By Alison Broinowski
We now know that the parliamentary report on reform of the war powers won’t appear until late March. The delay may be due to a very late submission from the Attorney-General’s Department to the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade.
Or perhaps it’s because 94 of the 113 submissions favoured changing the way Australia goes to war. It may well be that members of the Defence Sub-Committee, who include politicians from major and minor parties, are finding it difficult to agree on their conclusions and recommendations.
We were warned by the Chair of the Sub-Committee, Julian Hill MP, that compromise would be required. But when the question is whether the current practice should change or remain the same, the answer has to be yes or no. Of course AWPR’s submission said yes to reform, like many others, and proposed the simple amendment to the Defence Act (s8) that we have long advocated. Requiring a debate and a vote in both Houses of Parliament is not, by international democratic standards, a radical change.
We and others have dealt rationally with the objections commonly put forward to such a change: that in an emergency, Parliamentary process would take too long; that MPs and Senators would vote on party lines; that if they disagreed, the decision would come down to a few cross-benchers; that a decision for war by all Parliamentarians would require them to access classified information; and that war is no longer declared, but is now continuously waged in the ‘grey zone’.
We took account of these objections in our two submissions, and although Mr Hill says we are welcome to make another, AWPR has nothing new to add. We addressed the compromise proposal from Graeme Dobell of ASPI, that the existing conventions for how Australia enters overseas conflict should be codified. That would perhaps solve the Sub-Committee’s problem of finding something most could agree on, but it would not satisfy AWPR or others.
Instead, it would put a gloss of propriety on the status quo, and change nothing. It would fail to make politicians responsible to their electorates for war decisions, fail to re-establish the Governor-General’s Constitutional role in the process, and fail to ensure that the ‘captain’s call’ which has led to several disastrous wars is no longer all that it takes.
Both Richard Marles, who established the enquiry, and Penny Wong, have endorsed the role of the executive government, saying this is the government’s position on the matter. We can’t be optimistic about the outcome.
On a happier note, the approaching announcements on the Defence Strategic Review, AUKUS, and war powers reform, together with the 20th anniversary of our invasion of Iraq, have made more Australians aware of the importance of our campaign. That, together with our social media reach, has inspired more memberships and more generous donations.
My thanks to you all for getting AWPR this far.