I am delighted to be here on this International Day of Human Rights to celebrate the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons being awarded the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize for, and I quote, “Its work to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and for its ground-breaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition.”

I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet today. I pay my respect to their Elders past and present, and the Elders from other communities who may be here today.

I would also like to acknowledge my Labor colleague Julian Hill MP, Senator Richard Di Natale, the Leader of the Australian Greens and especially Karina and Rose Lester – thank-you for telling the story of your family despite its horror. It is so important that your story is shared.

Well, what an incredible achievement and impact ICAN have had in the creation of this new treaty; one which I am so pleased was recognised by the Nobel Peace Prize.

While Australia continues to stand on the sidelines of progress on this issue, it is gratifying to know that there are groups like ICAN that will represent the views of so many Australians where their own government will not.

As a Labor Senator, I am proud of the progress that we made while in government on this matter. Labor legends like Peter Garrett, Jim McClelland, Tom Uren, and Gareth Evans, have strongly supported nuclear disarmament.

As a former Labor Minister in the Whitlam and Hawke Governments, Tom Uren believed that the use of nuclear weapons was a crime against humanity. Tom passed away in 2015, but his legacy as a peacemaker lives on through the Tom Uren Memorial Fund, a group that honours the life and work of this champion of the anti-nuclear movements.

That fund plays an important role in supporting the important work of ICAN in Australia to raise public awareness and build support for disarmament.

ICAN’s award for its contribution to the goal of world peace shows that even small groups, with the right motivations, can make an enormous difference.

I had the opportunity to watch ICAN making its big difference last year, when I had the remarkable opportunity to attend and participate in the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

It was exceptional to see their work contribute to the UNGA adoption of a landmark resolution to convene a conference for the negotiation of “a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination”.

And clearly this is the most significant multilateral development on nuclear disarmament since the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1968.

Yet the nuclear powers and the Turnbull Government refused to attend the conference that led to the ban Treaty, labelling it as ineffective and unrealistic.

This backward view denies the reality of the treaty’s normative impact. This treaty’s aim is to delegitimise nuclear weapons, like the landmines ban treaty and the chemical weapons convention before it.

And yet, Australia has historically supported a policy of global proactive disarmament. In 1995, Paul Keating and Gareth Evans established the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons.

The Canberra Commission’s report – as Gareth Evans has written in his recent book Incorrigible Optimist –

‘(W)as the first ever commissioned by a sovereign state squarely to address the common assumption that because nuclear weapons exist, and cannot be uninvented, the world continues to need them to deter their use.

The basic argument of the commission’s report was stated in three simple propositions… so long as any state has nuclear weapons, others will want them; so long as any state retains nuclear weapons, they are bound one day to be used; and any such use would be catastrophic for life on the planet…’

Now, Australia does not possess nuclear weapons, nor do we benefit from their existence and potential use, yet this government refuses to join the movement to outlaw them.

As Gareth Evans notes, ‘all the world hates a hypocrite. And so long as the nuclear-weapon states – and those which, like Australia, shelter under their umbrella – continue to insist that their security concerns justify retaining a nuclear option… that is exactly how the weapons states will continue to be regarded.’

I have stressed, time and again, my disbelief that other types of weapons, including chemical and biological weapons, are prohibited under global conventions – ones that Australia has signed up to – but the use of the most destructive weapons of all are not prohibited. 

While at the UN I came to the view that it is through the negotiation of resolutions and treaties like the ban treaty that we are best able to pursue our own interests and maintain peace in our region.

I have been inspired by watching the developments towards the completion of this objective, championed by countries like Mexico and Austria, and indeed by civil society groups like ICAN.

As Professor Ramesh Thakur has noted, the constant refrain of the nuclear powers – that the nuclear genie cannot be put in the bottle – can now be turned against them, for neither can the ban Treaty.

When Tom Uren witnessed the US atomic bombings of Nagasaki, he said: 'I will never forget, as long as I live, the colour of the sky on the day the Americans dropped the atomic bomb on that city…'

Nuclear war means the end of everything. It is groups and individuals like ICAN that contribute so much to help prevent that outcome. But there is only so much you can do without the support of your government.

It is imperative that the government join with ICAN and others in placing the wellbeing of the Australian people at the front of their agenda, and acknowledge that the continued existence and threatened use of nuclear weapons is a danger to humanity that can, and must, be eradicated.

Thank you and again, congratulations ICAN on this well-deserved Nobel Peace Prize.

Let’s continue to work for the end of nuclear weapons.