It’s a sad fact that for over 35 years the Australian Labor Party has opposed war powers reform. The actual reason for this staunch opposition remains somewhat unclear, but on the six separate occasions that legislation was introduced it was voted down by both Labor and The Coalition.
But before you become completely pessimistic it is possible things are indeed changing. There is hope that the new Albanese government will hold a joint parliamentary inquiry into how we go to war. The ALP national conference voted in favour of an inquiry in 2018 and 2021. We are hoping for the best on that score and have written to the PM recalling that it was to be held in the government’s first term.
But it’s worth asking – why the long term reluctance and do we really need an inquiry to tell us what we already know? And we already know because the arguments have been widely canvassed over such a long period. Remember the Australian Democrats, way back in the 80s? They were the first to propose giving parliament a vote on overseas wars. That’s how long we have been talking about this. The Greens have followed up several times with considered and well thought out legislation, only to be told, no thanks, not interested. Labor didn’t even offer to amend the bills, they just rejected them outright.
Some of the arguments used against reform don’t stand up to scrutiny. A number of politicians claim that giving parliament the final say would be very dangerous because in a conflict situation there is simply no time to have lengthy debates in Parliament. The recent bills had specific clauses that excluded all emergency situations, like a military attack on Australia. In such a scenario the PM and cabinet could immediately dispatch troops.
The reform AWPR supports, and the recent bills in parliament, relate only to overseas wars, or, as some call them, wars of choice. The most recent wars, Iraq in 2003 and Afghanistan in 2001 are perfect examples of why we need war powers reform. In both cases we had several weeks to decide on whether to join these conflicts – ample time for a debate and a vote.
Another strange argument used against reform is this – what if a minor party or some independent MPs have the balance of power and refuse to allow us to go to war? As one Labor MP put it – “This may risk national security being subject to nutters or popularists on the senate crossbench.” If the senate cross bench had that power, it would mean that the entire opposition also opposed the war in question. The balance of power only works if one of the major parties is against the proposition. Do we really want to get involved in contentious, controversial wars, where more than half the parliament are not on side?
Public support for war powers reform is now at an all-time high at 87%, up from 83% a year earlier. Within the parliament there are better prospects, with the more independents and more Greens MPs elected.
For many the question of whether going to war should be up to one person – the Prime Minister – or up to all our elected representatives, is a no brainer. It would provide real scrutiny of a life and death decision and could help us avoid wars that are illegal or unjust.
In many ways this issue is not some complex problem that has many difficult pros and cons. It is a question of principle. Do we want concentrated power in the hands of a tiny group or do we want genuine transparency and accountability?
For these reasons we believe that the new government should take a stand and support this sensible legal reform. Labor has endured almost ten years in opposition. Now is the time to be ambitious and embrace change, before we are asked to join another overseas war. If the new government decides an inquiry is a necessary step on the road to reform, it is imperative that this is not used to stall progress but is itself part of the process of fixing a deeply flawed and dangerous system.
– Mark Robinson (AWPR)