This is the text of John Howard’s speech to Parliament today on our troops in Iraq.
I now move that this House:
(1) expresses its continued support for and confidence in the 850 Australian Defence Force personnel currently deployed in or around Iraq and records its deep appreciation for the outstanding professionalism they have displayed in carrying out their duties; and
(2) is of the opinion that no elements of this contingent of Australian Defence Force personnel should be withdrawn until their respective tasks have been completed and that no arbitrary times should be set for such withdrawal.
In commending this motion to the House, I want to say immediately that this motion is very much about the present challenges facing Australia and facing the world, and it is also about the future.
We can spend a good deal of time during this debate debating the merits or otherwise of Australia�s military commitment as part of the coalition of the willing just over 12 months ago in Iraq. On behalf of the government I say that we remain steadfast in our view that that was the right decision, taken in the long-term national interests of this country, and a decision that has contributed, in my view, to already some very significant improvements, including the decision of the Gaddafi regime in Libya to give up its weapons of mass destruction.
What I am asking the House to do in relation to this motion is a very simple thing: to put aside for a moment whether or not you supported the commitment to Iraq and to ask yourself whether the continuation of the deployment of these forces in and around Iraq until their task is completed is in the long-term best interests of Australia, because that is our proposition.
I invite those who sit opposite, including the Leader of the Opposition, who strongly opposed our commitment to Iraq, to accept that it is possible, in good conscience and with great consistency, to have been an opponent of the commitment to Iraq but equally to believe that the Australian Defence Force personnel should stay there until their job is done.
The world faces, at the present time, a unique challenge to its safety, its stability and its security. The threat of terrorism is unlike any other threat the world has seen. This is not the threat of invading armies poised on borders, ready to roll over those borders and to capture civilian populations and devastate towns, cities and villages; this is a different kind of threat, and it is a threat that requires a different kind of response.
If the world at the present time trembles and shows any kind of equivocation in the face of the threat posed by terrorism, I believe that the world�of which Australia is inextricably a part�will pay a very heavy price in the future. The decision we take on how we deport ourselves over the months ahead will go very much to the reputation and standing of this country in the councils of the world. If we choose to cut and run, if we choose to abandon our friends, if we choose to give the wrong signal to the terrorists, that will not only make the world a less safe place but also damage the reputation of this country around the world.
It has always been the Australian way to stay there, to go the distance, to see it through and to do what is right in the long-term interests of this country and the interests of the people with whom we have aligned ourselves. We currently have something in the order of 850 Defence Force personnel in and around Iraq. They are carrying out a series of duties. We have a security detachment which is protecting the headquarters element of our presence in Iraq; we have military trainers; we have coalition provisional authority staff; we have air traffic controllers at Baghdad Airport; we have C130s stationed in Qatar; we have a headquarters and a headquarters liaison in Kuwait; we have the HMAS Stuart, which is performing valuable duties in the gulf; and we have P3C Orions, which are carrying out very necessary surveillance duties.
People may well argue that that is not a large number and ask: what would it matter if we pulled our 835 out? It would matter a great deal because we would be the very first to unconditionally break ranks if we pulled our people out. We have to understand that the Leader of the Opposition�s policy is that those forces should come out on 30 June if that is when the handover occurs. It may in practice only be possible for a Labor government to implement that in order to bring them home by Christmas because by definition we are not going to have an election until towards the end of the year. But in reality what the Leader of the Opposition is arguing is that we should bring them home on 30 June if that is when the transfer occurs.
What I put to the House is that that is a greater retreat from our obligations than proposed by any other government. Even the socialist government of Spain acknowledges that if there is a new UN resolution then they might well allow their 1,300 troops to stay in Iraq under that resolution. What the Leader of the Opposition is therefore proposing is a measure of retreat that would take us beyond any of the other 35 countries that comprise the coalition forces that are in Iraq.
The saga which has overtaken this debate over the past week has indeed been very strange. A week ago my understanding of the opposition�s policy was that articulated very consistently by the member for Griffith. That policy basically was that if they were to win the next election they would get advice � they would talk to DFAT; they would talk to Defence � and they would basically then make up their mind based on that advice as to what they were going to do, obviously having a preference for bringing the troops home as soon as possible.
But at no stage did I imagine that the opposition was going to place an arbitrary date on the withdrawal of those troops � that is, until last Tuesday morning when the Leader of the Opposition changed the policy. I do not know why: perhaps he was a bit seduced by the two opinion polls in the Australian last Tuesday morning; I do not know. Maybe he will give us the benefit � maybe it his deep-seated, latent anti-Americanism. I do not know what it is. But � whatever the explanation � we had, after a bit of questioning, the assertion by the Leader of the Opposition that they were going to come home by Christmas. As a result he completely altered the whole complexion of this debate.
I could understand the Labor Party maintained its opposition to our original involvement. But I had been beguiled by the member for Griffith into believing that despite their reservations about what we had done last year their argument was, �You may have been wrong to go in but now you�re there you�ve got to stay there until you finish the job.� That was basically what the member for Griffith said. When he wrote to me on 17 November last year he said that we should send more trainers to help the Iraqi army and to help the Iraqi police.
I actually agreed with him and we have sent some more trainers and there are some more going by way of rotation in May. Yet according to the policy of the Leader of the Opposition those people who go in May have to be withdrawn on 30 June, if in fact the handover takes place on 30 June.
I thought that was the policy. That policy is a cut and run policy. It says, �We�re going to bring them out as soon as we get elected�and that will be by Christmas�irrespective of the impact on the Americans, irrespective of the impact on the Iraqis, irrespective of the impact on our other allies.� That policy takes him further away from not only us�I can understand that�but the Labour Prime Minister of Great Britain, Tony Blair; the Democrat candidate in the United States, John Kerry; the Leader of the British conservative party, Michael Howard; and indeed further, as I said a moment ago, than the socialist government which has just been elected in Spain.
His excuses then began to change. He said originally, �I want them all out by Christmas.�
By Thursday, he was implying that on the way home they should go to Afghanistan, despite the fact that our task there�according to all the military advice we had in relation to Afghanistan�had been completed. Let me say to the House that our forces were withdrawn from Afghanistan on military advice�on the advice of the Chief of the Defence Force�that their task had been completed.
But that lasted for a day because by Friday these forces, these 850 personnel, were needed not in Iraq, not in Afghanistan, but for the defence of Australia�despite the fact that we have in Australia 51,000 ADF personnel looking after the defence of this country and despite the fact that even on the most pessimistic scenario in the conventional sense this country does not face any military threat.
In making that remark and in invoking the expression �the defence of Australia� in the context of the war against terrorism the Leader of the Opposition betrayed a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the challenge that this country faces. The war against terrorism is a war that overwhelmingly will be won through diplomatic, strategic and intelligence operations. Military operations are part of it. And you will do more damage in the war against terrorism if you betray a nervousness in the face of terrorists than you will by having 950 people out of Australia.
The real message that will come from what the Leader of the Opposition has suggested, if he was allowed to implement it, will be that terrorist intimidation will bring the results the terrorists want. The terrorists want division among free people. The terrorists want governments and oppositions and leaders and political groupings around the world to react to what the terrorists do. This is the worst time in the world for this country to cut and run. This is the worst time in the world for this country to be divided from its traditional friends and allies.
Like or dislike our alliance with the United States, like or dislike the current administrations in the United States or in the United Kingdom, the reality stands that it is a very dangerous time to be giving the impression that we are no longer rock solid with our traditional allies and friends.
This is a time for this country to send a clear and unambiguous signal to the rest of the world that we are united not only with our allies in the coalition of the willing but we are united with our allies in our region in the fight against terrorism. The proposition that in some way�with 51,000 Defence Force personnel in Australia and given the character of the war against terrorism�we needed these 850 for the defence of Australia and that in some way I, as Prime Minister, was endangering the security of this country by having those 850 personnel in Iraq was absolutely and fundamentally absurd.
If he wanted to be consistent, why didn�t he say we had to bring home our 450 from East Timor? Why didn�t we have to bring home our 500 from Solomon Islands? But then, by Saturday, the situation had changed again. By Saturday his office was briefing the press that really he did not mean the lot; he meant only those inside the borders of Iraq. He has not actually said that himself, I do not think�maybe he has and I have missed it�but that is what was being briefed to the media. Then of course we have the member for Lyons�s version, which is what I might call the Spanish-Australian Labor version�that is, if you get a UN resolution, if you get a blue-helmet operation, then the member for Lyons thinks that Australia should be part of that operation.
It represents a very sorry saga of not only policy on the run but also policy confusion, and, worst of all, a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the threat this country faces. It is not a traditional military threat. The signals you send by your action, by your indecision, by your reacting to events which are designed to divide and confound the free nations of the world, if they are the wrong signals, will do great long-term damage to this country.
We have an obligation � I state it in broad political, moral and strategic terms � as a nation, having gone into Iraq, to finish the job. It is as simple as that, and that was a proposition that was put to me, dare I say eloquently, by the member for Griffith.
He put it with passion. He put it with a great economy of words. He put it very deliberately. He said, �I don�t agree with what you�ve done, but I think, having done it, you�ve got to make sure that you finish the task.�
That has always, in my view, been the Australian way. It has never been the Australian way to cut and run. It has never been the Australian way to take the easy option. It has never been the Australian way to look as though you are influenced by or intimidated by the actions of terrorists.
The world did change forever on September 11, and this country had a terrible reminder of how the world changed on September 11 with the events of 12 October 2002 in Bali. The world changed somewhat further again with the attack which occurred in Madrid, because what that showed was the determination of a terrorist group, again, to wreak civilian havoc and murder on the mainland of Europe. It is still not precisely known who was responsible for that attack, although the strong suspicion must be that it was the work of Islamic extremists and people who undoubtedly have some association with al-Qaeda.
As to their motives and the causation�the events leading up to that attack�unless you can get into the minds of the terrorists, it is not possible to know. But this we do know, and that is that the terrorists who committed that attack and those who are their allies around the world are watching how the world reacts.
If the world reacts wrongly, if the world shows confusion and disarray, if the world looks as though it can be knocked off course and be diverted from its resolve in fighting terrorism, not only will those terrorists have murdered almost 200 Spanish citizens but they will have sown a degree of confusion and disorder within the political ranks of the free world. That is why this is not the time to look as though you are influenced by what occurred in Spain, whether that is your motive or not.
This is a time to say to the people responsible for that: �We stand shoulder to shoulder with our allies. We stand shoulder to shoulder with the people of Iraq. Although as a nation we differed and quarrelled as to whether we should be in Iraq, we believe that having gone into Iraq we�re going to stand there and we�re going to finish the job.� That is what this motion is about; it is about sending that signal and demonstrating that.
It is also an opportunity for this House, in expressing support for this motion, to recognise the many things that have been done by this government�most of them, let me say, readily and immediately with the support of the opposition�since September 11 to strengthen our defence forces, to strengthen the Australian Federal Police and to strengthen our intelligence services.
We have more than doubled the provision for our intelligence services. When the latest recruitment by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation is completed, the capacity of that organisation will be at a higher level than it was at the height of the Cold War. We have almost doubled the capacity of the Australian Federal Police. We have put more resources into the Australian Defence Force.
All of these things have been necessary, and may I say again that the great bulk of them have enjoyed � and I record my gratitude for this � bipartisan support. That is why I find it distressing, in the national interest, that the Australian Labor Party has broken ranks. I happen to regard bipartisanship on these issues, if it can be achieved, as being very important. I say to those who sit opposite that, in a way, the view of another group of people as to whether or not bipartisanship is a good thing is more important than my view or the view of the Leader of the Opposition, and that is the view of the Australian people. The Australian people expect a level of bipartisanship in relation to certain matters.
I am not asking for a moment the Australian Labor Party to alter its view about our deployment to Iraq, but I am asking the Australian Labor Party even at this late hour to reconsider the commitment, if the Labor Party wins the next election, to bring our forces home by Christmas.
We will have an election some time towards the end of this year. The Australian people will make their decision. If the Labor Party wins, obviously the Labor Party can then choose to do as a government what it likes, but I am asking it, in the name and the standing of this country at the present time, to reconsider its position. It is one thing to oppose our deployment to Iraq; it is another thing to try and prevent this country doing the job and seeing it through to the end, which has always been the Australian way.
Can I say to the Leader of the Opposition again�and this was what I said to him a week ago when he first announced this rather strange and capricious policy�that I think he should reconsider and that, if he did reconsider, he would show a strength of leadership and he would show a longer view, a broader view and a view that would capture the support of the Australian people. You do not have to agree with the government on the coalition of the willing in Iraq to agree with the government that the Australians should stay there and finish the job.
People opposing what we did in Iraq would support the troops finishing the job. What I am asking the Leader of the Opposition to do today is to consider the implications and consider the impact on the standing and reputation of this country. Out of today, we could send to the rest of the world, and very particularly to our 34 coalition allies, a united message that�notwithstanding the fact that the opposition and the government disagreed with each other over the original deployment � we do not disagree, particularly in the wake of Madrid, about the need to stay and finish the job.
If we were to cut and run, if we were to take the advice of the Leader of the Opposition, which is to pull our troops out on 30 June, we would not only let down the reputation of this country�and that would be the saddest thing of all�but also let down the Iraqi people. We would let down our allies and friends at the worst possible time in the worldwide struggle against terrorism and, worst of all in the immediate context, we would send the wrong signal to the terrorists not only in Iraq but around the world.
I simply conclude by saying that this motion is about sending a message not only to the Australian people but to the world that it is never the Australian way to cut and run, it is never the Australian way to look as though you might have been intimidated by terrorists, it is never the Australian way to allow our foreign policy to be influenced by terrorists and it will never be the Australian way to let down our close friends and allies. In those circumstances and in that spirit I commend the motion to the House.