Andrew Wilkie: ‘I’ll take every opportunity to speak against the war’

Andrew Wilkie. Photo by Mel Barnes.

Independent Andrew Wilkie won the Tasmanian seat of Denison at the recent federal elections. Previously, the seat had been held by Duncan Kerr for 23 years and was considered a safe Labor seat.

Wilkie came to prominence in 2003 when he resigned from his job at the Office of National Assessments in public protest against the then Liberal/National Coalition government's decision to invade Iraq. The invasion was based on the claim Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, a claim that later proved false.

Wilkie ran as a federal candidate for the Greens in 2004 and 2007, but left the party in 2008 and ran as an independent candidate in the Tasmanian state elections in March 2010.

He has agreed to support the formation of a Labor minority government by not blocking supply or supporting frivolous no-confidence motions. He is not required to support Labor's policies, but instead plans to make a decision on every piece of legislation based on its merits.

He spoke to Green Left Weekly’s Melanie Barnes.

It’s an interesting election result. With a minority Labor government do you see an opportunity to bring about significant changes?

Absolutely. There will be a number of changes. The independents have already negotiated significant changes; we’ve achieved some parliamentary reform, about the length of question time and so on.

Everything has to come through parliament on its merits, based on what’s in the public interest, and blocked if necessary. The people who want to maintain our two-party stranglehold, our critics who say nothing will happen — I think the reality is quite the opposite.

There may or may not be more policy that comes through parliament, but what does come through will be better policy.

I’ve been criticised about my decision to support the Labor government, and I wanted to remain independent. I and the other independents never thought we would be in a position like this, with a hung parliament; we assumed that a majority government would be elected.

So we were put in a position of having to support one party or another; if we didn’t then the choice would have been made for us. So I thought it better to be proactive.

Do you agree that the House of Representatives would be more representative if it was proportionally elected? For example, the Greens would have 17 seats under that system. Would you argue for such a reform?

I haven’t really thought about it. The situation in the Tasmanian state parliament, the proportional way the lower house is elected, is unique and works well. Every lower house electorate has five members, whereas [every electorate in] the rest of Australia only has one.

The outcome of the federal election has raised issues like: what does it mean if a party gets more votes? What should it mean if a party gets more seats? I would like to see a discussion around this.

In general, I do favour proportional representation, but I think it’s very unlikely we’ll get change anytime soon. There are good models, like in New Zealand where they have single-member electorates and proportional representatives in the same house.

There are interesting hybrid versions out there. I’m not agitating those changes to the House of Reps just yet.

You’ve spoken out against the Australian military intervention in Afghanistan. Do you think Australian troops should leave as soon as possible?

I feel strongly that we should get out of Afghanistan as soon as possible. Now the government says the same thing, so what does “as soon as possible” mean?

In my mind, it’s a matter of months. As an ex-military person I know you can’t just suddenly say “get out today”; it takes months to get out. But that’s quite at odds with what the government and opposition say is possible.

On one hand, we’re there to create the conditions for peace to take hold. On the other hand, the presence of Australian troops is one of the main sources of problems. You can’t win, but if we stay it would be a disaster and if we go it will be a disaster.

I do think that Afghanistan needs to be allowed to find its natural political level, otherwise peace won’t take hold.

The biggest cause of the violence at the moment is the presence of the foreign troops. And by far the largest number of fighters there are nationalists, fighting for their village or their province or their country. And that’s what tends to be lost in this discussion.

I stressed during the election, and I’ll keep saying it, the biggest lie is that we’re there to fight terrorists, and if we don’t fight them there we’ll be fighting them here. That is absolute nonsense. Long ago, the terrorist threat morphed into a global threat, not dependent on any one country.

Sure, Afghanistan was a haven for terrorists at some point in the past, but it is not now. There is no evidence that it will become the global centre for terrorism.

That’s not to say it won’t be an awful situation if the troops leave, but that’s the process that country will have to go through to find its natural political level. And the people who are responsible are the people who created this situation.

I got myself into trouble with the readers of Green Left Weekly years ago when I supported the initial invasion of Afghanistan. That view was based on knowledge I had, which I don’t think is well understood, that back then Al Qaeda actually was a very large political and military movement in Afghanistan and actually had a standing army with battalions of troops.

It was one of the main backers of the Taliban, and I don’t dispute the essence of the 9/11 story, so hence I supported that military action.

But my support ended almost immediately after that because they had a narrow window of opportunity in 2002 to settle things down.

There was an unprecedented window of opportunity in 2002 when there was relative calm across the country, there was a sense of optimism about a new future, there was an interest in a central government, but the US and its allies abandoned Afghanistan in order to get ready for Iraq, and that created the security vacuum that is still being back-filled with all the problems we’re now dealing with.

So my support ended after a few months, and since then I have been passionately anti- what has happened there.

The Greens have negotiated with Labor to hold a parliamentary debate on the issue. What’s your view on that?

That’s something I’ll pursue in the lower house. There needs to be a proper parliamentary debate about this.

Those in the parliament who want us to stay there indefinitely — and that is their policy, they want us to stay there as long as the US wants us to stay there, that’s the extent of our Afghan policy, it’s that crude and simplistic and ineffective — I think the people who advocate that view need to defend it, or pull the troops out.

There was a large anti-war movement at the start of the war, and there still is a majority of people who want the troops to be pulled out. Do you see yourself as being a voice for the anti-war movement in parliament?

Yes. I will take every opportunity to speak against the war and the need to get the troops out as soon as possible. And I think I bring an interesting dimension to this, because the Greens — for all the good they do on this issue, there are a lot of people who have an instinctive response to the Greens and what they argue for. Whereas I bring a similar view, but I’m a more credible critic, having been in the army for 20 years. So I reckon I can bring a lot of value to this debate.

During the election campaign you campaigned for the rights of asylum seekers, to end offshore processing and to implement a more humanitarian approach towards refugees. What are the chances of shifting Australia’s policy on this?

I think any legislative change on this will struggle to get through parliament. Any legislative change in the lower house, I’ll vote against it, Adam Bandt will vote against it. I don’t know about the other independents. They may well vote against it.

What are the chances of ending offshore processing?

The whole point about offshore processing — the whole reason Liberal and Labor implemented it — was to deny these people [refugees] access to Australia’s legal system. It is a ruthless policy in that regard. They’re saying the legal rights that we deserve are not what they deserve.

It says a lot about our view of them as human beings, that they’re a lower class to the rest of us.

Get rid of offshore processing, overturn the excision of the islands, don’t pretend they’re not part of Australia, and don’t introduce temporary protection visas.

Any change that needs to go through the parliament will have trouble now — unless the Coalition votes with Labor, which could happen. But so long as the Coalition opposes for opposition sake, it won’t get through the lower house.

You campaigned for action on climate change. What kind of action will you be pushing for?

At the end of the day, there has to be a price on carbon, so much revolves around that, and this carbon price may or may not be part of an emissions trading scheme. Until we have a price on carbon, we won’t see fundamental change.

Until polluters have to pay to pollute — until there’s a price signal in the marketplace — we won’t see much change. Other things are just around the margins.

What about renewable energy?

Yes, and taking advantage of Australia’s natural advantages, and our financial and intellectual advantages. If we had a government years ago that showed leadership on this, Australia now could be a global leader.

Australia could be to renewable energy what Saudi Arabia is to oil. We have enormous strengths, we’ve got natural resources and the wealth to develop them.

I think it’s a missed opportunity to take a global leadership role, which isn’t just about money, it’s also about helping developing countries implement this technology too. Rich countries who can afford it should do it.

Do you think government should take responsibility for public investment in renewable energy?

Yes, without a doubt. Leaving it to the marketplace means half these things won’t happen — that’s why they’re going offshore. Australia can easily afford public funding for renewables.

One of the faults in the approach of [Labor Prime Minister Julia] Gillard is when she says we have to wait and build a consensus; well there are some things that are just so big and so important that the government has to take a leadership role.

The Greens have negotiated for a referendum on recognising Aboriginal rights in the constitution to be held within the next three years. Do you agree with this?

That’s also one of the points in my agreement with Gillard. It gives a weight to [Aboriginal people’s] history and existence now; their history and culture should be recognised.

It all depends on what goes into it; it’s easy for prime ministers to agree to these things but the devil is in the detail. What exactly will it mean? In absence of a bill of rights, it needs to be written in such a way that gives recognition to their heritage and their future.

What’s your opinion on the NT intervention?

I’ve got an inherent concern about it. I have been quite critical of it.

I’m in no way critical of finding ways to help our Indigenous communities, but I have an inherent concern about this legislation. I opposed it at the time [it was introduced] and I think it should be overturned.

During the election campaign, you also spoke out strongly in favour of same-sex marriage rights. Do you think there will be a chance to get this through parliament?

I wrote a letter to both leaders two weeks ago, which was misrepresented in the media as a “wish list”. It wasn’t, it was my list of priorities. And one of them was a conscience vote on same-sex marriage.

I will look for every opportunity to make this happen. We don’t want to rush it through and not have it reflect the majority public opinion for it.

We want it done properly, and not have it knocked back. I’ve no doubt there is overwhelming public support for it.

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