AUSTRALIAN DEFENCE FORCE: DEPLOYMENT IN IRAQ (MOTION)
March 31, 2004
Dr SOUTHCOTT (Boothby) (10.58 a.m.) — Having the troops home by Christmas is very catchy. Hawker Britton have tested it and apparently it tests quite well. It is the sort of thing that they said in Britain in August 1914 when the British Expeditionary Force went across to France as part of the mobilisation in the First World War. Then, as now, it was clearly wrong to set an arbitrary deadline. We know with hindsight that of course the troops were not back by Christmas; they were back four years later. In Australia we did not say our troops would be home for Christmas. We said something different—that Australia would be there. These days people might feel that that was jingoistic or whatever, but it is actually the nature of the country that we have always been. Australia does have a proud record of standing up for what it believes in, of standing up for the rights of democracies and of standing against tyranny. In the First World War, the Second World War, Korea, Vietnam and, more recently, Iraq we have always been a tough country which stands up for what we believe in. There are really two parts to the debate we are currently having in parliament. They go to the heart of, firstly, the quality of the decision that the Leader of the Opposition made on the important issue of troop withdrawal and, secondly, the process of that decision. It has been very evident in the last week that talking about reading to children is easy, but actually making decisions on national security is hard. We have clearly seen the inexperience of the Leader of the Opposition in full view. The world in the last week has got a glimpse of how dangerous and erratic Mark Latham would be as Prime Minister of Australia. If the Labor Party regarded national security as a priority and as being serious, why on earth did it choose the current Leader of the Opposition over the member for Brand as leader of the Labor Party? The member for Brand is a former defence minister, a former Deputy Prime Minister, a long serving member of the cabinet National Security Committee and one of the most experienced members of the Labor Party in national security. It is inconceivable that the Labor Party would have behaved as it has over the last week under the leadership of the member for Brand. We all know that. So the day that the Labor Party elected the member for Werriwa over the member for Brand as Leader of the Opposition was the day it gave up any pretence of regarding national security as a priority. The government's approach is to say that the troops should be withdrawn from Iraq when the job is done, when reconstruction is finished. This was the Labor Party position until the member for Werriwa went on Mike Carlton's radio program. What are we talking about? There are 850 Australian troops in and around Iraq. This makes Australia a significant country in the reconstruction of Iraq. According to the Brookings Institution, after the United States, Britain, Italy, Poland, the Ukraine, the Netherlands and Spain, we are No. 8 on the list of countries. A withdrawal by Australia before reconstruction is under way, while the security situation in Iraq is still not good, sends a terrible message. We have been told by the Leader of the Opposition that the rationale for this, his defence of Australia doctrine, is that they are needed back in Australia. What are we talking about? Who is over there? The ADF includes 85 troops who are providing security to Australian civilians and the Australian representative office. This enables the ARO staff to move around Baghdad and Iraq to advance Australia's political, security and economic interests in Iraq. That is pretty important. There is a contingent of 150 RAAF Hercules personnel which is providing vital airlift support, which is the principle means for Australian officials to enter Baghdad. That is also important. There are 80 air traffic controllers managing air traffic control services and operations at Baghdad International Airport, and by all accounts they are doing a tremendous job. There are 53 Army trainers training the new Iraqi army. There are 12 people in a Navy training team, and there are 270 people on HMAS Melbourne conducting maritime interception operations in the northern gulf. There are also 160 people with the RAAF Orions conducting maritime patrols and support to counter-terrorism operations. The shadow minister for foreign affairs, the member for Griffith, agreed after he visited Baghdad that the protective security as it relates to the wellbeing of several hundred Australians still in country is of paramount importance. In the Australia Defence Force we have 51,000 personnel. The Labor Party, if I follow their argument correctly—and it does change day by day—are suggesting that bringing back a couple of hundred who are essential for the security of our officials in Baghdad is essential for the defence of Australia. From what? Are they seriously suggesting that 100 or 200 people will make the difference in the defence of Australia? And, if the `home by Christmas' principle is so important, why aren't we applying it to the 500-odd troops in the Solomon Islands and the 450-odd troops in East Timor? More importantly, this sends a very bad signal. Do not take my word for it; Paul Kelly in an article in the Australian, following the bombings in Spain, said: The legacy from Spain is that political parties, in government or opposition, must decide whether to lead or merely to follow public opinion as the war on terrorism penetrates the political culture of Western democracies. He concludes by saying: But in the interim the terrorists, utterly convinced that the West is weak to its core, will seek to divide the alliance and to intimidate its electorates. If we look at similar countries to Australia, in Britain the approach of the Labour Party could not be different. Jack Straw said in mid-March that all countries—not just those who supported the campaign to topple Saddam Hussein—were the targets of terrorists. He went on to say, `We are under a threat from Islamic extremism and so is almost every other country in the world.' No-one should believe that somehow, if you say, `I opposed the military action in Iraq,' it will make you safer or exempt you as a potential victim. But the positions of oppositions are very important as well, because it is part of the objective of extremist terrorists in Iraq to get deep within the political culture of democracies. I read the words of British opposition leader Michael Howard. You could not find a greater contrast when reading the words of this opposition leader who has approached this with a bit of courage and a bit of resolve. On 19 March, Michael Howard said: If the terrorists hope they can gain their ends by perpetrating in Britain a similar outrage to that in Spain, their wickedness will be in vain. Whatever my disagreements with Tony Blair, any government that I lead will not flinch in its determination to win the war against terror, wherever it has to be fought. Can you imagine hearing those words from Australia's Leader of the Opposition? If only! Michael Howard went on to say: Countries could not insulate themselves from terrorist attack by opting out of the War on Terror. We cannot buy ourselves immunity by changing our foreign policy. Apart from the moral cowardice of that position it can never work in practice. And we have seen similar comments from Senator John Kerry. He said that it would be wrong for Spain to withdraw their troops from Iraq at this point. A lot has been said about the chronology of this. I found on the ALP web site an interview that has not been taken off the web site—a doorstop interview with the Leader of the Opposition on 15 December at Ingleburn, following the capture of Saddam Hussein. The Leader of the Opposition said that it was `very good news indeed', but `that doesn't mean the work is over.' The Leader of the Opposition was asked: What can the Australian Government do now? He said: Labor's stance with our troops is that of course, at the first practical opportunity we want them back in Australia. But, there's still work to be done, there's still a task there, there's no room for complacency. ... at an appropriate time of course the work of the Australian troops will be complete. That is basically the government position—that, when the work is done, the troops will return. It disgusts me that we have seen the Labor Party basically accept a demand by the leader of the Australian Greens, Bob Brown. We never saw this under the leadership of Kim Beazley. Bob Brown said, `A 10-point plan: I want the troops home by Christmas,' and the Leader of the Opposition went walking in the Styx forest and, under pressure from Mike Carlton on 2UE, that was the position. And we have now heard from the former Leader of the Opposition, the member for Hotham, that this was never part of the shadow ministry decision; that this was something made on the run. We also now know about the whole process of how this decision was made, and we know that it was made with very little information. There was a long debate in the House of Representatives yesterday regarding what was discussed at the various briefings with ASIS, DSD and so on. I have met the defence secretary, Mr Ric Smith, and the head of ASIS, David Irvine, when they were ambassadors. I met Ric Smith in Jakarta when he was Australian Ambassador to Indonesia; and I met David Irvine in Port Moresby when he was Australian High Commissioner to Papua New Guinea. If I were to make a judgment about who I would trust, I would come down firmly on the side of the public officials—both of whom have been ambassadors to China and are our most senior people in the area of defence and foreign affairs. It is ironic that the great defender last week of the head of the AFP is now saying that ASIS and Defence have not put the full picture. The Leader of the Opposition has not said anywhere that he did actually receive a full briefing on our deployment in Iraq. He has never said anywhere that they discussed reconstruction in Iraq. We have heard a little bit about the shadow cabinet decisions; these all dated back to March or May last year. What we know is that over the last year the security situation in Iraq has not been good. To cut and run at this point is going to send a very bad message to the whole of the Middle East, because we now have a situation in the Middle East where something is going on, and the fall of Saddam Hussein has been perceived very differently in the Middle East from the way it has been perceived in Western democracies. Members of the opposition have to ask themselves: why did Libya give up its weapons of mass destruction programs? Why are we starting to see the first chink of light coming through in countries like Syria, Iran and so on? There is now an opportunity to see a Middle East which is going to be much more favourable for the long term to all Western countries rather being a than a haven for extremism and terrorists. In conclusion, I support the motion of the Prime Minister in support of the troops. As always, Australian troops will return when the job is finished, and we should never cut and run.