Senate debates

Monday, 1 September 2014


Suspension of Standing Orders

10:01 am

Photo of Christine MilneChristine Milne (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Pursuant to contingent notice, I move:

That so much of the standing orders be suspended as would prevent me moving a motion to provide for the consideration of a matter—namely, a motion relating to parliamentary approval for the deployment of Australian troops in Iraq.

There is no greater responsibility that a parliament has, that a Prime Minister has, than to send our armed service men and women into a war zone, into a war. I believe it is time that the Australian parliament was brought into this debate and given the ability to approve such an action, if that is what is being put to the parliament by the Prime Minister of the day. Already we are into mission creep. We had the Prime Minister tell us that it was humanitarian aid we were involved in, and we wholeheartedly support that. But then, after that, we discovered that now Australian aircraft are being used or have been agreed to be used to send arms into northern Iraq. We also hear from the Minister for Defence that the Super Hornets are on standby to be deployed. Even though the Prime Minister was telling us last week that there had been no agreement to send troops, we hear that the SAS troops are already there. Is that the case? How long are they going to be there?

What is the extent of our engagement and, more particularly, what is the legality behind Australia's engagement? International law has to apply to everyone, including Australia. The point here is there has been no United Nations resolution in relation to this matter. The question that I asked the minister and the Prime Minister is: has the Iraqi government actually asked Australia to send these armaments, to send SAS forces? Has the Iraqi government done that or not?

Have we learnt nothing from the engagement in Iraq in 2003? We then had Prime Minister Howard run straight along behind the United States President, Bush, and the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair—and what a mess that left. The vacuum in Iraq was such that the ethnic tensions that have been there for hundreds of years came to the surface. We have had a Prime Minister in Iraq, al-Maliki, who did not run an inclusive government, who preferred the Shiahs against the Sunnis, which has given a large amount of the tension that is there now. What is to say that engagement of troops in Iraq will not simply drive an even more united, committed and disastrous move for an Islamic state than is already occurring?

The point here is: very few people believe that the Prime Minister of Australia has a strategic plan for Australian engagement in Iraq. Everybody believes that we are simply running behind President Obama, who himself last week said he does not have a strategy. We want to know what the objective is. I would like to hear from the government why they think there is any likelihood of success when there has not been success before from following the United States into these conflicts.

Of course it is true that barbaric acts are being carried out by the Islamic State—we know that. There are equally barbaric acts being carried out in Nigeria, in the Congo. We know that there has been Russian engagement in the Crimea and in east Ukraine. But the point is we have an international law regime which we must uphold, because if you do not uphold international law on all occasions then there is no international law, as Professor at ANU Don Rothwell has said today.

It is critical that we come back to this idea. Isn't it time that the Australian people, through the Australian people's parliament, were fully informed? It is wrong that we hear from the Prime Minister one week that nothing has been decided, that no troops have been deployed, and then we read in the papers that the SAS troops are actually to be deployed to go with these armaments, if they are not already there. I think it is time the government gave us a much clearer explanation. But the point remains: the Australian parliament now needs to be consulted and approval needs to be sought from the representatives of the people before we put in harm's way our Australian armed service men and women. It is a fundamental principle that I think the Australian community supports and I urge the parliament to suspend standing orders to allow us to have the debate.

10:06 am

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

No government takes the putting of young Australians in harm's way other than with the utmost seriousness. This is probably the most important decision a Prime Minister or his cabinet can ever make. What we have seen recently in Iraq has, I think, no comparison in recent history. We have seen the town of Mosul and the towns of Ramadi, Fallujah and Tikrit fall to ISIL. We have seen mass executions. We have seen what is tantamount to ethnic cleansing and we have seen almost genocide unfolding in the Levant, across Syria and across Iraq. I want to mention in the chamber today a couple of villages. Amerli, of course, is one village and the other is Kojo village, 12½ kilometres south of Sinjar. I think there will be much more said about these two villages because they are on the precipice of a humanitarian disaster.

The fact is that this organisation, ISIL, the Islamic State, has moved through Iraq with lightning speed. It is a force to be reckoned with. It is a manoeuvring force, and I am using military terminology there. It has the capacity to scope out the towns that it has taken and seize control of them. It has a number of tanks, a number of aircraft and a number of enablers which give it a completely different complexion to anything we have hitherto seen in the Levant. The only force that has provided any reasonable resistance, any protection to the civilian population, has been the Kurdish forces in the north-east of Iraq.

What we have done so far is we have delivered very successfully, from the back of a C130 Hercules, humanitarian relief in the nature of food and water to the people who were isolated in the Sinjar mountains, and we participated with our friends and allies in delivering those goods to preserve those lives. There is also Amerli village. We will continue to assist in providing those people with some respite.

But, most importantly at the moment, having said that the Kurds are the only force that have provided any resistance, we would not want to see that resistance fail for want of ammunition or other supplies—and, of course, we will participate with our friends and allies. This matter in Iraq has engaged and has the support on our side of the Saudis, the Iranians, the Jordanians, the Turks, the UK, the French, the Germans, the Italians and the European Union.

These decisions are, as I said, not made lightly; they are made in very, very grave circumstances of extreme consideration. The fact is that, were we to delay making decisions as the events confront us, people's lives would be seriously at risk, as we have seen so far. There have been mass executions across Iraq, and we need to protect these people. Debating what operational activities the Australian Defence Force will undertake would be completely counterproductive to protecting those lives. That has never been done before in our history. The Prime Minister and the cabinet, taking their responsibilities seriously, recommend to the Governor-General that Australian forces be deployed. This is the way we have always done our business.

The fact is that the Greens have always argued the case that they do and they can continue, of course, to argue that; but from an operational perspective, from the perspective of providing urgent relief to these people, the Greens' quest is not the way to go.

10:11 am

Photo of Stephen ConroyStephen Conroy (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

I indicate that Labor will not be supporting this motion for the suspension of standing orders. I would like to begin by expressing my support for the ADF personnel currently involved in humanitarian operations in Iraq. They are doing great work to help prevent genocide against minorities in northern Iraq and, as always, they are undertaking their task with great professionalism.

It is the role of parliament to debate issues of concern, to act as a focal point for discussions which take place in the Australian community. That role is particularly important when we are discussing such important issues as the deployment of Australian Defence Force personnel. It is Labor's view that debates like this should take place in a structured way to ensure that all voices can be heard. It should not be done like this, as a stunt to score cheap political points. That is why Labor does not support the suspension of standing orders.

What the Greens are trying to do here is conflate two issues: the appropriate role of the parliament and their desire to see parliamentary approval for the deployment of ADF personnel. As I have said, Labor fully supports the role of parliament as a place of debate, but that should not be confused with requiring parliamentary approval.

The role of the parliament in approving military action is fraught with danger. The government must retain maximum flexibility to respond to threats to Australia's national security quickly and efficiently. Requiring a statement from the government prior to deploying ADF personnel and assets could unnecessarily increase risk to the deployment.

Furthermore, the government of the day has access to classified information which the parliament does not. Australia's defence and national security agencies provide information to the government which must remain secret for a whole range of reasons, including for the safety and security of our ADF personnel. A requirement for parliamentary approval could also create situations where ADF personnel are deployed to a warlike environment without the appropriate legal authority or important legal protections. Executive government is the most appropriate body to exercise civilian control of the Australian Defence Force.

The Greens do themselves a great disservice trying to conflate these issues. It is appropriate for the parliament to debate government decisions that involve the deployment of ADF personnel, for that should be done in a considered way, not through a stunt like this. We do not support the suspension of standing orders, but we are sure that the parliament will be debating this very, very soon.

10:15 am

Photo of Mitch FifieldMitch Fifield (Victoria, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Social Services) Share this | | Hansard source

I think it is important to provide some context before I move to the substance of what is a procedural motion. Australia will join international partners to help the anti-ISIL forces in Iraq. Following the successful international humanitarian relief effort, air dropping supplies to the thousands of people stranded on Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq, the RAAF will now conduct further humanitarian assistance. The United States government has asked Australia to help transport stores of military equipment, including arms and munitions, as part of a multinational effort. RAAF C130 Hercules and C17 Globemaster aircraft will join aircraft from other nations, including Canada, Italy, France, the United Kingdom and the United States, to conduct this important task.

Australia's contribution will continue to be coordinated with the government of Iraq and regional countries. As the Prime Minister has made clear previously, the situation in Iraq represents a humanitarian catastrophe. Australia remains in close contact with the United States and other international partners and will continue to work to alleviate the humanitarian situation in Iraq and address the security threat posed by ISIL. There have been no formal requests for combat forces and no decision taken to get further involved in the conflict. What is happening currently is an intervention with the Iraqi government in support of the Iraqi government.

I think it is important to note in relation to the announcement by the Prime Minister yesterday that the regular conventions have been followed in the decision-making process: discussion at the National Security Committee of the cabinet, decision by the cabinet and consultation with the opposition. The Prime Minister has acknowledged the cooperation and bipartisan support of the opposition in this matter and the fact that the government is following the precedent in relation to decision making of previous governments.

It is also important to note that there are the regular forms of this place available to senators to discuss matters of public importance, both domestic and foreign. Those forms are available and I am sure that colleagues will avail themselves of those over the period ahead. The government also will be using the regular forms available in this place to provide updates to the Senate and the parliament in relation to the activities that Australian Defence Force personnel are engaged in. I think it is very important that those regular forms are used in an orderly and planned way and that all colleagues have the opportunity to avail themselves of these processes. We do not think that the nature of the motion put forward by the Australian Greens should intervene in the ordinary course of the business of this place. Yes, there are important matters that Australia is involved with overseas and those should be canvassed appropriately in this place, but there are also important domestic matters which the parliament must continue to pursue. For that reason, the government will not be supporting the Greens' motion to suspend standing orders. We think it is important that government business as scheduled for today proceed.

Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (President) Share this | | Hansard source

Before I invite Senator Faulkner to speak, I indicate that I will come back to the crossbenchers after Senator Faulkner.

10:19 am

Photo of John FaulknerJohn Faulkner (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I have consistently argued that the defence of the nation, its people and our interests is a paramount responsibility of all governments. It is true that under our system of government the decision to deploy members of the Australian Defence Force, whether it be for combat operations, for peacekeeping or for disaster relief, is made by the executive government. I last spoke in the Senate about the rationale for this longstanding constitutional practice about three years ago, on 7 July 2011. I would commend that fulsome speech to the Senate.

I do accept that any decision to deploy the ADF is a great responsibility for the executive government. It is as onerous and as serious as political leadership in this country can be. But, while I do not support a change to require the Australian government to seek parliamentary approval to take military action or deploy the ADF, I would strongly encourage the government to be as open and as transparent as possible about this current deployment of Australian Defence personnel.

In another life, as defence minister, I made clear my intention to provide to the parliament regular reports on Australia's role in Afghanistan and our progress in that conflict. Those statements were very substantial in their nature. They were a frank and objective assessment about our involvement in the International Security Assistance Force. I placed as much information on the public record as I could, and that included a significant number of major ministerial statements.

I would strongly commend this approach to the government. I would suggest that the defence minister, Senator Johnston, make a ministerial statement on this matter as soon as he is able to do so, and then I would suggest that the government facilitate full debate in this chamber around that statement. I do not believe that we should suspend standing orders this morning to demand that such a debate, in the terms that have been referred to all senators, should take place this morning. But I do believe that it is reasonable to ask the government, through the minister, to make a statement to the Senate as soon as practicable.

I also believe it is reasonable for the Senate to request the government to facilitate a full debate on these matters in this chamber at the earliest opportunity. That is the approach that I would commend to the Senate. It is responsible, it is serious and it is open. And, as all senators know, it is consistent with past practice in this chamber and it is consistent with good practice in this chamber. I would say that it puts good practice above partisanship and above politics, and that is exactly what we should do in this circumstance. I would say that that would be the parliament at its best and I would say that that would be the Senate at its best, and that is the approach I would commend to all parties.

10:24 am

Photo of David LeyonhjelmDavid Leyonhjelm (NSW, Liberal Democratic Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I do not necessarily approve of the approach taken by the Greens here in procedural terms, but I do want to put on the record the fact that the Liberal Democratic Party, as a matter of policy, asks that all commitment of troops overseas for conflict purposes require a two-thirds majority of both houses of parliament. There is a significant principle at stake here, and that is who—the executive or the parliament—should be responsible for sending our young men and women into danger.

The risk is that, if it is left to the executive, there is significant potential for adventurism, for political posturing and for engaging in activities that are not in the national interest. I am not suggesting that applies in this instance. In fact, I am quite in favour of supplying the Peshmerga with military equipment and I hope it leads to a Kurdish state. But this is a very profound decision. It is too profound, too serious, with too many implications, to be left to the executive.

This same debate occurs in the United States. There is a constant tug of war between the congress and the President as to who should commit forces to military action overseas. Technically, congress has the right to declare war yet the President goes to war, notwithstanding no declaration of war, and there is a constant argument about it.

It is also not about flexibility or operational matters. We are talking about the commitment of forces, not what they do, not how they operate, not when they go, not when they come home. It is not what they do while they are there; it is whether they go at all. It is about deployment per se. That is a profound matter and it should be up to the parliament to decide when that occurs.

10:26 am

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

I rise today to commend to the chamber this motion. I listened very carefully to Senator Faulkner's comments because he obviously has history with this issue—and we have spoken of changing this long-held tradition of the executive unilaterally deploying Australian troops into harm's way—and also because Senator Faulkner was for a period of time the Australian Minister for Defence. I have heard nothing at all this morning from any side of the house that would undermine the basic principle that we seem to be hearing from all sides: that if it ain't broken then don't fix it. I would put to all of my colleagues in here that it is broken. Otherwise we would not be in this situation.

I took on the so-called war powers bill. This bill, the Defence Legislation Amendment (Parliamentary Approval of Overseas Service) Bill, has been on the Notice Paper since the mid-1980s. The Australian Democrats introduced it, Senator Bartlett had carriage of it when I came into this place in 2008 and it was the first bill that I introduced. It is profoundly important.

If you believed that this extraordinarily important decision making should remain entirely behind closed doors in the hands of the Prime Minister on the advice of his National Security Committee and the cabinet, with secret briefings with the opposition, you would have to go back and look at how it is okay for Australia to retain this tradition when our parent parliament in Westminster and the United States congress—kindred democracies all around the world—put these decisions to their legislatures and effectively trust that the collective intelligence will be greater than that of the executive sitting alone, responding to imperatives that are occurring largely under the table.

That is what happened in 2003, when we went into arguably an illegal invasion of Iraq on the basis of just such an imperative. Then the executive authorities had the nerve to turn around and blame the security agencies and the analysts, who had been telling them all along that there was no link between the Iraqi government and the gruesome attacks on the United States on 9/11 and that, furthermore, there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and had not been since 1991. The intelligence agencies and analysts were telling the government that. You went to war nonetheless. If that example does not persuade this parliament that something needs to change, what on earth will it take?

That ripped the lid off Iraq, because there was almost zero tolerance among the secular Baathist regime in Iraq for the kind of hideous extremism that we see prevailing in the north-west of that country today. Now there is an explosion of sectarian tensions. We helped ignite that in our illegal invasion of that country on the behest of the executive. Millions of people around the world, including me, demonstrated and marched and tried to stop that war—and civil society was right and you were wrong. I think it would be easier to listen to your argument about this present deployment if there was even one small admission of culpability for the disaster that is unfolding there at the moment.

We heard the Prime Minister at his press conference yesterday saying this is a strictly humanitarian role, but we know, for example, that it is almost certain that Pine Gap is being used for drone targeting inside Iraq and elsewhere; that the SES are on the ground; that the Royal Australian Air Force has fighter-bombers either on their way or on very high alert; that we are now apparently running Russian or eastern European weapons in to protect Kurdish minorities in the north-west. We are practically at war. This has long since ceased to be any kind of humanitarian gesture.

If this were put to a vote, and Senator Conroy and Mr Shorten have already put a view into the public domain, it may well be that this parliament would accept the deployment. But you, Senator Johnston, and the rest of the executive and your colleagues would be forced to circumscribe, put some boundaries around, the scope of the deployment. I suspect the reason that you will not do that is that we are once again—Korean War, Vietnam War, first Iraq war, second Iraq war, Afghanistan war—acting at the behest of the United States government, not the people of Australia. Have we not proven ourselves yet to the United States government? Can we not stand on our own feet, as Canadian authorities have done, as the British have done, as New Zealand authorities have done, as other countries have done? What is it that is special about Australia that says we have to simply keep following in the slipstream of this great power that has made so many grievous strategic errors in recent history?

So, yes, we will return to this debate, and I think it is appropriate that it happen this morning. I commend this motion to the chamber.

Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (President) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that the motion moved by Senator Milne to suspend standing orders be agreed to.