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Crean Responds To Downer's Statement On Iraq

September 17, 2002

Simon Crean, Leader of the Federal Opposition The Government had produced no new evidence against Iraq, according to the Federal Opposition Leader, Simon Crean, in his response to the statement by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer.

Addressing the House of Representatives, Crean said "the ends do not justify the means", and called for adherence to international law. He said: "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."

Crean outlined a three-point plan for the Iraq situation:

Firstly, "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."

Secondly, he 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."

Thirdly, "we have to define the course ahead. It must be based on our national interest and undertaken through the United Nations system."


This is the text of the address on Iraq to the House of Representatives by the Federal Oppposition Leader, Simon Crean.

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.

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—

Downer— It is evidence.

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 has consistently said all along: that 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 has 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, 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 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 has 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.

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.

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 now 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 Wheeties 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 has 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 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 is 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 if that view had have been expressed by us a couple of weeks previously, that is exactly what we would have been 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. Because the evil has to be stopped by whatever means, an attempt should be made 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 that those weapons inspectors can get in and report accurately and then allows the United Nations to make a decision as to where 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 can be used either to force compliance in the UN or evidence that 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 get back and have a look properly at the processes that were pursued in 1991. He should look at the fact that it was coalition built, and it was our response to the coalition's call for support through a two-stage resolution process.

If we are to advance in the future, we should draw sensible lessons from our past. Most importantly, we need some leadership for once on this issue. Australia wants a Prime Minister that they are proud of: someone who will stand up in the Australian interest, 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.

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