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Ministerial Statement - Iraq and Syria

It is a privilege to rise today to speak on matters unfolding in Iraq following the recent statement by the Prime Minister. I would like to congratulate the Prime Minister and our foreign minister Julie Bishop on the leadership shown following the unfortunate international events of late.

Sadly, Iraq is once again the subject of international condemnation for the way in which its citizens have been brutalised and terrorised by Islamic militants. To say that it has had a chequered past is of course an understatement: chemical attacks on the Kurds, its invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the attempted assassination of George Bush in 1993, the eventual toppling of Saddam Hussein's government by the US in March 2003 followed by years of violent conflict with different groups competing for power—and the list goes on. More recently, with the fall of Saddam Hussein, the world has held its breath to see whether Iraq citizens could get on with their lives without fear of violence or ultimately death. But, sadly, this was not to be. Violence soon escalated and it would appear victims were not discriminated against. We have seen numerous heart-rending examples of this. Back in 2010 we saw 52 Christians killed by militants and Shia Muslims have been targeted on numerous occasions in waves of attacks, killing scores of people. Fast forward to 2013 and the UN estimated the death toll of civilians at 7,157—a dramatic increase and more than double the previous year's figure of 3,238. Now in 2014 we have witnessed Sunni rebels, led by ISIS, carry out unimaginable atrocities against citizens of Iraq. Thousands of people have fled their homes to Mount Sinjar to escape the militants.

The Australian government's concern is to protect innocent Iraqi men, women and children who, like us Australians, simply want to live a life without fear and look after their families. To quote our Prime Minister, what Iraq is currently facing is a humanitarian catastrophe. Australia has now joined with international partners to help the anti-ISIL forces in Iraq. Our priority is to provide humanitarian aid. We have recently undertaken a successful international humanitarian relief effort airdropping supplies to the thousands of people stranded on Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq. I am deeply proud that the RAAF will conduct further humanitarian missions. It is quite unimaginable how terrified those Iraqi families—those mothers, fathers and children—must have felt when they were corralled onto Mount Sinjar like animals, like a herd of sheep, not knowing whether they would be safe or whether they would see the sun come up again. It is such an unthinkable abuse of human rights.

What else is Australia doing? At the request of the US government, we will help transport stores of military equipment, including arms and munitions, to arm the Kurdish fighters as part of a multinational effort—which includes Canada, Italy, France, the United Kingdom and the United States—to undertake this important task. There are risks associated with these activities. However, Australia cannot stand by and do nothing when we learn about mass killings, beheadings and women being forced into sexual slavery. These are acts of genocide.

What is important to note is that Australia's contribution will be coordinated with the government of Iraq and regional countries. At this stage there has been no formal request for Australia to contribute on-the-ground combat forces and there has been no decision taken to become further involved in the conflict. We all hope and pray that it does not come to that.

What we must bear in mind is that, if this militant behaviour can happen abroad, it can happen at home here on the shores of Australia. We have seen many examples of this more recently. That is why this government has announced an increase in funding to bolster the safety of our borders. The number of Australians with international terrorist experience, from all accounts, has increased, so the challenge is just so much greater. Our government is providing an additional $630 million over the next four years to further resource agencies to bolster the counter-terrorism capacity of the Australian Federal Police, ASIO, ASIS, Customs and Border Protection and others. I am very proud that this is new funding. The increased threat of terrorism means increased resources are required. I do not think there is any argument over that. We are also looking at national security laws and our ability to monitor, investigate, arrest and prosecute foreign fighters returning to our shores.

We hope and pray that this unthinkable situation is contained as a matter of urgency. We all know we live in dangerous and unpredictable times and the world is getting smaller by the minute. A modern government must be flexible and able to move swiftly in order to make decisions in the best interests of our country and also as a good citizen of the world. Decisions to become involved in another country's conflict, no matter how abhorrent, are never easy. We know from history that such deliberations and decisions are scrutinised very closely, which makes them that much harder to make, as they should be. We all know that hindsight is a wonderful thing and rarely do historians give a glowing view of countries getting involved in another's dispute, but we have no choice and we may have to participate further.

I therefore commend our government for the assistance it is giving to the Iraqi government. As the threat of terrorism becomes amplified and, as we regrettably learn of more Australians leaving our fair shores to join such militant groups, then, sadly, Australia does not seem to be so far away from Iraq and Syria.

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