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Nelson: Oil a factor in Australia's Iraq deployment

The Howard Government has today admitted that securing oil supplies is a factor in Australia's continued military involvement in Iraq.

Defence Minister Brendan Nelson said today oil was a factor in Australia's contribution to the unpopular war, as "energy security" and stability in the Middle East would be crucial to the nation's future.

Speaking ahead of today's key foreign policy speech by Prime Minister John Howard, Dr Nelson said defence was about protecting the economy as well as physical security.

Dr Nelson also said it was important to support the "prestige" of the US and UK.

"The defence update we're releasing today sets out many priorities for Australia's defence and security, and resource security is one of them," he told ABC radio.

"The entire (Middle East) region is an important supplier of energy, oil in particular, to the rest of the world.

"Australians and all of us need to think well what would happen if there were a premature withdrawal from Iraq?"

Federal Opposition leader Kevin Rudd has attacked Dr Nelson's comments, saying they contradict what the Howard Government said when the war began.

"When Mr Howard was asked back in 2003 whether this war had anything to do with oil, Mr Howard said in no way did it have anything to do with oil," Mr Rudd told reporters in Sydney today.

"This Government simply makes it up as it goes along on Iraq."

Dr Nelson said the primary reason for Australian troops remaining in Iraq was to prevent violence between the Sunni and Shia population, and to bring stability to the region.

"We're also there to support our key ally - that's the United States of America - and we're there to ensure that we don't have terrorism driven from Iraq which would destabilise our own region," he said.

"For all of those reasons, one of which is energy security, it's extremely important that Australia take the view that it's in our interests... to make sure we leave the Middle East and leave Iraq in particular in a position of sustainable security."

Isolationism would not make Australia safer, he said.

When Australia joined the US-led invasion force of Iraq in 2003, the Government said it was primarily because Iraq had weapons of mass destruction that could pose a threat to the US and its allies.

Mr Rudd, who spoke to journalists after delivering a speech to the Lowy Institute on tackling the root causes of terrorism, said it had been a mistake to send troops into Iraq.

"Mr Howard should follow Labor's lead and have a clear cut exit strategy from Iraq," he said.

"Australia's involvement in the Iraq war continues to make Australia a greater terrorism target than we'd otherwise be."

Editorial Notes: Related stories submitted by several readers. UPDATE (July 5): From Australia, ML reports: Apparently, it is all a bit of a blunder by the Minister for Defence (he was speaking too candidly) and the media are now saying that he may have blown any chances at leadership after Howard exits. The PM dismissed the Defence minister's comments as a misinterpretation and has absolutely contradicted that oil had anything to do with it. It is clear from various statements over time that the oil price is high on the government's worry list (with an election looming and people more indebted than ever before) but Howard knows it is poison to admit that that is why they invaded Iraq. You can hear about it as the first story on today's "PM" programme on ABC radio national: www.abc.net.au/pm/ (it should be posted tomorrow). YESTERDAY: Contributor ML from Australia writes: This is important - even if it tells us what we have known all along. Since Australia does nothing internationally nowadays without permission from the USA, this only confirms what Gates said recently about the US staying in Iraq for a long time. www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2007/07/05/1970275.htm www.smh.com.au/news/national/oil-behind-iraq-war-nelson/2007/07/05/1183351331164.html theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,20867,22021450-601,00.html www.abc.net.au/rn/breakfast/default.htm (listen to minutes 7 to 20 of the second hour - gives background on the policy speeches to occur later today) There will be more detail in the Prime Minister's foreign policy speech later today.

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