Australia and the Oslo Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons
Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (15:01): Pursuant to standing order 74(5), I ask the Minister representing the Minister for Defence, Senator Bob Carr, for an explanation as to why answers have not been provided to question No. 2384, asked on 19 October 2012.
Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (15:02): I thank Senator Ludwig for stepping into the breach. This is extraordinary. As you hinted, I did tip off Minister Carr's office this morning, as is the usual courtesy, and Senator Carr has nonetheless decided to leave the chamber.
Government senators interjecting-
The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Order on my left! Senator Ludlam, you have a call.
Senator LUDLAM: I move:
That the Senate take note of the minister's failure to provide either an answer or an explanation.
The Senate should note the absence of an answer and the absence of the Minister representing the Minister for Defence. As everybody in this chamber knows, and is generally held to, answers to questions on notice are due in 30 days. I have 10 outstanding questions on notice, several of them more than six months overdue. Senator Cash is indicating she has some-
Senator Cash interjecting-
Senator LUDLAM: Several hundred? Senator Cash has been busy. I think it has become something of a repetitive pattern to see this kind of neglect, and prolonged neglect, of perfectly legitimate questions put through the chamber by senators on all sides. Question 2384 was asked on 19 October and I should therefore have received an answer in late November. A couple of days you can forgive. I am also aware that it is the holiday season and that public servants, as well as the rest of us, need to take a break. However, I am extremely impatient for an answer to this question because it pertains to events that are imminent, that are in fact occurring on 2 and 3 March in Oslo, Norway.
The question relates to whether or not the Australian government will be participating in a conference held by the government of Norway about the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons and their use-not their threat of use but their actual use. I think it is important for Australia to participate in this conference. I hope that somewhere in this building somebody is giving some consideration to an answer to the question. I also hope that we are intending to participate constructively, that Australia will not simply turn up in an attempt to sabotage any moves that might be made to bring forward an international agreement to ban these weapons.
Australia has played an important diplomatic and political role as a middle power in past times-starting with the Canberra Commission and more recently with then Prime Minister Rudd's joint commission with the government of Japan-to explore ways to bring the permanent nuclear weapons states together around the table, as well as those states remaining outside international non-proliferation treaty instruments and also other states that may be considering or contemplating the use of nuclear weapons, which I should say is a tiny handful of nation states relative to the number of states around the world that want these weapons phased out.
In every country in which polling has been undertaken, whether it be a democracy or not, the vast majority of the citizenry, including here in Australia, want these weapons phased out. They have no strategic military utility and they exist in a kind of limbo, where they simply cannot be used. Some instinct of self-preservation has kept fingers off the triggers through the years of the Cold War and out the other side into the 21st century. But many of these weapons are hundreds or thousands of times more powerful than the bombs that flattened Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And if we imagine that in perpetuity we can maintain stockpiles of these hideous devices and that they will never be used by accident, misadventure or design, then we are in fact delusional. The time to make the decisions to phase out the weapons is before that eventuality, not the day after we find some familiar city somewhere in the world has been turned into a field of ash and radioactive glass.
The question that I put to the minister has a number of components, including a question about the level of preparedness that the Australian government might have should such a weapon be used here. I do not imagine that that is a consideration that occupies the front of mind for most people in Australia, either in our diplomatic corps or, I suspect, in the Australian military, in the ADF. It is actually pretty unfashionable to consider a nuclear detonation occurring in Australia. It certainly was not during the Cold War, when we were engaged in a nuclear arms race on behalf of our great and powerful ally, the United States, with their counterparts in the Soviet Union in a suicide pact that lasted for 40 or so years before a number of the weapons were stood down.
The general consensus was that, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the risk of nuclear Armageddon had eased, and it has almost entirely disappeared from the public consciousness apart from in a few places. But the reason I want to bring these questions to the chamber today, in the absence of either an answer or indeed the presence of the Minister representing the Minister for Defence in here, is that these matters may have faded from public consciousness but they have not disappeared.
The idea that a nuclear weapon could either be targeted upon Australia, detonated by accident or, in fact, used in this country is not impossible and does deserve a degree of public scrutiny, certainly more than it gets at the moment.
In the 2009 Defence white paper, ironically enough at the same time as Prime Minister Rudd was making what I thought were genuine diplomatic efforts with our counterparts in Japan to try to forward a consensus on the elimination of nuclear weapons, into the Defence white paper was being written, 'We support the maintenance and the perpetuation of the United States nuclear umbrella and the protection that affords Australia.' We, in fact, find that there is still strategic utility in saying that if you use a nuclear weapon on Australia, our allies the United States will erase your country and simply taking off the map. That that is present prevailing Australian security policy-genocide for genocide; if you do us, we will do you with these weapons-is the same Cold War suicide pact written into the 2009 Defence white paper. All of the permanent five nuclear weapons states that maintain the veto power on the United Nations Security Council that Australia has temporarily joined are upgrading-not merely maintaining, but upgrading and improving-their nuclear weapons stockpiles.
It may seem a little uncomfortable and it may even lead to a degree of eye rolling that I would be bothered to bring a matter such as this to the Senate chamber early in 2013, but Australia is presently involved in a nuclear arms race on behalf of our ally the United States, who, like the other permanent five nuclear weapons states, and those who have remained outside treaty obligations, are in total violation of their obligations to disarm and are, in fact, preparing for the use of these weapons which we know are simply indiscriminate.
It is not simply about the modernisation of these weapons, and this is where these issues come home. I have been engaged in debate with senior Defence officials and with MPs in here and senators on the government side about whether or not we should be calling the US military installations that are popping up across the top end of Australia and elsewhere 'bases'. You can kid yourself and describe them as not being bases if you want; you can call them joint facilities. I do not particularly care. They will have Australian flags flying over them, and I understand that is being done in order to prevent people from getting too upset. We know for a fact that Pine Gap, North West Cape and Nurrungar were nuclear targets during the Cold War, thanks to declassified ONA reports that Philip Doring wrote up in the Age last year.
So what are these plans today? These installations-Pine Gap is the one that gets a certain amount of attention-are used to assist the United States military in targeting the weapons carried by ballistic missile submarines. That is partly what it does. That is partly what occurs at North West Cape. So these Defence and intelligence facilities are deadly serious. They are not just about snooping on the phone calls of ordinary people. The idea that we are seeing these bases-and I will continue to call them that until any kind of evidence to the contrary is presented to me-may well be the site of transshipments of nuclear weapons through ports, through our harbours, through land based facilities and through airfields. Whether we imagine that US bombers on their way around the world from bases elsewhere, if they knew they were going to have to stop in at Darwin or spend six months at Tyndall, would leave these devices at home, and in the event that they needed to use them would quickly scoot back to Hawaii or Guam and pick them up, is absolutely inconceivable. We know that is not the case and I have no confidence at all that these weapons will be left at home. In fact, we may be opening the door to stockpiling or transit of nuclear weapons through Australian ports and on Australian soil.
Which of our hospitals are trained and ready for a nuclear detonation in Australia, if any? Is there any degree of preparedness? I will quickly traverse the tenor of the questions that I put to the Minister for Defence through his representative in here, Senator Bob Carr. Which of our emergency services are trained and ready? Which of our hospitals are trained and ready? One of the questions goes to how many burn beds we have. These are considerations that Australian Defence and civil emergency institutions had to contend with during the Cold War. I suspect this has all been forgotten since then. What training and readiness do our military and other first responders have in place for the possibility? Where do we think might be the targets today? Would they be the same as those in the Cold War or would they be different in a world emphasising-including our own policies-the tension between the governments of the United States and China? What contingencies are in place for agricultural lands and for food production?
The impact of one nuclear weapon being detonated is simply unimaginable. Given that those that exist today are thousands of times more powerful than the ones that destroyed those two cities in Japan in 1945, I am not sure that there is any way to be properly prepared for a nuclear attack, but it would be interesting to know whether any of this thinking is occurring at all or whether we are simply prepared to believe in a form of institutional denial that we can buy into the United States nuclear weapons umbrella and nod our heads at the idea that the nuclear weapons states will never disarm and that these weapons are with us forever, and on the other hand continue in total oblivion to the consequences of their continued existence and their use.
There are, in fact, 22,000 of these weapons in existence right now, with up to 5,000 of them poised on hair-trigger alert, the so-called 'launch on warning'. If you believe-and you might only have 15 or 20 minutes to make this judgement call, as occurred during the Cold War-that you are under a nuclear attack by aircraft or by ballistic missile, you have minutes in which to decide whether or not to launch a counter-attack, because if you do not, and that attack is real, you will then miss the opportunity to incinerate the country of your opposition. The so-called 'launch on warning'; 5,000 of these weapons on hair-trigger alert today, including in our region.
The International Committee of the Red Cross, the pre-eminent promoter and protector of humanitarian law, adopted a resolution in 2011 that emphasises the incalculable human suffering that could be expected to result from any use of nuclear weapons here in Australia, in our region or anywhere in the world, and the lack of any adequate humanitarian response capacity.
I have also asked about the situation in South Asia between Pakistan and India, the place where many military and political analysts think the most dangerous nuclear stand-off in the world today is occurring.
My question is, what are the likely effects of a regional nuclear exchange in South Asia on, for example, agricultural production in Australia and in that region, water quality, and the extraordinary flood of refugees, many of them contaminated, burned, leaving the region. This is not a far-fetched conspiracy theory. India and Pakistan are in a nuclear arms race and that is why the United Nations Security Council adopted resolution 1172 on 6 June 1998 after both India and Pakistan had tested nuclear weapons. That UNSC resolution encouraged all states to prevent the export of equipment, materials or technology that could in any way assist programs in India or in Pakistan for nuclear weapons. So why is Australia, at the same time as we are taking a temporary seat on the Security Council, proposing to do just that?
I have quoted probably more than once in this chamber K Subramaniam, the former head of the National Security Advisory Board in India, who said this in 2005: 'Given India's uranium ore crunch and the need to build up our nuclear deterrent arsenal as fast as possible, it is to India's advantage to categorise as many power reactors as possible as civilian ones to be refuelled by imported uranium and conserve our native uranium fuel for weapons grade plutonium production.' That is what we are walking into in Australia with a blindfold on. We are assisting the government of India to expand, enlarge and modernise its nuclear weapons arsenal to continue its nuclear arms race with the government of Pakistan. Recently police in Indian Kashmir have warned their constituents to build underground bunkers in case there is a nuclear exchange. This notice was issued by the state disaster response force in papers headed 'Protection against nuclear, biological and chemical weapons'. It is duck and cover stuff from out of the 1950s in the United States. It reads very similarly; some of the advice is very similar. It tells citizens to wait for the winds to die down and for debris to stop falling. It warns about initial orientation from being under a nuclear detonation. It tells people to run towards the blast so that they are not wiped out by their tumbling vehicle. It is this sort of advice, which will come in very helpful! As we know today, caesium fallout from Australian uranium now laces the fields around Fukushima. There is every possibility that uranium from Australia would be in such an exchange.
Senator Ian Macdonald: Mr Deputy President, I raise a point of order. I do not want to unduly curtail Senator Ludlam on what he obviously thinks is an interesting matter but we have been very patient on the site. I refer you to the standing order, which says:
At the conclusion of question time on any day after that period a senator may ask the relevant Minister for an explanation on why there has not been an answer. The senator may at the conclusion of the explanation move without notice that the Senate take note of the explanation.
If that is the motion that Senator Ludlam moved, he should be talking about the explanation given by Minister Carr. We know that Minister Carr in his typical arrogance, although he had notice of this, exited the chamber. Whilst I know you allow some latitude, frankly 15 minutes on the subject of the questions rather than on taking note of the explanation I think is something that should be drawn to Senator Ludlam's attention.
The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: We have taken it that the motion is standing order 74(5)c, which is failure to provide an answer. I have conferred with the Clerk and Senator Ludlam is in order in providing the information he is providing in relation to the failure of the minister to provide an answer. Senator Ludlam, you have the call.
Senator LUDLAM: Thank you, Chair. I remind Senator Macdonald, who was actually sitting here, that I did move such a motion 14 minutes and 40 seconds ago, and it is nice of you to join us. As time is short, I will conclude my remarks and come back to the nature of the questions I put to the minister and why it is so extraordinary-it is one of the rare occasions I would agree with Senator Macdonald-for the minister to simply leave the chamber. He was given three or four hours notice that I was going to put this to him. The appropriate thing to do is to simply table the question, and that could have avoided this speech, although I probably would have found another opportunity to read it in.
In conclusion, we simply should not be fuelling these kinds of conflicts in our region or anywhere else. We should go into these matters with our eyes open. So the question I put to the minister was around Australia's participation in the conference in Oslo in early March around the humanitarian impacts of their use. We believe that there is not just massive civil society support for such an endeavour but support among many governments around the world, middle powers such as Australia who have taken these positions and others around the world representing not millions but billions of people, that there should be an international legal time-bound obligation on the nuclear weapon states, which exists on paper under article 6 of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, to abolish these weapons. When North Korea, Iran and these other so-called nuclear breakout states, even Burma for a period of time, propose the construction and deployment of these weapons, they do so because other powers already hold them. The existence of nuclear weapons in the hands of the United States government invoked the need to develop them by those authorities in the Soviet Union, which invoked the Chinese authorities, the French, the British, the Israelis, the Indians, the Pakistanis, the North Koreans and the Iranians. Even in Australia there was a move on for nuclear weapons capabilities and every now and again that idea boils to the surface and settles back into the depths again. Will Australia send representation to this meeting in Oslo? That is a question I would have appreciated an answer to from the minister. Who are we sending and at what degree of seniority? Are we going with the intention to help engage in dialogue about an international legal agreement to ban these weapons, or are we going there on behalf of our ally the United States to frustrate and delay? I hope for and expect an answer to this question on notice very soon. I thank my colleagues in the chamber for their support in allowing me to canvass these issues, as I will do it again until this world, Senator Bishop, is free of these weapons once and for all.