Senator WHISH-WILSON (Tasmania) (15:43): I move:

That the Senate take note of the answers given by the Minister for Defence (Senator Payne) to a question without notice asked by Senator Whish-Wilson today relating to a joint training exercise between the Royal Australian Navy and its Saudi Arabian counterpart.

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Right now Saudi Arabia is leading a coalition that is blockading Yemen. This has been recognised as an international crisis, a catastrophe waiting to happen. It’s estimated that nearly seven million people are facing starvation and death because of the conflict in that region and this blockade. We’ve just participated in a military exercise, training the Saudi Arabian navy—the navy that’s conducting the blockade. Our training exercise was near where the blockade was occurring. We are training the country that’s blocking humanitarian assistance, assistance that—as Senator Payne actually said, from advice from the foreign minister today—Australia is providing to Yemen. How could we be in a situation where we’ve just done a military training exercise that is training a country to block our own humanitarian assistance to a country that is facing an absolute catastrophe? That’s what I got from Senator Payne’s answers today.

I asked her why we were having a military exercise with Saudi Arabia, given this internationally recognised and condemned blockade. The best answer I got was that we have these training exercises with Saudi Arabia and other countries on an opportunistic basis. Isn’t it an opportunity not to do a military exercise with a country that’s conducting a blockade of humanitarian assistance to seven million starving people that need our assistance—a catastrophe that’s been recognised by Human Rights Watch, the United Nations, Oxfam and NGOs all around the world? They’ve written to the defence department, to the minister, and she wasn’t even aware that she had received a ‘please explain’ letter from NGOs about why the Australian government and the Australian Navy would be training the Saudi Arabian navy at a time like this.

I called on Senator Payne today to condemn the blockade, just as the United Nations has recently, but she refused to. I now call on her to also cancel any military exercises with Saudi Arabia, especially naval exercises, and make a statement that we find their blockade of Yemen and the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe there totally unacceptable. It concerns me deeply that there is a move afoot for us to cosy up to Saudi Arabia. Mr Christopher Pyne has been touting as often as possible—telling anyone who will listen to him—that he plans to build a military-industrial complex in this country by selling weapons, arms, and military hardware to Saudi Arabia. I hope to hell this attempt to have a cosy defence export relationship with Saudi Arabia is not behind why we had an opportunistic military exercise with their navy.

What we should have is a decision-making process in place—which I also asked Minister Payne about—where our navy and government departments could assess the risk of at least the perception of a taint on our Royal Australian Navy and upon our country for conducting a military exercise with the Saudi Arabian navy at a time like this. Where’s the process? Where’s the ministerial, cross-government process to assess this kind of thing? I quoted Neil James from the Defence Association, the ADA, today. He said, ‘At best, this is not a good look.’ Let me tell you what: at best this is a serious misstep. At worst, I think this is a scandal. This is a scandal that we’ve been involved with Saudi Arabia. This conflict’s been going on for three years now, and it’s getting worse. And yet this is a country that we’re selling arms to and we’re doing military exercises with. It’s not good enough. The minister needs to come out and condemn this blockade, and I call on her to do that.

Chamber Senate on 16/11/2017 Item QUESTIONS WITHOUT NOTICE: TAKE NOTE OF ANSWERS – Yemen: Human Rights Speaker: Whish-Wilson, Sen Peter/ Parliment of Australia Website Transcript used for reporting News