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Speech by Senator Whish-Wilson on the Greens' War Powers Bill

Speeches in Parliament
Peter Whish-Wilson 4 Sep 2014

Senator WHISH-WILSON (Tasmania) (10:57):  On Monday in the Senate I began to outline my concerns about the haste that Australia was rushing to military involvement in Iraq. I do this obviously as a federal senator and a former member of the Australian Defence Force, who may still be serving now if I had not been medically discharged. The other evening I also spoke in the Senate at adjournment on taking over the Veterans' Affairs portfolio for the Greens, and in that speech I outlined my longstanding interest in military history—partly a hangover from spending time at the Australian Defence Force academy but also the fact that both sides of my family have strong military traditions. My father is a Vietnam vet, as are my two godfathers. I also outlined that my father and my brother and I recently visited the battlefields of World War I on a father and son a trip, using my great-grandfather Clarence's secret war diary. It was one of the most emotional weeks of my life. We actually used the diary to traverse his steps, including the Somme, Pozieres and Passchendaele. We also visited Fromelles and we spent days with military historians touring us around.

Senator WHISH-WILSON (Tasmania) (10:57):  On Monday in the Senate I began to outline my concerns about the haste that Australia was rushing to military involvement in Iraq. I do this obviously as a federal senator and a former member of the Australian Defence Force, who may still be serving now if I had not been medically discharged. The other evening I also spoke in the Senate at adjournment on taking over the Veterans' Affairs portfolio for the Greens, and in that speech I outlined my longstanding interest in military history—partly a hangover from spending time at the Australian Defence Force academy but also the fact that both sides of my family have strong military traditions. My father is a Vietnam vet, as are my two godfathers. I also outlined that my father and my brother and I recently visited the battlefields of World War I on a father and son a trip, using my great-grandfather Clarence's secret war diary. It was one of the most emotional weeks of my life. We actually used the diary to traverse his steps, including the Somme, Pozieres and Passchendaele. We also visited Fromelles and we spent days with military historians touring us around.

This idea of military involvement and war is something I think very deeply about. It is something that has always commanded my attention and my respect, but I must say it also makes me deeply sad when I reflect on warfare and human involvement right across the centuries and not just recently.

Of course, the commemoration coming up shortly of Australia's involvement in the First World War is something I also take very seriously and intend to have a lot to say about, including by expressing my respect for the Anzacs but also what I think we should be commemorating.

I have also made it clear on several occasions that our participation in the invasion of Iraq was the very first time that I marched in a demonstration and a protest, as a banker working for Deutsche Bank in Sydney. Also, arriving on the Manly ferry one morning, I noticed that a couple of doctors had painted 'No War' on the Opera House. I arrived at Circular Quay that morning and was on my way to work. It was a very profound moment for me because I was so angry and disturbed about our involvement in Iraq. I say this because not only have I been in the military and I take these issues seriously but, as I said in my first speech, I also worked in the north tower of the world trade and financial centre complex in New York for a couple of years and 9/11 very deeply touched me, as it of course did lots of Australians and lots of people around the world—but I had a very personal connection to that event and what followed.

So I want to make it very clear here today that the words I am about to say do not come from any shallow, superficial political motivation, which has been reported in recent days in a number of newspapers around this country. They come from a very deep place and this subject often makes me very emotional because it is something that needs to be given very serious attention by all of us. In a way, one of the many things I like about the war powers bill is that, if all politicians get to vote on war, then they have a very tangible responsibility to observe in terms of their own involvement in war. In a way, allowing an executive to take us off to war may absolve you as a parliamentarian from the position of responsibility that you have not just to our serving members of the Defence Force, the young people we send overseas, but also to future consequences and ramifications further down the track. Let's be very clear about this: I do not think there is anyone in this chamber who would, privately at least, suggest that Iraq is better off now than it was in 2003, given the instability and given the vacuum that has been created by the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

I believe the majority of Australians are, rightly, concerned about and currently opposed to Australia's military involvement in Iraq, even at the request of an ally like the United States. In fact, in many cases, I think the fact that we tend to jump when the US says to is something that is perceived by Australians as being an issue now.

For me this issue also goes back to the early nineties, 1992, because a number of my friends who graduated from the Australian Defence Force Academy served in the First Gulf War. I remember mates on one of the navy frigates being sent to the gulf passing me while I worked on Rottnest Island. Senator Back, through you, Mr Acting Deputy President, I know you spent some time on Rottnest Island; I also worked a summer there and I remember seeing their warship disappearing off into the horizon. These were good friends of mine and our involvement in the very first Iraq war was very tangible to me. I remember the concern around the potential escalation of that conflict. But, as is now folklore and myth, though probably also based in fact, the Bush administration at that time chose not to take the conflict past Kuwait and liberate the Iraqis from Saddam Hussein, for the very reason that we have seen the issues developing in this region in the last 10 years: the sectarian violence that was always latent and the divisions and splits that go back centuries on religious and ethnic grounds.

The Greens want parliament to have the power to thoroughly debate and vote on the use of our armed forces. I would like to say on record that I condemn outright the violence and cold-blooded killings carried out by ISIL. This offshoot of al-Qaeda in Iraq has used instability in the region and the sectarian tensions I just mentioned to grab a foothold. The Iraq government, its regional partners and the global community do need to respond, but right now we do not have a strategy. We do not have objectives, and it is not just the Greens who are calling for caution. Comments have already been made recently in the chamber, including last night about President Obama, but there are a number of commentators, both here and in the US and internationally, including in the UN, who are calling for caution.

The world needs to engage with this situation with eyes wide open, within a UN mandate. Our leaders need to be up-front and honest about all aspects of engagement: the risks, the costs, the chance of success—in fact, what is our definition of success and what is our objective?—and, of course, more importantly, what the long-term plan is.

For me personally, I have recently reflected on language that enlightens the situation rather than obscures it. I mentioned in my speech on Monday that I think what disgusted and motivated me the most about our invasion of Iraq in 2003 was the mediocrity in the media and the public debate on this issue, around the idea of weapons of mass destruction, around the whistleblowers and around the whole debate. As I said on Monday, I see the same situation unfolding now, if not worse than back in 2003. The Australian people deserve illumination and transparency in this heady debate and they are not getting it from the coalition government or from some sections of the media.

With the 2003 Iraq war, the Australian, US and UK governments risked the trust of their people in how they deployed their armed forces. Personally, I feel that this mistrust still lingers.

In 2003, we entered Iraq on what has turned out to be a lie, without a strategy and with the simple rhetoric: 'You are with us or against us.' By repeating the rhetoric of 2003, the current Australian government will not rebuild the trust of the Australian people that it is responding to this crisis with sober responsibility. Australia needs to break the culture in media and in politics that tries to intimidate or shut down debate on the use of our armed forces.

In my speech on Monday, I tried to make two points. Words from this speech have been quoted out of context and distorted by some media this week, as I suspected they would be on the day. Firstly, that by using heightened language—what some people may describe as spin, no doubt some also well intentioned—to describe a situation, we obscure insight and our ability to understand what creates the instability that fosters extremism. Without clear understanding, we cannot, as a country, act in the most sensible and prudent way to ever win the peace. I say those words 'win the peace' very carefully because, as we found in 2003, it is easy, perhaps, to win a war—remember the declaration on the aircraft carrier that the war had been won by George Bush Jr. But no-one in here could disagree that the intervention in Iraq did not win the peace. In fact, not long after that hundreds and thousands of people died, including innocent people in the insurgency across Iraq.

In my opinion, the use of the word 'terrorist' is heavily loaded and often obscures debate. I know some have chosen to make mischief with this view in recent days. I believe—it is my reflection—that demonising and dehumanising our enemies is an effective tool for leading a nation to war. History tells us this. But this type of propaganda will not win the peace. This is a lesson of history that both World War I and, of course, the Iraq invasion in 2003 are very clear examples of. Secondly, I wanted to make the point that the military engagement of our forces from outside a region into these sorts of conflicts is often used as a tool by extremists to radicalise others. We risk being used as a recruitment poster for radicals if we misstep.

I would like to reflect on watching the national news last night the awful situation of another beheading being replayed again and again with a man wielding a knife in front of someone who is about to die. Of course, people are going to be horrified, saddened, revolted and fearful at seeing footage like that. But that is exactly what these murderers—these war criminals—want. Yet, it is replayed again and again. I really do not get it. What is it achieving? Of course, we need to know what is going on and we need to have a debate about how to stop this. But I remember from 9/11, watching from where I sat in the building in Hong Kong where I was working—as the stock market was shut globally for three days while Wall Street was gone—and all the media did was report again and again all day. It absolutely did my head in watching this plane rewinding and going back and forward into a building. And the media did it around the terrorist attacks in the UK. There was constant real-time reporting, again and again. I think we need to be very careful in this debate around the use of media promoting exactly what these radicals want. They do want to sow fear into our hearts and they do want us to go over there and fight them. That is as clear as daylight. I would plead to the mainstream media to be very careful about giving them what they want.

The Greens is a party of peace and nonviolence. It is part of our charter. It is there for anyone who wants to go and see it. But I would personally like to state today, as Senator Di Natale stated in his speech, that although I am anti-war and therefore believe war is a last option and should be avoided at all costs, I am not necessarily a pacifist in all cases. The Greens supported the humanitarian intervention in East Timor and, previously, has advocated in this Senate for strong action to prevent the genocide in Dafur. We are all good people who want to do the best by Australia, but we come at this from different points of view. I have absolutely no doubt today that Senator Ludlam's Greens bill to give parliament the power to vote on going to war is designed to do the best thing for Australia. It is designed to make all of us—the decision-makers in here—as accountable as we can possibly be.

As I also said on Monday, when I think about the sacrifice of the Great War and at other wars, men, of course, fight and they sacrifice to win the peace. We remember that and we commemorate that and we will commemorate that next year. But we must remember why they went to war in the first place. In light of the First World War, and, certainly, the Iraq war, the stupidity and madness that led to those wars should have been avoided. It should never have put men—and the women and families that suffered—in a situation where they had to sacrifice their lives. That responsibility and weight rests on us as a parliament and as the representatives of the people. That is exactly why we should have a much more powerful role in saying whether we are committed to war. With the red herring that has been put up today, that somehow we have to make decisions about the tactics of war, Senator Ludlam made it very clear that that is not the case. It is about what leads us to war.

If this increases the debate—and gets around the spin and the media hype, which so often obscures these debates leads to outcomes that may not necessarily be in the long-term interests of this country—then it is a very good thing. It is a very good thing that we are here today debating a bill. It is good not just for us but for our children and for future generations.

I get the feeling—it does not just reflect President Obama's words last night that there is going to be no easy way to beat ISIS—that if we truly want a lasting peace in the Middle East, we have to take a much longer-term view of this, and a much more intelligent and measured view than giving these murderers what they want.

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