Senate debates

Tuesday, 3 March 2015


Deployment of Australian Troops

12:31 pm

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

Mr President, I seek leave to move a motion relating to the deployment of Australian troops.

Leave not granted.

Pursuant to contingent notice of motion, 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 the deployment of Australian troops.

For the interest of the Senate, I did have that motion distributed and it was to be that parliamentary approval should be required for Australian forces to be deployed to Iraq. I believe this is a matter of urgency, which is why I have moved for a suspension of standing orders to have it debated.

We have a situation in Australia where going to war is a captain's call, and that is wrong. We are talking about the lives of Australian service men and women, and they are being deployed because the Prime Minister of the day decides that is what he wants to do. In this case, the captain's call is even worse because he made it and then decided not to tell the Australian people about it because a journalist wrote a story in a newspaper saying that he considered sending 3,500 Australian troops to unilaterally invade northern Iraq. So he put off telling the Australian people because he did not want to suffer the backlash from that article. He had to hose that down.

Meanwhile, he goes to New Zealand and allows the New Zealand Prime Minister to announce the joint force that will be going to Iraq. The Prime Minister of New Zealand said there would be 143 New Zealanders. And here we finally find out, after a delay, after they have dealt with the adverse story in The Australian, where one journalist stopped a nation from being told that another 300 troops are going to go to Iraq. So now we have a situation of: 200 Special Forces personnel; 400 in the Air Force over there now; and we are going to have another 300. That is 900 Australian service men and women on the Prime Minister Tony Abbott's captain's call. We are still suffering from the captain's call that former Prime Minister John Howard made in 2003 sending us into the war in Iraq based on a lie.

The Labor Party is going along with this and saying they support it. They put a ridiculous caveat on it that, if the Iraqi security forces engage in unacceptable conduct or if the Iraqi government adopts unacceptable policies, Australia should withdraw. We know now they are engaged in unacceptable conduct. We know that the mess that is the Iraqi Security Forces is fighting alongside Shiite militias which are conducting massacres; 72 innocent people were killed just last week as a result of Shiite militias engaged in bad behaviour.

ISIS has engaged in appalling behaviour as well; let me very clear about that. We are talking about barbaric behaviour on both sides. We also know Iranian generals are fighting with the militias that we will be fighting alongside. We also know those militias are better paid and better weaponed than the security forces we are supposed to be going there for. The question that the Australian people need answered is: why are they going there, for how long, to what purpose, to what end? The Prime Minister has never made that clear and he still cannot.

It started out as humanitarian aid—and I said then that this would become mission creep. This will see us engaged in a quagmire in Iraq on the back of a captain's call. We have a Prime Minister who is a pugilist who knows nothing other than hitting out and he is sending Australian troops, men and women, into Iraq. We are now going to have 900 of them there—and to what end? For what purpose? As to their engagement with the Shiite militias, what does that mean for Australian troops? We are already in a quagmire and a mess in Iraq, and this is only going to make it worse.

We have already had the military out there saying that the situation we are in right now is that you have to build capability and confidence. They are saying the morale of Iraqi Security Forces is decimated and undermined; their units are fragmented. And we think we can fix that, do we? Do we seriously think engaging with militias and seeing them engage in inhumane and disgraceful behaviour, alongside ISIS doing exactly the same, is going to sort out the Middle East?

This is a bad call, and the parliament should decide. This should not be up to a Prime Minister. The community out there honestly thinks that the parliament sends Australian troops. We do not. The Prime Minister makes the call, the captain's call. It is ill-considered; it has not been explained. It is wrong. (Time expired)

12:36 pm

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

I should indicate at the outset the reasons why the government denied leave for Senator Milne to move her substantive motion, which is the same reason the government will be voting against the motion to suspend standing orders. There are several reasons. The first and by no means the primary reason is that, yes, Senator Milne did circulate this motion through the chamber moments before the Senate sat but there was no reasonable period of notice given to the other senators in this place to consider what it was that the Greens were putting forward.

We do have an order of business in this place. We do have allocated time for government business. We do have allocated time as well for private senators' business. We do have allocated time for a range of contributions from colleagues in this place, and a very good reason always needs to be put forward if those arrangements are to be disturbed. My first point is that I do not think that the appropriate courtesies and notice have been observed in relation to this matter nor do I think a decent rationale has been put forward to change the arrangements for today.

The second and perhaps more significant reason for denying leave and opposing the motion to suspend standing orders moved my Senator Milne is the very long established convention and practice observed by both the coalition government and by also the Australian Labor Party in government—and I do not want to pre-empt whatever the Prime Minister will be saying today—that the deployment of Australian Defence Force personnel in whatever capacity and in whatever way is a decision for the executive government of the day. We do not have the system of the United States here where the congress needs to endorse or give approval to certain actions in relation to armed service personnel. We have a different system here.

We follow the Westminster conventions in this place. As I said, it is something that has been observed by both Labor governments and coalition governments that the Australian Defence Force personnel and their deployment is a decision from the executive government of the day. Now that is not to say that it is not appropriate for those deployments to be debated and discussed in the chambers of the Australian parliament. That is not to say that it is not appropriate for there to be the parliamentary scrutiny and questioning of those decisions. We have the forums and the formats of question time in both places. We have a range of other parliamentary mechanisms where these matters can be examined and debated. And there have been occasions where there has been the provision of the opportunity to debate the decisions of government. But we have not and do not accept as a government that there is or should be a requirement for parliamentary approval for the deployment of Australian Defence Force personnel. That is the practice and I think it is appropriate in the context of our particular system of government.

So it is for those reasons that the government denied leave for the Australian Greens to move their substantive motion and it is also for those reasons that the government will not be supporting the motion to suspend standing orders. We do not think the case has been made and we do not support the concept that parliamentary approval is or should be required. These are matters, appropriately, for the elected government of the day.

12:41 pm

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 suspension as it has not supported previous suspensions. I would like to begin by expressing Labor's support for the ADF personnel currently involved in operations in Iraq and the wider Middle East. Like they always do, our ADF personnel serving with dedication and distinction. They are having an impact in the international efforts against Daesh. Our RAAF pilots have completed 167 missions, releasing over 200 weapons. Our other Air Force assets including refuellers, command and control aircraft, and heavy lift aircraft are providing valuable support for the international mission. Our special forces are now on the ground in Iraq advising and assisting the Iraqi armed forces. The Chief of the Defence Force, Air Chief Marshal Binskin, told Senate estimates last week that our contribution is making a difference against Daesh:

… for all intents and purposes … their major push and their major strategic message of being able to establish a caliphate is in question.

Let me repeat, Labor supports the current commitment to fighting Daesh in Iraq. If there is a change to the size or make up of Australia's military contribution to Iraq, the government has promised to fully brief the opposition. Any changes to the mission should be fully explained to the Australian people by the Prime Minister.

As Labor has said before, the role of parliament is to debate issues of concern, particularly when it comes to whether Australia deploys its defence forces. Labor supports the role of parliament as a place of debate but that should not be confused with requiring parliamentary approval for military deployments. 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 parliamentary approval prior to deploying ADF personnel and assets could unnecessarily increase the risk to the deployment. Furthermore, the government of the day has access to classified information which the parliament does not. Executive government remains the most appropriate body to exercise civilian control of the Australian Defence Force. And we fully expect the government to provide opportunities to debate this deployment in the coming weeks and months.

Just last week the defence minister provided an update on operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East. That is appropriate and it ensures an important level of transparency to any ADF deployment. Regular statements to parliament by the government is something that Labor initiated and it is something that this government is continuing As I have said, 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 believe that this is a considered way and we do not support this suspension motion.

12:45 pm

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

I rise to support the suspension motion. What we see in front of us is, by its very definition, precisely the kind of mission creep that was predicted at the outset—here in Australia, in the United States and in the United Kingdom. Nobody, from the Prime Minister's office down, has ever made clear what the primary objective of the mission is. What is the rationale? What is the desired end state? What does success look like? I strongly take issue with Senator Conroy's comments—although they are reflected by those of Senator Fifield—that because the executive has access to classified intelligence materials the decision somehow lies outside this place. These are not tactical decisions; these are very political decisions. In a democracy, the decision to deploy is not a military decision. It is a decision that should be taken democratically.

Senator Fifield let the cat out of the bag a short time ago. President Obama had to go to congress and Prime Minister Cameron had to go to Westminster because, in part, of the debacle of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. That invasion was presided over by a substantial fraction of Abbott government frontbenchers, not a single one of whom has uttered a word of contrition or apology for that catastrophe; nonetheless they are demanding that we be led blindfolded into another deployment. The very same people who presided over that disaster are now leading us into another. These are political decisions. Once the political decision has been made—as it has been in Washington, as it has been in London—then the considerations are turned over to the military. That is where your classified intelligence material comes into play. Politicians should not get involved in specifics of deployments. Those are military and strategic decisions; this is a political one.

What we have heard from Senator Conroy and Senator Fifield is, effectively, a declaration of incompetence. You are willing to let the Prime Minister stand up in front of as many flags as he can muster—in desperate search of a bounce in the polls—to announce a deployment. You would not be willing to put your name on the voting register as having supported that deployment when it all goes horribly sideways, as it did after 2003. As Prime Minister Abbott has identified, the Iraqi authorities need to give consent for Australian troop deployments and positioning in Iraq. So effectively it is everybody except us. Australia just goes traipsing along behind our great and powerful ally, the United States, as we have done with so many disastrous deployments. It is everyone except Australia.

Through you, Mr Acting Deputy President: Senator Fifield, if not now then when? Should we wait for a prime ministerial press conference? Should we wait for the PM to array himself in front of an extraordinary display of flags in response to announcements that have been leaked and foreshadowed in the media by other leaders for weeks? You expect the parliament to behave like that, in the face of one of the most significant decisions, if not the most significant decision, that a legislature or an executive can make. I strongly disagree, Senator Fifield—through you, Mr Acting Deputy President. The time for that debate is now and the place for it is here—not in the context of some prime ministerial brain snap that may or may not have happened, no matter how well intentioned. That debate should happen in the open air, in the light of day, in an elected parliament. That is what this place is for. Other democracies may have grown up enough, either through the war power invested in congress hundreds of years ago or much more recently in the instance of Westminster, with respect to reacting to the debacle of Iraq. There is now a convention. It is not put to a vote, but senators here will be well aware that the royal military was prevented from being put into the fight in Syria by a debate in Westminster. That is how mature democracies make these decisions, not on the basis of plans drawn up on the backs of envelopes by prime ministers desperate for a lift in the polls. That is not how deployments should occur in modern democracies.

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

That is offensive.

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

I will tell you what is offensive, Senator Fifield, and that is simply being told that we have to trust this Prime Minister on the most significant decision that a nation can make, against the backdrop of a series of disastrous captain's calls. It is about time we grew up and submitted these discussions, debate and, ultimately, decisions to those elected MPs who would then need to live with the decisions that they make.

12:50 pm

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

I will make a brief contribution indicating that I do support this motion. This is an important issue. It is a pity that leave was not granted to deal with this important issue. I want to restate what I said on 1 September last year in this place: there ought to be a measure of parliamentary approval. Senator Ludlam is right. We are behind the United States and the United Kingdom when it comes to dealing with troop deployments. Picking up on Senator Conroy's point, we do need to consider that there may be circumstances when there is an urgent need for deployment of troops that may not be subject to immediate parliamentary approval, but there ought to be a mechanism or a trigger in place to ensure that parliamentary approval is dealt with. That is why I think that is important.

Let us look at the issue of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. It overthrew the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein and then, recklessly, the coalition forces dismissed the entire army and dismantled 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 regional level, tensions between the Sunnis and Shiites have increased. For instance, Saudi Arabia backed the crushing of the Arab Spring in order to defeat the Shiites, particularly in Bahrain. This is a very delicate geopolitical situation but we have to deal with these issues in the parliament. That is what parliament is for; it is not for telling the military what to do or how to do it but in terms of our long-term involvement and in terms of being constantly vigilant in terms of mission creep. Otherwise we are headed for another disaster.

I put it unambiguously that Islamic StateISIS or Daesh, as they are also called more appropriately—is an evil organisation. They have been responsible for callous atrocities, and I support what the government has done to date in order to crush ISIS and to ensure that the people that they have occupied are emancipated. But we must learn from the catastrophic consequences of George W Bush's handling of Iraq. We must ensure that these minor incremental increases do not turn into a full-scale war.

Finally, I want to make this absolutely clear: I wish our troops well. I am sure they have done us proud and will continue to do us proud. The issue here is having parliamentary scrutiny of the most grave decision any government can make, which is to send our trips to war.

12:53 pm

Photo of David FawcettDavid Fawcett (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Firstly, I just want to refute and take exception to the comment by Senator Ludlam that this has any relationship to polls. I think that is a statement that people in Mosul, that people in the Raqqa province and that the Coptic community who have seen members of their community beheaded recently would take exception to. They would take exception to the statement that there is no crisis over there, there is no worldwide attention needed to defeat these forces. Yet he is linking Australia's response as a responsible, international citizen to support the resolution of this and the re-establishment of sovereign control of Iraq by the Iraqi government to somehow trying to reduce that to a crass, domestic, political situation. I refute that and I do not accept that.

He also mentioned the lessons of Iraq. If there is one lesson we should be learning it is that when you are dealing in areas like that where there are long held, centuries old tensions between communities—whether they be religiously based, ethnically based, geographically based—we need to be empowering those people to seek a resolution, preferably diplomatically but, if needs be, through military means. At its essence, this is a training mission. The whole purpose of this deployment is a training mission to help the Iraqi forces, at their invitation, so that they can re-establish sovereign control of their own nation. This is not like Australia sending an invading force. This is a training mission to go and help them. So if we are going to learn anything from the Iraq conflict, the Greens should be welcoming the fact that Australia is seeking to help build the capacity of the Iraqi military and government to re-establish their own control.

We also have the statement from the Leader of the Greens who is talking about this being a captain's call or a captain's pick. It ignores the fact that there is a system within our form of government whereby it is not just the Prime Minister, it is also the National Security Committee of cabinet and cabinet who approve decisions that are made that result in a deployment of Australian troops. The suggestion that somehow—as Senator Xenophon, who I have a high degree of respect for, indicated—we should have a situation where, in an emergency, people could be deployed and then we could have a debate and the parliament might seek to overturn that ignores the reality of what it means once you have placed men and women in harm's way.

That is part of a plan, normally part of a coalition, and to then seek to extract them exposes them to more risk than it does to follow through with a considered plan. Our government does not act without advice from the Defence Force, from the professionals who have, at their disposal, a range of intelligence that is not available to members of parliament, except to those who have the appropriate clearances and are on roles like the National Security Committee of cabinet. It is certainly not available to the media or to the public. Those people are informing the government about options, and a debate before a deployment is potentially dangerous to our troops.

I looked with some horror at the media questioning of the government before we deployed some ADF and other assets to support the recovery of Australians who were killed in the incident over Ukraine. The persistent and detailed questioning from media around exactly who was being deployed, where they were being deployed and what they were being deployed for was actually putting Australians in that place at risk. If you extrapolate what happened in that small example to a broader example of a deployment of a force, it is not appropriate, it is not safe and it is not the precedent in this country which has served us well over many years for this parliament to usurp the ability of the cabinet to make that decision that, where it is in Australia's best interest, our Defence Force should be deployed.

12:57 pm

Photo of Jacqui LambieJacqui Lambie (Tasmania, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak to the motion before the Senate regarding the deployment of the ADF personnel to overseas conflicts. While I support the Greens motion to have a debate about the current military deployment, I do not support the Green's proposal to change the way the decision-making process is made to send the troops overseas. All I propose to change is the decision makers, who have clearly made the wrong call in sending our troops back overseas again. Some people are having difficulty in grasping this following fact: despite all the terror attacks, despite the fact that our official terrorism alert is high, which means that an attack by an enemy is likely, we are at war.

Firstly, I would like at least the Liberal Party to be big enough to say it as it is: we are at war. Let us just say it. Let us be honest. It is a war that we did not want. It is a war that other people have declared on us because they do not like our freedom, our democracy and our way of life, and they do not like the fact that our women and gay people have the same rights as men. They do not like the fact that we do not worship and pray to the same god that they worship and pray to. Therefore, they want to kill and enslave us.

Secondly, for anybody that does not know, out of all the troops that we have—which is about enough full-time troops to half fill the MCG, and then we have reserves on top of that—if you take everything away, we have about 3,000 combat troops. Three thousand combat troops in the last 12 years have shared this war between them. Some of them have done six to 10 tours. That means they have already spent five or six years in the war zone. Some of them we are sending back on anti-psychotic drugs.

We are not ready for this war because we stopped spending what we should have spent out of our GDP. That is what the problem is, and we just have not been restocking for years. This is caused by both major sides of politics. And now you are going to send these men and women back into the war zone. Not only that, you still have not returned the 1.5 per cent pay rise that you ripped out of them, that you stole from them. But you can stand in front of their faces and tell them they are going back to war. What sort of men does that make on your cabinet, let alone your PM?

But, for the worst of this, let's go into Veterans' Affairs. Let's go into the theory of 'don't send them to war when you cannot look after them when they return'. Right now you people have put in place a system—

Photo of John WilliamsJohn Williams (NSW, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Lambie, direct your comments through the chair, please. Continue on.

Photo of Jacqui LambieJacqui Lambie (Tasmania, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

Acting Deputy President, the Liberal Party set up a system which is called 'offsetting'. It is under three different acts, so now when these men return you are ripping them off. They are not getting paid out in full for their injuries and they are suffering. You know about this but you still refuse to fix it. You know this offsetting is an issue. Veterans' Affairs is in chaos, but you are prepared to sit there and you are prepared to send these men back into war. Well, you know what? I suggest you go and clean up a little bit, because you are out of order. How easy it is for you people to sit over there and say: 'Guess what, men? You're going back into war.'

Photo of John WilliamsJohn Williams (NSW, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Lambie, please direct your comments through the chair.

Photo of Jacqui LambieJacqui Lambie (Tasmania, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

Like I said, that is after you rip 1.5 per cent of their pay rise off them, off their families. How is their morale going? That is how you are going to send them back into war. You should be bloody proud of yourselves! As a matter of fact, you should be absolutely ashamed of yourselves. It is an absolute disgrace. Why don't you start looking after them and leading by example?

Photo of John WilliamsJohn Williams (NSW, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The time for the debate has now expired. The question is the motion to suspend standing orders moved by Senator Milne be agreed to.