For a society which believes that power flows from the people to the state rather than the reverse, the spectacle of prime ministers clinging to the ancient privileges of the sovereign to decide on matters of war and peace is both an anomaly and an anachronism. When it comes to the grave decision to commit Australian troops to war, our government needs to move with the times.
Within the space of three weeks in August and September, Tony Abbott, on his own authority, was able to take Australia from dropping biscuits and bottled water for fleeing Yazidi civilians to landing arms and munitions for one party to the conflict – under the rubric of alleviating “the humanitarian situation in Iraq”. Remarkably, these deliveries of arms and munitions to unnamed forces were at the request of the United States, not at that stage the government of Iraq.
The usual self-serving arguments the major parties advance against Parliamentary involvement are without merit. Parliament can be consulted within the time it takes to mount any major deployment. Parliament will not prevent timely action when the nation is genuinely under threat, because in those circumstances government and the opposition (and I would expect the Greens) will support taking action.
Government claims to be in possession of secret intelligence which it cannot share, but that won’t cut it with the public after the fabrications of 2003 – and I do not believe it can be assumed that everyone will vote on party lines if Parliament were to become the forum for these decisions.
Accordingly, what Australians should expect is a legislated requirement for deployments – in situations short of an emergency which place Australia under direct threat – to require prior authorisation by both Houses of Parliament. Before any vote, the government should table an opinion by the Solicitor-General as to the legality of the war, including a full statement of the reasoning, so that Parliament can make a properly informed decision and we do not have a repeat of the situation of 2003 where we deployed our troops in circumstances which the overwhelming weight of legal opinion said made the invasion illegal.
A recent poll conducted by Roy Morgan on behalf of the Campaign for an Iraq War Inquiry bears out the fact that Australia’s major political parties are completely out of step with the voters on the question of Parliamentary involvement in authorising deployment of the Australian Defence Force into armed conflict abroad.
When asked whether they believe the Parliament should be required to approve decisions to commit Australian troops to war, three out of four Australians surveyed responded that, unless there is immediate danger to Australia, Parliament should be required to approve a decision to send Australian troops into armed conflict abroad. Nearly one in three believe that Parliament should be required to approve that decision even when there is immediate danger to Australia.
This is an issue close to Australians’ hearts and one that politicians should heed – if not out of genuine concern for Australia’s military operations and accountability to the public then surely for the sake of their own political survival. Interestingly, for people surveyed who voted ALP at the last election, 87.4 per cent of respondents said that in the absence of immediate danger to Australia, Parliament should be required to authorise; that was the position of 74.7 per cent of people who voted for the Nationals, and 62.5 per cent of people who voted Liberal.
The same question was put to every federal parliamentarian. The response rate was, with very notable exceptions, appallingly low. On the issue of parliamentary authorisation of deployment, which is routinely referred to as “the most momentous decision a country can make”, and which three quarters of Australians want decided in Parliament, our elected representatives have mostly been silent.
The office of Foreign Minister Julie Bishop responded that the Minister is unable to participate in any surveys, a rule that is enforced by the Chief Government Whip. This ludicrous and non-transparent rule apparently now applies to all Liberal parliamentarians. We are told that our troops fight to preserve our democracy. That democracy appears to be missing in action when the nation goes to war.
The Labor Party has some particular soul searching to do on this issue. Labor, to its credit, opposed our participation in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has chosen to stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the government on the latest adventure. He has stated four conditions for Labor’s support: not deploying ground combat units, confining Australian operations to Iraq, continuing involvement only until the Iraqi government can take full responsibility, and withdrawing if Iraqi forces engage in unacceptable conduct.
These conditions are interesting but they have no force or effect, as any decision to widen our participation in the conflict is entirely in the hands of the Prime Minister, so Tony Abbott can throw “bipartisanship” overboard any time it suits him to allow the mission to creep, a time which will surely come. If, on the other hand, deployment required authorisation by Parliament, as almost nine in 10 Labor voters would wish, those conditions could have been enshrined in the necessary Parliamentary resolution and thus become binding on the government until such time as the government could persuade the Parliament to relax the conditions.
This is the procedure now followed by the country with the most similar political system to our own, the United Kingdom. Prime Minister David Cameron took the proposed deployment of UK troops to the House of Commons; the Commons authorised deployment to operations in Iraq but ruled out operations in Syria.
Australians expect the parliament to act in the interests of the public who have elected them. Such an expectation is only magnified when it comes to such serious and grave circumstances as those requiring a decision to commit troops to foreign theatres of war. Enshrining full parliamentary approval as a necessary precursor to such decisions is a vital step toward strengthening the democratic integrity of our country.
Paul Barratt is a former Secretary to the Department of Defence and president of the Campaign for an Iraq War Inquiry, a body which is campaigning for the reform of “war powers”.