I move that the Senate take note of the answers given by the Minister for Defence (Senator Payne) in question time today.
There is no doubt that senators in this place, and those who may be listening from outside, would be aware that over the weekend the United States government took responsibility for airstrikes in west Mosul—in a very densely populated quarter of that old city, in which more than 200 people appear to have died. Estimates of the death toll varied between less than 100 to more than 200, but there is no doubt that this is the deadliest civilian casualty event by far since the United States government intervened again in that conflict in mid-2014. It would be among the highest death tolls in an American air mission since the US invaded Iraq illegally in 2003, with Australian assistance.
I want to be very clear about what happened. Senator Payne took a question from Senator Fawcett, who has had a long interest in these issues, and she replied that she could rule out, on the spot, intervention by Australian fighter aircraft in the atrocity that occurred on 17 March. She was able to say with great clarity that Australian F/A-18 aircraft were not involved. At the point where I jumped up about 40 minutes later to ask whether Senator Payne could similarly rule out Australian intervention by command and control aircraft, the Wedgetails or other surveillance assets, she was unable to do so. Suddenly, 'Oh, it's complicated.' 'Oh, it takes time.' 'Oh, we have to work with our partners.' 'Oh, we're not sure.'
I think we need to be very clear about what is going on here. On the night of the attack—or, if not then, then when the US government came out and claimed responsibility on the weekend just past—it should really only have taken a single phone call by the minister to establish that Australian aircraft either were or were not in that airspace on the afternoon of that atrocity. The minister was unable to do that and has given the parliament no timetable. I understand it may be complicated and it may involve the coalition and the United States government or others, but this parliament has a right to know whether Australian aircraft were involved in this extraordinary attack in Mosul. There is no question that the tempo of coalition aircraft strikes in Iraq and Syria has increased in the last two months, since President Trump took office.
The journalist-led transparency project Airwars, which monitors civilian casualties from airstrikes—it is just Airwars.org—reported that in March alone there were 1,058 reported civilian casualties. That is more than double the number of civilian casualties that were reported last December. It suggests that something has significantly changed in the US government's rules of engagement.
An Iraqi special forces officer spoke to The New York Times on condition of anonymity, and he said that there had been a noticeable relaxing of the coalition's rules of engagement since President Trump took office. Although US military officials said that there was no change in the rules of engagement governing strikes, they say that US military commanders are now operating under new authorities which delegate much more control for battlefield decisions to ground commanders. This is President Trump too busy playing golf to take his role as Commander in Chief seriously. Now, more than ever, with Donald Trump—an erratic, unstable, lying, demagogue—as the United States government's Commander in Chief, we should be stepping back from the US and not participating any further in this aerial bombardment spree in Iraq and Syria.
I feel very, very strongly that this parliament deserves an answer. If Senator Fawcett got an answer to his very simple question, why were the crossbench and the Australian Greens not able to be provided with the very simple information as to whether Australian command and control aircraft were in the sky at the time of the attacks. Right after I finish up my contribution here, I will be tabling a notice of motion for the next day of sitting to provide that information to the parliament. It can be in any form that the minister describes. It can be written or she can come in here and give us a statement. Was Australia involved in that attack or not? If Senator Fawcett can get an answer, there is no reason at all why any other senator in this place should not get an answer as well.