Press "Enter" to skip to content

Statements On Iraq: Downer And Crean Speak In House Debate

The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer, has delivered a parliamentary statement on Iraq.

The Opposition Leader, Simon Crean, responded to Downer’s speech, as divisions within the ALP intensified over the issue.

Following the statements by Downer and Crean, a further 36 members of the House spoke in the debate.

  • Listen to Downer (35m – transcript below)
  • Listen to Crean (34m – transcript below)

Hansard transcript of Statement on Iraq by Foreign Minister Alexander Downer.

Mr DOWNER (Minister for Foreign Affairs) (3:10 PM) —by leave—Mr Speaker, the announcement this morning by the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, that Iraq has told him that it has decided to allow the return of weapons inspectors immediately and without conditions is, on the face of it, a promising first step. I hope this is the start of a genuine diplomatic solution, a course Australia has always supported. But experience with Iraq demonstrates that the international community must not take Saddam Hussein’s commitments at face value. Caution is essential. Australia has never been naive about President Saddam Hussein. He is a past master of last-minute manoeuvres to head off decisive action. And he is renowned for his unpredictability.

A return of inspectors would, of itself, provide no assurance to the international community—which explains Australia’s firm position that resumed inspections must be unfettered and unconditional, and lead to the complete and permanent disarmament of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. I will at the end of this statement table the letter from the Foreign Minister of Iraq, Dr Naji Sabri, to the Secretary-General of the United Nations, and the Secretary-General’s letter to the President of the United Nations Security Council so the House has access to both of those documents.

Just under a week ago we marked the anniversary of the terrorist attacks in the United States that took place on 11 September 2001, attacks that created a new dimension in international affairs. On September 11, terrorists turned civil aircraft into missiles and brought a new and threatening challenge to our security and to our way of life. This change has inevitably brought with it a new sense of vulnerability, a sense that is not unique to the United States but applies equally to countries such as Australia, for Australia is not immune from the threats posed by irrational actors and new and devastating categories of weapons.

Responsible governments are compelled to respond and to address this vulnerability. We must identify those who use terror and those who have the capacity and the motive to acquire and use weapons of mass destruction, for they seek to undermine free societies and the values we share and to harm our citizens. We need to challenge those who challenge international order. As the Prime Minister has emphasised, we can no longer afford to leave such threats unattended.

It is against this background that Saddam Hussein’s ambition to develop and deploy chemical, biological and nuclear weapons simply cannot be ignored. Combined with his record of aggression, both within and across Iraq’s borders, he threatens international security and directly challenges the authority of the United Nations and international law.

The international community is without doubt confronted with a grave threat. The international community concluded years ago that Saddam Hussein’s regime was a regime with an appalling record. Without provocation, Saddam Hussein invaded Iran and later Kuwait, resulting in the deaths of over one million people. During the five-year war against Iran, Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons—mustard and nerve agents—on at least 10 occasions. Between 25,000 and 30,000 people died from those weapons. In its attacks against its neighbours Iraq has also used Scud missiles, firing more than 500 at Iran during the Iran-Iraq war and almost 90 at Israel, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain during the Gulf War.

Saddam Hussein has been equally brutal towards his own people. He has not hesitated to use chemical weapons against them. His aircraft bombed the town of Halabja in Iraq itself with chemical weapons in 1988, leaving 5,000 Iraqi Kurds dead and 7,000 injured or with long-term illnesses. More generally, his record of human rights abuses is well known, and it is appalling. His regime routinely tortures and ill-treats detainees. Suspected political opponents and their relatives are arrested arbitrarily. A ruthless and pervasive internal security apparatus keeps the Iraqi people in a climate of fear, intolerance, uncertainty and deprivation.

While our concern about Saddam Hussein is not new, it is now more immediate. His regime’s actions remain a matter of great and growing concern to the international community, including Australia. We are a country with global interests and a history of active and responsible participation in world affairs. We cannot just stand by. It is important that parliament and the Australian community more broadly understand the reasons for our heightened concerns about Iraq and why we believe it is necessary to address them.

I will address four issues here today: first, Iraq’s persistent failure to comply with UN Security Council resolutions; second, Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, including the implication of Iraq’s refusal since 1998 to accept UN inspectors, and its links with international terrorism; third, possible developments in the UN Security Council based on my discussions with council members and several Middle Eastern foreign ministers, including Dr Naji Sabri, the foreign minister of Iraq; and, finally, why Australia has important national interests at stake in the resolution of the Iraq issue.

But we are still in a diplomatic phase, as today’s events have demonstrated only too clearly, with the objective of persuading Iraq to comply with its United Nations obligations. We are not at the stage of making decisions about possible military commitments. The United States has made no decision to take military action and we have not been invited to participate in military action.

For over a decade Iraq has persistently defied legally binding obligations to disclose and eradicate its weapons of mass destruction programs and capabilities. It has flouted and frustrated UN resolutions, UN inspections and UN sanctions. In April 1991, following the Gulf War, the UN Security Council passed resolution 687—a resolution that laid down the conditions of the cease-fire between the UN-sanctioned allies and Iraq. Importantly, it required Iraq to accept unconditionally the destruction and removal of all chemical and biological weapons, all stocks of agents, and all ballistic missiles with a range greater than 150 kilometres. The resolution also required Iraq to agree not to acquire or develop nuclear weapons. It had to declare all elements of its chemical, biological, nuclear and missile programs—within 15 days. The resolution established the United Nations Special Commission on Iraq, known as UNSCOM, the UN agency mandated to carry out inspections and destroy or remove Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons and missiles. The International Atomic Energy Agency, the IAEA, was to uncover and dismantle Iraq’s nuclear weapons program.

Iraq initially accepted inspectors from both UNSCOM and the IAEA, and these agencies subsequently discovered, documented and destroyed substantial elements of a large, advanced and lethal weapons of mass destruction program—a point I will return to shortly. But as the inspectors made more and more significant inroads into the Iraqi weapons program, Iraq became more and more obstructionist. Its actions constituted clear and material breaches of Security Council resolutions. New Security Council resolutions demanding Iraqi compliance were passed when Iraq systematically blocked the full access of inspectors to suspect sites, or when Iraq concealed or removed materials from sites inspectors were about to visit. But the Security Council’s attempts to steer Iraq back on course were met with a continuing pattern of obstruction and non-compliance.

Inspectors learned that in 1991 Iraq had destroyed critical evidence about its weapons of mass destruction. For instance, only in the face of information provided by a high-level defection in 1995 did Iraq admit it had produced and concealed biological weapons. Iraq’s pattern of frustrating the UNSCOM inspection program continued until UNSCOM was in effect forced out in 1998.

In short, Iraq consistently refused to comply fully with nearly all of the obligations imposed upon it; that is, 23 out of 27 obligations contained in nine Security Council resolutions. It is a serial transgressor. The resolutions were entirely reasonable. They set out what the international community required so it could be satisfied that Iraq no longer presented an unacceptable threat to its neighbours or to global security.

At the end of this statement, I will table a 15-page UNSCOM document. I would encourage members to read this document. It provides an extraordinary chronology of main events associated with UNSCOM’s work, in particular the way in which Iraq frustrated its work. Given today’s undertaking by Iraq, it justifies our caution, and I recommend that all members of the House read the document carefully.

Let us be very clear—the reason for the present crisis lies at no nation’s door but Iraq’s. Iraq has had more than a decade to determine that its interests and those of its people lay with compliance and to act accordingly. Iraq’s persistent defiance displays a clear pattern of lies, concealment and harassment that would be dangerous to ignore. Now the international community has to decide how it will deal with this defiance.

Let me now turn to my second point: Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Throughout the 1990s, UN inspectors in Iraq supervised or verified the destruction of:

· about 100,000 chemical munitions

· over 400 tonnes of bulk chemical agents, and

· over 2,600 tonnes of chemicals, known as precursors, which could have been used to make weapons.

Iraq initially lied to UN inspectors about producing VX, one of the most toxic of all known chemical warfare agents. It continues to deny ever weaponising VX, even though UN inspectors uncovered unambiguous physical evidence in 1998. UNSCOM uncovered documentation which suggested Iraq had in the order of an additional 6,000 undeclared chemical munitions. UNSCOM could not confirm Iraq’s claim to have destroyed 500 artillery shells filled with mustard gas and 500 aerial bombs for delivery of chemical weapons.

UNSCOM assessed that major uncertainties still exist concerning some 4,000 tonnes of declared chemical precursors, including 200 tonnes of precursors used in the production of VX. Only after the defection in 1995 of General Hussein Kamil—Saddam Hussein’s son-in-law—did Iraq admit it had produced over 19,000 litres of botulinum toxin, almost 8,500 litres of anthrax and over 2,000 litres of aflatoxin. At the end of 1998, UN inspectors judged that Iraq could have produced two to four times more biological weapons agent than it had declared.

UNSCOM judged the biological weapons program to be the most incompletely documented of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programs. It concluded that Iraq possesses an industrial capacity and knowledge base through which biological warfare agents could be produced quickly and in volume, if Iraq decided to do so. UNSCOM reported that in 1997 Iraq still had 79 facilities capable of playing a role in biological weapons production.

Iraq admitted to UN inspectors that it had produced missile warheads filled with chemical and biological weapons. The inspectors supervised or verified the destruction of several different types of delivery systems, including ballistic missile warheads, artillery shells and aerial bombs. But UN inspectors were unable to establish that all these warheads had been destroyed.

Iraq is known to have tested unmanned aerial vehicles and airborne spraying devices as possible delivery systems for biological and chemical weapons. After it was effectively forced to leave Iraq, UNSCOM reported to the UN Security Council in early 1999 that Iraq’s claims that it had destroyed all its chemical and biological weapons could not be verified. At the time the inspectors were forced to leave Iraq, UNSCOM assessed that Iraq had:

· a residual, illegal long-range missile capability

· a quantity of chemical munitions

· the ability to manufacture more of those, including the toxic VX agent, and

· a biological weapons manufacturing capability.

Let us not forget what these chemical and biological weapons do to their victims. The effects of chemical weapons are horrific. Mustard gas burns or blisters any part of the skin it touches. Many Australian families will recall the awful and persistent effects it had on Australian soldiers who fought during the First World War. Just a few droplets of chemical nerve agents such as tabun, sarin and VX will kill within minutes if inhaled or within hours if absorbed through the skin. These agents attack the central nervous system, causing rapid paralysis, respiratory failure and death by asphyxiation. Biological agents like anthrax, botulinum toxin, gas gangrene, aflatoxin and ricin are either lethal or incapacitate people in various ways. Like chemical weapons, they are indiscriminate in their application.

Since 1998 and the departure of the UN inspectors, there has been an accumulation of intelligence information from a range of human and technical sources pointing to Saddam Hussein having continued or stepped up his weapons of mass destruction programs. Australian intelligence agencies report Iraq’s continuing attempts to procure equipment, material and technologies that could assist its weapons of mass destruction program. They judge that Saddam Hussein’s desire for weapons of mass destruction remains undiminished.

Iraq has been working to increase its chemical and biological weapons capability over the past four years. Let me give you three examples, based on intelligence reports. First, there has been some reconstruction and renovation of dual-use chemical weapons production facilities, like chlorine and phenol plants. This includes chemical production facilities at Fallujah on the outskirts of Baghdad. Secondly, defectors involved in Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction program reported the continuing development of its biological and chemical capability, including in mobile biological weapons production plants and in hospitals. Thirdly, in 2001 Iraq announced it would be renovating a facility at al-Dawrah that it claims is a foot-and-mouth disease vaccine facility. This facility was known to be a biological weapons agent production facility before the Gulf War.

In addition, Iraq is also believed to retain a small number of Scud-variant missiles, launchers and warheads. UNSCOM was unable fully to account for Iraqi Scud-type missiles, warheads and components. In particular, it was not able to verify Iraq’s claims relating to the number of missiles and warheads it claimed to have destroyed unilaterally.

During the 1980s, Iraq developed the capacity to build and to extend the range of Scud missiles capable of delivering both chemical and biological warheads. The extended range Scuds have a range of about 650 kilometres, making them capable of striking neighbouring countries, including Israel, Saudi Arabia, Iran and some other Gulf States. Iraq is forbidden by Security Council resolution 687 from possessing ballistic missiles with a range greater than 150 kilometres, as I have mentioned. Iraq is also suspected of retaining components and production equipment for these missiles. Before the Gulf War, Iraq also conducted an extensive, clandestine nuclear weapons program, in clear breach of its obligations under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors mandated to implement the nuclear dimension of the United Nations Security Council resolutions were, like UNSCOM, denied access to Iraq after 1998.

As with chemical and biological weapons, the Australian government has no reason to believe that Saddam Hussein has abandoned his ambition to acquire nuclear weapons. All the circumstances suggest the opposite. Australian intelligence agencies believe there is evidence of a pattern of acquisition of equipment that could be used in a uranium enrichment program. Iraq’s attempted acquisition of very specific types of aluminium tubes may be part of that pattern. Iraq still has the expertise and the information to reconstitute a nuclear weapons program and may have continued work on uranium enrichment and weapons design. And Iraq could shorten the lead time for producing nuclear weapons if it were able to acquire fissile material from elsewhere. The International Institute for Strategic Studies—an independent research organisation—concluded that Saddam Hussein could build a nuclear bomb within months if he were able to obtain fissile material. Iraq may also be using its program for the development of short-range missiles, permitted by the United Nations, to develop prohibited longer range missiles. There have been recent indications, including from intelligence sources, of new construction work on missile related production and test facilities. Iraq may well be developing longer range missiles prohibited by Security Council resolution 687. The government’s view is that there is good reason to be extremely worried about the status of Iraq’s programs. Any reasonable person would have to share that view. Indeed, while in New York last week I was struck by the broad consensus which exists regarding Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction capabilities.

It would be appropriate at this stage to say something also about the Iraqi regime’s involvement with international terrorism. Terrorism, as I think the House would agree, is contrary to all civilised values. Iraq has a long history of state-sponsored terrorism. Saddam Hussein has consistently used terror as a key instrument of his regime’s policies and has supported its use by others. The Iraqi regime has long supported, hosted, funded and trained Palestinian and other terrorist groups, including the Abu Nidal Organisation and the Palestine Liberation Front, led by Abu Abbas. The Abu Nidal Organisation is responsible for major terrorist attacks in 20 countries. The Palestine Liberation Front has mounted many attacks against Israel—members may remember the attack by the PLF on the cruise ship Achille Lauro some years ago—and it has undertaken state-directed terrorist activities in other countries, including many of Iraq’s neighbours, over a long period. Iraq has developed and supported the Mujaheddin-e-Khalq, which undertakes terrorist attacks against Iraq’s neighbour, Iran, and in other countries—including on one occasion in Australia. I remind the House that it was this body that attacked Iranian diplomats in Canberra in 1992. The Mujaheddin-e-Khalq has several thousand armed supporters located at bases throughout Iraq. It is armed with weapons, including tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and artillery. In recent times, the Iraqi regime has openly praised suicide attacks against Israelis. It provides substantial financial grants, to the sum of $US25,000, to families of Palestinian suicide bombers. A nightmare for the international community would be for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction to find their way into the hands of terrorist organisations. And also, recent intelligence sources have confirmed the presence of Al-Qaeda members in Iraq.

Let me now turn to my third point. We have been in extensive consultations with the United States administration for some time—more than a number of months but certainly in the last few months—on Iraq. Recently the Prime Minister spoke to President Bush on the matter. We are very pleased with the process outlined by the President in his address to the General Assembly on September 12. As the House knows, I returned today from New York, where I had the opportunity to discuss the Iraqi situation with a range of colleagues, including United States Secretary of State, Colin Powell, the US National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice, the British Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, French foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, Russian foreign minister Ivanov, the President of the European Union Foreign Ministers, Per Stig Moller, and several foreign ministers from Arab countries. Everyone I spoke to agreed that the threat from Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programs was real and could not be ignored by the international community. No-one argued with that proposition. There was also a clear understanding that the authority of the United Nations was at stake—a point also made in UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s speech to the General Assembly on September 12. I stressed the importance of what can be broadly described as due process and the need for the Security Council to meet its responsibilities in addressing the threat to international peace and security.

I said Australia’s considered view was that the longer we wait, the more time we give Iraq to work on new and covert ways to produce and deliver these weapons. I said Australia believed that the United Nations has been patient. It had worked hard to satisfy Iraq’s concerns about the previous inspection body, UNSCOM, by designing a new and more streamlined inspection body, known as UNMOVIC. The Secretary-General has been unstinting in his efforts to get Iraq to comply with Security Council resolutions. I also said that the requirements set out in United Nations resolutions would be satisfied only if inspectors are given immediate, unconditional and unrestricted access to all areas, facilities, equipment, records and relevant Iraqi officials. Finally, I said that while Australia would welcome new leadership in Baghdad our primary concern was the threat posed by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and its fundamental breach of international law.

With all relevant interlocutors in New York, especially the permanent members of the Security Council, I urged a fresh resolution be passed condemning Iraq for non-compliance with existing resolutions, demanding the immediate return of inspectors to fulfil their responsibilities and a short time frame for this resolution to be adhered to. Australia has been more agnostic on the question of whether there should be more than one resolution. I do not think the events of today mean that the Security Council can now all of a sudden disengage from these questions. It is clear from my discussions that the permanent members of the Security Council are very conscious of their responsibilities and are indeed engaged in discussions on possible resolutions.

I also had a meeting with the Iraqi foreign minister, Dr Naji Sabri. Although some countries have refused contact with the Iraqi regime, I judged that Australia should leave no stone unturned in our efforts to get Iraq to comply with international law and disarm and destroy its weapons of mass destruction. I asked him quite directly why, if Iraq had nothing to hide, his government refused to allow comprehensive inspections. I told him that, if Iraq had nothing to hide from the international community, it also had nothing to fear from the international community. Indeed, by meeting the demands of the international community, Iraq and its people have everything to gain.

Iraq’s announcement today that it is prepared to accept the immediate and unconditional return of weapons inspectors is a direct response to the strong stand taken by the international community, including—importantly and very significantly—Iraq’s Arab neighbours. Australia has been playing, and will continue to play, its part in bringing pressure to bear on Iraq. The onus is now squarely on Iraq to allow the immediate and unfettered inspections leading to the complete and permanent disarmament of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. The Security Council cannot allow Iraq to resile from today’s commitment, as unfortunately it has done in the past.

My fourth point relates to Australia’s national interests, which are directly involved here, and in very concrete ways. We have a fundamental interest in global security. We need to understand the ramifications that could flow from Iraq continuing to defy the authority of the Security Council and successfully pursuing its program for weapons of mass destruction. It would do enormous damage to the system of collective security so painstakingly built up over the past 57 years since the end of World War II. It would encourage the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction to other countries and even to other regions. It would encourage some to believe that treaty obligations—such as those taken on by Iraq in the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and the biological weapons convention—can be flouted with impunity.

Because it is in our security interests, Australia has been at the forefront of UN and other work to develop and strengthen agreements to impede the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. We lead the Australia Group, which imposes controls on chemical and biological agents; we are at the forefront of efforts to strengthen the non-proliferation treaty; and in 1996 we brought the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty to life through the United Nations General Assembly. For these reasons, we contributed strongly to UNSCOM. Over 110 Australians served with UNSCOM during its seven years of operation, making Australia the fourth-largest national contributor. Hence, we have a major stake in the effectiveness of these expressions of collective will.

Australia also has an important stake in the stability of the Middle East. An Iraq with the capability to menace the region with weapons of mass destruction would be destabilising and have major economic consequences for the world and for Australia, given the vital role that secure supplies of Middle Eastern oil play in the global economy. Let us be clear: chemical and biological weapons are not ordinary weapons. They are designed to cause mass casualties and they are indiscriminate. They kill or incapacitate in horrendous ways. In the hands of malign or unpredictable leaders, they are weapons of terror. They have no place in conventional warfare. They have no place in modern civilisation.

The purpose of this statement has been specific; namely, to update the House on Iraq’s ambition to develop and deploy chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, and to say something about my recent meetings in New York on this issue. We also need to take cautious account—as I have said already—of Iraq’s letter to the United Nations Secretary-General. Obviously Australia hopes that this crisis will be resolved diplomatically and peacefully, through strong action by the Security Council involving full compliance by Iraq with its international obligations. In the weeks ahead the authority of the Security Council will be put to the test. The international community must not be seduced by words alone. We must not forget that it was Iraq that drove the weapons inspectors out in 1998 and has denied them access for four years. It is Iraq which, after four years without inspections, has to disprove that it possesses weapons of mass destruction.

The crisis is not over. We must not reverse the onus of proof by taking it away from Iraq, the transgressor, and placing it on the international community. I wish to table, for the interest of the House, the UNSCOM chronology of main events, which I think the House will find very interesting to read; a letter from the Iraqi minister for foreign affairs, Dr Naji Sabri, to the United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan; a letter from the Secretary-General to the President of the United Nations Security Council; and my ministerial statement. I move:

That the House take note of the papers.

Mr WILLIAMS (Tangney—Attorney-General) (3.45 p.m.)—by leave—I move:

That so much of the standing and sessional orders be suspended as would prevent Mr Crean (Leader of the Opposition) speaking for a period not exceeding 34 minutes, Mr Rudd for 20 minutes and all other Members to speak to the motion for 10 minutes each.

Question agreed to.

Hansard transcript of response to the Statement on Iraq by Opposition Leader Simon Crean.

Mr CREAN (Leader of the Opposition) (3:46 PM) —The onus is on Iraq to comply with UN resolutions—that we agree with—but the process for discharging the onus must squarely rest with the United Nations. It is rightly back there now, and appropriately so, since the intervention of the United States President last week. Up until now, Iraq has failed the onus of proof by not complying with UN Security Council resolutions. That we all know; that has been the case for the last four years; on that we all agree. But the debate today is not about whether Iraq will comply—it must—nor is it about any reversal of the onus of proof. The debate today is about whether the international community acts justly, effectively and appropriately in ensuring that compliance with its resolutions does occur.

The ends do not justify the means. At all times we must act within international law to secure Iraq’s compliance. After all, it is with international law that we are demanding that Iraq comply, and the best way to ensure compliance—as we have seen today with the welcome announcement by Iraq to allow the weapons inspectors back in—is through multilateral, not unilateral, actions sanctioned by the United Nations.

There are two important things to note about this statement by the foreign minister today. The first is that it finally is allowing this parliament to have a debate on an issue that is at the forefront of most people’s minds. Daily talk of the threat of war, exposing our troops yet again to danger, is something that is never far from our minds. You only have to look at the newspapers, day in and day out, to see the importance that this issue is attaching; but this is the first occasion on which this parliament has been allowed to have that debate. It is something that Labor has been calling for for some time. We welcome the fact that this debate is taking place today. What I think is sad, though, is that the Prime Minister, himself, is not reporting to this parliament. If it is good enough for the British Prime Minister to report to the House of Commons and recall it, if it is good enough for the US President to report to the United Nations, why, Prime Minister, shouldn’t you report to the people’s house and tell us what your strategy is in terms of Iraq?

Well and good for the foreign minister to report on recent discussions—I do not deny the significance of that—but you, Prime Minister, should have been leading this debate. You should have been leading the debate in the public, not following it. I invite you—because you are here in the chamber now—to take the opportunity, when I have finished, to address this parliament on what your strategy is, particularly given the significant development today: the announcement by Iraq of its preparedness to allow in, without conditions, the UN weapons inspectors. What we want to know, Prime Minister, is what your strategy is from here. I am going to be taking the opportunity to outline how the Labor Party would advance this issue. I invite you, Prime Minister, to do likewise. So, as welcome as the debate is, it is disappointing that the Prime Minister is not leading it. Every leader in the world who is taking this issue seriously is addressing it through their democratic processes—with one exception: the Prime Minister of Australia.

The second point to note from the foreign minister’s statement is that, by way of evidence, it appears to contain no new evidence—and that is important, given the questions that we were asking of the Prime Minister yesterday. In the parliamentary break of the last fortnight or so, the defence minister and the Prime Minister have both been out in the public domain, giving everyone the impression that they have new evidence at their disposal but that it is intelligence that must be protected. I accept the latter bit, but the defence minister promised that he would have the information declassified and then made public. The Prime Minister is on the public record as having said that he too had additional information. I might say that the Prime Minister really was arguing that he did not need any additional information—he had all he needed; but he was holding out the hope that there was additional information. Yesterday, in question time, we saw the Prime Minister retreat to the form that he had adopted previously: that we have all the information we need; that the fact that noncompliance has occurred is sufficient in its own right.

I am saying to this House today that the evidence that has been presented by the foreign minister has been on the public record. If anyone needs any evidence of that, what is the attachment that he has tabled to this parliament in this great debate that we are having? It is a document dated December 1999. I think it is important that the parliament actually has before it this record, because it is important in helping us make our judgments, but it is an insult to this parliament to come forward with the only attachment in terms of new evidence—a document that is three years old and already on the public record. The one piece of welcome new evidence today is that Iraq is prepared to comply with the UN. What we have not heard from the government is how it intends to address this matter now. What did we hear from the government? It was `agnostic’ about the way forward. That is not good enough, Foreign Minister. The government really needs to have a view as to how we should proceed in Australia’s national interests, and I will come to that when I give our response.

The evidence is important in making the case. As I said, we were told by the Prime Minister that he had additional information. The defence minister says he has additional information. That is what they say out in public, but when they have the opportunity to come into parliament and present it, they do not. I think that is important, because it is another example of a government prepared to say anything out there in the public domain to support its case but not to back it up in this parliament, which the Prime Minister has acknowledged has to be the forum that determines whether or not Australian troops are sent to war. If we are going to make that decision, we should have the evidence; we should not be played around with. The evidence needs to be presented.

The foreign minister’s address goes to four important issues. The first is Iraq’s failure to comply with the UN Security Council’s resolution. But that has been the case since 1998, Foreign Minister. What is different is that US President Bush has reactivated, by his intervention last week, the UN process, and in reactivating it, there is to be a new test. The new test will be the consequence of the resolution or resolutions that the UN Security Council adopts. So it is not sufficient to simply comply with existing resolutions. A new test has been established, and that is why it is important for this government to outline how those resolutions should be progressed and what Australia will be supporting in relation to those resolutions.

The second issue that the foreign minister’s speech goes to is Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Again, as I have said, the chronology of events that has been tabled by him is three years old. In his speech, he uses three examples, which he says are based on intelligence reports. On my information, all of these examples have been in the public domain as well; in other words, there is nothing new about them, and to try to come in under the pretence of his speech and say he is giving us new evidence based on intelligence reports is just a furphy.

Mr Downer —Are you saying it does not matter?

Mr CREAN —No, it does matter. I accept the fact that it matters, but don’t pretend it is new evidence. Don’t pretend it is new evidence and don’t pretend that you are divulging something based on intelligence reports to cover—

Mr Downer —It is evidence.

The SPEAKER —The minister was heard in silence and will extend the same courtesy to the Leader of the Opposition. The Leader of the Opposition will address his remarks through the chair.

Mr CREAN —Don’t pretend that what you are doing is giving this parliament what the defence minister and the Prime Minister promised during the break over the last couple of weeks.

The third issue that the foreign minister’s speech goes to is the possible developments in the UN Security Council. But instead of a coherent forward plan, the foreign minister admits that the government is agnostic on the next step—that is what you said, Foreign Minister: `agnostic’. I will be putting forward a more comprehensive proposal on how Australia should proceed later in my speech.

The final point that the foreign minister touched on was the national interest. This is something that the Prime Minister has referred to and that I referred to in the address that I made to the RSL a few weeks ago. It is a phrase that the government asserts but does not define. It is important for the Australian people to understand what the government believes is in Australia’s national interests because that is fundamental to determining the direction that we take: does it meet the tests of national interest? There is no point talking about the national interest unless you are going to spell out what it means—and I will, later in my address.

There is no greater commitment in public life than protecting our national interests from threats to peace and security and deploying troops overseas if they are needed. In the wake of September 11, the argument has been made that threats to international security must be dealt with quickly and forcefully. I agree, but it remains our firm conviction that the best way of handling those security threats is through the framework of international law and the United Nations system.

Today I want to outline Labor’s alternative approach in three key areas. One, Labor said in April that the United Nations processes needed to be exhausted. Today’s welcome development is vindication of that stance which we took back in April—for which we were criticised by this government but which they have now embraced. Two, I have called for a full parliamentary debate. What we want is the Prime Minister leading that debate and telling us what his strategy is on the way forward. It is essential that the Prime Minister report to the Australian people and take them with him. He says he needs bipartisan support; that is what the parliament has delivered consistently in the past, but it will only happen if you take the people with you. You cannot deliver it in the people’s house unless you take the people with you. For that you need to open up to them and be prepared to explain what it is you are advancing. That is why again, Prime Minister, I challenge you today to come forward and explain to the Australian people just what direction you see Australia going in. Three, we have to define the course ahead. It must be based on our national interest and undertaken through the United Nations system.

Today’s decision by the Iraqi government to allow the unconditional return of UN weapons inspectors is welcome. As I said before, it vindicates Labor’s approach to date. It demonstrates what Labor have consistently said all along: the UN processes are the most effective mechanism for resolving the stand-off with Iraq. It is essential that the UN processes continue to be pursued. We must get a diplomatic solution on Iraq to avoid the necessity of war and we must ensure that UN resolutions are complied with fully and effectively. That is why Labor have been calling for a United Nations solution to the Iraq issue based on full disclosure of the public evidence. We first called for that back in April. Back then, I said:

We are of the view that on Iraqi WMD—

that is, weapons of mass destruction—

the international community should exhaust the options available under the fresh mandate for UNMOVIC

I went on:

UNMOVIC should be given a reasonable but finite period within which to enforce its mandate in Iraq In the event of UNMOVIC’s failure, we would still require—

and this is important to understand—

convincing evidence of Iraqi complicity in the terrorist attack on September 11 or WMD before committing to support direct US military action against Iraq.

That is what I said back in April. I also said:

Labor will insist that the government make available all relevant evidence and that the Parliament should be recalled as a matter or urgency, so that the matter can be debated and then determined.

On 16 August I wrote to the Prime Minister asking him to make a parliamentary statement. So our position has remained clear and consistent all the way through: work through the United Nations system; allow a full and formal debate in the parliament, led by the Prime Minister; and produce the evidence if further action is required.

The Prime Minister continues to tell us that sufficient evidence exists, but he will not share it with the Australian people. The public are not satisfied with that, Prime Minister. When we called for these diplomatic solutions and a full public debate, the government attacked us as appeasers and heaped ridicule on our approach. But now they have adopted that very policy. Since our statement in April calling for the United Nations to produce a diplomatic solution, what have the government done? In April, US Vice-President Cheney indicated that the US would consider a pre-emptive military strike to achieve genuine `regime change’; in May, the Minister for Defence agreed. Labor opposed that view. Then, in July, the Minister for Foreign Affairs said that Labor’s refusal to endorse in advance any US attack on Iraq was appeasement.

Mr Downer —I didn’t say that.

Mr CREAN —You did say that, Minister. You do not even know what you said; that is your problem. You are so inconsistent in this debate that you cannot recall what you said, but you said it.

The SPEAKER —The Leader of the Opposition will address his remarks through the chair.

Mr CREAN —In August, the Treasurer said I was mouthing the words of the Iraqi representative in Australia. That was followed up two days later by Lord Echo over the road here, who went so far as to say that I was `talking like Saddam Hussein’—even though I was urging the very position the government has now adopted. Just a week later, after speaking to the US President, the Prime Minister changed the government’s line again: he was urging the UN to take a tougher stance against Iraq. After the announcement that Mr Blair would recall the UK parliament, the Prime Minister choked on his Weeties at the Lodge that morning, got straight on the phone to AM and said he was going to allow a debate in this parliament. Never mind the opinion polls going against them and the threat to wheat sales; they only took the decision about the debate and the UN approach after George Bush said it was all right and after Tony Blair said he was going to recall the UK parliament. It was a complete about-face by the government.

The government have badly misread the Australian public on this issue. They have left the impression that they will only follow the US, not stand up for Australian interests in their own right. We need a Prime Minister prepared to stand up for Australia’s interests. They have had total policy turmoil. In the space of a couple of weeks we have had the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer, go from hawk to dove—but I think that all Australians just think he has looked like a complete galah.

Just as I set out our position in April, today I want to set out the course of action that Australia should take from here. It is a two-stage process. The announcement by Iraq today that it will allow the unconditional return of weapons inspectors shows the fundamental importance of strong, decisive UN action. It is now up to the UN Security Council to set a reasonable but finite time frame for Iraq to comply with its obligations and allow the weapons inspectors to fulfil their task under Security Council resolutions 687 and 1284. The UN will then need to make an assessment based on the reports of the weapons inspectors and decide what further action is required. That is why we are arguing that we not be agnostic about this course of action; that we should actually commit to a two-stage process through the United Nations, the beginning of the first of which has already been established. A time frame is now needed for those weapons inspectors to report back to the Security Council with a second resolution determining the course of action from there. That is what Labor are proposing, that is what we have tried to get the government to embrace and that is what the government should be arguing for.

If Iraq continues to frustrate UN efforts, and further action from the Security Council is not forthcoming, some countries may seek to invoke the provisions of article 51 of the UN charter, which acknowledges the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence against a clear and present danger. This clear and present danger can only exist if there is either strong evidence linking Iraq to the September 11 attacks or strong evidence of an expansion of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction posing an immediate threat to our security. In other words, the evidentiary bar is higher than simply noncompliance. Noncompliance is the test for the UN in relation to its first resolution. But if there is to be a course of action beyond that, our argument, very firmly, is that the bar needs to be set higher. That is one of the major reasons we continue to urge the government today to produce the extra evidence. As this issue develops, it is going to be terribly important that Australia know precisely the basis upon which it is making its decision. It is our view, based on the reading of the situation, that the United States would need to go back to the UN Security Council to seek authorisation for military action—for example, under article 51.

It is not sufficient, as the Prime Minister would have us believe, that noncompliance alone justifies a member state invoking self-defence for taking unilateral action. In essence, Labor’s two-stage approach means this: set the timetable for the weapons inspectors to report and establish the discipline for a new resolution based on that report. There is a clear difference between the government and the opposition on this point. Labor strongly believes that any military action must continue to be made within the international legal framework of the United Nations Charter; the government refuses to give such an assurance.

When I spoke at the Returned Services League National Congress recently, I said that we have to develop policies that are in the national interest, which is something that I referred to earlier. The Prime Minister has said that he supports that view but he will not define it. And as the foreign minister’s speech indicates, he does not define it adequately either. Today, I want to do just that. Firstly, Australia has a national interest in ensuring the integrity of the global nonproliferation regime. Secondly, Australia has a national interest in making sure that any breaches of international law are dealt with through multilateral processes. Thirdly, Australia has a national interest in defending the principle of collective security. It is in our national interest that any military action, such as Australia’s peacekeeping mission to East Timor, should always be taken in coalition with other like-minded countries. We need an Australian Prime Minister to stand up for Australian national interests.

A new consensus is emerging in the international community that any action against Iraq needs to be undertaken within the context of the United Nations. While we have always been a strong ally of the US and always will be, it is in our national interests to promote an international framework for peace and security. Our national interest does not lie in simply responding to the United States. I believe it is the Prime Minister’s failure to understand this crucial point that demonstrates why the government has had so much trouble in projecting a consistent position in relation to Iraq—a position that should follow what is in Australia’s interests, not just follow US interests. This is a government whose foreign and national security policy has been exposed as being deeply flawed.

Yes, the government has finally come out in support of a United Nations based solution to the Iraq problem—something Labor have been promoting since April of this year—but the government only arrived at that position after the governments of the US and the UK did so first. The Australian government should have been making that assessment in our interests and should have been determining accordingly. This is a government that is determined to follow, but it will not lead. This is a government that will not take the Australian people into its confidence and let them make up their minds. It is a government that has been totally inconsistent and, I dare say, incompetent in its handling of this important foreign policy issue.

We need a government that is prepared to define the national interest and look after it—and that is what I have used today’s address to do. We need a government that is prepared to take the Australian people into its confidence and give its own independent assessment of the current situation in Iraq. We must never be the lap-dog of any country. The Prime Minister thinks that other nations should determine what Australia’s national interests are. I say this to the Prime Minister: other countries do not decide what our national interests are; we do, and we should do. Furthermore, when making that decision, it is a decision that must be made by the Australian people through this parliament in a debate led by the Prime Minister.

We must try to reach our policy objectives towards Iraq by peaceful means—to the extent to which that is possible; I hope it is possible and I have heard the Prime Minister say that he hopes it is possible—because if we do go to war it will be Australian mothers and fathers, Australian husbands and wives, Australian sons and daughters, our neighbours and our friends who will be put in harm’s way. We cannot play politics with their lives. We owe it to them to exhaust all other possibilities before we ask them to put their lives on the line.

Those Australians who have fought in wars and who know the true horrors of war understand this perfectly. Recently, the Prime Minister and I addressed the National Congress of the RSL, and I was heartened by the comments of the National President of the RSL, Major General Peter Philips, when he said:

We’ve had some statements that are perhaps a bit bellicose, it’s a war of words at the moment, and I think the words have to be kept very careful, and I don’t think it’s helped by extreme positions coming from political parties.

Above all, as veterans, we were concerned to just highlight the great cost involved in going into war of any sort and especially the importance of diplomatic action.

That was said by the President of the RSL on the day before the Prime Minister and I addressed their meeting. These men and women from the RSL who support that view are not appeasers, but a similar view had been expressed by us a couple of weeks previously and that is exactly what we were accused of.

These are people who love their country. They know how vile war is. They are people who have been through the horrors of it. They have seen their comrades, their families and their friends exposed. They have been prepared to put their lives on the line and they know, as a consequence, why war has to be avoided. It has to be avoided not at all costs but because the evil has to be stopped. But wherever possible, and by whatever means, an attempt should be made first to do it peaceably and to find an alternative diplomatic way through. That is what these men and women from the RSL are urging, and that is what we have been urging. It is finally what the government has come to accept but, if the government now accepts that to be the correct course of action, it has to be more than just agnostic about the way forward.

The government has to understand how this issue can play out in the course of the next few weeks and months. Sure, we have a United Nations Security Council process in place, and we have the opening of the door to the weapons inspectors, but we need a resolution that ensures those weapons inspectors can get in and report accurately and that then allows the United Nations to make a decision as to how we proceed. If all of that fails, and if we are confronted with another choice, we need to understand that the bar for the evidentiary test will be higher. If for no other reason than that, the government should be looking for the additional evidence that is needed if we are going to send our sons and daughters off to war. This is the argument that this government will simply not face up to. When we asked for the additional evidence, the government said, `You have all the evidence you need.’ Well, the Australian public do not think that, and that is not the basis upon which the United Nations is proceeding.

The course of action is clear. Now that the parliament finally has a bipartisan position on a diplomatic solution—exhausting the UN option—let us get some structure, some direction and, dare I say it, leadership from the government as to the way forward. Get the government to define what they say is the `national interest’. Do they disagree with the definitions that I have put down? If not, why don’t we make that the test by which we make judgments about participation and courses of action from here?

Importantly, the government needs to be looking for the additional evidence that either can be used to force compliance in the UN or may become crucial in terms of decisions taken at a later stage. This parliament needs level-headed consideration based on all of the facts. That is why Labor will continue to argue the case for the evidence to be made available, for the case to be made and for the coalition to be built.

We supported the 1991 war against Iraq, but it was through a UN process—interestingly, a two-stage resolution process of the United Nations. I have heard the Prime Minister talk about similarities between what he is doing today and what was done in 1991. He should go back and have a proper look at the processes that were pursued in 1991. He should look at the fact that there was a coalition built, and our response was to the coalition’s call for support through a two-stage resolution process.

If we are to learn and advance in the future, we should draw sensible lessons from our past. But most importantly we need some leadership for once on this issue. Australians want a Prime Minister that they are proud of: someone who will stand up for Australian interests; someone who leads and does not simply follow. You will get that leadership from Labor. I hope that this speech today will fuel the interest on the other side of the parliament to do just that. If they do it, they will get our bipartisan support and we can move forward as one nation, as we should. (Time expired)

Debate (on motion by Mr Williams) adjourned.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
AustralianPolitics.com
Malcolm Farnsworth
© 1995-2024