SENATOR BIRMINGHAM: (South Australia) (12:55): I had hoped to make a contribution on this bill during the second reading debate but unfortunately was unable to do so due to conflicting commitments. I do not propose to give a speech here on the second reading and abuse the committee process. I have not had a chance, unfortunately, to review all of last night’s Hansard or Senator Ludlam’s questions to necessarily pursue lines of questioning with the minister that would not potentially overlap what Senator Ludlam has done, but I do want to put a couple of things on the record. There is very strong interest across the chamber in ensuring that not just the detail of the Convention on Cluster Munitions but also the intent of the Convention on Cluster Munitions is adhered to by this and future governments.

This was an agreement negotiated by governments across party lines, a negotiation which commenced under the Howard government and was continued and ultimately finalised under the Rudd government. Australia’s desire to be part of this follows in a very proud tradition, which I think we need to uphold in this country, of leading the world in looking at weapons that have particular negative humanitarian consequences from their use. An outstanding example is the leadership role Australia played historically in relation to the debate on the use of landmines. There are many parallels which can and should be drawn and I hope there will be further parallels in future to which we can look to see that Australia’s success in leading the world, in condemning, reducing and eliminating wherever possible the use of landmines, is replicated by Australia ultimately leading the world in condemning, reducing and ultimately eliminating, hopefully, the use of cluster munitions.

This bill, as you can tell by its date, has been around for some time. It was introduced into the parliament back in 2010. That is evidence of the fact that there have been not just formal parliamentary inquiries around this legislation but concerns expressed across parties and from outside the parliament through different organisations as to whether this bill does entirely meet the detail of the treaty and the agreement on cluster munitions and, of course, the intent of the Convention on Cluster Munitions.

I highlight just one of the submissions to the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade inquiry, held way back in January 2010, a submission from the Australian Red Cross. The Red Cross highlighted a number of concerns which have been the subject of at least some of questioning I managed to pick up on in the debate today and I am sure were subject to speeches and questioning last night, concerns about whether the bill in particular addresses issues of interoperability and stockpiling in a manner which puts appropriate boundaries around Australia’s engagement.

The Red Cross submission says:

Paragraphs 3 & 4 of Article 21 outline the manner in which States Party may engage in military cooperation with States not Party to the Convention and paragraphs 1 & 2 of Article 21 impose positive obligations on States Party to amongst other things “make its best efforts to discourage States not party to this Convention from using cluster munitions.” It is important then to read the two parts of the Article together and ensure that the implementation of paragraphs 3 & 4 do not conflict with paragraphs 1 & 2.

The Red Cross argues that this bill does not achieve a balance in the application of the different paragraphs and articles of the convention. If the parliamentary secretary feels that he has anything to add on how the bill does in fact successfully balance or attempt to balance the two requirements in the convention to accept issues around cooperation while Australia makes its best efforts to discourage the use of cluster munitions, I would welcome any further assurances that he can provide. The Red Cross did recommend and urge that the relevant sections of the legislation, in particular section 72.41, be construed more narrowly and use words that are used elsewhere in the world. As the submission says, this could be done:

… for example by having it apply only to “mere participation” and acts that are unintended or inadvertent or that only have a remote or indirect relationship with the prohibited conduct.

The Red Cross also highlighted-and this has been addressed in the debate-some concerns around stockpiling, maintenance and transit of cluster munitions in Australian territory, and I note the assurances that the parliamentary secretary has given there. I had a chance to have a quick look at the parliamentary secretary’s closing speech in the second reading debate, and I understand that Senator Ludlam was just questioning whether the government has committed as a matter of policy to not authorising and not allowing such stockpiling of cluster munitions. I understand also that the parliamentary secretary said that the government will confirm its commitment in a public statement both at the time of Australia’s ratification of the convention and in Australia’s annual transparency report under the convention.

I am not sure-and perhaps he can explain-how the public statement that the parliamentary secretary has committed to make at the time of Australia’s ratification of the convention will differ from the statement he made in the second reading debate. Perhaps he can also explain why, if there is to be any difference, that statement is not being made now as part of this legislative process to provide the comfort which many seek that Australia upholds a strong position on not allowing stockpiling.

Senator Ludlam posed a question on that front to the opposition and, as he knows, it is not my role within the opposition to commit the opposition to such a policy. However, he can have this individual senator’s assurance that I expect that the opposition would continue with such a clear policy if the government were to honour its word-and Senator Feeney’s word-in this legislative process. I hope that, the government having at least set a standard at a minimum level with this legislation-which some will say is not adequate-and then having gone further in government policy as the parliamentary secretary is committing to do, a progression occurs and that there is never a backward step and that changes to policy only further strengthen Australia’s commitment to the elimination of the use of cluster munitions.

I emphasise that, whilst I still have some concerns about whether the bill meets all of the assurances that the government gives, I think it is important that we recognise that Australia’s involvement in the convention through this bill is a very significant step forward in eliminating cluster munitions from the world, and I hope that all senators who approach the matter with good intent ensure that in the years to come we hold the government of the day to account for ensuring that Australia’s good intentions are reflected and honoured through our actions and not just our words. I invite the parliamentary secretary to respond to any of the issues I have raised.