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The case for a Parliamentary debate to commit Australians to war.

Speeches in Parliament
Scott Ludlam 4 Sep 2014

Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (10:25):  Because of the context in which we are conducting this debate, I will not say that I am pleased to stand to support the Defence Legislation Amendment (Parliamentary Approval of Overseas Service) Bill 2014 today, but I do thank senators from both sides of the chamber for the respectful way they have engaged with the measures in it. I will speak briefly to the concerns that have been raised by Senator Conroy and Senator Fawcett, which I think are reasonably easy to categorise—they have been a part of this debate for years. This bill has been languishing in plain sight for nearly three decades. It was introduced by the Australian Democrats in 1985. When I was elected in 2007, I inherited the bill from Senator Andrew Bartlett of the Australian Democrats. It has been on the Notice Paper of this place more or less continuously for that period of time.

As a number of other senators have acknowledged, the most recent committee inquiry into this measure was conducted in 2009 by the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee. It reported in February 2010. The inquiry was treated in quite a cavalier fashion, although others have acknowledged the value of the work that was conducted. The committee at the time blocked our request to even hold a hearing, so the evaluation of the bill's measures was done on the papers—it was not thought that any of the witnesses could add anything substantive to the debate, an opinion with which I strongly disagree to this day. We convened a hearing anyway, having to let the witnesses and those who gave evidence know that they were not protected by parliamentary privilege since it was not a formal hearing of the parliament. Nonetheless, people from a very wide variety of backgrounds gave evidence. We had people from very senior levels of Defence, the intelligence community and the Australian Defence Association and we had groups like the Marrickville Peace Group—a whole spectrum of views on this. Senator Brandis seems to think this is funny—just hilarious!

As I was saying, we heard from a whole range of groups with a whole range of views—including from a former secretary of defence and people who had been engaged in these issues at the very highest level. These witnesses brought a whole range of opinions to bear to show that the issues are not insurmountable—and that it is in fact time for Australia to grow up and to put this power into the hands of the legislature, as so many other countries have done. I commend to this chamber the report of the committee. I think the majority report sets out quite coherently both the arguments for and against a measure like this and the ways we could have moved the debate forward. The major parties, however, simply combined to recommend that, nonetheless, the bill not pass. Our minority report from that inquiry still stands the test of time.

I said it was time we grew up. The power to deploy young men and women into combat from which they may not return or may returned damaged, physically or mentally, remains at the moment effectively with the Crown through the Prime Minister's office—as it has since the days of feudalism and monarchies. That is what I mean by 'time we grew up'. It is not enough to say that the Prime Minister should be able to decide, as the King did hundreds and hundreds of years ago, to marshal his peasantry and send them into war. That is why, in recent decades, we have seen kindred democracies transfer the war power from the authority of the executive, in whatever form it takes in democracies, into the legislature.

In a moment I will directly address some of the issues that Senator Fawcett raised—and I thank Senator Fawcett for taking the time to raise them in such a thoughtful manner. The United Kingdom, as Senator Fawcett quite rightly points out, has not enshrined transfer of the war power from the executive to the legislature in legislation, although there is a bill that is live before Westminster.

In effect, what has been adopted is a convention whereby such a motion would be put to the parliament before a deployment. This was a largely theoretical consequence of the deep inquiries that the British parliament held into the horrific, illegal and mistaken engagement in Iraq that they and Australia participated in.

Unlike the United Kingdom, there has never been an inquiry into the political decision to deploy into war—just a couple of attempts to deflect the errors and the blame to our intelligence services, who we now know were warning executive authorities in the UK, the United States and here in Australia that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and had not been since the early 1990s and that there was absolutely no connection between the Iraqi authorities of the day and the violent fundamentalists who had brought down the Twin Towers and crashed an aircraft into the Pentagon. Nonetheless, the political decision was made—an utterly flawed one—and the inquiries that resulted in the UK and tried to get to the bottom of how such a disastrous strategic error could possibly have occurred have led to a convention which was tested recently when Prime Minister Cameron was proposing to deploy British service personnel into Syria. The parliament rejected that attempt. So it actually has been tested in a parliamentary context in the context of a deployment.

In Australia, as so often happens with these things, a huge part of the problem is the forgetting of history—even quite recent history. Kindred democracies around the world including the UK, the US, Denmark, Ireland, Germany, Japan and South Korea have transferred a measure of this responsibility all the way up to the full vote in both houses of parliament—to parliamentarians—which is what we propose. I believe in the genuineness of those who come in here, no matter what your political affiliations. If you come in here and say, as many have, that this is the most serious decision we could commit to as elected representatives, I believe you and I agree. That is why I think you should then put your name to it rather than backing slowly out of the room and leaving it to the Prime Minister's office to decide. The countries I just listed have two things in common: they are mature democracies and they have outgrown that monarchic tradition of just leaving it to the king's prerogative to send his armies into war.

I will briefly touch on the legitimate concerns that senators Conroy and Fawcett raised about why they believe that this bill should not pass. I think these arguments actually have long since been settled. First is the disclosure into the public domain of sensitive, classified information about troop movements or information that the executive possesses because it is in direct communication with intelligence services, military intelligence and so on. It is a fundamental red herring. We do not want to come in here and debate troop movements and tactics. This is the political decision to deploy, not the military tactics that flow from that decision. That is fundamentally important. We are not asking for the Minister for Defence or the Prime Minister to come into parliament and disclose information that would be prejudicial to those troop movements. I think it is fundamentally disingenuous to confuse the politics of a deployment with the military decisions that follow. None of us in here are qualified to then make those strategic judgements that flow, and nor should parliament be involved in that. The decision to deploy is a political one because we do not live in a military dictatorship, and that is the fundamental distinction that I want to draw. When Senator Conroy says, 'You can't possibly ask us to table classified intelligence'—of course not. But don't misread the intentions of the bill. I imagine that Senator Conroy, who has been in this portfolio now for some time, is not deliberately misreading, but I want to make very clear that we are not asking for tactical decisions to be debated in the parliament. It is for thoroughly political ones since very few of us will then put a uniform on and follow these young men and women into the war.

Second, the issue of flexibility and rapid deployment is also, I think, a red herring, because it is very difficult to think of an instance in recent times—Timor being one counterexample which I will get to in a moment—where these issues are not seen coming months in advance. Syria has been in a state of disintegration and, I would argue, profound holocaust—more than three million people have been displaced and tens of thousands killed—and the genesis of ISIS goes back many years. We can see these things coming. The disintegration of Iraq was foreshadowed by analysts and many in the peace movement before the bombing of Baghdad commenced. I do not think it is at all the case that either recalling the parliament for an emergency session or submitting the decision to respectful debate as we are doing today necessarily has to have any impact at all on the deployment schedules. It is unusual going on unprecedented for the Prime Minister to wake up one morning with a phone call that says: 'You need to throw the ADF into a fight. You don't have time to consult the parliament.'

Timor is sometimes used as a counterfactual, so I would like to quote Paul Barratt in evidence that he gave outside the regular parliamentary framework, to the session that we held on the decision to prepare troops for deployment to Timor. He goes into quite a bit of detail about the state of readiness of Australian Air Force and Army forces at the time.

He says:

So for most of 1999, between February and September 1999 there was an opportunity to debate the issue in parliament.  There were sensitivities involved in that because the Department of Foreign Affairs was understandably concerned about what signal all of this training of military forces was sending to Indonesia … So it's not necessarily a debate you would have wanted to have had had in March 1999, but as you can see when that was evolving, we were in discussions with the Indonesians and the UN about whether our troops could deploy.  There was plenty of time to have a debate in parliament about what we were doing and why, but to actually get the approval of parliament not simply to inform the parliament.

That is not someone coming from the margins of debate; that is someone who was involved in decision making on that deployment at the time.

Another myth that, as a senator, I think it is important to dispose of now is the idea that you would submit such an important decision to the whims of the crossbench—or, as I think one interviewer put it the other day—'a tiny minority' in the chamber. That is remarkable because, of course, the way this parliament operates is that, to pass a vote in this place, you need a majority. I ask again those who think putting such a decision to the parliament is risky: if the Prime Minister of the day cannot convince more than half of his or her parliament deploy, is that maybe instructive? Maybe that is important. Maybe there is a counter view. Maybe there are other opinions. It is not that a tiny handful of people would control whether or not Australia deployed.

The majority of the parliament should be deciding these things.

I think it entirely likely that if the war power had been vested in this chamber and the other place in recent history we almost certainly would have gone into Afghanistan and we almost certainly would have participated in the first Gulf War, as it was authorised by a UN Security Council resolution, but we might not have gone into Iraq in 2003. That is why I found Senator Faulkner's contribution earlier so curious. We might not have gone to Iraq, but we might have been one voice of reason in the debate that would have staid the hand of the US President and the US administration that was so gung-ho to charge in and declare 'mission accomplished'. It does not seem to have worked out very well, does it? That, I think, is a perfect example of why this is not such a theoretical concern anymore.

It is hard to gather people's interest in such a measure outside of potential deployment, but this is the situation that we find ourselves in today. The idea that 'if it is not broken, we should not fix it', I strongly submit. Before I came into this place I worked as an anti-war campaigner trying to stop the deployment into Iraq. We were getting aircraft carrier movements passing through Fremantle for resupply and return, R and R, before they sailed for the Persian Gulf to fire cruise missiles into a city—a very, very long way from here. In my experience, it is broken and it does need fixing so that that kind of thing can never happen again.

If the Australian government refuses to hold an inquiry into how we got into Iraq then, at the very least, we can prevent that kind of debacle from ever occurring again. I had a very brief period of time in Afghanistan in the late stages of our large-scale deployment there. The politicians have to put on flak vests and helmets and are taken very, very good care of and asked not to wander off and then they get to go safely home. It is not the politicians who actually have to confront the consequences of these deployments by and large.

As Senator Milne indicated, if we are simply rushing in again on the coat-tails of the United States as it attempts to solve the horrific violence that is unfolding in the north-west of Iraq with yet more violence then it is time for a deep breath. I think the vast majority of Australians support humanitarian intervention, but that comes with a warning that humanitarian intervention into the middle of what is emerging as a civil war requires people to take risks such as the rumours that were later quashed that our airlift into Iraq had been fired upon. These are risky situations. Then suddenly from there we go to running weapons into a particular side in this fight—and that is where it starts to get extremely messy—in the absence of any kind of UN Security Council resolution and in the absence, it appeared for a period of time, of proper authorities from the government of Iraq. It certainly appeared that a few important people had been left out of the loop.

The fact is that we are running weapons now into an extremely messy, complex and violent situation. For example, the organisation, PKK or the Kurdish Workers Party as it is translated into English, has been listed as a terrorist organisation largely for attacks within Turkey. It has been listed in Australia as a terrorist organisation for years and remains on the list. They are right on the front line. They are right in the middle of this fight into which we are now transporting weaponry. So you go from humanitarian intervention to running weapons into one side of a complex and violent situation, to support by F18s—and then where? It is to these open-ended commitments that the Abbott government appears to have made to United States authorities without bringing them to this parliament and citing national security and operational security. What cheques have been written in this instance? What is the plan for peace in that part of the world?

The experience in Afghanistan is extremely instructive. The United States government, for a period of well over 10 years, armed the Mujahedeen. The CIA ran a huge covert operation through Pakistan, arming the Mujahedeen because they were fighting communists at the time. Then when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, they stepped that up to a massive operation involving numerous countries and arming oppositions to the soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Then that hardware was turned against the US and Australians decades later because the Mujahedeen mutated into the Taliban. This horrific administration—and nobody would dispute that—then turned their weaponry on the United States government and Australia when we arrived two decades later. Is that what we are opening up now? Because what happens after the press conferences and the media reports of our humanitarian intervention is that people forget and attention moves on, yet those on the ground have to suffer the consequences of our interventions, one after another, supporting this side and then that side. What is the plan for peace? What is the plan for cutting off supplies of funding to ISIS, the Islamic State, from Kuwait, a country that Australians helped liberate not that long ago? What about Saudi Arabia? Has the Prime Minister picked the phone up to the Saudi ambassador to ask what the Saudi authorities are doing to stop huge flows of money, supplies and support to the Islamic State?

What have we done to try and stem the tide of people flowing across the Turkish border to join this fight? Have we spoken to Turkish authorities? What have we done in recent times to try and bring about a stable administration in Iraq that does not govern for one sect or another in an ancient conflict and ancient enmities? What exactly are we doing to stem this one-way slide towards open armed hostilities a very, very long way from Australia in a catastrophic conflict that we helped ignite? Those are the questions that we have.

Is, as some analysts are predicting, armed intervention or cruise missiles with US flags on them exactly what the Islamic State is trying to provoke? If feeds their narrative of martyrdom. Has that been considered by the Abbott government? These are the questions that you can bring to parliament in a respectful way in a democracy and put on the table and expect to get an intelligent answer before Australians are committed to one side of this conflict or another.

In my very brief time in Afghanistan, I was able to witness firsthand the professionalism of the people that we send into foreign theatres of war and their dedication and the risks that they take on our behalf. The questions today are not for them. We do not live in a military dictatorship, so they do not decide when we deploy, we do. It is the civilian government and the politicians who should put their names to resolutions and deployments like this and to whom these questions should be put because, as I was able to see firsthand, if we throw the ADF into a fight they will do their very best. That means the decision is incumbent upon us to not do that unnecessarily, to not expose them to harm unnecessarily, in open-ended conflicts that are very old and very complex. That effectively is the fundamental purpose of this bill. I again thank senators for the way in which they have engaged with this debate so far.

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