parliament must have the power to decide on war

Australia is one of the few remaining democracies that can legally deploy its defence force into a conflict zone without recourse to the parliament. At the moment, that decision is reserved to the executive alone.

First published at the Guardian

As kindred democracies around the world have enacted reforms to vest the so-called “war power” in elected parliaments, Australia has remained anchored to a pre-democratic tradition founded in hereditary monarchies and feudal states.

If this anachronism had served Australia well, it might be possible to mount an argument that “if it isn’t broken, it doesn’t need fixing”. If the horror unfolding in Iraq does not permanently put this view to rest, it is difficult to imagine what would.

On the basis of fabricated and wilfully misinterpreted intelligence, in 2003 then-prime minister John Howard followed the United States and United Kingdom into an illegal and open-ended war in Iraq.

Our parliament, and by extension the voting public of Australia, were cut out of the decision, despite the fact that hundreds of millions of people around the world organised and campaigned against the decision to go to war.

The decision by hardliners within the Bush administration to invade Iraq is now seen as one of the most grievous strategic disasters in modern history. The vast majority of the world’s people were right, and the executive authorities in the US, UK and Australia, were wrong.

No inquiry into the decision to go to war has ever been held in Australia – only a handful of piecemeal attempts to pin the blame on intelligence services and shift focus away from the actions of the Howard government.

At the time, Iraq was not threatening war. There was no allegiance between the secular Baathist regime that ruled Iraq and the fundamentalist Al Qaeda networks responsible for the 9/11 attacks. There were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and hadn’t been since 1991.

Intelligence agencies within the US, UK and Australia understood these facts, but inflexible groupthink prevailed within the White House, Downing Street and the prime minister’s office here in Australia.

Australia is entirely complicit in the violent, decade-long occupation that shattered Iraq’s social and economic structures, and ignited long-dormant sectarian tensions that now threaten to plunge the crippled country into full-blown civil war.

At the time of writing, Sunni fundamentalists considered too extreme to remain part of Al Qaeda have established a new caliphate in territory carved out of Syria and Iraq. The brittle institutions of Iraqi governance, bombed into existence by the United States, now threaten to collapse entirely.

If there is a strategic policy failure more complete than the catastrophic invasion of Iraq, it is difficult to recall it. This dismal outcome was predicted at the time by many of those who opposed the war, but the executive’s lock on the process means that the normal parliamentary processes of critique and accountability were bypassed. Somewhere between 100,000 and one million Iraqis have paid for this obscene oversight with their lives.

As the security environment in Iraq deteriorates, should Tony Abbott decide to compound the strategic incompetence of 2003 with a further deployment, the Australian parliament, and the Australian people, will be cut out of the decision again.

Concurrently with the Iraq deployment, Australia has also fought a long, costly, and ultimately futile war in Afghanistan. The heaviest cost was carried by the Afghan people: tens of thousands of civilians killed, maimed and traumatised as the US government’s saturation bombing campaign transitioned into a long, untenable occupation.

Forty-one Australian soldiers lost their lives in Afghanistan. Out of respect to them and their families, parliament pauses to acknowledge their sacrifice when news breaks of another death. No such respects are paid to those Afghans who also paid the ultimate price; no-one even appears to be keeping count.

It is no longer tenable that the decision to deploy into conflict zones should be left to the executive alone. Our current Defence Act does not allow for any level of transparent decision making, scrutiny and debate. This is an artefact of legislation, not the natural order of things.

Today I reintroduced the Defence Amendment (Parliamentary Approval of Overseas Service) Bill 2014 to ensure that the decision to deploy members of the Australian Defence Force be made not by the executive alone but by parliament as a whole. This means debate in both houses, followed by a vote.

It is the latest iteration of a bill introduced into the Senate in 1985. By 2015 it will mark its 30th year of languishing in plain sight while Liberal and Labor prime ministers alike reserve this power to themselves.

This bill would bring Australia into conformity with principles and practices utilised in other democracies including Denmark, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Slovakia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and Turkey, where troop deployment is set down in constitutional or legislative provisions. Some form of parliamentary approval or consultation is also routinely undertaken in Austria, the Czech Republic, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Norway.

Our ally, the US, has a similar provision that subjects the decision to go to war to a broader forum — section 8 of the US Constitution quite clearly says, “Congress shall have power to declare war”. In the wake of the disaster in Iraq, the UK parliament now holds a de-facto war power, a new convention that prevented a rushed deployment into Syria earlier in 2014.

There are exemptions in this bill to avoid interfering with non-warlike overseas service in which Australian troops are engaged. There are also appropriate exemptions in the bill to provide for the practicalities of situations where parliament cannot immediately meet.

It is time that Australia joined its closest allies and like-minded democratic states by involving the parliament in the decision to deploy the ADF. The entwined tragedies of our recent military misadventures, and the threat that history may soon repeat, make passage of this bill more urgent than ever.