I am old enough to remember the times when speeches in parliament actually meant something. I even learned shorthand so I could write down and then report what MPs said back in those days because there were no transcripts issued in advance. Reporting what was said was an indication of what was meant, what a member actually believed. Alas, no more. Parliamentary speeches these days are a repetition of prepared and sanitised arguments. Why bother to report such a boring parliamentary debate?
So what a delight it was to an old fellow yesterday when the Labor MP for Fremantle, Melissa Parke, actually had the courage to break the shackles of party orthodoxy on the question of military intervention in the Middle East and combating terrorsim at home.
Ms PARKE (Fremantle) (18:24): Last week on Twitter a person called for my execution for treason because I had questioned the government’s rapid escalation of our new involvement in Iraq from a purely humanitarian mission to one where we appear to be joining the US in an open-ended fight against IS. A call for my execution may be extreme, but it demonstrates how the beating of the drums of war and the hysteria this generates inevitably prevent the kind of calm, serious and rational discussion that is called for when decisions are being made to commit Australians overseas to kill and potentially to be killed. It is natural for us to respond instinctively to confronting images. The graphic and brutal murders of Westerners David Haines, Steven Sotloff and James Foley—people who only sought to do good in the world—have offended our sense of humanity and stoked our desire for justice in a way that countless other atrocities in Iraq and Syria—as well as in Gaza, Afghanistan, Pakistan and many countries in Africa—seem not to have. But given the disastrous consequences of previous military interventions, as well as the continually evolving and incredibly complex situation in the Middle East, it has perhaps never been more important to curb that natural instinct for retaliation and the use of hard power and consider the root causes. In this it may be helpful to reflect on what an elderly woman in Northern Ireland said to one of the former heads of our national counterterrorism organisation before the peace talks: ‘If you’ve got nothing to live for, you’ve got everything to die for.’
The challenges in Iraq—some caused and others exacerbated by the ill-judged coalition of the willing in 2003 —arise from deep ethnic communal, cultural and religious issues. As the Ottoman Turks discovered, and as has become even clearer ever since, these issues are never going to be resolved by outsiders, especially not outsiders with guns and bombs, and not by approaching this as a crusade against a death cult. Fundamentally, this is an issue of human security. And does anyone believe you can ensure the security of humans by bombing humans? At the centre of any credible national security policy is human security—individual wellbeing and community harmony that allows people everywhere to go about their business without fear, without constraints on their freedoms as enshrined in law and without the constant worry that someone wants to take their possessions and enslave their children. That, of course, is the essential meaning of the term ‘security': without worry—sine cura, for the classicists. The authoritative and internationally respected commentator Rachel Shabi made the following observations just this week:
It should be obvious by now that if such bombing campaigns have an effect, it is to make things much worse. What western leaders portray as valiant efforts to rid the world of evil forces such as ISIL just don’t play the same way in the region. In Iraq, for instance, western military intervention is viewed as support for the authoritarian,sectarian and West-approved leadership, whose persecution and air strikes are so bad that many Sunnis are prepared to put up with ISIL, for now, as preferable. Western military intervention thus gives ISIL its recruitment fuel of choice: A war with a self-interested external enemy around which to galvanise support.
Meanwhile, arming supposed “moderates” in Syria is equally delusional: Even self-declared moderates have on the ground, allied with the currently dominant ISIL in the fight against dictator Bashar al-Assad, and even these so-called moderates have carried out beheadings and other brutalities. A cursory glance around the region shows exactly what happens when the West arms groups that somehow fit the “moderate” descriptive; as one writer most succinctly puts it: “The terrorists fighting us now? We just finished training them.”
As with the situation between Russia and Ukraine, Australia has no strategic stake or status in Iraq and Syria, except as a compassionate and engaged member of the international community. One has to ask why on earth the UN was not our first port of call, especially at a time when we occupy a valuable seat on the UN Security Council, where we can examine with other countries who are more familiar with the situation in the region than we are the potential for political and diplomatic solutions. That means considering the use of smart rather than hard power.
It has been a matter of great surprise and disappointment to me that the government has not engaged with the UN before committing special forces and equipment to the so-called coalition of the concerned. In my view we should be endeavouring to ensure that there is a broadbased international partnership engaging moderate Islamic states such as Indonesia and Malaysia as well as neighbouring Middle Eastern states such as Jordan and Turkey, under the auspices of the UN, to address the very real humanitarian and human security issues that are at the heart of the current problem.
In my earlier speech on the Iraq conflict, on 4 September, I called for a formal debate in the Australian parliament. While this would be unlikely to change the result, it would represent an open and proper process for the Australian government in relation to its involvement in a conflict that will be costly and will inevitably have serious and uncertain geopolitical consequences. At this point it is very poorly defined, in terms of timescale, objectives, cost, rationale, international legal basis and underlying international agreement.
Such a debate would have the effect of airing the many issues and questions that remain unanswered. For instance, how does the use of armed force, in the manner that the US, Australia and other participants in the current coalition intend to apply it, actually serve the humanitarian and political objectives that should be at the centre of the international community’s response to events in Northern Iraq and Syria?
Airstrikes in Northern Iraq may deplete IS but also are likely to displace some IS members to other parts of Iraq and Syria. After the billions spent by the coalition of the willing on training and equipping the Iraqi army, it still seems as though its capacity to deal with such threats remains limited. Does this then mean a second attempt to train and equip the Iraqis? Why would this be any more successful than the first time? Does it mean a return to boots on the ground in Iraq and, if so, by which countries? What will happen in Syria where Bashar al-Assad’s forces have committed atrocities against civilians on a grander scale than IS and where various countries have provided funds and weapons, to either side, to continue that conflict by proxy?
If the proposal is to arm only moderate, Free Syrian Army fighters—as opposed to, say, an al-Qaeda linked group like al-Nusra—what would make such fighters stop fighting Assad and start fighting ISIL? Are we going to start arming Hezbollah or the Syrian army itself against ISIL? Is it possible to guarantee that weapons will not be used against civilians? How will the coalition deal with the participation of countries, such as Saudi Arabia, that have been involved in supporting Sunni jihadist groups, like IS?
Let us remember that Saudi Arabia is a country in which beheadings by the government regime are commonplace, including for the offence of sorcery. How will the coalition treat its partner Egypt, where hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters have been sentenced to death and where journalists, including Peter Greste, have been sentenced to long jail terms after sham trials? How will our government treat Australians citizens who have travelled abroad to fight with moderate groups against Assad and/or IS? Will they be the recipients of our weapons and assistance in Iraq or Syria, only to be prosecuted when they try to come home?
There is an enormous danger in moving so quickly that these questions are not examined and when the possible consequences are not thought through, anticipated and planned for. I am not suggesting that we should not be involved in protecting civilians from atrocities or that we should not endeavour to bring perpetrators of these crimes to justice. Our actions should be based on humanitarian objectives and in accordance with the international rule of law.
I am concerned too about the increased security risk to Australians everywhere as a result of our involvement infurther action in Iraq. I was working for the UN in the Middle East when Australia joined the so-called coalitionof the willing, in 2003. I was advised by security officers of the heightened risk I faced as a result of Australia’snvolvement in that the debacle. In some places, such as Egypt, I was even advised not to disclose the fact thatI was Australian.
We Australians like to think of ourselves as universally loved but this is not always the case, particularly as aresult of our involvement in Iraq in 2003 and the public positions taken from time to time by Australian politicalleaders in support of Israel’s actions against the Palestinians, even where these are plainly contrary to internationallaw. These issues matter to a great many people in the world and we are foolish if we fail to think through theconsequences of our words and actions. One of these consequences is the fertile ground such issues provide forthe recruitment of new members to the extremist cause.
Finally, I note that with the present focus on national security it is extraordinary that the Prime Minister is not attending the global summit on climate change. In this year’s quadrennial defence review, the US defence department describes the threat of climate change as a very serious national security vulnerability. Australia’s current national security strategy with climate change, along with the threat of the resurgence of violent political groups, has a broad global challenge with national security implications. National security is not all about jet fighters and special-action forces or even the numbers and powers of the Australian police. If the Prime Minister really wants Australians to insouciantly go about their business, he needs to re-examine his climate change policy—or lack thereof—which many Australians, as demonstrated in yesterday’s climate-action rallies, regard as regressive, ignorant, destructive and politically self-indulgent.
No-one will argue against steps to genuinely improve the security of Australians, but the core issue here is whether the steps this government is taking at home and abroad are being properly considered and calibrated to meet the reality rather than the hype, to achieve properly defined outcomes rather than draw us into yet another counter-productive military engagement. That judgement cannot be made when there is no meaningful debate in the national parliament. (Time expired)