Declassified cabinet papers from 2002 show little mention of impending war in Iraq

Declassified cabinet papers from 2002 show little mention of impending war in Iraq

Shafaq News/ The National Archives of Australia has released over 200 previously secret cabinet records from 2002 that give a window into the issues being discussed at the highest levels of government.

In 2002, Australia was on the cusp of joining the United States-led invasion of Iraq and had already committed troops to Afghanistan — but previously secret cabinet records released make very few references to what would become a decades-long engagement in the Middle East.

Around 240 previously secret Cabinet records from the year 2002 have been released by the National Archives of Australia.

The trove of documents is a time capsule of sorts, which gives an insight into the issues that were being considered at the highest levels of government and transport us back into the room where it happened.

In politics, it was a year dominated by debate on national security, asylum seeker policy and other matters that persist in politics to this day, including climate change and Indigenous constitutional recognition.

Globally and domestically, foreign affairs in the early 2000s was defined and dominated by the September 11 attacks in 2001 and the United States' reaction the following year.

Despite the this, the records released this year barely make mention of the impending military action in Iraq or Afghanistan.

There are two brief documents relating to cabinet meetings held in September, six months before then Prime Minister John Howard would declare that troops will be deployed to Iraq.

A wide shot of the cabinet room mostly men, sitting around a large table. John Howard is in the middle on the closest side

One document reads: "The cabinet noted an oral report by the prime minister on his discussion with the president of the United States on the American position in relation to efforts by Iraq to secure and maintain weapons of mass destruction."

However, the file does not shed any light on the details of talks between Mr Howard and then-president George W Bush.

Two weeks later, cabinet noted another "oral report" by then-foreign minister Alexander Downer on "developments" in relation to a proposed UN Security Council resolution on Iraq's "possession of, and attempts to secure or maintain, weapons of mass destruction, and on the prospects for passage of the resolution".

In March 2003, Australia would go on to join the US-led invasion without authorisation from the UN Security Council.

Weapons of mass destruction were never found and more than 200,000 people are estimated to have been killed.

Inquiries conducted in the US and the United Kingdom in the years since have found that military action was taken before other peaceful options were exhausted, and that the US relied on false and overstated intelligence.

Now, 20 years on, former Howard government minister Amanda Vanstone refused to be drawn on what conversations took place in cabinet regarding Iraq, insisting she was still bound by cabinet confidentiality rules.

"I think [we] made the right decision at the time, given what we knew, and believed to be true at the time," she told the ABC.

Hardline asylum seeker policy

Off the back of a decisive third term victory, the Howard government continued to pursue its hard-line policy on asylum seekers.

Offshore processing on Manus and Nauru began after the Tampa Affair and, in 2002, cabinet decided to fast track the construction of a purpose-built immigration detention centre on Christmas Island.

It would become the site of protests, riots and deaths and would draw intense criticism and condemnation from human rights organisations.

Records show that, as cabinet grappled with cost and time blowouts in the construction of the facility, then-immigration minister Philip Ruddock recommended that asylum seekers not be allowed to move freely on the island.

"I am opposed to allowing free movement on the Island," a submission prepared by Mr Ruddock said.

"It would result in easy access between unauthorised arrivals, the media and others."

He also said it "would contaminate the application processes" and "invite attempts by groups to smuggle them to the mainland".

"I remain firmly of the view that unauthorised arrivals must be detained with a level of security commensurate with that on the mainland. Anything less, could result in Christmas Island being seen as a magnet rather than a deterrent," he said.

The prime minister's department was supportive of higher security to keep asylum seekers from speaking to the media.

"An appropriate level of security is necessary to minimise escapes and interference in effective detention practices by the media, advocacy groups and the Christmas Island population," one document said.

In 2002, hundreds of detainees at the desert detention centre at Woomera in South Australia went on hunger strike, with some stitching their lips with needle and thread.

The government publicly accused them of engaging in self harm to force it to change its mandatory detention policies.

Documents show the influence that event had on the government's decision to open a detention centre away from the mainland.

"The development of purpose-built capacity is the only cost-effective, long-term detention option [that] will avoid the type of incidents and criticism experienced at Woomera," one cabinet submission stated.

Bali attacks

In October of 2002, 202 people were killed, including 88 Australians, when terrorists attacked popular nightspots in Bali.

Cabinet records marked "secret Australian eyes only" from the days immediately after the bombings show the government was quick to put in place arrangements to repatriate Australians and other foreign nationals who required hospital treatment.

The national security committee of cabinet promptly ordered a probe into the adequacy of Australia's counter-terrorism settings "to assess their appropriateness and any areas where improvements could be made".

It agreed that there needed to be an "urgent focus" on countering terrorist organisations in Indonesia and elsewhere that have the capability to conduct terrorist attacks.

Since the attacks, cooperation and diplomatic ties between Australia and Indonesia have strengthened.

"It generally follows that, where you have a common tragedy or you have common interests, your friendship strengthens," Ms Vanstone reflected.

Cabinet rejects calls for an apology

In August 2002, cabinet accepted then-indigenous affairs minister Philip Ruddock's recommendation not to issue an apology to the stolen generations, and not to pursue a treaty or a referendum on constitutional recognition.

Cabinet, in one document, agreed that an apology for past atrocities was "inappropriate" because "it could imply that present generations are in some way responsible and accountable for the actions of earlier generations".

After winning the 2007 election, Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd would go on to issue an official apology "for the laws and policies of successive parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss" on First Nations' peoples.

The documents are also a reminder that some of views held by the Coalition towards a Voice to Parliament nowadays, mirror views that were held two decades ago.

For example, the Howard cabinet argued that a treaty between Indigenous Australians would be "divisive" and "contrary to the concept of Australia as a single nation" and would "not solve the critical issues facing Indigenous Australians, such as social and economic disadvantage".

'More extreme climate events' forecast

Climate change has been a constant in cabinet for many years.

In 2002, cabinet noted key messages from a presentation by the CSIRO regarding the science of climate change and its impacts.

"Greenhouse gas build up is lifting global temperatures and changing the climate to an extent that is not sustainable," a cabinet document states.

Cabinet also noted that climate change would have considerable impacts, implications and costs for Australia, including "more extreme climate events".

Global emissions hit record high

Fossil carbon emissions bounced back to a record high this year and are likely to keep climbing, with scientists saying we'll cross 1.5C of warming early next decade.

However, ultimately, the government made the decision not to ratify the Kyoto Protocol after the US withdrew from the process.

"Effective global action to address climate change needs to include emission control commitments by all major greenhouse gas emitters, including the United States of America and key developing countries," one cabinet record states.

"Without the involvement of major greenhouse gas emitters in emission controls, there are risks for Australia in burdening its emission-intensive, trade-exposed industries with costs not faced by competitors and, at present, it is not in Australia's interest to ratify the Kyoto Protocol."

Ms Vanstone remains adamant that the 2002 cabinet made the right decision.

"We should be doing everything we sensibly can to mitigate climate change to stop contributing to it, of course," she said.

"I don't think we should put ourselves ahead of other countries, in terms of the damage we do to our industries, in order to sign up to a statement."

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