cohesion and reject sectarianism and the alienation of minorities. It has to be about the long-term interests of Iraq.
Frankly, we as an Australian parliament, as an Australian government and as the Australian people cannot sit idly by, cannot allow these events to happen on the other side of the world, and argue that because it is so far away, because it has not directly impacted us yet, because it is on the other side of the world, we do not have a responsibility and that we do not have a role. Where there is pain, where there is suffering, where there is hurt, where there is genocide and Australia can do something about it, we always have a responsibility to play our role.
I want to add some comments to the comments I made this morning, recognising it is likely that the Senate will be debating legislation later this week about parliamentary approval for a deployment. I will reserve my comments on the issue until Thursday, in large part. I contrast the way Senator Dastyari approached the debate with the approach of the previous speaker, Senator O'Sullivan. I do not want any of us on this side of the chamber to be put in the position where, if we do not agree with another speaker, we are pro beheading or we are pro the kind of vile activities we see the so-called Islamic State perpetrating in the territory over which it has control. That is an incredibly degrading way to conduct the debate and I do not think any of us should descend there.
One of the reasons we believe this debate should be brought forward—and we acknowledge that it has been—is that the situation is inordinately complex. We are attempting to help—and I will extend this courtesy to those on the other side of the chamber because everybody who has lined up has expressed a willingness to help and that is why there is such broad support for humanitarian intervention in the areas where we may have some agency to do something—but the line between humanitarian intervention and armed aggression in another part of the world is incredibly fine and it is difficult to draw that line. We have already seen the concept of humanitarian assistance ranging from air drops of food, first aid equipment, water and some of the other materials that Senator Johnston outlined to the Senate earlier in the day to the provisioning of weapons to a group that Australia in part has listed as a terrorist organisation, the PKK, who are well and truly entrenched in that theatre of war. The minister was unable to explain earlier how we can prevent this weaponry falling into the hands of those who Australia has listed as a terrorist organisation. We have gone from humanitarian intervention to drops of weapons by the Royal Australian Air Force from Russia or Eastern Europe—flights that will almost certainly need to be protected by SAS troops, if they are not already there, either to secure the landing areas or to secure the flight crews when they arrive. As I mentioned this morning, the Pine Gap installation is almost certainly being used to guide drone attacks inside Iraq and perhaps inside Syria—we do not really know.
We have already well and truly blurred the line, and I would argue crossed the line, from humanitarian intervention to again being a combatant in this theatre of war. Maybe that is something that those on the other side are completely comfortable with, but that is why the Australian Greens believe that not only should these issues be submitted to respectful debate in this place before we commit other people to risking their lives in this part of the world but indeed the legislature should be given sufficient respect to enable each of us to line up and record our names on one side of the ledger or another, with these issues having been submitted to a vote. That is what the United States Congress does and it is what the United Kingdom parliament in Westminster does—by convention, I acknowledge, not by law; that was what they learned as a result of deep inquiries into the Iraq disaster—and it is what many kindred of democracies do elsewhere.
I listened very carefully to Prime Minister Abbott's words at his press conference yesterday, and other comments to parliament today, and they suggested that this is being done with the consent of the Iraqi government. I wondered at the time, and I think others did as well, why the Iraqi ambassador was not present at that announcement and why there was no statement, that I am aware of anyway, from Iraqi officials here in Australia. It turns out that while this debate has been unfolding the ambassador has been conducting an interview with David Speers on Sky News and has warned against doing what we have done. He has said that the arms shipments should go through the central Iraqi authorities and not be supplied to the Peshmerga. I will have to go back and see exactly what their statement is, but it appears on our reading that they were not even notified of the terms of Australia's intervention where we slipped from humanitarian supplies of food and other essentials to light arms. Now the Iraqi authorities here are saying, 'Well, if we were going to drop weapons into Victoria we would probably consult Canberra first.' What exactly has the government got us into? This is the kind of question that needs to be thoroughly ventilated in this place.
The Australian government seems determined to take its lead from the United States on undertakings that are never made public until many years after these engagements. I listened to Prime Minister Abbott's comments very carefully, and he said there is no intention to put Australian boots on the ground; that is what President Obama has said—as though our foreign and defence policy is being guided entirely by decisions taken in the White House. No other sovereign country does that—nobody does that. It is something that appears to have uniquely evolved here in Australia.
I will have more to say about this on Thursday, but the reason why parliamentarians from the major parties in this place would refuse to submit a vote to parliament on any given deployment, no matter how meritorious, is it would prevent these kinds of blank cheques being written to the United States government. I suspect you would find, as has been made clear by Senators Wong and Conroy this morning, that the deployment is strongly supported by the ALP. It means that vote would be carried—it would be carried in the House of Representatives and it would be carried in the Senate. It is not that the government's objectives would necessarily be put at risk, but you would have to stand up and justify them.
Because Prime Minister Abbott appears to have made undertakings to the President of the US—in what looks to us like an open-ended commitment—it is worth looking to some of the more moderate voices in the US defence and national security establishment about how this debate is playing out in the United States where, unlike Australia, the invasion of Iraq came at an extraordinary cost of US lives. It goes without saying—or it has largely gone without saying—that it came at an extraordinary cost of Iraqi lives.
Joe Cirincione is one analyst whose views should be more widely considered here in Australia. This is something that he wrote in 2004 under the general principle of 'first do no harm'. In 2004, he wrote the following:
It was almost inevitable that a U.S. victory would add to the sense of cultural, ethnic, and religious humiliation that is known to be a prime motivator of al Qaeda–type terrorists.
This was written in the context of President George Bush's infamous 'mission accomplished' stunt on the deck of a US aircraft carrier, which has continued to resonate. Mr Cirincione continues:
It was widely predicted by experts beforehand that the war would boost recruitment to this network and deepen anti-Americanism in a region already deeply antagonistic to the United States and suspicious of its motives. Although this may not be the ultimate outcome, the latter has so far been a clear cost of the war. And while a successful war would definitely eliminate a 'rogue' state, it might—and may—also create a new 'failed' state: one that cannot control its borders, provide internal security, or deliver basic services to its people. Arguably, such failed states—like Afghanistan, Sudan, and others—pose the greatest risk in the long struggle against terror.
I read that—it is 10 years ago, this year, that it was written—and thought he had more or less accurately predicted the collapse of that part of Iraq into what could effectively develop into a full-blown civil war and the establishment of a terror state where none existed before.
Chas Freeman Jr, who is a former US diplomat, writes more recently—only this past July—in an article called 'Obama's foreign policy and the future of the Middle East':
To begin. If we are at all honest, we must admit that the deplorable state of affairs in the Middle East—in Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, Iran, the Persian Gulf and Arabian Peninsula, and, peripherally, Afghanistan—is a product not only of the dynamics of the region but also of a lapse in our capacity to think and act strategically.
In other words, there are voices—wiser voices, which we have heard largely in the Australian context—in the United States cautioning very strongly against further open-ended military commitment to this part of the world. That is partly because it may well make things worse to give credibility to, and increase, that sense of isolation and attack by foreign powers on an organisation like the Islamic State, rather than deferring to their neighbours, who by and large utterly loathe the existence of this new creation. It may very well be the thing that consolidates them and allows them to continue their recruiting. There are voices in Australian foreign and defence policy establishment who have been quite compelling in running the argument that this might be exactly what they are after—that it plays to their narrative. Again, this is precisely the kind of reason why these measures should be subjected to full debate that is respectful, rather than simply hurling abuse across the chamber.
Mr Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. I did not raise a point of order and disrupt Senator Ludlam while he was speaking, but he asserted at the outset that I had made an allegation that the Greens were complicit in beheadings. I find that offensive and I would like it withdrawn.
Senator O'Sullivan, I am advised that it is appropriate, where there is either offensive language or other things you take objection to, to take the point of order at the time, but there are other forms of the house where these sorts of things can be clarified. Senator Ludlam, on the point of order.
I am happy to speak to it. A check of the Hansard record will show I did not actually say those words, otherwise I would of course withdraw them. I am trying to, hopefully, raise the tone of the debate after the sort of accusations that have been levelled before.
I also rise to make a contribution to this most important matter. I acknowledge the previous contributions made by Senator Conroy and Senator Dastyari and join with them in their sentiments.
Today is the day that South Australia swore in a new governor, Governor Hieu Van Le, who came to these shores in 1974. He entered Darwin and then went on to educate himself. He has made a wonderful contribution. Indeed, Senator Dastyari's own life story is compelling for his family's efforts to escape tyranny, terrorism and abject poverty. The way they have made their way here is no different to what we see playing out in the Sinjar mountains in northern Iraq right now.
Senator Ludlam, I understand you have these fears; nobody likes going to war. But I can also recount many stories of people who have been touring in places like Cambodia, now, and who have visited the killing fields of Pol Pot. I can also recount the stories of people who have been to Auschwitz and other places of oppression, terror, tyranny and genocide. There are still ramifications throughout the Balkans of the genocide that occurred there in the 1990s.
Are we going to ignore again all the hallmarks of genocide, or potential genocide, again in northern Iraq? That is our question. Nobody likes putting our soldiers in harm's way, but that is indeed why we have soldiers and that is indeed what they do. They go and they serve and they defend our country. This is a terribly complex issue. There are centuries of complexity in this region. In 1922, the League of Nations—I think they called it the British mandate—drew some boundaries and said, 'We'll have Syria, we'll have Iraq and we'll have Afghanistan.' That, then, was supposed to provide stability to the region. I would argue that it probably has not provided the stability that the world would have liked. Indeed, north-western Syria now is under siege with Sunnis killing Shiites and Shiites trying to kill Sunnis. Kurdistani people are in fear and Christians in northern Iraq are being persecuted. These are undeniable facts. This is what is going on. I know it is undeniable because I was recently in the region and I have received privileged briefings. I have travelled with members from the other side and I know that we have an understanding of this.
Senator Ludlam, in your contribution you wondered how we know where these arms are going. We do know where they are going because for every drop that is made there is an eye on it and there are protection forces on every drop that goes there. I can assure you of the professionalism of our Australian Defence Force and I can assure you that they are working at the highest levels with our coalition partners. We have people embedded in places within that region who are privy to the best intelligence. They do know. They have eyes on all the conflict zones. They have eyes into these issues, and I feel sure that they give the best advice to the people in executive government who are making decisions.
Senator Ludlam also made the statement that we had crossed the line with humanitarian aid. We did supply humanitarian aid, but now we are going to supply military aid because the situation has escalated. We do not have time to run a democracy in a place where people are being hunted down and murdered. We do not have time for it. We have to act. We have to act within a time in which we can save people's lives. The Peshmergas in northern Iraq are simply better placed to deal with this threat against the tens of thousands of people who will be put at risk by this oppressive and opportunistic regime that is sweeping through northern Iraq and north-western Syria. This regime is taking advantage of the fact that the Iraqi government has not come into full formation—but it will. In this next week or so we have an obligation. Yes, we do. We have seen that the US, the Canadians, the French, the people of the United Kingdom and the Italians have all joined forces to protect these people. We have rallied to the call. I think it is a little disingenuous to interpret somebody's Sky News interviewsin this casethe Iraqi ambassador's—without the ability for us to refer to those comments. I did not see the contribution from the Iraqi ambassador, and I am sure that Senator Ludlam is not misrepresenting what he thought he took away from that interview, but I feel that, if we are going to be making something objective of that, we should all have the opportunity to review it and come back in here and talk about it.
Australia is not resiling. I note Senator Gallacher on the other side, in the opposition, and I hope that he makes a contribution on behalf of South Australians because we feel strongly about this. Also, Senator Wong is waiting patiently to make a contribution.
Senator Whish-Wilson interjecting—
They will appreciate the $5 million that we are supplying to the Iraqi government. That is our humanitarian aid—we have not stopped giving it. And we have offered 4,400 places to the Yazidi people, who have been terrorised over recent weeks. We look to resettle these people in the short term so that we can take them out of harm's way.
We also note that there are Australians fighting in these areas. There are about 160 Australians fighting—more than we there have ever been—for the Islamic State. This will cause us a great deal of concern in the future if these people are to seek re-entry to this country.
We are not in a position to lay idle. The Persian Gulf, the Suez Canal and those straits around the Horn of Africa—they know these areas. There is one known as the 'hash highway' or the 'smack track'. These are places where we not only look to ensure that people's lives are not put at risk; they are also regions where lives from around the world are destroyed by drug importation and people-trafficking from Somalia. These are the things that we are looking to act upon. I do not know whether you can ever countenance tolerance of a group of people who will strap an explosive-laden vest with ball bearings to a seven-year-old boy and walk him into a market place and detonate him. These are the types of people who have no respect for life. They have no respect at all. They have no respect for women—they trade in women; they trade in children. These are not people whom we are going to be able to sit down and have a cup of tea with. I do not know why it is that Senator Ludlam thinks that the Islamic State plays by Queensbury rules. They do not. They are not to be tolerated in any way, shape or form in a civilised society.
I understand that the issue is complex. I understand that the issue is distressing. I understand that putting our Australian diggers in harm's way is a big decision. However, we need to do whatever we can to support humanity in this region. It is not something where we can just idly sit by and let another chapter of this world's history write down that we ignored a genocide. I thank you for the opportunity, Mr Acting Deputy President.
I also rise to make a contribution in this debate. I want to start by going back over a little of the history of the debate.
Very clearly, since 1901 neither the Australian Constitution nor the defence legislation has required the government to gain parliamentary approval for a decision to deploy forces overseas or, in the rare cases that it has occurred, to declare war. The Australian Democrats, the predecessors of the Australian Greens, have long had the view that they would like to remove the exclusive power of the government to commit Australia to war or to deploy troops overseas.
The most recent inquiry reported on 25 February 2010, when the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee reported on an Australian Greens’ Bill—the Defence Amendment (Parliamentary Approval of Overseas Service) Bill 2008 [No. 2]. The committee concluded that the bill could not be considered a credible piece of legislation and recommended that the bill not proceed. However, the committee also stated:
The committee is not in any way against the involvement of both Houses of Parliament in open and public debates about the deployment of Australian service personnel to warlike operations or potential hostilities. It agrees with the views of most submitters that the Australian people, through their elected representatives, have a right to be informed and heard on these important matters.
It is also worthwhile taking a few minutes to go a little further back in this debate and examine some of the earlier legislative proposals.
As I said, the Australian Democrats in particular initiated steps to remove the exclusive power of the government to commit Australia to deploy personnel into warlike activities. It goes back to 1985, when Senator Colin Mason from the Australian Democrats introduced the Defence Amendment Bill 1985, which sought to require parliamentary approval in most circumstances before Australian troops could be deployed overseas. The bill proceeded to the second reading stage, but without government and opposition support it did not pass.
During these debates over committing troops to Iraq in 2003, Senator Andrew Bartlett and Senator Natasha Stott-Despoja also introduced a private senator’s bill, the Defence Amendment (Parliamentary approval for Australian involvement in overseas conflicts) Bill 2003. The bill proposed to repeal and substitute section 50C of the Defence Act 1903, which allows the deployment of troops overseas.
So, there is a long history of those people in the Democrats and the Greens having this view that the Australian government should be required to seek parliamentary approval. This has really been a baton which has been passed from the Democrats. With no Democrats remaining in the parliament after June 2008, in September of that year Senator Scott Ludlam of the Australian Greens introduced a bill of the same name—the Defence Amendment (Parliamentary Approval of Overseas Service) Bill 2008 [No. 2]. It too sought to repeal section 50C of the Defence Act 1903 and to replace the section with a new provision which would require parliamentary approval before troops could be deployed overseas. The bill was introduced on 17 September 2008 and on 20 August 2009 was referred to the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee once again. The committee reported, basically, the same result—it was not supported.
So, this is not a new debate. And I am sure that this debate will continue as long as the Greens, or a like-organisation, are represented in this parliament. And they have every right to argue this way, but my position is to support both the Leader of the Opposition, the Hon. Bill Shorten, and the Prime Minister of Australia, the Hon. Tony Abbott. They, and in particular the Prime Minister and the executive, have—as earlier contributions have said—been made privy to all the security assessments that would be necessary to make this extremely important decision. I have to say that if this has worked since 1901 then I have no reason to believe that it should be changed here in 2014.
In brutal political terms, if a government makes a misstep in this place they will suffer at the appropriate time when the electors of Australia make a judgement. But one thing I am absolutely certain of is that once a prime minister and cabinet make this decision, that our people—Australian service men and women—are committed to areas of conflict, then they need the 100 per cent support of the Australian people. They need 100 per cent of what is necessary for them to do their job in the best possible way. If they are to put their lives at risk then the Australian people should be 110 per cent behind them.
I accept the debate in this place about whether we should or should not have parliamentary approval before this happens. The reality is and the history is that it has been debated quite a number of times before and it has not found the support in this Senate or in the other place to change it. So when we have these momentous decisions made—and the awesome responsibility for those who make those decisions is evident—then I think it is incumbent on everyone to accept what the legal situation is.
I well remember when Prime Minister John Howard committed troops to Timor. There was a lot of debate in some quarters of the union movement and some quarters of the ACTU about not resourcing that effort. I know from my own particular time at the Transport Workers Union that, once we understood that it was the Prime Minister's right under the Constitution to commit our troops to Timor, we knew it was our duty as unionists and citizens to make sure that the people who were carrying out that task were resourced in a way that made sure they were safe, were secure and had 110 per cent of the capability to carry out those very onerous duties.
There is no clearer situation than what is confronting us in this awful conflict. It is extremely clear that the Iraqi army faced not only a homicidal but suicidal force that has captured sufficient territory and controls enormous amounts of resources and wealth. There are also the Kurdish people who are attempting to look after their own people who have been displaced and pushed back. I do not think it needs a tremendous degree of common sense to understand that what we are doing, in conjunction with all of the other countries that are contributing, is a very sensible thing to do. From time to time, we are put in these situations where someone has to make a call. The Hon. Tony Abbott, the Prime Minister of Australia, has made a call. The Leader of the Opposition is in extreme agreement, I would say. We all know it is a very difficult and onerous situation. We hope and wish if we commit people to areas of conflict that those people can do their jobs safely and well and that we can have an outcome that we as Australians can be proud of.
We will continue to have this debate. There is no possibility of it going away. As I said earlier, it has been around since at least 1985 when it was raised by the Australian Democrats. It has been picked up by the Australian Greens. That is their prerogative. But I think, in these cases, the parliament should get behind our service men and women once they have been committed to any area of conflict under a rightly constituted authority.
When I think back to what got me into politics or set me on my path into politics it was the Iraq war, which I totally opposed. I have never felt so strongly about anything in my life as I did about Australia being involved in the coalition of the willing and going back to Iraq. Call me a sceptic or cynical but just about everything I have heard in the chamber here today reminds me of 2003, 10 years ago, where we were going into a country where there was an 'evil' dictator—and, no doubt, in many ways he was—taking human lives and threatening all of us and our national security with weapons of mass destruction. But, thinking about it simply, what really annoyed me was the level of mediocrity around the debate and all the spin and obvious BS that went into sending our troops over to Iraq.
In the last week, we have been hearing a lot about 'evil'—'unspeakable evil', 'unfathomable evil' and 'pure evil'. What I and, I think, a lot of Australians would like to see is some truth, honesty and perspective around that word. While it might be the case that in many people's minds the atrocious and despicable acts we have seen on social media are evil, that evil did not just spring out of the ground. It did not just happen overnight. The radicalisation of people such as we have seen with the ISIL group and other groups around the world has taken a while to build. It is like a disease that needs the right conditions. What are those conditions that lead to people going into foreign countries and beheading westerners? We could probably argue this for at least the eight minutes I have left. But certainly I would put down things such as hate, revenge, a common unifying enemy, religion, ignorance, stupidity and of course things of a broader perspective such as regional instability.
There are some differences today to what there was back in 2003, but there are also a lot of similarities. When we invaded Iraq we had no long-term plan for keeping the peace. No doubt many wars have been fought by men and women who have wanted to win the peace, but what actually puts them there in harm's way in the first place is what I am interested in—the decisions that we make in places like this one. Why do we go to war? We are about to commemorate 100 years of Anzac. Looking at the Great War, or 'the war to end all wars', we know it certainly did not end all wars. Something we need to focus on a lot more clearly is the strategic objective in Iraq and how we can actually have peace in that region. If we do not ask the simple question, 'What caused this and how did we get to this?' and understand the evil that has been created in the Middle East and answer that question now, we are not going to be able to answer that question in the future. That is what we need to answer to have stability and a lasting peace in the Middle East.
Senator Wong said in her speech that the difference this time is that we have widespread international support—at least, I am pretty sure that is what she said. It is my understanding, as Senator Milne has eloquently pointed out today, that we do not have widespread international support for this and nor do we have a vote or a resolution from the United Nations. If we do not learn from history, we are bound to repeat the mistakes of the past. I think most Australians would agree that invading Iraq over 10 years ago was a mistake. I do not think there would be anyone, even in this room, who would not agree that the region is in much worse condition than it was before we invaded Iraq. As Senator Ludlam mentioned earlier today, I would like to see truth and honesty in this debate about our role and our culpability. It would be good to see some recognition that we have been part of the problem that we are now having to face. If we do not find a long-term solution, there is no doubt our children will also face this problem in generations to come.
I think we need to find better words than 'terrorist' and 'terrorism' because, to me, this implies a very one-sided view of the world. Often our forces could be seen by Iraqi civilians as being terrorists. 'Terrorist' is a word that is very commonly used against us by those same people in Iraq who have been radicalised—anything that creates terror is, by definition, terrorism. We use that word because it is a very simple word to use and it demonises people.
I also agree with Senator Ludlam that the reason these awful acts are being put on social media—appalling acts that are almost incomprehensible to a lot of people—is to influence debate in the west. I cannot help feeling that they want us to come over there and continue the holy war of the jihad that we so easily got ourselves into almost a decade ago and that has spread right across the Middle East in the past 10 years.
It has been noted by one journalist today that, by questioning or criticising Australia going back to war in Iraq, which is what we are doing without a proper parliamentary debate and without a vote of parliament—a separate issue but just as important—we are somehow playing politics with national security. Apart from the threat that the government has tried to portray, that these people will pose a threat to national security, we still have do not have a compelling answer to why this is in Australia's national interest. Machiavelli once wrote:
Never do your enemy a small harm.
I wonder what the long-term plan is here and what the next ask will be in Iraq.
We have heard from the US Department of State and we have heard in this parliament that the ISIL threat is unlike other threats that we have seen in the past. If we think back to that disease and the conditions that you need for radicalisation and groups like this to emerge, how is it that they got to this stage? What could we do to effectively cut off the conditions of that disease? You do not get an army, and the capability to do what they are doing, without funding. How is it that this group has come to be so well funded, so well organised and so full of recruits who are full of hate over such a period of time? That is something we could focus on and something we have hardly heard anything about. That is another part of the debate that we need to enter into.
I am also very interested in Senator Dastyari's comments about Australia being a medium-sized power that should project its conscience overseas. I have only been in the veterans' affairs portfolio for a short period of time, I acknowledge, and no doubt my colleagues Senator Wright and Senator Lambie could talk more expertly about the problems that our soldiers are currently having with their deployment and the amount of time they are being deployed to places like Afghanistan and, previously, Iraq. Do we really have the resources to commit ourselves to more troops on the ground and to more resources in these countries? When will it end? These are the things that we need to debate. How is it possible to ring-fence a conflict like this? How is it possible to influence outcomes through peaceful means, through negotiations, through cutting off the financing of organisations like ISIL rather than going in—undebated, using the power of the executive?
This is the same political party that made the decision to send us into Iraq in the first place, the same political party that ignored the experts and that ignored tens of thousands of Australians who marched in the streets—and I was one of them—saying: 'Don't go into this country and do this without a full UN resolution. Don't go in at the behest of the US.' What was the plan? Was it to secure oil fields? Was it to allow multinationals to open up business in Iraq? What was the purpose of it? Was it to get rid of a dictator who had weapons of mass destruction—which turned out, as many people had suspected, to be a total fabrication? I am happy to be proven wrong, but I am sceptical and cynical of this government's desire to get so readily and so eagerly involved in this conflict without a long-term plan, without a strategic exit and without an explanation to the Australian people of where the risks lie should this conflict to continue and how long it will take.
Mr Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. I wanted to do Senator Whish-Wilson the courtesy of being able to get to the end of his speech, but I want to draw your attention to a remark he made that imputed that Australian soldiers could have been seen as terrorists in Iraq. I trust that was not his intention, but I ask you to ask him to withdraw that and to clarify it for the record—because I think that would be a dreadfully unfair and untrue imputation upon the servicemen and women of Australia.
On the point of order, Mr Acting Deputy President: that is not what I imputed. You are now playing politics with my speech, Senator Fawcett. I said any soldier in any country can be seen as a terrorist by their enemy, and that the word 'terrorism' is a word we should consider not using—that we should come up with a better explanation. Now that you have deliberately put that on the record, you will probably want to take it out of this chamber and give it to the media and say that I have called our soldiers terrorists. That is neither what I said nor is it the context of what I said, Senator. I do not believe that I have to withdraw that comment and you should go back and have a look at the Hansard. (Time expired)
I would like to first thank the Minister for Defence for his statement on this issue today. I also stand to speak strongly in support of the government's position as I believe that this is both a humanitarian emergency and also a national security threat that we cannot ignore. I would also like to acknowledge the opposition for their bipartisan approach on this important issue.
I have noted that the Australian government strongly condemns the actions of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant—ISIL—and in particular reports of atrocities against civilians including minorities and security force opponents. I firmly believe that ISIL's activities in Syria and Iraq are a major threat to regional and international security as acknowledged by previous speakers on both sides of the chamber. I agree with the Prime Minister that many Australians are understandably apprehensive about the risk of becoming involved in another long and costly conflict in the Middle East, but I also acknowledge that there is no greater responsibility for any federal government than national security and defence, and that is the safety and security of all Australians. I know firsthand that any actions taken by the government are taken with great care, deliberation and caution.
Despite the previous speaker's comments, these are not taken lightly or on a frolic of their own by an ideologically driven government. I believe that gone are the days when defence and national security threats were clearly identifiable at our physical borders. With globalisation and free movements across borders, the threats are much harder to identify and much harder to combat. Doing anything involves serious risks and weighty consequences, but doing nothing involves risks and consequences also. As Australians, whether you were holidaying in Bali, whether you were working in the World Trade Centre or whether you were flying home from Europe on a family holiday, the threats today are very real and do go well beyond our borders.
Just as the threats are very real, so are the humanitarian consequences of what is currently occurring in Iraq and Syria. I believe there is no question that it is now a humanitarian crisis in Iraq on a grave scale—one that I personally believe we cannot morally turn our backs on. Appeasement and turning a blind eye are not options. Terrorists do not respect weakness. They do not respect our compassion and, as we can now see yet again, they are ruthlessly exploiting it. I think the rapid escalation of events clearly demonstrates that they are and are willing to keep on no matter what is said by the previous speaker. I believe without question that doing nothing means leaving millions of people exposed to death, forced conversion or ethnic cleansing, and I believe evidence of all of those is now apparent.
ISIL and other opposition groups have maintained pressure on government forces to the north, north-east and west of Baghdad and have now pushed into Kurdish areas, with ISIL now in control of a number of towns and cities. This has caused the current humanitarian crisis, which was acknowledged clearly by the United Nations when on 14 August they declared a level-3 emergency for Iraq so that they could facilitate mobilisation of additional resources in goods, funds and assets. This is not something that the government has made up. This is something that the United Nations has acknowledged is a very clear current humanitarian threat.
So far this year it is believed that over a million Iraqis have been driven from their homes and that up to 1.8 million are now internally displaced people in Iraq, with over 600,000 displaced in August alone following an upsurge of violence in various parts of the country. I agree with the Prime Minister, who said today that it is important to do what we reasonably can do to prevent this genocide. I also acknowledge that there are no easy ways of achieving this, but it does not mean that we should not try just because it is not within our physical borders here in Australia. I believe we have a moral responsibility to do what we reasonably can. We have all seen the truth of what is going on on our screens and on social media. We have seen the beheadings, the crucifixions and the mass executions. People and cultures that have existed for millennia have been faced with extermination. Thousands of women have been forced into sexual slavery. We should not call this horrendous movement even by 'Islamic State'. I do not believe it is a state as we would define it; it really is a cult or, as it was described today, a death cult. So in good conscience I do not believe that Australia can leave the Iraqi people to face this horror, this evil alone or turn our backs on their request—and, Senator Whish-Wilson, we are not doing this unilaterally; the Iraqi government has asked for our help in the humanitarian aspects.
The threat to Australia and Australians from these conflicts is, as I see it, real and growing. I know it is not just a humanitarian crisis; there is a real national security threat to Australians both here and overseas. This is because of the serious concern that a growing number of Australians are travelling to Syria and Iraq to support, get involved with and participate in the fighting. Alarmingly, the number of Australians involved in Iraq and Syria is significantly higher than in previous foreign conflicts such as Afghanistan. There is no question that Australian citizens, including dual nationals, are currently fighting overseas in Iraq and Syria and may return home to Australia. At least 60 Australians have been identified by our intelligence agencies as currently fighting in Iraq and Syria, and up to 150 Australians are under investigation in connection with this conflict. Many are travelling to join the particularly murderous terrorist group now calling itself the Islamic state or, as we have said, ISIL. ISIL has been listed as a terrorist organisation under the Australian Criminal Code, which imposes strong penalties. But this is not just unilateral Australian action; this group has also been designated by the United Nations Security Council's Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee. It is not just the Australian government but also the United Nations that have recognised that this is a terrorist organisation.
This heightened threat to Australia requires very comprehensive and decisive action on behalf of the Australian government. Strong and comprehensive international engagement is required if we are to share information effectively and be able to count on other countries for cooperation in the case of terrorism and any terrorism related emergencies involving Australians here and overseas.
I have the utmost respect for our service men and women who are putting themselves in harm's way in a variety of areas across the world. We ask a lot of our men and women in uniform. I know that they will carry out their duty with the highest level of professionalism and in doing so make Australia proud. I also know that the Australian government do not do this lightly; they do it because it is in our national interest to do so.
Mr Deputy President, this is not my first speech. I acknowledge that the immediate fight in Iraq against these brutal, inhumane, bloody murderers will save innocent lives; however, what is the long-term strategy? Has the total costs of going to war been calculated or has the total cost of going to war been covered up? If past experience is anything to go by then it would appear that the government and Labor are charging into battle without a plan to properly care for the soldiers and their families—God prey—on their safe return. This is an issue that I have discussed at length with younger veterans. One wrote to me:
Is the Government prepared to factor into the cost of this latest operation the future ongoing expense—over the course of the lives of those that we are sending away to actively participate in this deployment on our behalf?
Will the Government be prepared to put this decision to the floor of parliament, in order to determine bipartisan support—so that the troops have no doubt in their minds future Governments will not backflip—in the decision to support this involvement—at the long term psychological expense of the participants—who win, lose or draw must live with the consequences of our decision from this day forward.
I also spoke to the Australian Defence Force Welfare Association about this issue last week. The Defence Force Welfare Association is made up of honourable men and women who were and are prepared to risk all to protect Australia and their brothers and sisters in arms. The Defence Force Welfare Association was formed in 1959 by a small group of serving and retired Australian Defence Force members from all services. They were frustrated by the fact that no organisation was properly protecting the interests of serving and former members of the ADF. Members of the DFWA are not radicals. They are proud Australians. They are thoughtful, measured and slow to anger and they have serious reservations about committing Australian military forces to further military operations in the Middle East without proper debate. Is this motion that has been sprung upon us proper debate? Today I give warning to this parliament that the men and women of the Defence Force Welfare Association are very angry. I share their anger because, just like the schoolyard bully, this government and its members are deliberately picking on soft targets.
This government has failed to support the people our nation has sent into battle and harm's way in the past. Will the government automatically give gold cards to every troop placed in harm's way in combat or will they continue to force our veterans to fight for the best medical care our nation can offer? Will we have the situation where the new veterans created by this conflict say, 'I would rather face the Taliban or ISIS than face the DVA'?
This Liberal-National government have an appalling record of caring for our veterans. They cover up the suicide rate of our veterans because they are ashamed of the amount of young veterans killing themselves. The Liberal-National Party have chosen to take money away from Australian war widows and totally or permanently incapacitated former service personnel. According to the latest Defence Force Welfare Association's monthly magazine update, their reaction to Mr Abbott's veteran budget measures was 'incredulous disbelief'. The DFWA newsletter reads:
Foremost, disappointingly the budget had the effect of not only reducing the compensation payments of all disabled veterans but had a particularly severe likely impact on the most disabled, namely those who are on Special Rate or TPI Pensions. War Widows Pensions and those on Income Support Supplements were also affected.
What kind of person would take money away from war widows and those badly injured fighting Australia's enemies? I will tell you. The same kind of person who would salute the flag and shed a tear at an Anzac Day commemoration while taking a $211 education bonus from the orphans of soldiers killed or badly wounded in battle. It is the same kind of person who would deliver a casual shrug and offer the comment 'shit happens' when learning of the death of another Australian digger in Afghanistan and then stare bizarrely at a TV reporter for 24 seconds when confronted with those comments and offer no apology. That is the sort of man I am talking about. That is the kind of person Australia today has as a leader. Until we have leaders who can live up to the Anzac legend and not off it, we are going nowhere fast as a country. I find it very hard to trust their decisions.
There are another five significant adverse budget measures that the Australian Defence Force Welfare Association has identified. Perhaps these should be fixed before we go sending any new troops into battle. They are: axing of the longstanding three-month backdating of the veterans disability pension claim; axing of the senior supplement of gold card holders who do not receive income support; axing of the federal government's share of an agreement with state governments to fund service pensioners concessions for travel, electricity, phone and council rates; withdrawing the provision to not count as income military superannuation when applying for a Commonwealth seniors card; and withdrawing of indexation on the clean energy supplement added to Veterans' Affairs pensions and payments, causing it to quickly lose real value over time.
This government is aware of the Australian Defence Force Welfare Association's concerns in regard to these outrages and now the government is aware of my anger and concerns. I have one message: fix it now before you commit any more troops to the battlefields. The spirit of our Vietnam veterans has been left behind in the fog. Will the spirit of those who have fought in the Middle East be left behind in the Desert Storm? That is the only question when it comes to looking after these men and women on return that you need to ask yourselves.
There are a number of issues that confound the proposition that parliament should be required to approve troops prior to their deployment. It is important to distinguish between routine or non-warlike military activities, including peacekeeping, capacity building in other countries, humanitarian assistance and anti-piracy actions, and activities involving the rescue or extraction of Australian citizens from threatening situations overseas; covert operations, such as those involving special forces; and, most importantly, full-scale deployment. These involve varying degrees of emphasis on the role of intelligence and classified materials that are available only to the executive.
There is also the requirement for Defence to mobilise its forces safely and effectively. All cases are not alike and parliament's role differs where the specific constraints differ. The Constitution does not say anything about where the power to deploy troops lies. It is assumed that this is part of the executive power under section 61. There is no constitutional requirement for the executive to seek the blessing of the Australian parliament before troops are committed to war. There is no constitutional need to even debate the decision to deploy troops. The power to deploy troops overseas lies with the Minister for Defence under section 50C of the Defence Act 1903. The Minister for Defence has the legal authority to deploy troops and can require members of the Australian Defence Force to serve overseas.
It is understandable why the community is rightly conflicted about this state of affairs. Clearly, in a democracy the legitimacy of a military operation derives, in large part, from a community consensus, yet it is only the executive which has all the classified information obtained by the intelligence agencies. Where then should the line be drawn? When it comes to routine or non-warlike military activities, such as deploying peacekeeping troops to East Timor, capacity building in places like PNG or the Solomons, or any operations where classified intelligence or military urgency are not factors, troops should not be deployed except with parliamentary approval.
What the government says of the present situation in Iraq and Syria is that time is of the essence. We need to avert a humanitarian catastrophe. Essentially, we are facing crimes against humanity. Urgency is the key. However, once the urgency has passed and the troops and resources have been deployed, I believe it is reasonable for the parliament to have a say and that the continued deployment should be subject to parliamentary approval. This is not only logically sound but also provides a valuable check on the executive being dragged into a quagmire.
Let us look at the current circumstances. The trigger, no doubt, was the events following the coalition of the willing invading Iraq in 2003, overthrowing the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein and then, recklessly, dismissing the entire army and dismantling the Ba'ath Party. These last two events fuelled an insurgency, ignited a vicious civil war between the Shiites and the Sunnis, increased Iran's influence and, most tragically of all, led to hundreds of thousands of deaths. Meanwhile, at the regional level, tensions between the Sunnis and the Shiites also increased. For instance, Saudi Arabia backed the crushing of the Arab Spring in order to defeat the Shiites, particularly in Bahrain.
Conflicts between the Shiites and Sunnis have spilled over into the region, most tragically in Syria, which has in turn spawned the so-called Islamic State, which Prime Minister Abbott has quite rightly called a 'death cult'. According to authoritative and credible reporters in the Middle East, including Patrick Cockburn of The Independent newspaper, it is Saudi Arabia that is pursuing its own geopolitical interest by backing this 'death cult', a terrorist organisation that poses a greater existential threat than al-Qaeda. I therefore support humanitarian relief and logistical support as set out in the Prime Minister's address today. This statement also emphasises that there has been no request for military action. However, I am seriously concerned that the Prime Minister has not mentioned in his statement the role of the United Nations in sanctioning this action. Given that Australia is currently a member of the UN Security Council, we have a critical role to play to ensure that this is brought before the United Nations.
Indeed, the role played by Australia in relation to the downing of MH17 over Ukraine and the role played by our Minister for Foreign Affairs has been commendable—and it is leadership that we need to show again in this conflict. We must all be alert to the grave dangers of escalation. We must also learn from the catastrophic consequences of George W Bush's handling of Iraq and Australia, seemingly heedlessly following the US without question. A parliamentary debate and an eventual approval is desirable to avoid the mistakes, not just of the recent past but of previous conflicts, such as Vietnam. Minor incremental increases in the mission can lead to a qualitatively different scenario before we know it. Finally, I wish our troops well. I am sure they will do us proud.
I seek leave for a five-minute extension on proceedings.
There is no more important act for a government than committing troops to war, something I referenced in my first speech. To send young men and women to spill their blood on foreign shores is the most solemn of any duty that a government must embark upon. I do, however, resent the implication that, if you do not support this action, somehow you support the savagery that is going on in Iraq and are complicit in the barbaric acts that we are witnessing. We are better than that. Let us agree that what is going on in Iraq right now is barbaric, cruel and heinous, that our responsibility is to protect the innocents and that what we are witnessing is an affront to our common humanity.
I also understand the urge of many people who want us to act, just to do something. I have been feeling that way for more than a year while watching the butchery in Syria. I felt that way most recently while watching bombs land on young children in Gaza, while their buildings collapsed around them, while that conflict does nothing but to perpetuate the cycle of violence. I am not a pacifist. I do think that sometimes there is a case for military action; in fact, it was the Greens who were most vocal in calling for an intervention into the conflict in East Timor, and it was the government of the day that was reluctant to intervene.
My concern is largely pragmatic. There are very eerie echoes here of the conflict, in Iraq, in 2003. Have we learned nothing? What if our actions make the situation worse? What if we provide an even greater focus for more radicalisation and extremism? What if this is a rallying point for the enemies of justice? If the lessons from the war in Iraq were not that, then we have learned nothing. Let us not forget that a commitment of Australian troops also exposes Australians to dangers. The tragic beheading of an American journalist should give us pause for thought, but it is this rush to war that blinds us to other options.
We know that Turkey has been involved in an armed struggle against the Kurdish people who have been fighting for an independent state for many years. We know that many of the Islamic State fighters are entering Iraq through Turkey. They are not flying into Syria or Iraq. Many of them are landing in Turkey and making their way into Iraq. We know that Turkey has been retreating on the issue of human rights for years. If we are serious about this conflict then we must confront these issues. We cannot ignore these questions.
We cannot ignore the fact that the PKK, which was proscribed as a terrorist organisation—largely because of our relationship with Turkey—is now potentially going to be the beneficiary of Australian weapons. I have worked very closely with members of the Kurdish community, and it is their wish that we do not get involved in a military sense but that we support greater humanitarian intervention, that we recognise their fight for self-determination—something they have been fighting for many decades—the full expression of their cultural and political rights and that we do not turn a blind eye while their people are being detained, arrested and imprisoned in places like Turkey and Iraq. If we are professing to speak on their behalf, let us talk to them.
Finally, we need more honesty in this debate. There would be a lot more respect if we came into this chamber and heard from both sides of politics, who said: 'We've been asked by an ally to intervene and we are honouring that request.' That is the basis of this intervention. I believe Australia needs to take its own place in the world and emerge from this adolescent dependence we have on our good neighbour. Decisions that were once made for us in London should not now be made for us in Washington. We need a full and frank debate. We need to make sure that it is this parliament, the democratically elected members of this chamber, that makes this decision.
Question agreed to.