Senate debates

Wednesday, 9 September 2015


Australian Defence Force

3:10 pm

Photo of Richard Di NataleRichard Di Natale (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

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 Australian forces in Syria.

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

Thank you, Senator Di Natale.

Photo of Richard Di NataleRichard Di Natale (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I move that a motion relating to Australian forces in Syria may be moved immediately and have precedence over all other business this day until determined.

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

The question before us is the suspension of standing orders.

Photo of Richard Di NataleRichard Di Natale (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Yes. I move directly to the issue at hand. It is that parliamentary approval should be required for Australian forces to be deployed to Syria. I do believe this is a matter of urgency. We have just had—right now, from Senator Abetz in question time—an accusation that is the most serious accusation that could be levelled at a member of the Australian parliament. It is an accusation stating that somebody who questions our involvement in a conflict is somehow questioning the commitment that we have to our service men and women.

That is the refuge of a scoundrel. To suggest that what we are doing by questioning our involvement in a war in Syria is somehow reflecting a lack of commitment to the troops engaged in conflict in that region is pathetic. The best thing we can do to safeguard our troops is to ensure that before we embark on a conflict of that nature we have a full, frank and open debate in this parliament to ensure that what we are doing is going to a war that is legal, going to have a war that is not based on the self-interest of a Prime Minister who is desperate to save his political hide. We need to have a debate in the Australian parliament—

3:12 pm

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Deputy President, I raise a point of order. I have been listening intently to Senator Di Natale. This is a motion about suspending standing orders and why it is imperative that the parliament, the Senate, should avoid its regular routine and deal with an issue that Senator Di Natale says is important, when it cannot be dealt with by Senator Di Natale in some other way during the course of this chamber. My point of order is that he is not explaining why it is essential to suspend standing orders.

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

I have been listening carefully, also, and Senator Di Natale has, in fact, opened up with the reasons for his thinking this is an urgent motion that needs to be debated straight away, and he is prosecuting that argument now. I am satisfied there is no point of order.

Photo of Richard Di NataleRichard Di Natale (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I do not know what could be more important than the lives of Australian service men and women. What could be more important than that? Why are we not having a debate in this parliament about whether we should be committing our troops to another conflict overseas, particularly when the Prime Minister says we will be committed to a war until we see an end to the genocide that is going on in Syria and we see an end to the terrorism that is being exported?

According to the Prime Minister, that is what the end game looks like. If that is what the end game looks like, we are there for a very long time. To say that somehow our involvement in that conflict will lead to that outcome is wishful thinking, in the extreme. This should not be a captain's call. As it is in the parliaments of similar democracies, like the UK and Canadian parliaments, there should be a debate within the Australian parliament.

Here we have, at the stroke of a pen, the Prime Minister deciding to engage in a conflict overseas that has resulted in the displacement of four million Syrian refugees, half of them children. On the one hand, he makes an announcement that we will settle 12,000 of those refugees in Australia, which we welcome. On the other hand, he commits us to a conflict that will aggravate the circumstances that have led to those people fleeing their homelands—a commitment that is not supported on any international legal basis, a commitment that is so muddle-headed, so incredibly reactionary, that we do not know what the endgame looks like. How long are we going to be stuck in Syria? How long are we to going to be there? What does the endgame look like?

At the announcement of our first involvement in Iraq, we said it would be a very slippery slope and we should beware of mission creep occurring. And here it is: we have mission creep on a grand scale. The reason we need a debate in the parliament, the reason this is an urgent motion, is that leaving this to prime ministers, who will potentially put their own self-interest ahead of the national interest, is a very dangerous situation. When the Prime Minister says he wants at least one air strike by the end of the week—and, coincidently, we have a by-election the following week—you start to ask questions about what is motivating this conflict. Former foreign minister Gareth Evans said:

… effective counterterrorism is much more about strong international cooperation on intelligence and policing, and winning relevant community support at home for tough measures.

And the use of military action is always a last resort. This is very dangerous action indeed, and the parliament should be debating it. (Time expired)

3:17 pm

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

The government opposes the motion; no case has been put in relation to urgency. The last thing our service men and women need is the strategic thinking and input of the Australian Greens as to how we might conduct military activities overseas. I think what they actually want is the advice of the intelligence services and the men and women who are at the apex of the Defence organisation. The Leader of the Australian Greens, as is their wont, hypocritically asserted that I engage in the activity of 'the refuge of the scoundrel' and he accused the Australian Prime Minister of sending young Australian service men and women into a theatre for only one purpose—that is, his own political benefit. That is a disgraceful suggestion. It is beneath contempt. And yet, while they say it is outrageous to say anything against their motives, they drop it by the bucket load on the Prime Minister and say that is all fair. Their antics today show that the leader of the Australian Greens is completely unprepared in terms of the standing orders on how to go about this matter. They then presented an argument devoid of any substance.

The important thing for Australian service men and women is that they be part of a group of other countries in this theatre that can fight this evil.

Photo of Peter Whish-WilsonPeter Whish-Wilson (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Which evil are you talking about?

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

Senior Whish-Wilson, this is the exact example we need: 'What evil? Excuse me, I see no evil in Daesh! I see no evil in people being beheaded. I see no evil in—

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

Senator Abetz, resume your seat. Senator Whish-Wilson on a point of order.

Photo of Peter Whish-WilsonPeter Whish-Wilson (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Deputy President, Senator Abetz deliberately misquoted me. I said 'Which evil are you talking about?' not 'What evil?'

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

That is not a point of order, it is a debating point. Resume your seat. Senator Abetz, you have the call.

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

The suggestion is that somehow this is an illegal activity. The United States, the United Kingdom and other countries are involved in it. And I tried my luck during question time when I quoted article 51. It has been confirmed that I was right. Article 51 does allow for collective defence measures to be taken such as the ones we are now going to be involved in in relation to Syria. Senator Di Natale says 'How long is it going to take?' Everybody wishes that they could have a definitive answer. It is so easy to stand in this place and ask questions that no man can answer. It is like the question 'How long will it take to put the bushfire out?' It depends on how the wind blows, whether the rain comes and whether a tanker breaks down on the way to the fire—imponderables that you can never fully take into account. It is the same with conflicts around the world. How long will it take? Of course, nobody can answer that. But this we know: the longer it takes to defeat Daesh, the more people will be beheaded and the more women will be raped and then killed. Moet depravity will occur. More antiquities will be destroyed. More vandalism will occur. All the while, the Australian Greens answer to this is 'Oh, if we have a debate in the Australian Senate, Daesh might actually be listening and decide "No, we should not go on this particular raid today. No, we won't behave in this particular offensive manner today."'

Sometimes, regrettably, evil has to be fought with force. That is why the Prime Minister's announcement today is such a good and balanced one. It has a military component, to try to defeat the evil which is one of the causes of the mass migration, whilst on the other hand also providing humanitarian assistance to the victims in the short term. (Time expired)

3:22 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 the opposition will not be supporting this motion. We do accept the general view that has been put that there should be a parliamentary discussion on this. In fact, we made this point very strongly to the government today. What we would prefer is, as was promised by then Minister Johnston in this chamber, regular updates. It has been a while since we have had an update, and I call on the government to provide to the chamber an update. I appreciate that the Minister for Defence is no longer in this chamber, but it could be provided by a senator on behalf of the government. That would then allow a discussion of deployments and the expansion of our activities. I think that would be entirely appropriate.

The government has made that commitment—the former minister made that commitment—and I urge the government to clear some time in the parliamentary schedule, by negotiation or from its own time, to enable all of the senators in this chamber to discuss and debate this issue. It would be a healthy thing for the parliament and a healthy thing for our country if there were an ability for people to express their views. There will be many differing points of view, but the chamber, the parliament and the country will be better for hearing those views. So I urge the government to consider making a statement, perhaps on Thursday, which would allow us to have some discussion and debate during the course of the afternoon. With deference to my colleagues in the Greens, I cannot indicate support for your proposition, but I encourage the government to look at setting aside some time for a genuine discussion in this chamber.

3:24 pm

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

I must say I was a little surprised when Senator Di Natale rose to his feet to seek to move a motion before this place to facilitate a discussion on the government's decision today. In fact, I think his objective was to move a motion that it might require parliamentary approval for governments take a decision to commit forces. But I was a little surprised and perplexed because it seemed that Senator Di Natale had given so little thought to the procedure that would be required that his effort consisted of waving his arms and saying, 'Blah, blah, blah.' Senator Di Natale seeks to have a parliamentary debate on process related to government decisions, but he had not even given any thought to the process and procedure required in this place. Senator Di Natale belied a sense of seriousness in this place and demonstrated that what he was seeking to do was essentially a stunt, but it was a stunt which he was not even well prepared for.

In the Australian context, it has been the practice and the convention observed by governments of both persuasions that the decision to commit Australian Defence Force personnel is taken by the government of the day. It is a decision that is determined by the National Security Committee of the cabinet and is then ratified by the cabinet. That is the process that has been observed. We do not follow the American system. We have a different constitution. It has always been seen to be a decision for the government of the day. If the Australian public have a contrary view, the method in this system is that they can express their view at the ballot box.

That is not to say, however, that it is not appropriate to debate decisions of government in the parliament. In fact, that is what we spend much of each day doing—debating the decisions of the government of the day—whether in the form of proposed legislation or of questions to ministers of the day. Obviously, there are other forums and formats within the parliament where such debates can happen and they do, on occasion, happen by agreement and consensus across the chamber. So the government is not suggesting for a moment that decisions of the government of the day should not be debated—of course they should; that is part of the purpose of the parliament—but there are appropriate forms and procedures for that to happen. What the government does definitely not agree with is that parliamentary approval should be required before the government of the day commits Australian Defence Force personnel. I think we would also disagree with the Greens in relation to what the threshold should be for engagement of military forces with those that we oppose.

I think Senator Abetz is quite right to describe ISIS as evil and to suggest that it is appropriate that we do what we can to help stop its evil. There are times, regrettably, when the deployment of force is required to be determined by the government of the day, but I must completely reject Senator Di Natale's suggestion that the decision of the Prime Minister and the government is in any way, shape or form framed by political considerations. The decision of the government is framed entirely by considerations both of our own national interest and also of the broader international interest. It is not in the interest of Australia, and it is certainly not in the interest of Syria or Iraq or the neighbouring nations, that ISIS be allowed to flourish. ISIS should be contained. ISIS should be destroyed. The government has taken the right decision that we should be a part of that effort, and the Greens have not made a case for the suspension of standing orders.

3:29 pm

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

I understand that the suspension of standing orders is not a trivial matter, and it is not something that the Greens would engage in lightly. But I was still flabbergasted to hear government spokespeople deny that there was a sense of urgency around a debate such as this. It is an urgent matter when the Prime Minister unilaterally commits the ADF to a conflict on the other side of the world where the strategic imperatives are completely unclear, the success conditions are unclear and the legality is unclear. We heard Senator Abetz's interpretation of the legal basis upon which Australian aviators and, potentially, other personnel will be deployed over Syria and find it completely unsatisfying.

I do not think we should simply rush into this expanded deployment. When we were debating these matters 12 months ago, Senator Christine Milne, as Leader of the Australian Greens, warned of mission creep. She warned of an open-ended military commitment into a complex and violent situation on the other side of the world which Australia bears some responsibility for opening up. If we heard the Prime Minister or anyone on his frontbench—anybody who was in cabinet in 2003 when we signed off, sight unseen, on an illegal and unjustified invasion of Iraq—provide even a moment of acknowledgement that that was a catastrophic strategic mistake, it would be easier to bear some of those who file in here today and condemn the Greens for daring to question the strategic resolve, or the strategic brilliance, of those who continue to deploy foreign forces into these theatres of war on the other side of the world.

Retired General Peter Gration, who was the CDF from 1987 to 1993, points out in an open letter that involvement in airstrikes would be inviting disaster. He goes on to point out:

… there is no UN cover for that particular operation.

I believe that will give them a strong indication that it would be illegal.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott, in an interview that he did I think last week, was asked: what is the legal basis for an Australian deployment into the Syrian civil war? He pointed out—and I will paraphrase, as this is not a direct quote—Daesh does not respect international borders; why should we? I found it extraordinary that he would choose Daesh as our benchmark for the international rule of law. I find that suggestion somewhat sick when we consider that involvement in illegal wars potentially exposes our service personnel and those who direct them into those theatres of conflict to international sanctions. That is as serious as this can get.

Syria is one of the most dangerous places in the world. I acknowledge the point that the Prime Minister made in his press conference about Syrian civilians—for whom this action is arguably justified—'being caught between the hammer and the anvil'. This makes it sound as though there are only two sides to a simple conflict. That is simply not the case. I will quote Peter Harling of the International Crisis Group—hardly an organisation of non-violent practitioners. Nonetheless, he said the following:

Islamic State has prompted a response that combines all the ingredients necessary to make it stronger: Western over-the-horizon military intervention; a regional arms race as a variety of countries rush to provide money and weapons to improvised proxies (whose factional and sometimes sectarian agendas further degrade decaying state institutions and exacerbate social fault lines); and growing repression of civil liberties and empowerment of backward-looking (but formally secular) power structures.

That is the disaster that Prime Minister Tony Abbott has waded into.

I understand Senator Abetz's alarm and concern when we raised the fact that The Daily Telegraph reported this morning that the Prime Minister wants somebody bombed by Saturday. It is The Daily Tele, so you cannot take it too seriously. But they do have very good contacts inside the Prime Minister's office. We frequently see these national security announcements mysteriously leaked out of cabinet or the national security committee. How are we supposed to take that kind of information when it is put onto the front page of a Murdoch tabloid?

The ALP—and I have noted Senator Conroy's comments and those of the Leader of the Opposition in the House—wants the government to make a statement on the long-term strategy. Again, I am paraphrasing an appropriate parliamentary discussion: wouldn't the time for that be before the deployment rather than after? We are rushing straight into the same kind of situation that ripped open these sectarian tensions across Iraq, the same kind of situation that the Prime Minister unilaterally signed off on at the behest of the United States government in 2003. Have we learned nothing from history? This parliament is the place for that debate to happen, and now is the time for it to occur.

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

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