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One White House phone call and Australia is at war

Speeches in Parliament
Scott Ludlam 9 Feb 2017

Anybody who has been in this place for a while will be aware that the Defence Legislation Amendment (Parliamentary Approval of Overseas Service) Bill 2015 is an incredibly important bill and that it is one that has been on the Notice Paper since the mid-1980s.

It was introduced by—

Senator O'Sullivan:  That's right, and there's a reason for that!

Senator LUDLAM:  You may learn something, Senator O'Sullivan, if you just keep your mouth shut for 20 minutes.

Senator O'Sullivan:  I very much doubt it.

Senator LUDLAM:  You are probably right. There is not much hope, is there.

Senator Cash:  We have missed your sarcasm and sense of superiority!

Senator LUDLAM:  I have been bottling it up, Senator Cash.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Ketter):  I call senators' attention to the fact that senators are entitled to be heard in silence. Senator Ludlam, continue.

Senator LUDLAM:  Thanks, Mr Acting Deputy President. This is a bill which will change the way that the Australian Defence Force can be deployed into conflict situations. It was introduced in the mid-1980s by the Australian Democrats.

It was the first bill that I picked up and introduced when I took my seat in 2007. At that time, a senator from the Australian Democrats had had carriage of it. The Australian Greens have introduced this bill a number of times. I think this is the third or fourth time that it has been put on the Notice Paper.

The reason we have reintroduced this bill is that it requires parliamentary approval; it requires a debate and a vote in this chamber and in the other place before Australian forces are sent to war. When it came into parliament in the past, I argued, and other Australian Greens MPs argued, that Prime Minister Howard's captain's call on the illegal invasion of Iraqi was exhibit A to justify the urgency and importance of this bill. On a phone call from a foreign president, a foreign head of state—a single call—the Australian executive, without any recourse to parliament, without any real checks and balances, can deploy the ADF into harm's way. The horrific invasion of Iraq absolutely tore that region apart. We still have Australian defence personnel and support personnel in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan off the back of these captains' calls to follow the United States government into harm's way, which has had an absolutely ruinous impact on that region. To be honest, I would have thought that that would have been enough to close the deal. But it has not been. The idea that an unstable American President recklessly picks up the phone to demand a commitment of Australian forces was, at that stage, something of a hypothetical, and we figured that the invasion of Iraq would probably have served to persuade most people of the need for some checks and balances. 

The new US administration is not even a month old, but we have already seen President Trump's willingness to berate—and I would argue bully—Prime Minister Turnbull, and that is an individual who cannot even stand up to the conservatives on his own backbench. If that well-practised prime ministerial capitulation is subject to 140 characters of presidential unhinging, we could be at war in some other part of the world off the back of a tweet or a phone call, and that is not rhetoric. There are no checks and balances, there is no due process, there is no parliamentary debate and there are no votes. The Prime Minister would decide off the back of a call from the United States, from President Trump. 

The US requires congressional approval before sending troops into war. They have more protection from this kind of impetuous action of their President than Australia does. It has been some time—it has been decades, I suspect—since that kind of formal declaration of war against another state. I recognise that the nature of warfare itself has mutated quite radically in recent decades. Nonetheless, the idea that US congressional approval would be sought and required before a deployment is an important principle. I would argue that, under US law, that needs to be upgraded to take better account of the way in which warfare is practised. Look at other democracies: Denmark, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Slovakia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and Turkey. Troop deployment in all of those countries is set down in constitutional or legislative provisions. Parliamentary approval, or consultation at least, is also routinely undertaken in Austria, the Czech Republic, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Norway. In 2013 the UK avoided embroilment in the disastrous conflict in Syria thanks to the House of Commons saving Prime Minister David Cameron from himself. That is Westminster, the parliament from which we adopted much of our practice here in Australia. 

This is a very long overdue reform and we believe that it is a first step—an important step, but only the first step—in rethinking, reconsidering, our relationship with the United States under an unstable President. We think it is essential. When Senator O'Sullivan or any of the others stand up in a moment and decry the idea that we would submit the Australian Defence Force to a debate before we throw them into harm's way, I would like if possible—if you can bring yourselves to do it—for them to explain, if it is good enough for those other democracies, kindred democracies to Australia, to invite their parliament to consider whether the executive is on the right track, why it is impossible for Australia to contemplate a parliamentary debate and a vote before deployment.

Since becoming President, Donald Trump has said, 'Maybe the US should go back to Iraq and take their oil.' That puts Australian personnel at risk. That kind of unbelievably loose rhetoric puts Australian personnel at risk. He has signed executive orders to set in motion the re-establishment of CIA black sites. There may be checks and balances inside the US that prevent that from happening. We recognise that, to a degree, the new President is using these executive orders as political theatre. But he promised to bring back waterboarding. He is a fan of torture. That puts Australian personnel at risk. When he says that torture absolutely works and that the US needs to fight fire with fire, what message does that send to adversaries and those that the ADF might find themselves up against as a result of these decisions?

His incoming Secretary of State is Mr Rex Tillerson. I note that Foreign Minister Julie Bishop recently had a conversation with the new Secretary of State. She is quoted as having said, 'It could not have been warmer.' That is terrifying. That is a bit of a worry. It sounds as though Australia is continuing to capitulate to the interests of, I would argue, a deeply unstable and provocative new administration. During his confirmation hearing he called for China to be denied access to the artificial islands that it is building and weaponising in the South China Sea. As far as I was aware, Australia was quite supportive of the international arbitration process which was attempting to defuse the situation and also send a very strong message to the Chinese regime that that island building was provocative and in fact unlawful under the law of the sea. And that is the way in which nations resolve issues in the 21st century. No, the new Secretary of State basically says, 'Through military force, China should be prevented from accessing those islands.'

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that they would be calling on Australia, like the demands for freedom of navigation exercises that the foreign minister, in Australia's interests, had resisted. I thought the foreign minister actually did quite a good job of walking that fine line between belligerent superpowers in not in embroiling Australia in anything that could have escalated hostilities between China and the United States.

Do we seriously think the Turnbull government would resist the call or the tweet from President Trump that we are going to ignite a war with our most important trading partner and a nuclear power? To be perfectly frank, I think that decision should be embodied here in this parliament, so that senators and members have to sign their names and have to stand up and be counted and accountable.

This is a President who tweets policy off the cuff. Apparently, he tweeted out last night, 'Iran, #1 in terror'. Is he high? What does that even mean? What is he on? This is an ally that Australia has followed into every conflict since the Second World War. I argued in this place, and my colleagues have argued all week, that the alliance with the United States needs to be renegotiated, and I strongly believe that this bill is just one part of that. The regime of the United States should not assume that with one phone call they will be afforded a prime ministerial capitulation and that the ADF will be packing their gear and deployed. This parliament should have that say, and we should be held accountable to our electorates around the country for the decision that this parliament makes.

As I said at the outset, this bill has a fairly storeyed history, and it was submitted to inquiry by the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee a number of years ago, I think around 2009. The committee at that time refused to hold a formal hearing. They refused to take evidence directly from those from across the Defence, intelligence and diplomatic communities as to the wisdom of a reform such as this. As it happened, we held an informal hearing, and we had the usual bipartisan stifling and pooh-poohing, not based on the evidence we had heard but based on the fact that we think it is fine. The status quo is fine and 'if it's not broken don't fix it'. We think that the Prime Minister's office should be able to make these captain's calls. I submit to this chamber that the system is broken and it does need fixing. If the slaughter in Iraq does not persuade you otherwise, then maybe the unhinged tweets of an unstable President might shake your confidence just a little to give this bill another try.

I would like to make a couple of points in response to the anticipated criticism from those opposite. Depending on who jumps up to speak, I am not expecting that the criticisms will be literate or even comprehensible, but I will have a go. I imagine that I will hear arguments around the importance of Westminster tradition, and I would put to you—

Senator O'Sullivan:  You are a sad individual.

Senator LUDLAM:  Did you take that one personally, Senator O'Sullivan? You knew I was referring to you, even though I did not name you—that's interesting isn't it?

We do not believe that we should blindly uphold tradition if the tradition has outlasted its welcome. It is a tradition that is descended from the right of the British monarch to deploy troops into the field whenever he or she felt like it. We think that maybe modern Australia might have outlasted that tradition, and when we look to Westminster we will see that they have in fact outlasted that tradition.

There is not a formal war power by statute in the UK, but prime ministers from both sides of politics have undertaken that before deployment occurs they will consult with parliament, and that was what prevented them deploying into Syria couple of years ago. Democratic institutions evolve. That is part of what we do in here. It is part of what we are sent here to do. Not all of these longstanding conventions have merit.

Another argument Senator O'Sullivan may or may not choose to make is to imply that a parliamentary debate necessarily involves disclosure of classified military strategic intelligence information and that it would be reckless in the extreme to expose that information into the public domain before deployment—

Senator O'Sullivan interjecting—

Senator LUDLAM:  Oh, for heaven's sake! Is there a standing order just relating to idiocy?

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT:  I remind the Senate that senators are entitled to be heard in silence, and, Senator Ludlam, could you ignore injections.

Senator LUDLAM:  It is difficult when they are so infantile, but I will do my best. Proponents of this argument, which we heard during the Senate inquiry in 2009, missed the point that it is not a military decision to go to war; it is a political decision. The bill calls for the government of the day to make the political case as to why diplomatic efforts and multilateral institutions have failed. It calls on them to make the case to the Australian people as to why force is the only option.

I would argue that case had not been made to the Australian people in the instance of the invasion of Afghanistan, which former Prime Minister Howard signed Australia up to, sight unseen. He was in Washington on 9/11, and I can imagine the impact that must have had—to be in the United States when an atrocity like that is perpetrated not far from where you are staying. He committed to George Bush at that time: 'Whatever you need, we're there.' It was a blank cheque to invade Afghanistan and then to invade a country that had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the extraordinary crime committed in New York and Washington on 11 September. He wrote a blank cheque, and that is what we are trying to stop here. We should make the political case, and then let the military leadership deal with the strategies and tactics once a democratic decision has been made to deploy.

Again, I would put to opponents of this bill: if it is such a disaster to have these debates in the public domain, how are all these other countries managing? How are they getting away with it? If you cannot persuade a majority of your own parliament that a deployment is in order and in the national interest, maybe there is something wrong with your case. I have heard this argument made a number of times. Labor senators have made it and government senators have made it. Why on earth would you want to expose a decision as serious as the decision to deploy into harm's way to the crossbench? Those arguments miss the point that for the crossbench votes to even be called into play, it must mean the opposition party is offside. If you cannot persuade a majority of your own parliament that a deployment is in the national interest, maybe there is something deeply wrong with your case. Maybe you should be forced to put it into the public domain so that the argument can be had.

I recognise that there are technical issues in this bill which have been debated over many years and are worthy of debate. And we are reintroducing this bill for debate this morning with the door wide open.

Senator Carr, I do not know if you are planning on speaking. If you have suggestions, we are all ears. Senator O'Sullivan, if your side of politics has suggestions, proposals or amendments, we are all ears. We are interested in progressing the principle of this issue as the first step in renegotiating the defence relationship with a president who I submit to this chamber is an extremely dangerous individual—dangerous to the interests of his own electorate and dangerous to Australia.

I look forward to seeing how this debate unfolds. This is really only stage 1 for the Australian Greens. As I said, we are willing to discuss how this issue can be progressed. If not using the exact wording of this bill, how do we democratise the decision to place Australian service personnel into harm's way? I think it is one of the gravest and most serious considerations that could be put to a member of parliament. I do not think it is tenable for those individuals in this building to say that they are not competent, that they do not want that responsibility. I think that responsibility properly belongs in here so that these arguments can be heard in the light of day rather than made behind closed doors as we saw in the disastrous decision to invade Iraq, which has made the world a deeply unstable place.

We believe that, in the cause of the rule of law, Australia should take its place among those other democracies with whom we either are in formal alliances or at least consider kindred democracies so that we do not see a repeat of what happened in 2003.

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