Senate debates

Thursday, 26 November 2015


Syria and Iraq

4:00 pm

Photo of Sarah Hanson-YoungSarah Hanson-Young (SA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

At the request of Senator Siewert I move:

That the Senate—

(a) notes:

(i) the ongoing conflict in Syria, which has led to over 250 000 deaths, and the fleeing of 4 million refugees, over half of whom are children, and

(ii) Australia's ongoing military involvement in Syria and Iraq, the scale of which is second only to the United States of America; and

(b) calls on the Government to:

(i) increase the intake of refugees from the Syrian crisis,

(ii) support legislation passed in the Senate that would remove children and their families from detention, and

(iii) de-escalate Australia's military presence in Syria and Iraq, and explore political, economic and diplomatic avenues that will work toward a peaceful settlement to the conflict.

My interest in this particular topic is the humanitarian impact, particularly the Syrian conflict. We know that this has been a long stretched civil war inside Syria. It has been going on for over five years. It was 18 months ago, in January 2014, when I first visited the Jordan refugee camp—one of the world's largest refugee camps now—the Zaatari refugee camp. I also visited the various refugee settlements in Lebanon. Of course, both Jordan and Lebanon are bordering countries to Syria and have had to cop the bulk of the very real human need of people who have been fleeing this conflict.

When I was in the Jordan camp walking around and talking to the UNHCR—that is, of course, the UN refugee agency experts—they explained to me that, when they first established the camp, it had been believed that it would only need to cater for 20,000 people and perhaps for six to 12 months maximum. Five years on that is just not the case. It is now one of the world's largest refugee camps. There are over 300,000 refugees in that camp, and many of the people who are there have been there for four or five years. We have heard direct appeals from the UN in relation to a lack of resources and to fund these operations properly. We know that various things such as food vouchers have had to be rationed because they simply do not have the resources to ensure that everybody who is in the organised camp has access to food on a regular basis. That is one of the reasons cited for why people are continuing to move on.

While there might be 300,000 people in the formal camp in Jordan, there are over a million in the Jordanian community. According to the ambassador from Lebanon and the briefing that was given by the Jordanian, the Turkish and the Lebanese ambassadors in this place only two weeks ago, there is now a situation in Lebanon. The population of refugees in Lebanon makes up 40 per cent of the total population inside Lebanon. That is more than one in three people in Lebanon now seeking asylum as refugees.

The biggest concern of all in this is that this is a children's crisis. Out of what is believed to now be four million people who have fled Syria as refugees there are another seven million people internally displaced inside Syria. Out of the four million people who have fled across the border more than half of those are children. It is a horrific situation that we have children—many of them very young children—living in very delicate and unsafe conditions, particularly in those countries bordering Syria.

It is to that point that there is a continued growth of people moving from those bordering countries because they simply cannot put their lives back together. They do not have the resources. The UN bodies and the various partner agencies do not have the ability to help cater for the four million people living in the bordering countries. So people continue to move and that is what we are seeing in terms of the influx of people seeking protection throughout Europe. Just because they got out of Syria has not meant that these children and their families are necessarily safe, or, indeed, that they have any ability to put their lives back together.

It was only two months ago when the world was shocked and heartbroken by the image of the little boy whose body washed up on the coast in Turkey, little Aylan. It was that image which really brought home to so many of us, right around the world, that those who are copping the brunt of this conflict in Syria, those who are suffering the most are indeed the most vulnerable—that is, the children. As the world was shocked and shaken into action, countries right around the globe were saying, through grief and through the human response of wanting to help, that more needs to be done to offer humanitarian assistance to the hundreds of thousands, the millions of people who have had to flee Syria. It is incredibly heart warming and wonderful to see that our own Australian community stood up and demanded that we, too, as far away as we are from the Syrian crisis, take some responsibility in helping to give shelter and protection to those in need. That was, of course, despite the initial position of the government under former Prime Minister Tony Abbott that Australia did not need to do any more. That was the original position: Australia had already done enough and we did not need to help any more. Thankfully, sanity prevailed and the heart of the nation forced the Prime Minister's hand at the time. Then we saw the extension of our humanitarian program to take an extra 12,000 Syrian refugees. I think that is a very proud achievement of the Australian community—to ensure that, despite the initial opposition, we were able to offer this humanitarian assistance.

To this date, however, one of the biggest issues facing the humanitarian organisations, who are trying all they can to manage this humanitarian crisis and children's crisis, is a lack of funding and support. It shocks me, to be honest, that here in Australia we spend more than double the amount of money running Australia's detention system, in our offshore camps and in our onshore detention centres, than the UN Refugee Agency has to help those who are fleeing war in Syria. The statistics are very stark. The UN budget for helping Syrian refugees is just under a billion dollars at US$931 million and Australia spends $2.1 billion locking up refugees. I find it incredibly galling to hear in this place that Australia is doing everything we can, that we are more generous than any other nation. It is simply not true. I would like it to be true. I would like to think that the generosity and warm hearts of Australians is extended into this parliament and that we had a government that spent our money more wisely. Imagine what we could do to help the very real humanitarian needs of those fleeing the war in Syria if we were not spending $2.1 billion locking up the very same people in Australia and in our offshore detention camps.

The UN has appealed directly to Australia many times for us to pledge more money to help in this crisis. Our fair share, if we were to be picky about it, if we were to only do our fair share in comparison to other countries, not going above and beyond, would be, as cited by the United Nations, $150 million this year. We have not come anywhere near that. We gave very little to the UN in previous years to deal with the humanitarian crisis from the Syrian conflict and now we have pledged $44 million, when in fact our bare minimum fair share would be $150 million. So we are still a long way behind.

I appeal to the government directly today. I think we can be doing much more. I think we could easily find a way. If we released children from detention here in Australia, perhaps we could spend $150 million helping to feed Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey refugee settlements, so that people do not have to continue to flee. We know that offering direct humanitarian assistance through resettlement is important. It is important symbolically. It tells the rest of the world that Australia is prepared to be part of our global community, that we share the burden of ensuring that people are given safety. It is an incredibly important thing to do. The 12,000 people who will be given protection here are going to become wonderful Australian citizens. They will get jobs. Their kids will go to school. They money will be spent in our local communities and they will be forever grateful for being given a chance to live in safety and an opportunity to rebuild their lives. I think we could be offering more people that opportunity.

I appeal to the government: let us use the current 12,000 increase as a down payment and, in fact, let us take many more people than that. We have the ability to. We have one of the strongest screening programs in the world for refugees. We know and can trust our systems. We know who people are when they come to Australia, and we are able to ensure community safety. We can do all of that, and we can offer more assistance to people who are in great need. Offering up the money the humanitarian organisations need on the ground is vital. Opening our hearts and our doors to those who are in need now is doable. We are strong enough as a nation to do this; we have proven that already. We should continue it.

To that point I would like to note that I know there are some people in this parliament—Senator Cory Bernardi is one of them, but there are members in the other place as well—who in recent days have suggested that we should 'close the borders'; that we should not take even the 12,000 Syrian refugees we have pledged to help. They can have their opinions, of course, but I am very thankful that the Australian community has shown far more grace and far more compassion than those few here in this place who advocate the benefits of fear as opposed to the benefits of human kindness and compassion. We can take in more people. We should be helping to fund the agencies better. But we also need to have a look at what we are doing in our own backyard. It puzzles many Australians that we have a program to welcome more refugees who are having to flee the Syrian crisis while at the same time we are leaving Syrian and Iraqi refugees locked up in detention. It does not make any sense. We already know who these people are—they are legitimate refugees. They deserve protection, and just because they happen to make their own way out does not diminish their need for safety or their need for dignity and respect from our policies.

I was incredibly heartbroken when I heard the story of one Syrian refugee who is currently in detention here in Australia. The rest of his family is hiding in a rubbled town in Syria as we speak. His two young daughters, who are under the age of six, and his wife are effectively trapped in their home. They are too afraid to go out because of the bombings, and they are obviously frightened of the rise in extremism and violence that is ripping their country to pieces. Meanwhile we have the father locked up in an Australian detention centre and every day we are spending money on his detention—it costs $2,000 per day to keep someone locked up on Manus and Nauru. We are spending money to keep him locked up and separated from his family when what we could be doing is helping to safely reunite his family with him in Australia. The fact that we have these two parallel positions from the government, two parallel policies that work against each other, is madness. It does not make sense at all. Australians are puzzled as to why we would be spending money locking up Syrian refugees in Australia at the same time as we are saying that we care and that we understand that people fleeing Syria need protection because they cannot just go home. This man's case is a good example, but there are also many others who have come here—Iraqis and Syrians who are being kept separated from their families because they happened to arrive on a boat rather than been hand-picked by the immigration minister and the department. We need to see the end of this ludicrous situation.

The last point of this motion goes to the issue of the amount of money Australia is spending to lock up children in our detention centres. How do we advocate on a global stage that Australia is willing to participate in a humanitarian response to the Syrian crisis when we have a system that spends money locking up children who have done nothing wrong, but are victims of the circumstances they were born into, the country they were born into or the nationality of their parents? There are 112 kids who are locked behind bars here in Australia. It is time we did something about letting them out, and I hope we could see them out in time for Christmas.

4:21 pm

Photo of Dean SmithDean Smith (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I also rise to speak on this motion that relates directly to Australia's national security interests which, as we all know, is the highest responsibility of government. But it also requires that this government, under the new leadership of Mr Turnbull, takes responsibility to balance those important national security interests against our very strong interest in upholding and maintaining our very defensible record with regard to humanitarian support.

It is far too big a responsibility to be playing politics with, and I want to note Senator Hanson-Young's very measured contribution to this debate. I would not agree with everything in Senator Hanson-Young's contribution, but it was indeed very measured. But this is something that is beyond the issue of politics and my concern is that aspects of this motion will seek to try to do that. When you look at the motion, it is important to understand what it says in its entirety. My attention was drawn to (b)(iii) of Senator Siewert's motion, which calls for a de-escalation of Australia's military presence. For me, the problem with that proposition is that no such change has been sought by anyone other than the Australian Greens, as far as I have been able to ascertain. But, to put it bluntly, when it comes to strategic and military matters, this government will proceed on the considered and professional advice of its Australian Defence Force rather than the whims and wishes of the Australian Greens and others.

I note the motion also calls on the government to explore political, economic and diplomatic avenues in response to the Syrian conflict. What I think needs to be emphasised at this point is that those things are actually not inconsistent with having some military involvement. This is not and should not be a question of either or. We can all agree that what is occurring in relation to the Syrian conflict is a human tragedy. I do not doubt the sincerity of the Australian Greens, or anyone else for that matter, in this chamber on that particular point. But, clearly, we are not going to agree on all aspects of the best solution. I accept that; I know that others will accept that. Of course, if there was an easy answer, the world would have found it and we would be rushing towards that easy answer. But that is not available to us.

I do not think it is helpful to adopt political postures or try to claim a moral high ground in regard to this very complex matters. It should not be about moral posturing or posing. The policy has to be determined and, ultimately, judged by its outcomes. I note aspects of Senator Siewert's motion touch on border protection. That is the policy area where I would like to demonstrate that point.

The position adopted by the Rudd Labor government when it won office eight years ago, this very week, I might add, was not one based on evidence or experience; it was based on moral posturing—feelgood statements about ending the Pacific solution. In fact, many of the Rudd government's policy positions were about feelgood rhetoric rather than careful planning and examination of the evidence of what might be effective. But that is a discussion for another time. For my point, I am using this particular issue to demonstrate the earlier point I make. The reality is we cannot remove ourselves from a debate and understanding of the border protection policies if we are to properly understand the predicament that we find ourselves in with regard to refugee intakes, humanitarian issues and, of course, the conflicts across the Middle East.

Here are some of the facts about border protection. The day that Kevin Rudd took office, there were just four people in immigration detention who had arrived illegally by boat. None of them were children. That was the impact of the Howard government's so-called harsh and cruel Pacific solution, as the opposition and the Greens have tried to describe it. Then Labor set about changing the policy with the active encouragement and support of the Australian Greens. They took a solution and worked to create a problem. They put the people smugglers back in business.

Let us fast forward to July 2013, two months before Labor lost office. What do we find? Under the supposed compassionate policies of those of the sort advocated by many of those opposite, by July 2013 there were 1,992 children in immigration detention. Labor changed the Howard government's policies and the result was that the boats started coming again. They came to such an extent that over the life of the Rudd Gillard Rudd Labor government over 8,600 children were put into detention as illegal maritime arrivals. Under this coalition government, as I stand here today, that number is now under a hundred. Any dispassionate assessment of the policy and its outcomes, would come to the same conclusion: it was difficult policy to have to embark upon, but it was a policy that delivered on outcomes. The number is fewer than under Labor, but it is still under a hundred. I do not mind going on the public record saying that I find that objectionable, and I am sure there are other senators who would agree with me. That is still too many but the government continues to work responsibly to further reduce that number.

I accept that Labor and the Greens had the best of intentions when they cooperated in changing the nation's border protection policies in the early days of the Rudd Labor government I do not think it is in anyone's interest or anyone's good use of time to be arguing that there was any deliberate ill-intent. But I do not, for one moment, doubt that the policy did not work. As I have demonstrated, good intentions are not enough. Good intentions do not automatically ensure good outcomes and that is the basic problem with this particular motion this afternoon.

We are not going to improve the situation by de-escalating our military involvement and focusing just on diplomatic avenues. We need to have both. The decision the government made last year to support US-led international military efforts to counter Daesh were not made on a whim. They reflected an assessment that Daesh represented a significant threat not only to the people of Iraq but to the wider region and, ultimately, to our own domestic security here in Australia.

It is also important to remember that the Iraqi government itself asked for our assistance to defeat this menace. In doing so, Australia is a part of a group of around 60 nations working together to counter Daesh and prevent the spread of violent extremism, including to our region and, indeed, to our country. In the year that has passed since we began that involvement, Australia has made a substantial and proportionate contribution to international coalition efforts to degrade and dismantle Daesh's capability—one, I venture to say, is broadly supported across the Australian community. Simultaneously, our own forces have been working assiduously to build the capacity of local forces on the ground and take up that fight.

An ADF withdrawal from Iraq and Syria, which is effectively what this motion is calling for when you read it to its end, would weaken, not strengthen, international efforts to combat Daesh and it would not be in the interests of the Australian people or the people across our region. The Iraqi military is making progress in the current campaign against Daesh. Could it be quicker? Of course it could be quicker; nonetheless, it is making progress. The mission, however, is very far from over. Iraq needs continued support from the international community, including Australia, to build the capability of its security forces to conduct offensive operations against Daesh and to deny this terrorist movement a safe haven. This is why the government supports continuing our missions to develop the capacity of the Iraqi security forces and continues to contribute an air task group at the request of and to support the Iraqi government.

Again, I appreciate the sincerity and the intentions of those who have moved this motion today, but good intentions are not solid enough. It is very, very difficult to work diplomatically towards a peaceful solution, as the motion calls for, when those on the other side of this conflict frankly are not interested in peace. They measure their successes, unfortunately, in terms of the body count—and, unlike with our own forces, I do not mean that they aim for the lowest possible number of deaths. The more they kill, the more they terrorise, the happier they are and the closer they are to their outcomes. That is the reality of what we are up against.

The problem with this motion is that it assumes we are working with rational actors or that we are dealing with people motivated by a common humanity, a humanity common to all of us. I wish we were, but with respect to Daesh that is simply not the situation we find ourselves in. Its savage ideology is clearly demonstrated in its statements calling on supporters to target civilians of Western nations wherever they can be found. Martin Luther King spoke of the day when people of different races and creeds would sit together at the table of brotherhood. Well, ISIS or Daesh and its associated groups are not interested in a seat at that table. They are not interested in nuanced arguments and negotiations. They seek total victory through total terror obtained through more and more violence.

At the beginning of this month, I attended a rally in Perth that was a demonstration of support for the people of Israel in the light of what has been occurring in that country recently in terms of murderous attacks from extremist groups. I was pleased to be joined on that particular day by many from Perth's local Jewish community, state members of parliament, local councillors like Brent Fleeton and indeed my Labor Senate colleague Senator Joe Bullock, because, however Australians choose to vote come election time, there are certain values that unite us, and chief among those is our enduring belief that the citizens of a democratic nation have the right to live peacefully and be secure within their own borders.

What has been occurring recently, with the campaign of incitement to violence and the murder of Israeli citizens at the hands of terrorists, offends every value that decent Australians hold dear. No Australian of good conscience could possibly hold sympathy with or defend the outrageous behaviour of some Palestinian clerics, who actively encourage their followers to murder Jews at random on the streets of Afula, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. No Australian of good conscience could possibly support the words of Palestinian President Abbas, a self-proclaimed 'moderate', who has told his people, 'Every drop of blood spilled in Jerusalem is pure,' and said that murderers will be 'rewarded by God'—not the words of a moderate. No Australian of good conscience should be happy with a situation where new generations of Palestinians are having their minds poisoned through vile, anti-Semitic propaganda campaigns that only serve to make the already difficult goal of peace even more difficult—perhaps even more unlikely.

To those Australians who think that what is happening in Israel or Paris is a long way away and does not affect them, I simply point out that the values for which Israel and France both stand—personal freedoms and democracy above all else—are also the values for which Australia stands and which Australians have fought and died to protect for generations. If we want to preserve the values that underpin our open, democratic societies, we will have to work resolutely with each other to defend and protect the freedoms we hold dear.

The military campaign the US-led international coalition is undertaking in Iraq is essential to these efforts and has helped slow Daesh's advance. Without these military efforts in Iraq and Syria, Daesh would present an even greater threat to Iraq, the Middle East region, the Europeans and, indeed, the world, including us. In that context, what is being suggested through this motion, a de-escalation or drawing-down of our military contribution, would simply not be responsible.

The motion also goes to the issue of Syrian refugees, and I am pleased to be able to discuss just briefly, in the time available to me, that particular point. In September 2015, as we know, Minister Dutton met with representatives of the UNHCR and other international partners to discuss how Australia could best contribute to the international response. Following on from those discussions, the government announced a generous package of assistance in response to the Syrian and Iraqi humanitarian crisis. This included a total of 12,000 additional humanitarian program places, which are being made available for people displaced by the conflict in Syria and Iraq. I think at the time of the announcement it was generally agreed by most commentators and in the community that that was a necessary and indeed generous response. These places, of course, come on top of Australia's existing humanitarian program of 13,750 places, which itself will rise to 18,750 places in 2018-19. People who fall into these categories will include both Syrians and Iraqis.

The additional places will not be offered to people in Australia or regional processing countries who travelled to Australia illegally by boat. What we mean by that is that they will be offered to genuine refugees displaced by the Iraqi and Syrian conflict. This goes back to the point I made earlier in my contribution. It is by stopping the boats and restoring integrity to our humanitarian program that the government has now been able to respond generously to this crisis to assist the most vulnerable offshore. Had the boats still been arriving at the rate they were arriving at under the former Labor government, I think you would have to question whether there would have been such wide-scale community support for Australia taking additional humanitarian refugees. I think it is fair to assume that, if we had not tackled the issue of border protection, the level of sympathy and generosity by Australians in meeting the humanitarian crisis in Iraq and Syria would have been less. It is not that people would not want to be generous, but they would hold to the view that we should be getting our own house in order before offering the hand of assistance to others.

We can afford to be generous because we have got our borders back under control, a situation that some in this chamber and some across the community said in the lead-up to the last election was impossible. In fact, Australia has consistently been ranked among the top three countries that resettle refugees referred to them by the UNHCR. When measured on a per capita basis, we resettle the most UNHCR refugees of any nation.

Minister Dutton officially provided the first ImmiCards to the first families granted visas through the additional 12,000 places in Jordan at the start of this month. The first of the families have since arrived, and I am pleased to say that the first arrivals have been welcomed in my home state capital of Perth, in Western Australia. They will be very, very welcome in Western Australia. We look forward, of course, to welcoming more families to our country in the weeks and months ahead.

As has been the consistent position of the government, the focus of the intake of 12,000 is on persecuted minorities and those assessed as being most vulnerable, women, children and families with the least prospect of returning to their homes. Before I go on to talk about the selection process, I would like to make this point. The government has committed to making the focus of the intake of 12,000 refugees persecuted minorities and those assessed as most vulnerable, women, children and families. I would just like to talk briefly about the issue of persecuted minorities.

I was pleased to read that in August the United Nations Security Council held its first ever briefing on attacks against LGBT people in the Middle East by militants from the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS or ISIL. I have been genuinely perplexed that some people or some political parties in Australia who champion the issues of LGBTI Australians have not said more or have not drawn attention to the most atrocious of incidents and attacks that happen from these violent extremist groups in the Middle East against LGBT people. I hope that this government, in finding safe refuge for persecuted minorities, will find places amongst those 12,000 refugees for LGBT people whose lives are being put at risk because of their sexual orientation and because of the existence of these violent extremist groups across the Middle East.

That United Nations Security Council meeting or discussion that happened in August 2015 was reported in this way. This media report says:

While it was not the first time the persecution of gays and lesbians has been mentioned before the 15-member council that includes the U.S., Britain, China, France and Russia as permanent members, the panel had never convened to talk specifically about attacks on LGBT people anywhere in the world. The Security Council has previously discussed the impact of Islamist terrorism on global peace, but acknowledging sexual minorities in this way was an "important step" for expanding human rights, said Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., who sponsored the meeting with her diplomatic counterpart from Chile.

I will be asking the new Prime Minister to make a place in that intake of 12,000 refugees for LGBTI people being persecuted in the Middle East—in Iraq, in Syria—by terrorist organisations like Daesh.

4:41 pm

Photo of Joe LudwigJoe Ludwig (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I too rise on the motion put forward by Senator Siewert today. The motion notes that the war in Syria has led to more than 250,000 deaths, and millions of people have become refugees fleeing this war-torn country. I think it is worth just going back a little bit to where this particular issue started. It started as pro-democracy protests during the Arab Spring, which have now turned into a bloody civil war and sectarian war. While it looked like the regime in Syria was going to fall as part of the domino effect that had taken hold in nearby Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, Yemen and Bahrain, the same did not eventuate in that regime changing in Syria. The ongoing conflicts and uprising across the Middle East since that event started in 2011 I think have been described by some as the Arab winter, with no end of the violence in sight.

After the brutal crackdown by the Assad regime, many opposition forces took up arms to defend themselves. It did start, I think, as something that could be described as a two-dimensional conflict between those supporting the Assad regime and the rebels opposing it, but now I think it is very clear that the conflict has taken on a sectarian angle, with fighting also pitching President Assad's Alawite Shiah against the majority Sunni population. It is also being further complicated with the appearance of the Islamic State terrorist group, which is looking to carve out territory for a so-called caliphate. The conflict now is a multifaceted web of sectarian, rebel and terrorist groups vying for control of this country, while, sadly, the people of Syria suffer under the strain of a five-year-long civil war.

The human rights violations have been mounting since the start of the conflict. They include murder, rape and torture. The Assad regime has been accused of blocking access to humanitarian aid such as food, water and medical supplies. The use of chemical weapons such as the nerve agent sarin has also been widely documented and has added to the bleak nature of this conflict. The Assad regime has been condemned resoundingly by Western nations. It does seem to be a regime that does not care about the welfare of its own people. It is a regime that has broken the social contract between the people and those in power, and if anyone considered that it did have any legitimacy, it certainly does not have it now.

The complexity of the conflict has been added to further with the involvement of Russia, and that has added to the tension in the region not least because its air strikes have largely been focused on targeting anti-Assad rebel groups instead of the Islamic State terrorist group. The recent downing of the Russian passenger jet, which Islamic State claimed responsibility for recently, and the shooting down by Turkey of a Russian warplane demonstrates not only the complexity of the area, which it now is, but also the increasingly crowded and dangerous area that is the Syrian conflict. In response to that, it goes without saying that as a citizen in the world Australia does have a role to play.

I want to go through some of these issues in Syria in seriatim, but I will deal with the refugees from Syria first. This is a reaching out from Australia's heart in a conflict which at this point knows no end. It is appropriate that Labor welcomes the government's announcement that it will provide an additional 12,000 places for people fleeing persecution in the Middle East. It is an appropriate response from the government, and we support it on the basis that these would be genuine humanitarian places offered as quickly as possible. Australia and Labor called on the coalition to do more, and this response is welcome in that regard.

Australia does have a role to play in dealing with significant humanitarian crises that have seen the biggest number of displaced persons since the Second World War, and it continues to be vital for Australia to play that role on an as needed basis without qualification and without discrimination. And, of course, with all of this Australia remains guided by the UNHCR, as they see appropriate. The coalition have indicated—I think more strongly than they need to in some parts—how they will meet this challenge, and I welcome and congratulate them for doing that. But it is an area which I think needs more clarity from this government. According to the UNHCR, the number of displaced people fleeing from war, conflict or persecution is the highest since World War II, and Labor's view is that by the close of 2014 there would be an estimated 59.5 million individuals forcibly displaced around the globe as a result of persecution, conflict, violence and human rights violations. Labor does believe, as I said, that Australia can do more to address this global humanitarian crisis. Labor is compassionate and outreaching in this respect. Our approach to asylum seekers enables refugees to progress their claims safely and securely.

By 2025, we on this side think the increase in Australia's humanitarian intake should be 27,000, almost double the current intake of 13,750 under this government, and, as part of our commitment to demonstrate leadership in our region, a portion of the program would be dedicated to resettling refugees from the region. Notwithstanding that, we also believe that the UNHCR should have additional funding to assist them in this work. It is not going to solve the problems. With all due respect, and I know everyone is dealing with this in a sensitive and sensible way, one of the issues with this motion, and I think it stands out, is that we are suggesting in the motion that we all work towards a peaceful settlement to the conflict. It goes without saying that everybody would want to work towards a peaceful settlement of the conflict. I do not think the way the Greens have put that forward is sustainable to achieve, but I do think it does not exclude the ability for Labor to put forward a plan to deal with the results of the conflict and to deal with assisting the UNHCR to work with and through humanitarian needs and find solutions in that regard.

One of the ways we can work towards the ultimate goal of collective peace is in taking a leadership role in South-East Asia and the Pacific to build a regional humanitarian framework to improve the situation of asylum seekers. It would of course include supporting the UNHCR in providing health and education and services. And in dealing with the broader issue of ensuring the protection of the interests of children in detention, Labor is committed to providing a strong, independent voice with the government to advocate for the interests of children seeking asylum.

In this area, it is important to then talk about what the Greens would ultimately want out of this motion, which is to de-escalate Australia's military presence in Syria and Iraq. I do not think anyone would disagree with a de-escalation of Australia's military presence in Syria and Iraq if there were peace in that region, but there is not. Unfortunately, Australia does have a role to play as a global citizen. There is no more important a duty of a government than to keep its people safe and no more serious a decision to take than to deploy our armed forces and place them in harm's way. The peace, security and stability of our region and the world is in Australia's national interest.

It is also in Australia's national interest to be a good international citizen, and Australia has a long record of contributing to a secure and stable international order. No-one underestimates the complexity that is Syria and Iraq today. The extent of the conflict is enormous, and Australia has been asked to help Iraq defend itself. We do need to consider carefully not only the implications of assisting Iraq but also the consequences of doing so. I think it was best summarised in a speech by Mr Bill Shorten, the member for Maribyrnong, when he said:

Today the crisis unfolding in Syria presents us with a new and important decision, a decision that Labor never takes lightly.

What he was describing was how our involvement in this issue would play out. He went on to say that there was:

clear advice that Iraq has the right to defend itself against cross border attacks, given that the Syrian government is unable or unwilling to prevent such attacks by Daesh. Iraq also has the right to request help from other nations, under the United Nations principle of collective self-defence, and has done so.

Mr Shorten reaffirmed, on 9 September, Labor's bipartisan support for Operation OKRA and paid tribute to the brave professional soldiers that are serving on that mission. It is not an easy mission. Notwithstanding the complexities I have outlined, any conflict comes with significant challenges. In fulfilling our duties as good international citizens, it demands the respect of the United Nations. We are members and we are, I think, obligated to meet those reasonable requests.

I think it is fair to say that there is not unanimity on this issue. People do have concerns. They have concerns about the extent of the mission, how long the mission will be and, of course, whether there is an exit strategy around the mission. These are all legitimate questions that should be asked, debated and discussed. There are many who are concerned about how Daesh will recruit and drive its agenda, and these concerns have to be met and discussed as well. It is clear that there is much to be debated here today and as we go forward. So I do not complain about the motion by the Greens. I think it is an area where we all should think very deeply and seriously about what is happening in that country, what our response should be to the unfolding humanitarian crisis and, of course, in responding to the humanitarian crisis we also should consider carefully what our response should be militarily.

The key reason for Australia's military engagement in Iraq and Syria and our participation in an international mission against Daesh comes down to a clear responsibility as a global citizen to respond to the Iraqi government's request for assistance in the fight against Daesh. We have seen the unfortunate results of Islamic State's work and we condemn it. We stand, as the Prime Minister has said, shoulder to shoulder with France in condemning those horrendous attacks. I think it goes without saying that in putting our soldiers in harm's way we should acknowledge that and thank the brave men and women of the Australian Defence Force for the professionalism with which they are carrying out their duties. They are a true credit to this country.

Labor's support for the campaign in Syria and Iraq is fundamentally based on the humanitarian requirements that are unfolding in Syria today. The figures in the motion underscore how important it is to make a contribution. As the Prime Minister said yesterday and as Labor has consistently argued, ultimately we all want a solution in this region. It is not one that is going to come from Australia de-escalating its military involvement and suddenly peace will jump out from behind a wall in this region. As the Prime Minister said, a political solution is needed in Syria and only this will allow attention to turn more fully to eliminating ISIL as a military force.

We do want, and the government should articulate, a clear strategy for Syria and Iraq, a plan to defeat Daesh and a plan for the day after that, to support a government and to support in a humanitarian sense the people in that region to form a viable, vibrant democracy. This strategy does need to include a strong and coordinated military response to prevent Daesh perpetrating horrendous crimes against humanity. As I said, a political solution in both Syria and Iraq ultimately guarantees the rights and privileges of ethnic communities, minorities and humanitarian support which underpins that. As Hillary Clinton said recently,

If we have learned anything from 15 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, it's that local people and nations have to secure their own communities. We can help them, and we should, but we cannot substitute for them. But we can and should support local and regional ground forces in carrying out this mission.

I think that goes without saying. I think Hillary Clinton has summarised that in a way that says in one short comment what would probably take me 20 minutes to say.

I would add, though, that we do have to have a clear objective for this assistance—a plan for now and a plan for when we leave. I am hoping that during this debate the government can articulate some of that plan as to how this will play out. We have seen terrorist attacks this month and this year which painfully show that we must all combat the threat of terrorist attacks within our borders and, more globally, assist those outside our borders, because we all have a common cause of encouraging peace and ensuring that people can have a vibrant democracy, can live safely and securely, and can feel secure within their own borders. In my closing seconds I send a welcome to France. (Time expired)

5:01 pm

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

In my comments I would also like to join in thanking Senators Smith and Ludwig for the constructive and respectful way in which they have conducted the debate. Given its difficult nature and these difficult times, these are hard arguments to have, but it important that we have them.

On 17 September this year the then defence minister, Kevin Andrews, tabled his first and, as it turned out, only ministerial statement on Australia's military deployments into Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. That document is what passes for parliamentary consideration of one of the most important decisions that any government can make. The document was anodyne, devoid of detail and entirely lacked any analysis of the political or humanitarian consequences of opening a new front in our endless wars in the Middle East.

But it did not particularly matter. That document was tabled at the tail end of a week consumed by the overdue removal of the Prime Minister who was himself responsible for the deployment. The document was only given four minutes of debating time before the chamber clocks signalled that it was time to talk about motor sports instead.

This statement, now consigned to the irrelevance that it deserves, is chiefly valuable for what it does not contain. Australia even today has no overarching plan or political strategy to bring peace to Syria or Iraq. We have outsourced it, as we have the larger fraction of our foreign aid and defence policy, to a conflicted and exhausted superpower that seems increasingly helpless as ghosts of past decisions have proliferated into nightmares.

Tonight's debate takes place in the shadow of violent attacks on innocent people all over the world. We grieve with those families and friends who lost loved ones in the horrifying attacks on the people of Paris nearly two weeks ago tonight. Some 130 people lost their lives and 368 people were injured, some of them very seriously. We offer our condolences to the families of those 43 people who lost their lives in twin bombings in a busy residential and commercial district in Beirut, Lebanon; the 27 who died when gunmen opened fire at the Radisson Hotel in Bamako in Mali; the 34 innocent people dead at a farmers market bombed in Yola, Nigeria; the 224 innocent victims of the bombing of the Russian Metrojet flight 9268 over the Sinai Peninsula; and the more than 100 who died when suicide bombers attacked a peace rally in Ankara in Turkey.

These high-profile attacks seized the attention of the world's news organisations for a period of time, but others barely break the surface tension. In October this year, 714 Iraqis died in acts of violent terror. Our parliament is unlikely to take the time to pause in condolence for these innocent lives lost, because perhaps we think this is the new normal in Iraq.

What unites these horrific attacks is that they are carried out against civilian targets—people going about their ordinary lives. Whether claimed by al-Qaeda affiliates, Boko Haram or Islamic State itself, these are not military targets. They are ordinary people in markets, live music venues or their own homes. What could possibly motivate these atrocities has long bewildered Western defence and security planners. Most commonly they are described as senseless or simply incomprehensible.

There is, however, a cold logic at work. These attacks are not senseless—they are calculated. It is the same strategy that al-Qaeda in Iraq—AQI—used to ignite a horrific sectarian war in Iraq in 2006 and 2007. Their attacks on Shiah civilians were designed to provoke an escalation of violence against the Sunni, who would then, it was reasoned, turn to al-Qaeda for leadership.

David Kilcullen's brilliant and provocative Quarterly Essay article 'Blood Year' describes it in this way:

… AQI's campaign was driven by a brutal political logic: in provoking the Shi'a, Zarqawi hoped to back the Sunni community into a corner, so that his group would be all that stood between Sunnis and the Shi'a death squads, giving people no choice but to support AQI, whatever they thought of its ideology. This cynical strategy—founded on a tacit recognition that AQI's beliefs were so alien to most Iraqis that they'd never find many takers unless backed by trickery and force—meant that Shi'a killing Sunni was actually good for AQI, and so they'd go out of their way to provoke the most horrific violence against their own people.

AQI—al-Qaeda in Iraq—was one of the progenitor organisations that went on to form the core of Islamic State. It may seem hard to accept that, but the long-range targets in the attacks on Paris are ordinary Muslims, who Islamic State are desperately hoping will be now subjected to increased surveillance, harassment and violence at the hands of Western governments. That is how Islamic State is attempting to claw its way from the extremist margins to a kind of twisted legitimacy as the most viable protector of Islam.

Quite recently a group of US Air Force service members with more than 20 years experience between them of operating military drones wrote an impassioned plea to the Obama administration calling for a rethink of the military tactic that they say 'has fuelled the feelings of hatred that ignited terrorism and groups like ISIS, while also serving as a fundamental recruitment tool similar to Guantanamo Bay'. These are the drone operators—the individual men who fly these devices. They argue that the killing of so many innocent people, unreported by most Western media organisations, has acted as one of the most devastating driving forces for terrorism and destabilisation around the world. Waleed Aly must have hit something of a nerve last week when he called Islamic State out on this hideous strategy, because millions of people have shared his plea to focus our response rather than engaging in precisely the kind of indiscriminate backlash that these violent criminals are trying to provoke.

To his credit, in his national security speech in the other place a few days ago, Prime Minister Turnbull largely refused to take the bait. His contribution, which I thought was quite measured, focused largely on unity, social cohesion and targeted intelligence gathering and disruption of the violent extremist networks active here in Australia rather than, for example, calling for more mass surveillance or new police powers over ordinary people. But the measure of the value of such a statement lies not just in the tone in which it is delivered but the actions that underlie it. The government's so called Allegiance to Australia Bill, for example, seems almost deliberately counterproductive and is perhaps a relic of the old Abbott approach. Boasting, as the Prime Minister did, about the scale of our military involvement in Syria also seems almost deliberately counterproductive. In 2015, 13 countries engaged in bombing a country smaller than the state of Victoria. And the situation on the ground is more complex still as nuclear armed superpowers and regional actors are drawn into an increasingly violent regional conflict.

Rodger Shanahan, an associate professor at the Lowy Institute, said Australia's announcement to bomb Syria was 'long on rhetoric but short on detail and lacked any semblance of strategic vision or acknowledgment of the potential impact on the situation inside Syria'. Defence Minister Andrews himself conceded that he could not estimate how long the deployment would last and he had no idea how the Syria conflict would end. He acknowledged that the West needs 'a clearer strategy' for the Middle East. To revisit the last time the West had a clear strategy for the Middle East, we could sample a quote attributed to the then US Deputy Secretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz, in 1991. Speaking to General Wesley Clark on the subject of regime change in Iraq, Syria and Iran, Mr Wolfowitz said: 'We've got about five or 10 years to clean up those old Soviet regimes'—Syria, Iran, Iraq—'before the next great superpower comes on to challenge us.'

Of course, the consequence of attempting to bomb—or otherwise implant—liberal democracy and Western priorities into the ancient rivalries and allegiances of the modern Middle East now speaks for itself. Iraq is balanced on the edge of apocalypse, Libya is the world's newest failed state and Syria is emptying into Europe as millions of refugees overwhelm its immediate neighbours. This is the edge of the abyss into which the Bush-Howard-Blair war on terror has taken us by taking the bait of a global war of civilisations that was offered by a tiny handful of al-Qaeda extremists. By responding to violence with more escalated violence, this is where we now stand. Tony Abbott, who sat in the cabinet when John Howard signed Australia up for the catastrophically misconceived and illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003, now demands a ground invasion of Syria from the backbench—from where, it is hoped, he will never return.

Our military actions undermine the potential of our diplomatic role as an engaged and activist middle power. Australia has good diplomatic standing with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and, more recently, thanks to recent interventions by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, Iran. Australia has proved that we can be constructive diplomatic players in difficult and protracted conflicts. We have had successes at the United Nations Security Council under foreign ministers of both political stripes—most recently Ms Bishop, who last year was able to co-author a unanimous Security Council resolution allowing access for cross-border humanitarian aid into Syria without the consent of the Assad regime. The recent Iran nuclear agreement shows how progress on intractable problems can be made where coercion and threats of force have failed. This has opened new diplomatic space between Iran, Russia and the United States—the three countries that could arguably do the most from the outside to support expanded ceasefire zones inside Syria—enabling humanitarian assistance to be delivered, cutting off the supply of weapons and ultimately isolating Islamic State.

The single most urgent priority of the international community needs to be a political solution to the crisis in Syria and Iraq, because every military solution proposed thus far has simply made the situation worse. Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey need to be the key players in urgent deliberations facilitated by a neutral party that can bring these nations together to expand the narrow common ground and restart the failed Geneva process of negotiations. Our place as a US proxy probably means Australia cannot be that neutral moderator, but we can still play an active part in encouraging these powers to come to the table. Ironically, the bitter evacuation of hundreds of thousands of refugees into Europe and the premeditated attacks in Paris have breathed life into the so-called Vienna talks toward a peace settlement in Syria. On 1 January 2016 these negotiations will be restarted. But this time regional players, including Iran, will be at the table and the intention is to have regime figures and opposition leaders in the room. We understand how formidable the hurdles are which lie in the way of such a process toward a ceasefire and political settlement in Syria, but it is equally obvious to all that there is no military solution to the violence in this tragic part of the world. The criminals who are clearly attempting to provoke the world to greater violence in their own lands may instead have moved the world closer to a peace settlement in Syria. Any such progress will be unspeakably fragile, but this is where Australia should play its part.

This space for resolution also needs to be created on the ground. Political negotiations will only bear fruit if and when the fighting stops. Localised truces offer a starting point for de-escalation and, when successful, they allow much needed humanitarian aid to get to those in the midst of the conflict. Syrian civil society leader and astrophysicist Rim Turkmani has highlighted that a truce in Barzeh led by civilians resulted in tens of thousands of internally displaced people returning to their homeland. He said: 'Many people went back to their areas after [the ceasefire]. They settled back in their houses. They're not internally displaced persons anymore. There was a revival of modest economic activities. There was some progress.' It is obvious, however, that groups like al-Qaeda and Islamic State will remain outside such ceasefire processes and are likely to attempt to undermine any attempts at a peace settlement in Syria that might unite presently fractured parties against them. Islamic State has exploited the disintegration of Syria and the foreign boots on the ground in Iraq to stake its claim over a huge swathe of territory. The last thing it wants is for these warring factions to adopt a more singular focus on the territory it holds.

Unlike al-Qaeda's distributed franchise structure, Islamic State exists to hold territory; it is given life through a war economy heavily focused on oil revenues and other illicit financial flows. In February 2015 the Financial Action Task Force, based in the United States, reported on the financing of the terrorist organisation ISIL. They analysed how Islamic State acquits the monthly payroll of thousands of foreign fighters and how it generates funds, and proposed important measures for the international community to choke off the money supply. The FATF propose a number of strategies for doing this, but they also point out that 'a number of the funding tactics that ISIL employs have not yet been assessed'. This is essential research which remains incomplete, and the strategies they outline have thus far been subordinated to reflexive demands for increasingly futile military escalation. The Financial Action Task Force annual budget, in financial year 2013-14, of around US$3.5 million represents about 120 hours of flying time for a single Global Hawk UAV. Where are our priorities?

Australia can play a powerful role in ensuring that governments around the world follow through on UNSC resolutions—that we helped draft—making the financing of terrorist groups a crime, freezing the assets of those in the supply chain and ending illegal oil sales by identifying customers and how it is being traded. The time for debating Australian deployments in theatres of war is before the deployment, not after, so that the parliament and the public can weigh the benefits of military action against other actions which seek to de-escalate conflict.

No coalition speaker will come into this parliament and admit that they were wrong to carry us into war in Iraq—that tearing down an inconvenient regime and leaving chaos in its wake provided the proving ground in which Islamic State gestated. The war on terror has been a failure; we are less safe now than we were before President Bush stood on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln and declared, 'Mission accomplished.' The Liberal-National coalition, having played their part in this vast escalation of violence around the world, now assure us that yet more violence is the only way to prevail.

Australia can be a key actor in moves to demilitarise this horrific conflict, but we need to put the needs of the immediate region first. Rather than adding more fuel to the fire, we must encourage our allies and our friends to, once and for all, cease the reflexive lunge to further militarise this conflict—actions for which ordinary Syrians and Iraqis continue to pay an unimaginable price.

5:17 pm

Photo of Linda ReynoldsLinda Reynolds (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I, too, rise today to speak on this motion on the absolutely devastating tragedy that continues in Syria and Iraq—a situation the scope of which is too large for us here to truly comprehend the scale and the impact that it is having on millions of people, not just those in Syria and Iraq but those in the many other nations that religious extremism, in this case Islamic jihadism, is impacting on. The death of more than a quarter of a million people in such a short period of time and the enormous tide of hundreds of thousands of displaced people fleeing their homeland is truly heartbreaking for all of us in this place and across our country. It, once again, highlights that the world is a messy and complicated place. Daily, we see the best and the worst of humanity. The worst often has its roots in centuries-old conflicts; similarly, the best often springs out of those same circumstances. This is the situation we see in the Middle East today. To pick up Senator Ludlam's point, to suggest that the current conflicts in the Middle East and the current battle that rages between Sunni, Shiah and the minority sects are the fault of Australia and its allies is hubris at its finest—or, indeed, at its worst. Nothing in the Middle East has ever been or is ever likely to be so simple and so binary. In circumstances as complex as these, there are no right or wrong policy answers for Australian and other policymakers. There are simply differences of opinion about what needs to be done. What all of us, I believe, in this place share as human beings and as Australians is the sorrow, anger, disbelief and great frustration that we feel for the millions of victims of this and other conflicts. As I have said in this place before, none of us have a mortgage on compassion or humanity, but we do not always agree on the right policy solutions and what Australia should do in these circumstances

What is very clear to me, personally, is that the current threat from Daesh and other Islamic terrorist organisations is real and is growing. I do not believe that withdrawing to our own international borders will make us safer—in fact, I think quite the opposite is true. Enemies no longer just attack us over our land, sea or air borders; they attack us electronically, they can recruit and incite to violence remotely, and they can attack our citizens overseas. As this threat is complex, so too must be our response. That does not just mean, in the current circumstance, political actions; it also means military intervention. I believe that any approach that involves retreat from the current situation and support that we are providing is actually the cruellest of all humanitarian options for the millions of Syrians and Iraqis who continue to suffer in Iraq and Syria and where they have fled to overseas. I think it is the responsibility of everybody, none more so than the governments and leaders here in Australia and overseas, to do everything we can to rid the world of this violence.

Here in Australia, we certainly have it better than most. Though we are a relatively young nation, we have a stable civil society, we are more prosperous than most and we have one of the world's most responsible and robust democracies. For those reasons—though not just for those reasons alone—I think we have always felt we have an obligation, and we continue to have an obligation, to help not only Australians but others overseas when they are in trouble, as, clearly, Syrians and Iraqis are at the moment. Not only is it the right thing to do; it is the just thing to do. Our democracy rests on the foundation that it is the right of all of our citizens to observe and express opinions and beliefs in society without fear of intimidation, violence or death. The plurality and contest of ideas are what makes us grow and strengthen as a nation. There are many other nations who today share our democratic ideals and the belief that ideas and opinions can always be improved through vigorous debate. Eventually, from that, the best ideas and opinions, in a collaborative way, morph into our cultures, our institutions, our laws and, ultimately, the fibre of our nation.

Here in Australia and in many other democracies, we value freedom—freedom of speech, freedom of religion and freedom of association. But sadly today, as I reflected last night in this place, not all Australians value those freedoms as we do. We have far too many Australians here and overseas who are now actively working to undermine these very freedoms and the values that we all hold so dear. The rational world view is that nations have much more to gain by encouraging and engaging in a peaceful and constructive war of words to achieve their ends and not by physical violence. I am firmly of the belief that war itself is neither logical nor rational yet it still occurs. Human nature itself does not change, which is why we should always work and strive for peace.

We must always be ready to defend Australians from wherever an attack may come. Today there is a very real threat and enemy—that is, Daesh. They have chosen to go to war with us. It is a war of values. We value freedom, we value democracy and we value life but those who support Daesh do not. They do not respect compassion, freedom or the values that we hold; instead, they see that in us as a vulnerability to ruthlessly exploit. Like others in our recent past—people smugglers, criminals—they attempt to exploit our vulnerabilities. The challenge for all of us in this place is: how do we deal with those who would exploit our compassion and attack our values without actually undermining those very values and principles that we are fighting to uphold? But to achieve Daesh's downfall, we have to take the fight to them, which we are, and we have to win. We cannot retreat by our own land borders or expect others to carry and shoulder the burden for us.

What Daesh does is truly evil. They kidnap, they enslave, they attempt to intimidate through indiscriminate barbaric acts of terrorism people of any ethnicity, of any nationality and of any religious belief. They carry out systematic human rights abuses, mass executions and extrajudicial killings. They deliberately target, kidnap, torture and kill civilians. They persecute individuals and entire communities and they forcibly displace other minority communities. They kill and maim children. They rape women, they rape children and they carry out other forms of indescribably horrible crimes against others. This has to be their undoing because the rational civilised people of the world who value freedoms and who value life know that this organisation and this value system has to be stopped. That is why Australia has joined the coalition of 60 other nations to counter this threat at its source—at the moment in Syria and Iraq. But to do that we have to destroy the tentacles which extend far beyond the Syrian and Iraqi borders right into our own homes and into the homes of our children through the internet. Yes, we are the second-biggest contributor. But, again, as I said, it is not just because we can; it is because it is simply the right thing to do.

This war of ideas is not constrained by geography. Daesh presents a global terrorist threat. They have recruited thousands of fighters from all around the world to Iraq and Syria and many of them will never return home. They do that and they use technology to spread their hate filled violent and extremist ideology. It shames me and upsets me to concede that several hundred Australians have heard that siren song and have been recruited from their very homes to this cause. We are kidding ourselves if we do not think that they represent a grave security threat to our own citizens here in Australia. Those that they have recruited overseas learn to kill. Australians are proving to be very effective killers of others and that is also why we have a responsibility to deal with this problem.

The international coalition is currently conducting airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. They are supporting Iraqi forces and they are providing humanitarian assistance. The aim is not to prolong war, to sustain war; it is to stop war. The aim is to restore peace and good governance in both nations so eventually Syrians and Iraqis who have survived this conflict can return home in peace to start rebuilding their countries. I believe any calls to withdraw forces at this current time is naive at best, dangerous at worst and an abrogation of our responsibilities to protect our own citizens and to protect our citizens from our own citizens who are over there to kill. Any withdrawal at this time of Australian forces, as the second-largest force of 60, would weaken international efforts to combat Daesh—again, an organisation we have to defeat. It would also signal to like-minded international partners that we are not committed to doing our part to tackle extremism, terrorism and violence that, again, is a threat to Australians within our borders, and those Australians that have gone overseas to kill are also a threat. Therefore, we will not abandon our commitment to support the Iraqi and Syrian people. We will continue to work with the United States and the international coalition to defeat Daesh—because they can be defeated—and, along with it, defeat its medieval and abhorrent ideology.

It is also important to remember that—and you do not quite get this message from those opposite—in addition to taking military action, we are taking comprehensive political action to try to resolve this. But, again, it is not a binary situation. It is a complex political environment, just as complex as it is in a military environment. We are also providing a great deal of humanitarian assistance. We are welcoming 12,000 displaced people from this conflict to Australia, in addition to the 13,750 places already allocated in our humanitarian program. We are dealing with it politically, militarily and also through other civilian policing methods. These additional 12,000 places are being offered to the most vulnerable people affected by this conflict, to the women, children and families of the persecuted minorities, who have all suffered unimaginable horrors. But—and I think quite rightly—all applications are being rigorously assessed on an individual basis. Despite the urgency of the process, security and character checks will not be compromised. We have recently seen the consequences of the lack of that kind of scrutiny in Paris, sadly, and we are possibly seeing it in the outcomes of the terrorist raids in Belgium.

Australia's response to this humanitarian crisis has been made possible by the government's streamlined approach to border protection and to the improvements we have made since coming to government. All of this discussion on violence, sadness and suffering is, I think, a very stark reminder to all of us in this place that we all have a role to play, even in our own daily lives, to ensure not only that our own communities are safe—whether it is safe from terrorism or domestic violence—but that every single Australian gets to exercise the freedoms that we are fighting so hard to protect.

As I talked about in this place last night, last week I attended a forum of Asian women parliamentarians in Brussels. It was on the role of women in peace and security. Certainly the backdrop of the lockdown and terrorists raids in Brussels at the time brought this topic into sharp relief. It was clear to me from the discussions and from listening to the stories of my Asian colleagues that not only gender equality but the ability of people to live their lives in a way that they deserve to live their lives will only occur when there is peace. Without peace, you cannot have a strong and just civil society. With the military intervention at the moment, that is what we are doing. We are trying to get peace so that we can start to assist the Syrians and the Iraqis in rebuilding their lives.

Many of my Asian parliamentary colleagues shared stories with me of the challenges they face as women living under Islamic rule and subject daily to the implications of jihadi violence. That is verbal abuse; it is physical abuse. One of my colleagues, Afghani member of parliament Shukria Barakzai, was the target of a suicide attack 12 months ago last week in which nine people died and 35 people, including her, were injured. Yet she perseveres. She and other women like her are the good amidst the evil. But to support them and to support the good, we have to first destroy the evil. At the moment, that resides both in their homelands and in ours. They were very clear in discussing this with me and our European parliamentary colleagues. They deal with these terrorists and live under the threat of these terrorists all the time. In Afghanistan, you have the Taliban, but you also have Daesh. They were very clear that inaction is death. But we cannot let—and they are fighting not to let—the evil that they are perpetrating change their way of life or their fight for women in Afghanistan and in Pakistan. So they were very clear: we must fight them and we must defeat them—there is no other way. And we have to do it together. There is nobody more qualified than these women to give us that advice.

In conclusion, we cannot defeat this enemy by withdrawing behind our borders and leaving the fight to others. We must assist them and others around the world to defeat this enemy, to achieve peace, to rebuild institutions, to re-implement the rule of law and to defeat ideological and religious violence and extremism. To do that, we have to fight politically and we have to fight militarily, and we have to use any other tools available to us. I think that is the right thing and the only just thing to do.

5:36 pm

Photo of Alex GallacherAlex Gallacher (SA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

This debate on Senator Siewert's motion about the conflict in the Middle East is a very important one. Very clearly, there is a divergence of views—and that is probably quite appropriate in the vibrant democracy that we enjoy here in Australia. It is a bit of an irony that it is probably not available to those people in conflicted areas.

I just want to go to Senator Siewert's motion, and, in particular, two points. The first is (a)(i):

… the ongoing conflict in Syria, which has led to over 250 000 deaths, and the fleeing of 4 million refugees, over half of whom are children …

The second is (a)(ii):

… Australia's ongoing military involvement in Syria and Iraq, the scale of which is second only to the United States of America …

I want to put on the public record a more complete picture than those two fairly succinct points.

By the by, I must admit that I did not know the population of Syria, and I am often asking the library for information like this, but it is about 21.9 million, estimated in 2013. That just puts into perspective the following report:

The Syria conflict is the biggest humanitarian, peace and security crisis facing the world today. Intensified fighting and a deteriorating humanitarian situation continue to cause massive people flows within Syria and into the region.

The UN estimates 12.2 million people in Syria need humanitarian assistance while 4.1 million have fled to neighbouring countries, including Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt.

I think that is really important, because if you just watch the media reports you get the idea that people are fleeing to Europe, or they are fleeing completely out of the area. There are 4.1 million in the neighbouring countries—Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt. The report continues:

Australia has provided $190 million in humanitarian funding since the conflict began in 2011. This includes $83 million for assistance to people inside Syria and $107 million to help the refugees in the region and their host communities.

This funding has been delivered through United Nations agencies, international humanitarian organisations and Australian non-government organisations to reach people in need. By working with these partners, Australian funding has been able to provide shelter, protection, food, water and sanitation, education, health and medical services in response to the crisis.

The key statistics remain: 12.2 million people in need of humanitarian assistance inside of Syria, 7.6 million internally displaced people inside Syria, 4.6 million living in hard-to-reach areas inside Syria, and 422,000 living in besieged areas. There are 4.1 million Syrian refugees in the region, 2.1 million of which are children. And 89 per cent of Syrian refugees are residing in host communities. Appallingly, 320,000 have been killed since the start of the conflict.

So, just to put a little bit more substance to the first point, it truly is a global humanitarian crisis that we are seeing in Syria. And if we look at Australia's ongoing military involvement we know from our own defence department's website that Operation OKRA is the Australian Defence Force's contribution to the international effort to combat Daesh, known as ISIL, the terrorist threat in Iraq and Syria. Australia's contribution has been closely coordinated with the Iraqi government, Gulf nations and a broad coalition of international partners. What this translates to is that about 780 ADF personnel have been deployed to the Middle East in support of Operation OKRA. These personnel make up the Air Task Group, or ATG; the Special Operations Task Group, or SOTG; and Task Group Taji, or TG Taji. Approximately 400 personnel have been assigned to ATG, 80 personnel are assigned to SOTG and about 300 personnel are assigned to TG Taji. Further information about the international effort to combat Daesh and the terrorist threat in Iraq can by found by simply examining either the US defence department's website or our own. The ATG consists of six Royal Australian Air Force F/A-18 Hornets, an E-7A Wedgetail airborne early warning and control aircraft and a KC-30A multirole tanker transport. Clearly we are part of a coalition, if you like, and our contribution is significant. But I just want to highlight the point that Australia's ongoing military involvement in Syria and Iraq is of a scale that is second only to that of the United States of America. I just want to put that in absolute perspective: it is six aircraft, with an early warning and control aircraft and a Wedgetail.

But we do know that those people have been extremely busy. We know from the reports of Defence that they have flown a lot of hours and a lot of sorties, and we know also that the RAAF C-17A Globemaster has successfully delivered 40,000 pounds of crated weapons from Albania to Erbil in Iraq. On 24 September it carried 11½ tonnes of weapons. So, the C-17A has been involved in logistics, so to speak, in making sure that our people are well-resourced to do their job and ensure that their contribution is 100 per cent. We also know that the RAAF C-130J has delivered 15 bundles of Australian humanitarian supplies to isolated civilians at the Iraqi town of Amirli, and this effort has been continual and ongoing. Finally, with respect to the military contribution, we know that the Special Operations Task Group has been deployed to the Middle East region and is providing military advice and assistance to the counter-terrorism service of the Iraqi security forces. These forces are taking the fight to ISIL, or Daesh. The legal protections required for the deployment of the SOTG have been agreed with the Iraqi government, and the advise and assist mission is being conducted with direct support of Iraqi security forces.

That just puts a little bit of perspective into the military involvement in Syria and Iraq. We know that Task Group Taji is a combined Australia and New Zealand military training force located at the Taji military complex north-west of Baghdad. So, TG Taji has been deployed to Iraq to support an international effort to train and build the capacity of the regular Iraqi security forces. A common term for this international training mission is building partner capacity. So, that is just a little bit more detail on the scale of the conflict and the size of the Australian contribution.

To take a very broad view of the next point in the motion,—increase the intake of refugees from the Syrian crisis—if you were to walk up any street in Australia you would get five different views on this, and some of the views are probably not worth repeating. But the reality is that we cannot not fail to place on the record that Australia has a long history of accepting humanitarian refugees from all parts of the globe. Australia's postwar migration program has seen over 800,000 refugees and displaced persons settled in Australia. We do it better than anybody else, but we also have to be mindful and careful. We face new challenges and threats every day.

I accept the right of all people to come in here and put their particular viewpoints. I could probably have a debate with Senator Bernardi at times on a lot of issues but, as he eloquently put it, he may be the canary in the mine. There are plenty of people in the community who share his view. I personally do not have as many misgivings as Senator Bernardi but, then again, I am not in total support of where the Australian Greens want to go. I want to make sure that in this debate we do have firmly on the record that I do not think there is a nation in the world that has done better at helping with humanitarian issues and displaced people, particularly since World War II, than Australia. That has been a tremendously successful effort. It is something that the nation should be extremely proud of, and we are. Genuinely, over time, it has probably been a fairly bipartisan effort. In the last six to eight years we have fallen into vigorous debate and there has been criticism hurled across the chamber both ways about the outcomes that we have had. I think bipartisanship in this area is extremely important to Australia. After all, it is the government's prerogative under the Westminster system to commit troops and to deal with these sorts of things, so it is not a parliamentary decision, it is only a parliamentary debate. In my view we have reacted very strongly to the Syrian conflict.

There has been some debate about what part the regions are playing. I want to restate that 4.1 million people have fled the violence in Syria to neighbouring countries, including Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. In Lebanon, refugees make up one-quarter of the population, which is the highest per capita concentration of refugees in the world. About 90 per cent of the refugees in the region are residing in host communities, which is, quite obviously, placing a strain on their local infrastructure and services.

On 9 September 2015, the Australian government announced a further $44 million in humanitarian assistance in response to the Syrian-Iraq crisis. I know the party that I am a member of suggested that figure should be closer to $100 million. It welcomed the $44 million, but it said it would be better if the figure were increased to $100 million. We are not in government, so that is a decision of the government. The $44 million includes $20 million to UNHCR for countries neighbouring Syria, $9 million to WFP for Iraq and countries neighbouring Syria, $3 million to UNICEF for countries neighbouring Syria and $12 million to other international humanitarian partners operating inside Syria and Iraq. This brings, as I said, our humanitarian response in Syria to a total of $190 million since 2011. That is not an insignificant contribution.

We see the call for an increase in the intake of refugees from the Syrian crisis. Syria's population is 21.9 million. In 2010, it had a GDP of $60 billion. In 2011, it was $53.7 billion. In 2012, it was $41.5 billion. In 2013, it was $35.2 billion. They had inflation go from 4.4 per cent in 2010 to 4.8 per cent in 2011, to 37 per cent in 2012 and to 91 per cent in 2013. Clearly the economy and the place has completely collapsed. Apart from the obvious danger of being maimed, injured, killed, beheaded, or all of the other unmentionable things that happen in war, there is no opportunity for anyone to function in that economy. We know that the neighbouring countries have absorbed tremendous numbers of people. Were we to say that we would take 20,000 or 30,000 Syrian refugees, there would probably be people who, on top of the obvious reasons for wanting to come to Australia with its enormous economic pull factor, would do whatever it takes to get to the economic security of Australia.

In regard to what the government has done in relation to 12,000, let us evaluate that, let us carefully work through that and let us see how that is working. I note Senator Smith's contribution was that the first refugees would be warmly welcomed in Perth. I think we will warmly welcome all of those people who qualify and make the journey to Australia. I think they will reward the country with their undying loyalty and contribution to the economy, because we are doing an immensely powerful thing for them. To simply increase the numbers without the careful, prudent strategies in place to ensure Australia's safety, security and viability in these areas would be a little adventurous to say the least.

The simple facts are that 12,000 places will be given to people displaced in Syria and Iraq who are the most vulnerable, which are women, children and families with the least prospect of ever returning safely to their homes. They are located in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. People who fall into these categories will be both Syrians and Iraqis. While subject to review, it is anticipated that a significant number of places will be available for both Syrians and Iraqis, noting the widespread displacement of people from those countries.

Applications for resettlement will be required to meet all the criteria for a refugee and humanitarian visa, including health, character and, most importantly, security checks. These checks must be completed before people enter Australia. It is a very prudent and bipartisan strategy. Any Australian government takes our national security extremely seriously, and it has been made clear that, from the outset, security and character checks of the additional 12,000 humanitarian refugees will not be compromised. Rigorous security checks will be conducted prior to arrival in Australia at a key number of visa-processing points. This includes the collection and checking of biometric data such as facial images and fingerprints. The Department of Immigration and Border Protection works closely with the relevant Australian agencies and international partners in conducting these security checks, including the checking of biometric data.

We clearly have a situation of enormous gravity. We are clearly a nation that has always had a reputation for stepping up to the plate, contributing and assisting in these areas. We have a security force that is trained, capable and able to be deployed. It carries out its tasks with extreme professionalism and is second to none, in my view. Its contribution should always be recorded in this chamber. I want to spend a couple of minutes going to the issue of de-escalating Australia's military presence in Syria. It is not a terribly large-scale presence. It is a terribly professional and effective presence, and it is probably meeting the needs that it has been invited there to meet. Of course, it will always be evaluated, and our chiefs of defence—Air Force, Army and Navy—will always give us the best advice as to what that escalation or de-escalation should be, and I will probably leave that there.

Finally, no-one wants children in detention. Clearly that is the view of all the senators in this place. I do not think anybody has a view that children should be in detention. We have had the debate today about where we started and where we are today, with around 100 children in detention. Hopefully, through the involvement of a select committee in this place, we will be in a much better position with the 100 children that remain in detention. Hopefully they are getting treated in a manner that is consistent with Australia's normal way of dealing with children. I am hopeful that there will be more disclosure in respect of their treatment. Their education should have improved. Improvement in their ability to seek medical treatment and all of that, after the enormous debates we have had in this chamber, should be well underway. It will not sort out the fact that they are not in Australia, but they should at least be guaranteed Australian conditions wherever they are—Australian freedom, protection, education, access to proper health facilities, access to decent schooling, access to proper food, comfort and security and the ability to go to sleep every night in a safe place.

5:56 pm

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

With the remaining four minutes, Mr Acting Deputy President, I just want to ask some questions—a bit of homework for you, me and everyone else in this chamber for the weekend and, I think, for some years to come. There is no doubt there is a very big divergence of opinion in how we answer these questions. The first question that I have is: is it actually possible to destroy ISIS and other violent extremist groups in the Middle East? We have been at it for a while now. When I asked Defence this at estimates, they said they were going to stick at it for as long as it takes. I heard the previous government say the same thing. We are doubting whether our current strategy is working, because we are having a debate about putting boots on the ground and significantly increasing our ground forces. It was even raised in Paris last week with Prime Minister Turnbull and Barack Obama. The answer that Obama gave was that that is not a suitable option, because it is hard to beat an ideology.

The next question is: if we do destroy ISIS and other violent extremist groups—and we all want that; I think everyone in this chamber agrees we would like to see an end to them—what takes their place? If we were to get to that point, what cost are we prepared to pay? I noticed Senator Reynolds said that we needed to do whatever it took to destroy ISIS and other violent extremism, but she was not prepared to say to the chamber at what cost she was prepared to see that happen. How many lives would be lost if we did put boots on the ground? How long would it take? How much money would be expended and how long would we have to occupy these countries to keep a lid on violent extremism, in an area we know this has existed, for religious and sectarian reasons, for hundreds if not thousands of years?

The other question is: will it make matters worse? Will it make matters worse if we go in in a much bigger way or we continue to attempt to bomb our way to peace under a philosophy of peace through superior firepower—which I point out has not worked to date? Lastly, are we giving violent extremists exactly what they want? They want a global jihad. They want more violence. All the evidence to date shows that the types of awful, horrible, horrific acts that we have seen—such as in Paris, in Bali, in Beirut recently and all around the world—are occurring because these groups are able to recruit, and often the basis of that recruitment is a dissatisfaction with the West and our foreign policy in these countries, especially over the last 20 years.

These are big questions that we have not been able to come up with answers for and we have not got the policies in place for, but we do need to continue the debate. The only thing that I am really happy about, that helps me sleep at night, is that at least in this country we are now having a debate and there is a frame out there, thanks to the leadership of the Greens and a Prime Minister who has more sensible and progressive views. We are at least talking about how we might have a geopolitical solution as well as a military solution, if one even exists, to this incredibly complex and horrifying issue that we face in the Middle East. We will continue to talk about that.

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

The time for this debate has now expired.