Tuesday, 1 December 2020
Questions without Notice
Australian Defence Force
My question is to Minister Birmingham, representing the Prime Minister. The Australian public, indeed the world, have been shocked by allegations of war crimes, criminality and human rights violations committed by Australian special forces in Afghanistan. I take this opportunity to acknowledge the Defence Force personnel in here; I'm sure few people have been more shocked than they have at these allegations. Does the minister agree that the Australian community has a right to know about such things? Does the minister agree that the victims of these alleged crimes have a right to the truth being told? In short, does the minister agree that these allegations being made public is a good thing?
I thank Senator Whish-Wilson for his question. Let me too acknowledge the serving men and women of our Australian Defence Force who are in the gallery today, and say to all of you: thank you for your service. Thank you, indeed, for the contribution you make to our nation. I extend that around this chamber to the various colleagues who are veterans of the Australian Defence Force and thank all of them, as I do any of those listening, for their service and contribution.
In doing so, it is crucially important that, when we discuss matters of the IGADF report, we first and foremost acknowledge the vast and overwhelming majority of the men and women who have served Australia's Defence Force with distinction and with honour. In doing so, we say to all of them, 'You should be proud of your service and we are proud of you and what you have contributed.' Part of the pride that Australians should take in the way that we conduct ourselves as a nation, and in which our Defence Force operates, is that we hold ourselves to a high standard. We hold ourselves to a high standard as a country, as do all those who go out under the flag of our country and serve under that flag. But we expect that in doing so they will operate with the type of distinction of the vast majority.
But, in holding ourselves to that high standard, we also apply a degree of accountability and transparency that is unmatched by many other nations of the world and unrivalled by many others.
Senator Whish-Wilson, it was multiple questions with a substantial preamble. The preamble is part of the question. I have mentioned before, when people seek very specific answers, that very short and specific questions constrain what is directly relevant. In this case the minister is being directly relevant. Senator Birmingham.
As I was just saying, as a country which holds itself to such high standards, there comes with that an element of transparency and accountability. Indeed, that is what the IGADF inquiry report has undertaken. It has ensured that the measure of accountability is in place and that it has been transparent through the release of the findings in the summary report of the IGADF.
The Brereton report made strong recommendations about protecting whistleblowers in bringing information of war crimes to light. Indeed, it recommended not only protecting them but also promoting them. David McBride is the only whistleblower facing criminal charges and a potential lengthy jail sentence in relation to these disclosures that the Australian public now has. Minister, will your government rule out the prosecution of Army lawyer and whistleblower David McBride?
The government is indeed grateful for the cooperation of many in relation to the conduct of this inquiry. We have responded in relation to this inquiry by establishing the Office of the Special Investigator to handle matters that relate to potential criminal conduct, to investigate those and to ensure that proper judicial processes, including presumption of innocence, are followed quite appropriately.
Equally, we have put in place an implementation oversight panel to review Defence's response to the recommendations in the report and to ensure that in doing so there is, again, appropriate accountability to the leaders of the Australian Defence Force as they respond to this report.
I'll take that as a no, Minister. Along with David McBride, your government has aggressively pursued lawyer Bernard Collaery and Witness K, and has demonstrated a chilling complicity in the extradition trial and political witch-hunt of Walkley Award-winning Australian journalist Julian Assange. Minister, why is your government waging a war against whistleblowers and transparency?
Order! Senator Whish-Wilson, I have sought some advice from the Clerk. The substantive question at the commencement was about another matter. The second supplementary needs to be relevant to the substantive question, not just to the second question. I am going to allow the minister to address the assertions made, because I don't want to have the situation where questions can be asked but then ministers don't have the opportunity to address them, even though questions might be ruled out of order. But I encourage people to make sure that both their follow-ups are within the standing orders with respect to the substantive question. Senator Whish-Wilson?
No. My practice on this form—and I'm happy to speak to you afterwards—is that I am reluctant to rule questions out of order so that ministers don't have a chance to respond because, quite frankly, I don't want to create an incentive for misbehaviour and questions that then cannot be addressed in the chamber, by assertions being made and then preventing ministers from responding to them. In this case, I think the question could be ruled out of order but I'm allowing the minister to respond to it.
I will make three observations in response to Senator Whish-Wilson's attempted supplementary question: (1) I will not, on such a sensitive issue, seek to politicise it in any way, unlike the Australian Greens; (2) I will not, as a politician or a minister, seek to overturn what are appropriately the decisions of the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions or those in whom such authority to make legal determinations is vested; (3) I would note again that our country has held itself to a standard of accountability and transparency on this highly sensitive matter the likes of which I struggle to think of any other nation holding itself to.