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Parliament’s role in shaping Australia’s support for Ukraine is vital

Posted By , , and on June 1, 2024 @ 09:54

Ministers and officials can expect a grilling about Australia’s support for Ukraine in Senate Estimates hearings next week. Foreign Minister Penny Wong and the secretary of her department, Jan Adams, will be asked again why the Australian embassy in Kyiv is yet to reopen. Later in the week, Defence will be quizzed on the nuts and bolts of military assistance to Ukraine.

Beyond Estimates, there are two parliamentary inquiries addressing support to Ukraine—by the joint standing and opposition-chaired Senate references committees for foreign affairs, defence and trade—both of which should issue reports with recommendations in the coming months. The degree of consensus within and between those committees is a clearer bellwether for cross-party alignment on support for Ukraine than Estimates, which is typified by partisan sniping.

Parliamentary scrutiny of this kind is vital, helping to ensure that the government’s policy on Ukraine is in the right place and retains the confidence of the Australian public. ASPI has been glad to play its part via submissions to parliamentary inquiries, contributions to public hearings, and analysis in The Strategist and longer-form reports.

Parliament’s role goes beyond holding the executive to account. Parliament should also offer support to the government if legislation is required to better support Ukraine. For instance, if Australian law is preventing staff of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade returning to Kyiv, as Adams told Estimates in February, then Parliament should support narrowly targeted carve-outs that would allow unaccompanied staff willing to relocate to do so.

Despite the department’s assurances that the embassy is managing Australia’s interests in Ukraine effectively from Warsaw, the reputational costs for Canberra are significant: most peer countries have long since returned to Kyiv, including Canada, which shared embassy premises with Australia before Russia’s full-scale invasion in 2022.

In the same vein, Defence should consider appointing a defence attache solely for Ukraine to support this process, rather than cross-accrediting the defence attache in Berlin, as is presently the case. The attache and other Australian Defence Force staff could probably work from partner countries’ missions in Ukraine before the Australian embassy reopened.

Beyond the challenge of getting Australian personnel back into Ukraine, parliamentarians are also homing in on reports that Australia’s support is poorly coordinated and lacks long-term direction. To answer such criticism, the government must demonstrate that Australia’s support is aligned with Ukraine’s needs and is calibrated against partners’ efforts.

Defending the government’s focus on military aid rather than supplies like coal, Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles pointed out that Australia’s more than $1 billion of aid has allowed ‘Ukraine to prosecute this conflict with Russia and that is where our focus is and that is where Ukraine wants our focus to be.’ Concentrating on military aid is also suitable because many partners, such as Japan, focus on humanitarian assistance. Wong’s latest announcement of $31 million for Ukraine’s energy and humanitarian needs is welcome, but it makes sense that military assistance remains the core of Australia’s support.

Further to Marles’s remarks, information provided to Parliament by Defence, DFAT and the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet argues that Ukraine’s demand signals are being heard clearly. It also reveals that interdepartmental consultation is routinely taking place in Canberra, including establishing a new coordination team in Defence. This tacitly pushes back against calls for a central office in PM&C to coordinate government and other help to Ukraine and to Ukrainians in Australia.

However, the government is yet to put forward enough information for Parliament and the public to be confident that Australia’s support for Ukraine is properly organised. Some simple changes could go a long way, such as publishing the disposal documentation for ADF kit being withdrawn from service. Where discretion is essential, Defence could offer private briefings to parliamentarians, as Chief of Defence Force Angus Campbell and Department of Defence Secretary Greg Moriarty did recently. Longer term, Parliament should support the bill to establish a new parliamentary joint committee on defence, which would facilitate consideration of classified material, hopefully reinforcing public trust.

A more ambitious solution for helping Ukraine, which we support, is a comprehensive review of ADF kit and Australian defence industry capacity. This review should work with Ukrainian officials to draw up a long-term pipeline of equipment that could make a real difference if supplied to Ukraine. Done right, this should feed back positively into Australia’s national defence by letting Ukraine’s innovative soldiers hone the cutting-edge capabilities of our defence industries.

Defence is taking steps in the right direction, including involving world-leading Australian companies in the drone coalition and other international capability consortiums. But a more systematic approach is merited. If the government is concerned that support to Ukraine could compromise Australia’s defence and Indo-Pacific commitments, it needs to explain why at the level of specific capabilities. This conundrum reinforces the importance of expanding Australia’s defence industrial base to meet the dual demands of national defence and export.

The key to building public trust in Canberra's approach is a clear narrative from the top of government explaining why outcomes in Ukraine directly affect Australia’s security and interests. This is also the surest antidote to Russian disinformation, which China is amplifying.

Unfortunately, ministers continue to send mixed messages. Addressing the National Press Club in April, Marles acknowledged that the ‘strategic landscape in the Indo-Pacific is intimately connected with the success of Ukraine’, before muddying the waters by asserting that Australia’s ‘national interest unambiguously lies’ in this region. Our adversaries are not making such distinctions, as the tightening Xi-Putin relationship shows.

Ministers must align their narrative with strategic reality by telling the public in plain language that Russian success in Ukraine would threaten Australia’s security and way of life. To back this narrative, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese should accept an invitation to attend the NATO summit in Washington in July, as he has done in the past two years. If Albanese must stay home to entertain Chinese Premier Li Qiang in June, then he should send a senior cabinet representative, ideally Marles, to the Ukraine peace summit in Switzerland on 15–16 June . Parliament should expect Australian prime ministers to lead on key issues like Ukraine. It can leave the quips about ‘Airbus Albo’ to media hacks.

Estimates gives the impression of entrenched partisan sniping, but the patient work of cross-party committees shows that our parliamentarians still share a vision for Australia’s national interest, which includes properly supporting Ukraine.

Article printed from The Strategist: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au

URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/parliaments-role-in-shaping-australias-support-for-ukraine-is-vital/

[1] joint standing: https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Joint/Foreign_Affairs_Defence_and_Trade/DefenceAR2022-23

[2] references: https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Foreign_Affairs_Defence_and_Trade/UkraineSupport47/Terms_of_Reference

[3] submissions: https://www.aspi.org.au/parliamentary-submissions

[4] public hearings: https://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/search/display/display.w3p;adv=yes;db=COMMITTEES;id=committees%2Fcommjnt%2F27739%2F0002;orderBy=customrank;page=1;query=foreign%20affairs%20defence%20trade%20Dataset%3AcomJoint;rec=6;resCount=Default

[5] The Strategist: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/australian-assistance-to-ukraine-is-enlightened-self-interest/

[6] reports: https://www.aspi.org.au/report/geopolitical-implications-russias-invasion-ukraine

[7] bill: https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Bills_Legislation/Bills_Search_Results/Result?bId=r7201

[8] facilitate: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/government-proposals-on-war-powers-strike-the-right-balance/

[9] hone: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/ambassador-says-australian-equipment-can-give-ukrainian-troops-the-edge-they-need/

[10] drone coalition: https://www.minister.defence.gov.au/transcripts/2024-04-27/joint-press-conference-lviv-ukraine

[11] amplifying: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/chinese-and-russian-propaganda-work-in-tandem-to-blame-the-west-for-war-in-ukraine/