Senate debates

Tuesday, 25 October 2022

Matters of Urgency

Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons

4:46 pm

Photo of Dean SmithDean Smith (WA, Liberal Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Competition, Charities and Treasury) Share this | | Hansard source

The Senate will now consider the following proposal from Senator McKim, which is also shown at item 12 on today's Order of Business:

Dear President

Pursuant to standing order 75, I give notice that today the Australian Greens propose to move "That, in the opinion of the Senate, the following is a matter of urgency:

That the government should instruct Australia's representatives at the United Nations to vote in the affirmative during the upcoming UN First Committee vote on the Treaty on the Total Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and signal the government's intent to sign and ratify the treaty."

Is the proposal supported?

More than the number of senators required by the standing orders having risen in their places—

I understand that informal arrangements have been made to allocate specific times to each of the speakers for this debate. With the concurrence of the Senate, I shall ask the clerks to set the clock accordingly.

4:47 pm

Photo of Jordon Steele-JohnJordon Steele-John (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

On behalf of Senator McKim, I move:

That, in the opinion of the Senate, the following is a matter of urgency:

That the government should instruct Australia's representatives at the United Nations to vote in the affirmative during the upcoming UN First Committee vote on the Treaty on the Total Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and signal the government's intent to sign and ratify the treaty.

I want to begin with a simple statement that makes me extraordinarily proud: the Australian Greens, from the moment of our inception as a political party, from the moment communities came together to combine their efforts in a common purpose called the Australian Greens, have wholeheartedly and without reservation supported the goal of ridding the world of nuclear weapons and prohibiting forever their use. As a Western Australian senator, I'm particularly proud to say, in speaking today, that I come from a political party, the Greens WA, which has the honour of being that party under whose name Josephine Vallentine, the very first senator to be elected anywhere in the world on an explicit platform of nuclear disarmament, served in the Senate.

For these 30-plus years, the Greens have worked with the antinuclear proliferation movement in Australia and across the world to advance the cause of forever eliminating the potential of a nuclear exchange ending all life on this planet. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is the best international tool we currently have for achieving that urgently needed goal. It is thanks to the tireless work of campaigners since its creation that many MPs in this parliament and many MPs across the world have proudly put their names to supporting that treaty's ratification and to their nations' signing up to that treaty. I am extraordinarily proud to say that every single one of my 16 Greens colleagues are open about their support and championing of the treaty.

This campaign work was so effective that the Prime Minister, then opposition leader, Anthony Albanese, championed the ALP's election platform, including an explicit commitment to Australia signing and ratifying the treaty. He said in 2018:

Nuclear weapons are the most destructive, inhumane and indiscriminate weapons ever created.

Today we have an opportunity to take a step towards their elimination.

…   …   …

… Labor in government will sign and ratify the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

That position has been re-endorsed at each and every subsequent Labor conference.

On 28 October, as part of the world Disarmament Week, the Australian government will have the opportunity to instruct our representatives at the United Nations to vote yes in a General Assembly vote on the question of support for the treaty. This motion before the chamber urges the government to take that position, consistent with its party policy, consistent with the views of its leader and consistent with the views of the foreign minister, which she expressed in New York recently. In speaking of the situation in Ukraine, the foreign minister said:

Mr Putin's weak and desperate nuclear threats underline the danger that nuclear weapons pose to us all, and the urgent need for progress on nuclear disarmament.

Well, the opportunity is about to come before this government for them to vote yes at the General Assembly on 28 October.

Since coming into office, they have taken only one step towards the ratification of the treaty: the sending of an observer to the first meeting of the parties in Vienna. That was a useful step, but more action is needed in light of the urgency of the issue. Australia must vote yes at the United Nations, and this government must—in line with its policy and platform—sign and ratify the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

4:52 pm

Photo of Raff CicconeRaff Ciccone (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I think we can all appreciate the ambition for a world that is free of nuclear weapons. All of us in this place have been unanimous in our condemnation of Russia's brutal, illegal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. And it's incredibly concerning that Russia has threatened to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine. Indeed, the escalation of Russia's invasion is what has, in many ways, restarted the conversation about nuclear weapons and efforts to disarm. Recently, Russia deliberately obstructed progress at the 10th review conference of the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons treaty.

The Assistant Minister for Trade, Senator Tim Ayres, led Australia's delegation to the conference in New York and affirmed Australia's strong commitment to the treaty. After four weeks of negotiations, all parties were ready to agree to a meaningful and balanced outcome across the treaty's three pillars, which are disarmament and the non-proliferation of and peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Russia's obstruction made an already difficult job unachievable, and hindered progress towards a safer world free of nuclear weapons.

But of course, concern about the proliferation of nuclear weapons is not isolated to Russia. Just a few days ago, the Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, and his Japanese counterpart condemned North Korea's ongoing development of nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons in the hands of states which show no regard for international rules based order is of particular concern to Australia and our allies. This brings me to why the government cannot support the motion that is before the Senate today but share's the ambition of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. But we must acknowledge the practical barriers that do stand in the way.

In order to sign the treaty, we must ensure an effective verification and enforcement architecture. Without this, any treaty isn't worth the paper that it is written on. Perhaps most importantly, for any nuclear prohibition treaty to be successful and practical it must achieve universal support. Surely everyone in this place can acknowledge that, if Australia's allies prohibited their own nuclear weapons while other states refused, this would be disastrous for our own national security and, indeed, international peace. To make any practical progress on disarmament, all nuclear-weapon states must be involved. Given Russia's deliberate obstruction of efforts towards prohibition, and North Korea's disregard for the security of the international community as it developed its own nuclear weapons, it is currently impossible to meet the criteria that would make any treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons practical.

Of course, this highlights the difficulty at the heart of this debate. Nuclear weapons pose a threat to all of us, and the world would be a safer place if they were all disarmed. But this threat is precisely why any treaty that does not include all nuclear-weapon states cannot be supported. Supporting this treaty would greatly empower those states which maintain their nuclear capabilities and present a grave threat to the international order. I understand the motivation for this motion, I admire its ambition and I hope it is one day realised. But the practicalities of achieving a nuclear weapon-free world mean we cannot support this motion.

4:57 pm

Photo of Marise PayneMarise Payne (NSW, Liberal Party, Shadow Cabinet Secretary) Share this | | Hansard source

I note for the chamber that this motion proposes a significant change to Australia's longstanding position in relation to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The coalition notes that Australia has consistently made clear that the treaty, as it stands, does not offer a practical path to effective disarmament, nor does it enhance security. Not a single nuclear-possessing state has participated in its negotiations, nor have they signed or ratified the treaty. The treaty will not rid the world of a single nuclear weapon.

Australia has always considered the NPT, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons—which includes nuclear-possessing states as signatories—as the foundation of global nonproliferation and disarmament efforts. What the government would need to explain if it went down the path of changing Australia's consistent position in relation to this treaty is how it will address the limitations of the TPNW, including lack of effective verification and enforcement processes. The government also needs to explain what any change to Australia's position would mean for our alliance with the United States as a nuclear-possessing state, for example.

The TPNW is notably different from other treaties which Australia has supported. For example, in relation to the NPT, the International Committee of the Red Cross notes that it can be seen as an agreement between non-nuclear-armed states, which surrender the option to develop nuclear weapons, and nuclear-armed states, which are obliged to work towards disarming and eliminating nuclear weapons. Secondly, the comprehensive test ban treaty bans all nuclear test explosions as a practical step towards nuclear disarmament and an effective nonproliferation measure which limits the technical development of nuclear weapons.

Australian was not a participant in the TPNW negotiations. Indeed, in October 2017 the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade gave evidence to the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee at supplementary estimates which said:

… Australia is committed to a world without nuclear weapons through implementation of the NPT, including article 6, in a step-by-step and verifiable manner. But we will not sign or ratify the ban or the prohibition treaty because we don't regard it as an effective measure to eliminate nuclear weapons.

…   …   …

We also take the view that the treaty is fundamentally flawed, and risks undermining the NPT. That may reflect the fact that it was negotiated very, very rapidly; it does not involve any of the states that possess nuclear weapons; no such states are likely to join; and it will not eliminate a single nuclear weapon. It does not include viable mechanisms for the elimination or reduction of nuclear weapons, or for maintaining a world free of nuclear weapons.

I note Senator Ciccone's words in here this afternoon. In January last year the then Labor opposition welcomed the ratification of the treaty, but I do note the conditionality of that statement, which said:

We have committed to signing and ratifying the treaty after taking account the need to ensure an effective verification and enforcement architecture, interaction of the Treaty with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and achieving universal support.

So, given that the government apparently shares the concerns of the opposition regarding the absence of effective verification and enforcement mechanisms, we would call upon the government to justify any change to the longstanding position Australia has taken on this treaty. Given the complete absence of nuclear-possessing states as parties to the treaty, the opposition would call on the government to explain how it would meet that benchmark of universal support before Australia agreed to sign and ratify the agreement. Given those stated concerns of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade that the treaty risks undermining the very important NPT, we'd also call upon the government to guarantee that any decision to sign and ratify the TPNW would not have a negative impact on either Australia's or the global commitment to both the NPT and the comprehensive test ban treaty.

We have a strong record on nuclear nonproliferation. We've always welcomed further progress towards the universalisation of the NPT. I'd also note what a great pleasure it was to see eminent Australian Dr Robert Floyd elected to lead the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization as its executive secretary in 2021. To note from the media release of the time, as the first executive secretary elected from the Indo-Pacific, this appointment demonstrated Australia's active commitment to nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament and our practical contribution to multilateral cooperation. With its 185 state signatories, the CTBT aims to end nuclear weapons testing worldwide, and I know that Dr Floyd, whom I regard very highly, will play a critical role in supporting the treaty's objectives. There are outstanding questions for any government who would examine the TPNW for ratification, and I've laid those on the table today on behalf of the coalition.

5:02 pm

Photo of David PocockDavid Pocock (ACT, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

It's an incredibly timely point in history to reflect on the importance of nuclear disarmament, as we look to Putin's war on Ukraine and his threats of nuclear action. As recently as last month, Putin confronted the world with the grim prospect of nuclear war. His threat was intended for the West and was as plain as it was ugly: move out of his way or risk nuclear retaliation. This is the power of weapons of mass destruction. They allow the world to be held to ransom while innocent people are murdered. In the wrong hands, or in the right hands—in anyone's hands—they're an unwanted blight upon our planet and our shared life together, serving no other purpose than to inspire fear and destroy life.

We have only to look at the tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to understand the consequences of their use—an estimated 80,000 innocent people murdered in mere seconds, with many more to die from radiation in the decades thereafter. This event alone should have led to disarmament. Yet, sadly, there are still almost 13,000 warheads in existence, with some 90 per cent of them concentrated in the hands of just two countries. Nuclear disarmament is needed now more than ever, which is why I wrote to Minister Wong a month ago urging her to sign and ratify the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. This weekend Australia has the opportunity to vote in support of the treaty at the UN General Assembly, consistent with commitments made in Labor's national platform.

The importance of this treaty cannot be underestimated. It is a comprehensive set of prohibitions on participating in any form of nuclear weaponisation. And it's not every day that Australians win Nobel Peace Prizes, but the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, or ICAN, won the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize for their work to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and their groundbreaking efforts to achieve a treaty based prohibition of such weapons.

This award was largely unheralded, and it's no surprise, given the excuses we're hearing today from the major parties about why this can't be done. Developing, testing, producing, acquiring, possessing, stockpiling, using or even threatening to use nuclear weapons would become prohibited—and it should become prohibited. There is no downside to signing and ratifying this agreement. Doing so is in our nation's interest. It is in everyone's interest. (Time expired)

5:05 pm

Photo of Nita GreenNita Green (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm very pleased to be speaking on this motion today. I want to begin by joining with other senators in acknowledging the work of ICAN and the advocates who have worked tirelessly for many years and stomped the halls of this parliament many times. I've had the chance to meet with them to talk about this important work and acknowledge the work that they did, which did receive a Nobel prize. I know that it is work that the Labor Party sees as incredibly important, and that's why we are participating in this conversation and taking steps towards moving to nuclear disarmament. We know that it is a most important struggle that we are dealing with today.

There's no question about the consequences and effects of the use of nuclear weapons not only on peace and stability. We have seen the devastating impacts in Japan. Just this weekend, Prime Minister Albanese and his Japanese counterpart condemned Russia's threat to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine as a serious and unacceptable menace to the peace and security of the international community. They stressed that any use of nuclear weapons would be met with unequivocal international opprobrium and resolute responses. They also condemned North Korea's ongoing development of nuclear weapons, reiterating their commitment to achieving the complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of all nuclear weapons, other weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles of all ranges in North Korea.

We understand very acutely that the existence of these weapons makes our region less safe. In the past months, Russia's weak and desperate nuclear threats over its unprovoked, immoral war on Ukraine have underlined the danger of nuclear weapons that's still posed to all of us around the world. A lot of work has been done by this government, particularly by Minister Wong—and I commend her for her work in this area—and also by Assistant Minister for Trade, Senator Tim Ayres. Senator Ayres led an Australian delegation to work with other NPT states' parties in his capacity as a minister in this portfolio. He was able to deliver Australia's national statement, which affirmed our strong commitment to the NPT and underscored the need to preserve and strengthen the tangible benefits the treaty delivers for all of us.

Our government is deeply committed to strengthening the non-proliferation regime, which is why we were deeply disappointed that the Tenth Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons did not reach a consensus outcome despite the urgency of the international security environment. After four weeks of negotiations in New York, all state parties were ready to agree to a meaningful and balanced outcome across the treaty's three pillars: disarmament, nonproliferation and peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Russia deliberately obstructed progress by refusing to compromise on the proposed text. Its actions directly challenge the core tenets of the non-proliferation treaty. Russia's obstruction made an already difficult job unachievable and hindered progress towards a safer world free of nuclear weapons.

Despite Russia's opposition and the challenges we face, Australia is committed to fulfilling all of our obligations as a non-nuclear weapons state under the NPT, including with the International Atomic Energy Agency. The government shares the ambition of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and is committed to engaging constructively to identify possible pathways towards nuclear disarmament. In our 2021 national platform—a platform which has evolved over many years of activism within the Labor Party from people who care deeply about this issue and have worked incredibly hard to reach consensus—Labor committed to signing and ratifying the treaty, after taking into account the need to ensure effective verification and enforcement architecture. It is incredibly important that Australia is part of this conversation and we continue to lead— (Time expired)

5:10 pm

Photo of David ShoebridgeDavid Shoebridge (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

We need to ban the bomb. One thing is certain: the longer we permit nuclear weapons stockpiling by governments, the risk of a catastrophic nuclear strike grows ever more imminent. Amid growing global instability, we need no reminders of the catastrophic consequences of nuclear weapons. These weapons ignore borders. They ignore humanity. They inflict lasting suffering on people and the planet, which it is impossible to mitigate. They are war crimes.

Australia itself has played an appalling part, an immoral part, in the nuclear weapons industry. We need to remember in this debate the complicity of the Australian government in the testing of nuclear weapons on the lands of the Pitjantjatjara people in Maralinga, and the ongoing damage and pain, the poisoning of land and water and the destruction of First Nations culture that Australia was part of in the nuclear weapons industry.

As Russian bombs hit Ukrainian cities and Saudi bombs destroy Yemen, peace has never been so urgent. One important step that Australia could take right now to signal that we are true advocates for peace would be to sign and ratify this treaty. There are no safe levels of nuclear weapons, and that is why the Australian government needs to ratify the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Complete elimination of nuclear weapons is the only way to guarantee that they are never used again. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons brings nuclear weapons into the ranks of chemical and biological weapons, as they should be, as weapons of indiscriminate mass destruction, proscribed by international law. The fact that the Australian government is still refusing to sign and ratify this treaty, despite the change of government and despite the promises in opposition, puts us all at increasing risk.

I note that Prime Minister Albanese has been a vocal supporter of the treaty. Labor made pre-election pledges, and I recall the now Prime Minister being photographed holding and endorsing the treaty, alongside ICAN. Good on him in opposition, but what is happening now? In this debate, the position of Labor is that they will not sign this until there is universal endorsement. That is the Saint Augustine line, isn't it—'Oh, Lord, give me chastity and continence but not yet'? 'Not ever' is the test for Labor, because no international treaty has universal endorsement. Labor needs to stand up and make good on the promise that it took to the election—the promise it made to future generations; the promise it made to peace—and make Australia a global leader. That would make Australia the first country under the United States's so-called nuclear umbrella to become a state party of the treaty.

As the Greens and as my colleague Senator Steele-John pointed out, we are part of a proud history of people-powered resistance to the nuclear industry and peace activism. Together there is a powerful and growing anti-nuclear movement. I want to recognise the advocacy and the activism of those staunch campaigners who fought for decades to bring this treaty into action and who continue to stand up for peace and against the nuclear industry. That includes the amazing work of ICAN, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. People said it could not be done, and then they did it. That is the lesson the Australian government needs to understand. People said to ICAN, 'You cannot do this,' and they did it. Now we need Australia to do its part and to join with Wage Peace and the Australian Nuclear Free Alliance.

At this point I want to recognise the courage, the strength and the advocacy of the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, who have come to Australia countless times to tell us about the indiscriminate violence of nuclear weapons. The Australian public has listened. Why won't the Australian government? We all now need to join together to build the most powerful anti-war movement in history. We need to stand together against the warmongers and the profiteers who want to endorse a nuclear industry. We know this: in any given year, there is a small but, tragically, growing risk that nuclear weapons will be used, the stockpile will be fired and our planet, our civilisation, will be destroyed. If we hold nuclear weapons for an indefinite amount of time, that small statistical risk in any given year means it's a certainty, over the arc of history, that they will be used.

We need to ban the bomb. We need to keep fighting for peace like our lives depend on it, because, in fact, they do.

5:15 pm

Photo of Malcolm RobertsMalcolm Roberts (Queensland, Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Ridding the world of nuclear weapons is a laudable goal, and for this reason One Nation will be supporting this matter of urgency. To be consistent, though, I point out that the United Nations has failed at every peace initiative it has attempted in the last 77 years. I doubt this initiative will be any different. How will the United Nations achieve compliance from rogue states like North Korea and Iran? Will China be given a free pass on their nuclear weapons, in the same manner that the UN gives China a free pass on complying with 2050 carbon dioxide targets? I would love Australia to be treated the same as China on net zero. Imagine the lights that would be kept on in Australia, and the jobs and prosperity that could be saved. The UN has given China a free pass on labour camps yet had the hide to turn up in Queanbeyan, just down the road, last week to inspect our prisons for human rights abuses.

Humanity has not seen a world war since 1945. The United Nations did not do that; nuclear weapons as a deterrent to war did that. Yet nuclear weapons have served their purpose. Future wars will be served with robots and drones, not nuclear weapons. Uranium is better used as a wonderful source of electrical power, not military power. While passing this treaty is one thing, implementing it is quite another. If this treaty passes, the United Nations must implement the treaty fairly and have in mind the need to not change the balance of power amongst nuclear nations. Removing nuclear weapons unevenly from some nations and not others would increase the potential for plunging the world into a nuclear war—the opposite of this treaty's intention.

I wish the UN the wisdom and courage necessary to achieve this objective. Having demonstrated over the last 77 years the complete absence of these qualities, I'm not hopeful. Yet we must try, because it's the right thing to do. The world will be better completely without nuclear weapons. We are one flag, we are one community, we are one nation, and the time for nuclear weapons is over.

Photo of Dean SmithDean Smith (WA, Liberal Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Competition, Charities and Treasury) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that the motion moved by Senator McKim be agreed to.