An inquiry would help us avoid repeating mistakes made 10 years ago.
Natasha Stott-Despoja addresses an anti-war demonstration in Swanston street on February 14, 2003. Photo: Shannon Morris
The largest anti-war demonstrations in Australian history began 10 years ago today – February 14, 2003.
Millions of people protested worldwide, in about 800 cities – including in Australia, Britain, Italy, Spain, Germany, Switzerland, Ireland, the United States, Canada, South Africa, Syria, India, Russia, South Korea, Japan, and even McMurdo Station in Antarctica.
In Melbourne more than 100,000 people protested. They clogged Swanston Street for more than three hours, stretching all the way from the State Library down to Federation Square, demanding Australia not follow US president George Bush into war, and that we must allow UN weapons inspectors to do their work.
Even though globally millions marched, their collective will was ignored, and a tragedy of monstrous proportions unfolded in Iraq.
As predicted by many people at the time, the invasion of Iraq was a humanitarian, legal, political and strategic disaster. It left a trail of death and destruction and millions of refugees. It undermined the role of international law and strengthened terrorism. Australia’s role in the war raised serious questions of government honesty and accountability. If we do not learn lessons from this episode, we are at risk of engaging in equally ill-founded wars in the future.
And now, 10 years later, we need to ask ourselves how the Australian government was able to ignore the public expression of outrage about its intentions. The key lesson we must learn is to ensure that Australian governments can never again commit our forces on the decision of a leader in the face of opposition from millions of Australian citizens, without even our Parliament being consulted. Democracy shouldn’t work like that.
The 10th anniversary of the largest outpouring of anti-war protest this country has ever seen is a fitting occasion for an inquiry into the Iraq war.
The former secretary of the Department of Defence, Paul Barratt, along with former PM Malcolm Fraser, former chief of the Australian Defence Force General Peter Gration and many other distinguished Australians have recently formed a Campaign for an Iraq War Inquiry to facilitate a national conversation about the big questions of how and why the Howard government committed Australian military personnel to invade Iraq in 2003. Their efforts are supported by Senior Australian of the Year, Professor Ian Maddocks.
Britain and the Netherlands have both conducted such inquiries, revealing much that was hidden in those countries’ Iraq war decision-making. Of course, the government and opposition will resist, counting on the resignation many felt for the past decade to shield them from public pressure. But the demand for an inquiry into what happened 10 years ago can sow the seeds for a democratic capacity to ensure it never happens again.
Instead of simply looking back in horror at how Australia became embroiled in such an ill-conceived and catastrophic conflict, the inquiry would seek to identify the steps that led to Australia participating in the invasion of Iraq, in order to understand the lessons to be learnt and how to ensure we follow better procedures in the future.
The inclusion of our Parliament in any decision that puts our troops, and millions of civilians, in harm’s way would be a good start. Going to war is one of the biggest steps any country can take, and yet John Howard has never been properly called to account for his decision in 2003. Those who, with him, thought it was the right decision at the time, should welcome and support an inquiry. As the war has been severely criticised, its proponents should have the opportunity to defend their actions and views.
In these days of political disengagement, an inquiry into Australia’s involvement in Iraq would provide a powerful route to begin overcoming the sense of powerlessness so many people felt in the face of the travesty of democratic decision-making a decade ago. It is an episode from which we must learn, lest we repeat the mistakes.
Dr Sue Wareham is secretary of the Campaign for an Iraq War Inquiry.