By Alison Broinowski
The investigation ordered by the Prime Minister into 78 cabinet documents missing since 2003 has produced some revelations about Australia’s invasion of Iraq. But it raises more questions than it answers.
After a month’s review, former head of DFAT and ASIO, Dennis Richardson, found that in addition to the 78 documents which were not delivered to the National Archives in time for public release on 1 January, four more had been found in the Department of the Prime Minister & Cabinet. He reported that 14 relate directly to the Iraq war.
Richardson partly blamed the ‘pandemic-driven work environment of 2020’ for this ‘administrative error’. The failure to deal properly with records included a long backlog of documents awaiting transfer to the Archives. A contributing factor was that the Director-General of the National Archives and other public servants lacked the top secret security clearances they needed to handle the documents.
As prime minister, John Howard was reputed to be averse to leaving a paper trail. He took two momentous decisions for war – on terror in 2001 and up to a year earlier for the 2003 war against Iraq – with minimal consultation and no transparency. What’s been found in dark corners in PM&C and NAA, however, suggests other records must exist in the Departments of Defence and Foreign Affairs, and in the intelligence agencies.
The Howard government inquired into those agencies and the advice it received before the Iraq invasion, but admitted no error of its own. Investigations in the US and UK were more open and direct in identifying the lies told about Saddam Hussein, the weapons he had (but didn’t), and his links to Al Qaeda. Despite years of campaigning for an inquiry, Australians were rewarded with no equivalent to that of Chilcot in Britain, which explicitly blamed Tony Blair and his government for the UK’s role in the war.
A long-promised inquiry into how Australia gets involved in overseas wars was launched in September 2022 by the Albanese government. It reported in March 2023, after both the Defence Minister and Foreign Minister had stated that the established practice should not change. So, as in 2003, the prime minister can at any time decide, alone or in a small, hand-picked group, to dispatch the ADF to war.
After the inquiry, the Joint Standing Committee on foreign affairs, defence and trade lost defence to a new, separate Statutory Committee. It promised the Australian public more transparency and accountability. But its current behaviour, in committing personnel to the attacks on Yemen, shows that its approach to war has not changed. As an Archives historian, David Lee, pointed out, the public still deserves an explanation as to why the Howard government committed the nation to the Iraq war.
Meanwhile Australians wait to read the official history of that war and the war in Afghanistan, which may improve past governments’ record on transparency and accountability. Having failed the first test with the Yemen deployment, we can’t expect future governments to be more open about a war anywhere else.