Senate debates

Tuesday, 30 September 2014


Iraq and Syria

12:32 pm

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

I seek leave to move a motion relating to the deployment of Australian troops to Iraq.

Leave not granted.

Pursuant to contingent notice, I move:

That so much of the standing orders be suspended as would prevent me from moving a motion to provide for the consideration of a matter, namely a motion relating to the Abbott government's proposed deployment of Australian personnel to military action in Iraq.

It is a critical matter that, at this very moment we are standing here, the RAAF has informed the Australian community it is ready for combat in Iraq. The Prime Minister has told the Australian community that he will be taking the matter to cabinet any minute—whenever he chooses to do so. Yet the Australian parliament has not debated this deployment of Australian troops to a multiyear war in the Middle East. This is the most shocking thing a government can do, to just go ahead and commit young men and women to war in the Middle East without a plan, without a strategy and without any notion of where this might end up.

There are families across Australia with sons, daughters, husbands, brothers and sisters in the armed forces. They remember Afghanistan and they remember young people dying in that conflict—and they will be asking themselves, as we stand here today, 'Why are we going to another war in the Middle East?' We have to actually think about that: why are we sending them to another war in the Middle East and is it in the Australian national interest to do so? In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Cameron recalled the House of Commons to debate this matter. In the United States, President Obama recalled congress to talk about bombing in Syria. But nothing like that has occurred in Australia. The Australian parliament, and therefore the Australian people, have not been given an opportunity to hear from the government the rationale for committing people to war—nor to have it debated.

Before the Iraqi government had asked anything of Australia, we had already stood up and said we would join the United States, blindly going into another war in Iraq. It was announced before the al-Abadi government had asked us anything. Only after we already had our planes in the Middle East and only after we already had our boots on the ground in the United Arab Emirates did we go to Iraq to try to retrospectively sort out the legalities of what we might be doing. We are only now retrospectively determining what we are embarking upon and why. What do we know? In the last few days President Obama has said that he had underestimated the power of ISIL, that they are continuing to advance in spite of the air raids. US Senator McCain has said that he wished the President would stop saying that there would be no boots on the ground.

In Syria, there is already huge suspicion about the US involvement in Syria, whether the US is supporting President Assad. There is a suspicion that Washington is coordinating with Damascus and that the main beneficiary of the bombing in Syria is President Assad. Already we are arming the Free Syrian Army—but there is huge suspicion—and the al-Qaeda forces are now joining with the ISIL forces. All of the extremist forces are coming together because they are suspicious of what the Americans are doing, and of what we will be doing, because we have not actually outlined it.

Will the consequences be contained within Iraq and Syria? No, they will not. We have already seen the fabric of our own society being torn apart. There is fear in the Australian community that is being driven by the increase in the likelihood of terrorist attack and the increase in the likelihood of recruitment—because Australia is going into another war in the Middle East. We have to know what is happening with President Assad. Will the mission target Assad's forces? If it does, will that bring in the Russians? What is the intent? The Americans want to replace President Assad, they want to defeat ISIL and they want a new government in Iraq. The questions are: how will that be achieved, how will it be contained and why is it in our national interest?

The government must tell the parliament. We must be able to debate these matters. We need accountability from the executive—and that is the role of parliament. We are the body that is supposed to hold them to account. That is why we should be having the debate. (Time expired)

12:37 pm

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

I am sure all colleagues would agree that there are few decisions that weigh more heavily on a prime minister than a decision to place Australian Defence Force personnel potentially in harm's way, whether it be the Abbott government, the Howard government or the Hawke government before it. This is an area of decision making that governments take very seriously and weigh up very carefully. The Australian government has deployed ADF personnel to the Middle East in order to be in a position where, should the government take a decision to commit personnel and assets to combat, that they are there, that they are prepared, that they are acclimatised and that they are in the best position to give effect to a decision of the government. That decision has not yet been made.

I think that Prime Minister Abbott has really been a model in terms of the way that he has kept the Australian public and the Australian parliament informed of events that potentially will see Australian forces engaged. The Prime Minister has taken this responsibility very seriously. He has made sure that he has been a participant in forums including the United Nations General Assembly and the United Nations Security Council, and he has spoken to the Australian people through various means to make sure that they are aware of the context in which decisions may potentially be made. In Australia we do not have requirements akin to those of the United States, where the congress does have a formal role in relation to certain military activities. It is the convention and the custom and the practice in Australia that the government of the day—the executive—ultimately takes the decision and bears the responsibility for the commitment of ADF personnel and assets. I know that that is an approach which is agreed between the government and the opposition—that the National Security Committee of Cabinet deliberates, that the cabinet deliberates, and decisions are then made. In the course of that, the opposition is consulted and kept apprised of events. That is the process that we follow in Australia. I think that is the appropriate process and one that the Australian people are comfortable with.

The Australian parliament is clearly an appropriate place for these matters to be discussed and debated. Indeed, only a couple of weeks ago the Prime Minister made a statement to the House of Representatives and there was the opportunity for debate on that statement in that place and in the Senate. I have no doubt that there will be further updates to the parliament by the Prime Minister and by the defence minister and that there will be further opportunity for colleagues in this place, quite rightly, to discuss what are very significant matters. But that should be done in an orderly way, and I am sure that there will be further opportunity for that to occur, as is quite right. What the Australian Greens are seeking to do here today is a stunt. No notice of this proposed motion, to my knowledge, was provided to the government. We do have business before this place, and there will be time—an appropriate time—to discuss matters in relation to potential deployment of Australian Defence Force personnel.

12:42 pm

Photo of Penny WongPenny Wong (SA, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

I indicate on behalf of the Labor opposition that we do not support the suspension of standing orders at this time, and our position is driven by two principles. The first is our position on decisions in relation to the deployment of Australian military personnel, and I will return to that. The second is the imperative for having debates of such serious nature conducted with appropriate notice to senators in the chamber and structured in the appropriate way, rather than simply being brought on through a suspension of standing orders at the commencement of the Senate.

First, our position as a party on decisions to deploy Australian military personnel is clear and has been articulated by both me and Senator Conroy previously and by successive leaders of the Labor Party. These are decisions of the executive government of the day. They are, of course, amongst the most important and difficult decisions which any government can make, but they are decisions of the executive government, not of the parliament. We do, however, believe that once a government makes such a decision it should be announced and explained properly to the public and to the parliament. The government does have a responsibility in the national interest to be transparent—consistent with the safety and security of ADF personnel—about the decisions it makes. That is the point at which there is an important role, and an entirely legitimate role, for the parliament to consider and debate such decisions.

Senators may recall that on a previous occasion, when a similar call was made by the Greens, Labor made it very clear we were willing to have an appropriate and structured debate—and, in fact, the parliament did have an appropriate debate, with notice given to senators. Where we obviously part company with the Greens is on their position that any such deployment should be the subject of parliamentary approval. That is the basis of Senator Milne's position. That is the basis on which the gallery was notified of her intention to move the suspension of standing orders. I respect that that is her position, but it is not the position of the Labor Party and our system of government, the executive. These are decisions of the executive.

As I said, we indicate to the government that, when the government does make further significant decisions about military operations or, indeed, humanitarian operations, we do think it is appropriate for there to be appropriate parliamentary debate and discussion and we would support that.

While I am on my feet and given the comments that were made by Senator Milne and Senator Fifield, I again place on record our thanks to the ADF personnel who are currently pre-deployed to the United Arab Emirates. These personnel enjoy the full support of the Australian Labor Party and the Australian people as they prepare to assist the Iraqi army and the Kurdish Peshmerga in their fight against IS. I again extend my thanks to their families, who remain at home—the partners, parents, children and friends who will ensure nervous weeks and months ahead as their loved ones participate in this mission. We know that the women and men of our ADF will undertake their mission with their usual professionalism, determination and dedication. They will all be in our thoughts—all of us—until they are returned home safely.

12:46 pm

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

I rise to support Senator Milne's motion and this Greens' motion to have the deployment of Australian personnel debated urgently. I indicate to Senator Wong that the motion was distributed to senators in the chamber; I have a copy of it here. Our preference is to have this motion debated and voted on before we throw the ADF in harm's way, because doing it afterwards is kind of beside the point.

This deployment has still not been put to a vote. I want to point out to those outside the building who may be listening that this debate seeks to establish chamber time for a vote on the matter, rather than simply pretending that the Prime Minister's office will take care of the matter and they have it all under control. I want to highlight the fact that the arguments that were raised when we brought this matter to the chamber a week or two ago—that it is impossible, indeed insane, for the parliament to conduct such a debate because we would be intruding on tactical decisions, we would be giving our intentions away to the enemy, we would not be able to move swiftly enough; all of these arguments that, for some reason, assume that Australian parliamentarians are incapable of holding an intelligent, reasoned debate on such a serious issue—have been blown out of the water by actions in kindred parliaments around the world.

The fact is that Prime Minister Cameron recalled Westminster last week for precisely this debate. The motion was carried, as it probably would be in Australia because Labor is at one with the Abbott government on this matter; but at least senators and members would be forced to put their names on the record on one side or another and to take responsibility for the decision that is being made in our name. If it is good enough for Westminster, why not for us? What British parliamentarians and thereby the media and the public have been able to establish is that the deployment is constrained to air strikes and air operations, it does not contemplate ground troops and it does not contemplate incursions into Syria. So the British people at least have some idea of the scope and nature of the deployment, and parliament has conferred. The deployment may not have strategic legitimacy but at least it has a veneer of democratic legitimacy in that parliament has been brought into the loop and MPs have been forced to stand up and be counted one way or another. I should point out that a substantial minority of those in the British parliament—in the house, at least—voted against the deployment for many of the same reasons that Senator Milne has identified this morning.

So how is it that they can manage to do this in Westminster? Is it their bruising experience of the Iraq war, where British soldiers were coming home wrapped in flags with horrific regularity? What is it that they learned about that Iraq deployment that we here in Australia failed to learn?

How extensive will this deployment be? The 'no boots on the ground' commitment has been jettisoned. The 'strictly humanitarian mission' concept has already been jettisoned. Now the Australian government is being deliberately ambiguous about our engagement, or not, inside Syria, which is where the Islamic State's support base has the largest footprint. What is the risk that Australia is inadvertently playing directly into the hands of this horrific entity and simply playing our part in their recruitment strategy? Has that been considered by the National Security Committee of cabinet? How long will they be deployed for? What would success look like?

These are matters that can be brought to the Australian parliament so that those on the front bench and the back benches, in the opposition parties and on the crossbench can put their names on one side or other of the ledger. We know what happens when such a decision is left to the Prime Minister alone, because that is how this whole horrific mess started. Simply calling it a 'tradition', as Senator Fifield did earlier, is not good enough. There are all kinds of things that used to be a tradition—

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

No, I said 'convention'.

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

I think 'tradition' was the word you used, Senator Fifield. 'Convention' will do just as well. Conventions change. It is time that we grew up, as other parliaments around the world have done.

President Obama, while contesting the notion that he needs to go to Congress for authorisation for air strikes in Iraq nonetheless sought congressional authority to go into Syria—

Photo of Barry O'SullivanBarry O'Sullivan (Queensland, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It’s a completely different system.

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

It is a democracy.

Photo of Barry O'SullivanBarry O'Sullivan (Queensland, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

You need to study.

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

It is a democracy.

Photo of Gavin MarshallGavin Marshall (Victoria, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Order, on my right!

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

And what could be a more important question to bring to a chamber such as this than the decision to deploy the ADF into harm's way? If it is good enough for President Obama to seek congressional authority for attacks inside Syria, if it is good enough for Prime Minister Cameron to go to his parliament to seek parliamentary approval for air strikes in Iraq, then it is about time we in Australia grew up—so that we do not find ourselves subject to mission creep in a horrendous, multiyear occupation of a country in a part of the world that foreign-flagged high explosives played a really important part in destabilising in the first place. It is time we learned from the mistakes of the past.

12:51 pm

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

I again indicate Labor will not be supporting this motion for the suspension of standing orders. I begin by expressing my support and Labor's support for ADF personnel currently involved in operations in Iraq and those that are pre-deployed in the United Arab Emirates. As they always do, they are undertaking their task with dedication and great professionalism. I also want to give my support to the families of the personnel deployed; their role should not be forgotten during these times.

It is the role of parliament to debate issues of concern, particularly when it comes to whether Australia deploys its Defence forces. 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, but this is what the Greens are proposing. As the Senate has debated before, Labor believes that the government must retain maximum flexibility to respond to threats to Australia's national security quickly and efficiently. A requirement for parliamentary approval would create situations where ADF personnel are deployed to a war-like environment without appropriate legal authority or important legal protections. It could also necessarily increase the risk to the deployment. Labor has always supported the need to debate such issues; that is the role of the parliament.

We are pleased that the government facilitated a debate on Iraq earlier this month and we fully expect the government to provide further opportunities to debate this deployment in the coming weeks and months. That is appropriate and ensures an important level of transparency to any ADF deployment. Regular statements to parliament by the government is something Labor initiated, and it is something that this government should continue. Let me conclude by saying that it is Labor's view that executive government remains the most appropriate body to exercise civilian control of the Australian Defence Force. It is appropriate for the parliament to debate government decisions that involve the deployment of ADF personnel, but that should be done in a considered way. We do not support this suspension.

12:54 pm

Photo of Zed SeseljaZed Seselja (ACT, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I would like to commence by putting on record my gratitude to our ADF personnel for the work that they do in keeping our country safe. I am sure that all Australians will join with senators in wishing them safety and good will in whatever they may be asked to do by the Australian government. Senator Milne expressed concerns about the experience in places like Afghanistan, and there is no doubt that in many ways we wish we had never gone into Afghanistan, but the Australian government, along with many other governments, responded to the horrific events of September 11—and to the fact that we saw a terrorist training ground in Afghanistan—and responded to the unacceptable threat that that posed. When I speak to ADF personnel about the role that they were asked to play and that they played, I do not hear warmongering—they are not people who are keen to go to war—but men and women who understand that sometimes it is necessary to actually confront evil. They are proud of the role that they have played in confronting that evil in many parts of the world, and I think we should be proud of the job they have done on our behalf.

When we debate this particular motion about suspending standing orders, there are a couple of issues to consider, and other senators have touched on them. One is about the correct role of parliament in relation to military deployments. I agree with what has been expressed by Senator Fifield, Senator Wong and Senator Conroy: that is, that the process whereby the executive government makes the decision as to if, when and how to deploy our military personnel is one that is held us in good stead. This is not a process that happens on a whim; this is a process that goes through detailed consultations at an executive level at the National Security Committee of Cabinet; and detailed consultations with the opposition, who, in this case, have been briefed right across the board and right along the way, and they have expressed their support. We do not have a situation where the processes are being ignored; this is a process that has been followed that for many years and is being followed in this particular circumstance. Other countries have different constitutional requirements and in some cases they have different processes. What we have here is a situation where the government has consulted with the opposition and will make decisions as an executive—and we are grateful to have the backing of the opposition for the process.

There are many opportunities for this place to debate military deployments, and that is a good thing. We are debating it here for half an hour, but there are ample opportunities for such debates—we can list an issue on the Notice Paper, and there are many other mechanisms of the Senate that allow debate. I welcome such debates, and the Australian government welcomes such debates, but this attempt to suspend standing orders with no notice is unfortunately a stunt. It is not a serious attempt at a parliamentary debate; it is simply a bit of grandstanding by the Greens. I think that is unfortunate in the circumstances that we face this kind of grandstanding. There are plenty of opportunities and I would encourage any senator to take those opportunities but not to engage in these kinds of stunts. We should not have a situation with the executive government has to consult with the Greens in order to make a decision on the deployment of Australian military personnel. We have longstanding conventions; they have been followed; they have stood us in good stead; and I think this suspension should be rejected. (Time expired)

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

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