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20 years on questions persist about the Iraq Cabinet Papers

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  • The Howard government was preparing for war a year before the final decision.
  • How did senior public servants conclude that Australia’s involvement was legal under international law?
  • Why has no proper inquiry been held, as occurred in the UK?

Cabinet documents from 2003 should have been available on New Year’s Day 2024 but were not released. The public was told that 82 records were not handed to the National Archives in 2020, either because they were ‘misplaced’ or because of an ‘administrative error’.

Prime Minister Albanese referred the matter to former Department head Dennis Richardson, and as a result of his inquiry, all but 14 of the documents were produced. On 15 March, the rest were released, except two which are still withheld for reasons of ‘national security’.

The main interest in the now-available papers concerns how Australia under the Howard government joined the Iraq invasion on 20 March 2003, what advance knowledge the government had of it, who they consulted about its legality, and what were expected to be its consequences.

A single, short document dated 18 March records the decision of the National Security Committee of Cabinet (NSC) to dispatch the ADF to Iraq. Another shows that Australia was advised two weeks earlier that a US invasion was likely, even if the UN Security Council did not authorise military action against Iraq. A third, from Assistant Secretaries in DFAT and AG’s – not their heads of department – tells the NSC what Howard wants it to hear, that an Australian deployment to Iraq and subsequent military actions will be consistent with Australia’s international legal obligations.

The committee, clearly concerned about the absence of UN authorisation, agrees in another document that Australia should ‘promote a strong and visible UN involvement in the post-conflict management of Iraq’. They note that the US currently sees the UN as playing a subsidiary role (meaning none), and so little progress can be expected. Australia does not anticipate any peace-building or reparations role for itself in Iraq.

The committee had plenty of advance notice. The Defence Minister, Robert Hill – who still maintains going to war in Iraq was warranted – and the Chief of the Defence Force noted on 10 January 2003 the need to deploy some ADF units in response to US Central Command’s ‘likely time-frame for possible military action against Iraq’. The committee had already agreed to a list of available ADF units on 26 August and 4 December 2002.

At the 10 January 2003 NSC meeting, Howard says he has ‘foreshadowed to the governor-general the general direction of steps under consideration by the government in relation to Iraq’. In the meantime, Peter Hollingworth, as Commander-in-Chief, asked for legal advice on the war from the attorney-general. That has not been revealed, but Hollingworth later said he was not consulted by the Prime Minister. Instead, Howard told Hollingworth that it was unnecessary to refer the Iraq decision to the governor-general. The Minister for Defence would deploy the ADF under section 8 of the Defence Act.

This sleight of hand disturbed former Defence Department Secretary Paul Barratt and his colleagues Admiral Chris Barrie and General Peter Leahy. Britain’s Chilcot Inquiry (2009-16) revealed a similarly devious process leading to the UK’s participation in the US ‘coalition of the willing’ in Iraq. Barratt, Sue Wareham, and other concerned Australians in 2012 formed the Campaign for an Iraq War Inquiry, which in 2015 became Australians for War Powers Reform.

Our campaign for transparency and accountability from government in military matters continues, and with good reason. Despite the disastrous outcome of the Iraq invasion, the Albanese government has refused to change the role of the Executive in decisions for war. Only a debate and a vote in both Houses will do that, and prevent Australia engaging in further US wars of aggression.

– AWPR Media Release

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