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ABSTAINED – Bills — Defence Amendment (Parliamentary Approval of Overseas Service) Bill 2020; Second Reading

Jordon Steele-John

In beginning the debate on the Greens bill to require a vote before our troops are deployed overseas, I want to first acknowledge that we are gathered here, in this place, on the unceded sovereign lands of the Ngunnawal and the Ngambri people, to pay respect to their elders and to acknowledge that that sovereignty, fundamentally, has never been ceded.

Though unceded, the Ngunnawal and the Ngambri share with all First Nations people a continued violation of that sovereignty that began at the moment of invasion, at the moment of the beginning of the war for the conquest of this nation. It was a war whose battlefront swept from Western Australia and the massacres of Pinjarra through to the black lines of Tasmania, a war whose massacre sites, whose battle sites, whose internment camps, were then turned into holiday destinations for those who declared themselves the victors. It was a war that sat back and allowed the names of those who participated in it, who perpetrated the massacres, to be elevated to the highest station and to be placed upon the streets and place names that the colonisers then built. This is the first war and the original sin of the colonial Australian nation and, as we begin this debate on matters of war and peace, it is only right to establish this debate in that fundamental foundation.

Twenty years on from the war in Iraq and the wars in Afghanistan and 50 years on from the Vietnam War, with the deaths of millions of civilians—overwhelmingly people of colour, dead as a result of wars started by rich white men for the purposes of maintaining rich white power—and with thousands of Australian Defence Force personnel lost, wounded or struggling, to this day, with the impact of war, it is only right that Australians are asking why a Prime Minister alone should continue to be allowed to have the sole power to send our forces overseas without first seeking a vote of this parliament.

This question is particularly relevant given that, again and again, we have seen prime ministers join in with US wars because it suited their interests. We have seen, again and again, prime ministers lie to the community about what we were really fighting for and whether there was another way. These are important questions for any democracy. Any democracy should be able to ask them and seek answers to them.

Even the most basic commitment to the principle of democracy should lead decision-makers to the conclusion that such a significant decision should be subject to a vote, as it is in so many other nations. But in Australia this decision is kept close by the leaders of the major parties. The Australian government deliberately keeps this decision as far away from the public as possible, to protect those in power from any form of accountability for the decisions they make and the decisions our community have to live with and suffer through.

Both parties, over decades, have made use of legal loopholes and flimsy interpretations to wage wars that have led to some of the most severe and devastating humanitarian consequences. In the war in Afghanistan there were over 200,000 killed, including 41 members of the Australian armed forces. There was the illegal and immoral invasion of Iraq, which claimed the lives of half a million people, displaced 1.2 million—to this day—and created five million orphans. It also took the lives of four ADF personnel and wounded a further 27. The Vietnam War and the illegal bombing of Laos and Cambodia resulted in millions of dead in those nations, including 500 ADF personnel. Our ally, the United States, dropped more bombs on the tiny country of Vietnam in that war than it did during the entire Second World War.

Each one of these wars has one thing in common—they lacked a clear objective or a strategy, and it was the ordinary people of all nations that suffered. Those responsible for making those decisions were never held accountable nor forced to properly explain or account for their actions. And, particularly in the case of Iraq, the Australian community was united. Ninety-two per cent of the Australian community was united. We marched together, hundreds of thousands in capital cities across this ancient continent as part of the largest human protests in the history of our species, because we knew we were being lied to. We knew that Howard was lying, we knew that Bush was lying, we knew that Blair was lying and we did not want to see our children go and die in their war. Yet, in this country, because of the collusion of both major parties, the power to go to war is held solely by the executive. The people gathered in their righteous might were unable to translate that force into a democratic outcome, because both of you had worked together for decades to make sure that couldn't happen. So we were dragged to war based on a lie and we bore the cost and the people of Iraq bore the cost. ADF personnel and their families to this day are picking up the pieces. They're trying to put their lives back together, while the politicians who sent them to war live lavishly on pensions and are paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to give speeches about leadership when they themselves refuse to this day to face the effect of the decisions that they made or to be held accountable.

I would say to this chamber that, if a mum has to be kept up all night in bed worrying about their child who is to this day deployed in Iraq as part of Operations Okra or Operations Accordion, even though their child isn't old enough to even remember who Saddam Hussein was, then the parliament should be held responsible for sending them there. If mums and dads, family members and friends have to do that stress, bear that burden, every single day, never knowing whether that knock at the door will be the dreaded knock or that phone call will be the dreaded phone call, then the least the politicians who sent them there can do is be willing to vote on that decision, take accountability on that decision, sit on a damn side and declare, 'I thought this was a good idea, and, if you disagree, then you can challenge me,' rather than hiding behind the vagaries created by this executive club.

It is time that Australia joined the ranks of so many other democracies and gave the right to vote on whether the parliament should go to war to the actual parliament itself so that the parliament and its members can be held responsible for the decision that they make, so that the Australian people can hold each and every one of them accountable at the ballot box for the decisions they decide to make. If they lie, as they have lied, they can be challenged by their electorates and voted out of office.

We live in the 21st century. The challenges of this century are the challenges of climate change. They are the challenges of public health. They are the challenges of ensuring that every human being has access to education, access to health care, access to a roof over their head. They are very different to the challenges of previous times. Yet we see in this place both sides participating in the escalation of tensions, creating a reality in our region where the coming of conflict is more likely. Australia and the Australian community must always work to de-escalate these tensions and, above all, prevent those in positions of power putting Australian people at risk because a war suits their political ends.

I know that many in the Labor Party support this reform but are worried about breaking the party line. I know that very many members of the Labor Party support this Greens reform and wish that their members of parliament would act in unity with them and demonstrate the courage that they so dearly wish to see. To those worried about the impact of breaking the party line this morning, I want to ask you a question. Do you really want to give Peter Dutton the unilateral power to declare war? Do you really think that is a good idea? We can fix this right here—here this morning—by supporting this Greens bill today and stop the risk of another illegal war just 20 years after we engaged in the last one.

In closing I want to say, because I can hear ticking over, in the minds of those who will now come to speak, a couple of myths that are fed to you from different PMs and deputy PMs' offices and the opposition leader's office. I can hear it right now. They're about to say, 'What about in the case of an urgent, unexpected escalation of tension where our waters might be incurred into?' Let me counter that one, before you even rattle it off from your speaking notes. Our bill makes specific provision for a circumstance in which our territorial waters were incurred into. In that situation no vote of the parliament would be required. This bill deals exclusively with the deployment of ADF personnel beyond our territorial waters. So before you give us that claptrap, I will put that on the record. Thank you.

Long debate text truncated.


Date and time: 10:40 AM on 2023-03-29
Senator Pocock's vote: Abstained
Total number of "aye" votes: 12
Total number of "no" votes: 26
Total number of abstentions: 38
Related bill: Defence Amendment (Parliamentary Approval of Overseas Service) Bill 2020

Adapted from information made available by