Dean Smith

In Parliament

MOTIONS Syria and Iraq

November 26, 2015

I also rise to speak on this motion that relates directly to Australia's national security interests which, as we all know, is the highest responsibility of government. But it also requires that this government, under the new leadership of Mr Turnbull, takes responsibility to balance those important national security interests against our very strong interest in upholding and maintaining our very defensible record with regard to humanitarian support.

It is far too big a responsibility to be playing politics with, and I want to note Senator Hanson-Young's very measured contribution to this debate. I would not agree with everything in Senator Hanson-Young's contribution, but it was indeed very measured. But this is something that is beyond the issue of politics and my concern is that aspects of this motion will seek to try to do that. When you look at the motion, it is important to understand what it says in its entirety. My attention was drawn to (b)(iii) of Senator Siewert's motion, which calls for a de-escalation of Australia's military presence. For me, the problem with that proposition is that no such change has been sought by anyone other than the Australian Greens, as far as I have been able to ascertain. But, to put it bluntly, when it comes to strategic and military matters, this government will proceed on the considered and professional advice of its Australian Defence Force rather than the whims and wishes of the Australian Greens and others.

I note the motion also calls on the government to explore political, economic and diplomatic avenues in response to the Syrian conflict. What I think needs to be emphasised at this point is that those things are actually not inconsistent with having some military involvement. This is not and should not be a question of either or. We can all agree that what is occurring in relation to the Syrian conflict is a human tragedy. I do not doubt the sincerity of the Australian Greens, or anyone else for that matter, in this chamber on that particular point. But, clearly, we are not going to agree on all aspects of the best solution. I accept that; I know that others will accept that. Of course, if there was an easy answer, the world would have found it and we would be rushing towards that easy answer. But that is not available to us.

I do not think it is helpful to adopt political postures or try to claim a moral high ground in regard to this very complex matters. It should not be about moral posturing or posing. The policy has to be determined and, ultimately, judged by its outcomes. I note aspects of Senator Siewert's motion touch on border protection. That is the policy area where I would like to demonstrate that point.

The position adopted by the Rudd Labor government when it won office eight years ago, this very week, I might add, was not one based on evidence or experience; it was based on moral posturing—feelgood statements about ending the Pacific solution. In fact, many of the Rudd government's policy positions were about feelgood rhetoric rather than careful planning and examination of the evidence of what might be effective. But that is a discussion for another time. For my point, I am using this particular issue to demonstrate the earlier point I make. The reality is we cannot remove ourselves from a debate and understanding of the border protection policies if we are to properly understand the predicament that we find ourselves in with regard to refugee intakes, humanitarian issues and, of course, the conflicts across the Middle East.

Here are some of the facts about border protection. The day that Kevin Rudd took office, there were just four people in immigration detention who had arrived illegally by boat. None of them were children. That was the impact of the Howard government's so-called harsh and cruel Pacific solution, as the opposition and the Greens have tried to describe it. Then Labor set about changing the policy with the active encouragement and support of the Australian Greens. They took a solution and worked to create a problem. They put the people smugglers back in business.

Let us fast forward to July 2013, two months before Labor lost office. What do we find? Under the supposed compassionate policies of those of the sort advocated by many of those opposite, by July 2013 there were 1,992 children in immigration detention. Labor changed the Howard government's policies and the result was that the boats started coming again. They came to such an extent that over the life of the Rudd Gillard Rudd Labor government over 8,600 children were put into detention as illegal maritime arrivals. Under this coalition government, as I stand here today, that number is now under a hundred. Any dispassionate assessment of the policy and its outcomes, would come to the same conclusion: it was difficult policy to have to embark upon, but it was a policy that delivered on outcomes. The number is fewer than under Labor, but it is still under a hundred. I do not mind going on the public record saying that I find that objectionable, and I am sure there are other senators who would agree with me. That is still too many but the government continues to work responsibly to further reduce that number.

I accept that Labor and the Greens had the best of intentions when they cooperated in changing the nation's border protection policies in the early days of the Rudd Labor government I do not think it is in anyone's interest or anyone's good use of time to be arguing that there was any deliberate ill-intent. But I do not, for one moment, doubt that the policy did not work. As I have demonstrated, good intentions are not enough. Good intentions do not automatically ensure good outcomes and that is the basic problem with this particular motion this afternoon.

We are not going to improve the situation by de-escalating our military involvement and focusing just on diplomatic avenues. We need to have both. The decision the government made last year to support US-led international military efforts to counter Daesh were not made on a whim. They reflected an assessment that Daesh represented a significant threat not only to the people of Iraq but to the wider region and, ultimately, to our own domestic security here in Australia.

It is also important to remember that the Iraqi government itself asked for our assistance to defeat this menace. In doing so, Australia is a part of a group of around 60 nations working together to counter Daesh and prevent the spread of violent extremism, including to our region and, indeed, to our country. In the year that has passed since we began that involvement, Australia has made a substantial and proportionate contribution to international coalition efforts to degrade and dismantle Daesh's capability—one, I venture to say, is broadly supported across the Australian community. Simultaneously, our own forces have been working assiduously to build the capacity of local forces on the ground and take up that fight.

An ADF withdrawal from Iraq and Syria, which is effectively what this motion is calling for when you read it to its end, would weaken, not strengthen, international efforts to combat Daesh and it would not be in the interests of the Australian people or the people across our region. The Iraqi military is making progress in the current campaign against Daesh. Could it be quicker? Of course it could be quicker; nonetheless, it is making progress. The mission, however, is very far from over. Iraq needs continued support from the international community, including Australia, to build the capability of its security forces to conduct offensive operations against Daesh and to deny this terrorist movement a safe haven. This is why the government supports continuing our missions to develop the capacity of the Iraqi security forces and continues to contribute an air task group at the request of and to support the Iraqi government.

Again, I appreciate the sincerity and the intentions of those who have moved this motion today, but good intentions are not solid enough. It is very, very difficult to work diplomatically towards a peaceful solution, as the motion calls for, when those on the other side of this conflict frankly are not interested in peace. They measure their successes, unfortunately, in terms of the body count—and, unlike with our own forces, I do not mean that they aim for the lowest possible number of deaths. The more they kill, the more they terrorise, the happier they are and the closer they are to their outcomes. That is the reality of what we are up against.

The problem with this motion is that it assumes we are working with rational actors or that we are dealing with people motivated by a common humanity, a humanity common to all of us. I wish we were, but with respect to Daesh that is simply not the situation we find ourselves in. Its savage ideology is clearly demonstrated in its statements calling on supporters to target civilians of Western nations wherever they can be found. Martin Luther King spoke of the day when people of different races and creeds would sit together at the table of brotherhood. Well, ISIS or Daesh and its associated groups are not interested in a seat at that table. They are not interested in nuanced arguments and negotiations. They seek total victory through total terror obtained through more and more violence.

At the beginning of this month, I attended a rally in Perth that was a demonstration of support for the people of Israel in the light of what has been occurring in that country recently in terms of murderous attacks from extremist groups. I was pleased to be joined on that particular day by many from Perth's local Jewish community, state members of parliament, local councillors like Brent Fleeton and indeed my Labor Senate colleague Senator Joe Bullock, because, however Australians choose to vote come election time, there are certain values that unite us, and chief among those is our enduring belief that the citizens of a democratic nation have the right to live peacefully and be secure within their own borders.

What has been occurring recently, with the campaign of incitement to violence and the murder of Israeli citizens at the hands of terrorists, offends every value that decent Australians hold dear. No Australian of good conscience could possibly hold sympathy with or defend the outrageous behaviour of some Palestinian clerics, who actively encourage their followers to murder Jews at random on the streets of Afula, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. No Australian of good conscience could possibly support the words of Palestinian President Abbas, a self-proclaimed 'moderate', who has told his people, 'Every drop of blood spilled in Jerusalem is pure,' and said that murderers will be 'rewarded by God'—not the words of a moderate. No Australian of good conscience should be happy with a situation where new generations of Palestinians are having their minds poisoned through vile, anti-Semitic propaganda campaigns that only serve to make the already difficult goal of peace even more difficult—perhaps even more unlikely.

To those Australians who think that what is happening in Israel or Paris is a long way away and does not affect them, I simply point out that the values for which Israel and France both stand—personal freedoms and democracy above all else—are also the values for which Australia stands and which Australians have fought and died to protect for generations. If we want to preserve the values that underpin our open, democratic societies, we will have to work resolutely with each other to defend and protect the freedoms we hold dear.

The military campaign the US-led international coalition is undertaking in Iraq is essential to these efforts and has helped slow Daesh's advance. Without these military efforts in Iraq and Syria, Daesh would present an even greater threat to Iraq, the Middle East region, the Europeans and, indeed, the world, including us. In that context, what is being suggested through this motion, a de-escalation or drawing-down of our military contribution, would simply not be responsible.

The motion also goes to the issue of Syrian refugees, and I am pleased to be able to discuss just briefly, in the time available to me, that particular point. In September 2015, as we know, Minister Dutton met with representatives of the UNHCR and other international partners to discuss how Australia could best contribute to the international response. Following on from those discussions, the government announced a generous package of assistance in response to the Syrian and Iraqi humanitarian crisis. This included a total of 12,000 additional humanitarian program places, which are being made available for people displaced by the conflict in Syria and Iraq. I think at the time of the announcement it was generally agreed by most commentators and in the community that that was a necessary and indeed generous response. These places, of course, come on top of Australia's existing humanitarian program of 13,750 places, which itself will rise to 18,750 places in 2018-19. People who fall into these categories will include both Syrians and Iraqis.

The additional places will not be offered to people in Australia or regional processing countries who travelled to Australia illegally by boat. What we mean by that is that they will be offered to genuine refugees displaced by the Iraqi and Syrian conflict. This goes back to the point I made earlier in my contribution. It is by stopping the boats and restoring integrity to our humanitarian program that the government has now been able to respond generously to this crisis to assist the most vulnerable offshore. Had the boats still been arriving at the rate they were arriving at under the former Labor government, I think you would have to question whether there would have been such wide-scale community support for Australia taking additional humanitarian refugees. I think it is fair to assume that, if we had not tackled the issue of border protection, the level of sympathy and generosity by Australians in meeting the humanitarian crisis in Iraq and Syria would have been less. It is not that people would not want to be generous, but they would hold to the view that we should be getting our own house in order before offering the hand of assistance to others.

We can afford to be generous because we have got our borders back under control, a situation that some in this chamber and some across the community said in the lead-up to the last election was impossible. In fact, Australia has consistently been ranked among the top three countries that resettle refugees referred to them by the UNHCR. When measured on a per capita basis, we resettle the most UNHCR refugees of any nation.

Minister Dutton officially provided the first ImmiCards to the first families granted visas through the additional 12,000 places in Jordan at the start of this month. The first of the families have since arrived, and I am pleased to say that the first arrivals have been welcomed in my home state capital of Perth, in Western Australia. They will be very, very welcome in Western Australia. We look forward, of course, to welcoming more families to our country in the weeks and months ahead.

As has been the consistent position of the government, the focus of the intake of 12,000 is on persecuted minorities and those assessed as being most vulnerable, women, children and families with the least prospect of returning to their homes. Before I go on to talk about the selection process, I would like to make this point. The government has committed to making the focus of the intake of 12,000 refugees persecuted minorities and those assessed as most vulnerable, women, children and families. I would just like to talk briefly about the issue of persecuted minorities.

I was pleased to read that in August the United Nations Security Council held its first ever briefing on attacks against LGBT people in the Middle East by militants from the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS or ISIL. I have been genuinely perplexed that some people or some political parties in Australia who champion the issues of LGBTI Australians have not said more or have not drawn attention to the most atrocious of incidents and attacks that happen from these violent extremist groups in the Middle East against LGBT people. I hope that this government, in finding safe refuge for persecuted minorities, will find places amongst those 12,000 refugees for LGBT people whose lives are being put at risk because of their sexual orientation and because of the existence of these violent extremist groups across the Middle East.

That United Nations Security Council meeting or discussion that happened in August 2015 was reported in this way. This media report says:

While it was not the first time the persecution of gays and lesbians has been mentioned before the 15-member council that includes the U.S., Britain, China, France and Russia as permanent members, the panel had never convened to talk specifically about attacks on LGBT people anywhere in the world. The Security Council has previously discussed the impact of Islamist terrorism on global peace, but acknowledging sexual minorities in this way was an "important step" for expanding human rights, said Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., who sponsored the meeting with her diplomatic counterpart from Chile.

I will be asking the new Prime Minister to make a place in that intake of 12,000 refugees for LGBTI people being persecuted in the Middle East—in Iraq, in Syria—by terrorist organisations like Daesh.