Reply to the Minister for Defence

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Note by Paul Barratt

On 13 May 2014 I wrote to the Minister for Defence in response to his 23 April reply to my letter of 13 March (see Reply from the Minister for Defence).

The text of my letter appears below:


Campaign for an Iraq War Inquiry Inc
PO Box 2228
Malvern East Vic 3145

13 May 2014

Senator the Hon. David Johnston
Minister for Defence
Parliament House

Dear Senator Johnston,

Thank you for your letter of 23 April 2014, on behalf of the Deputy Prime Minister, the Hon. Warren Truss MP; the Minister for Employment, Senator the Hon. Eric Abetz; and the Attorney-General, Senator the Hon. George Brandis, as well as yourself, in response to my letter of 13 March calling for an independent inquiry into the process by which the Government of the day made the decision that Australia would participate in the 20 March 2003 invasion of Iraq, and for reform to the processes by which we make decisions to deploy elements of the Australian Defence Force into international armed conflict.

The first point to be made is that we are not seeking, as stated in the response, an inquiry into Australia’s participation in the Iraq War, we are seeking, as my letter made clear, an independent inquiry into the decision making process which led to Australia’s involvement in the Iraq War.

I must say on behalf of our organisation’s members that we are surprised and disappointed that you would be so dismissive of the suggestion that the Australian Government, like the Government of the United Kingdom, should convene an inquiry to discover the lessons to be learned from the as yet unclear processes that led Australia to become involved in a war that was both illegal and based, at least publicly, on the premise widely understood to be false at the time, that Iraq was in possession of Weapons of Mass Destruction.

We are equally disappointed that, while you referred us to the article Parliamentary involvement in declaring war and deploying forces overseas, your reply was silent on the substance of the matter of the reform of the so-called “war powers”. We believe that Australian Governments owe it both to the young Australian men and women who might to be placed in harm’s way, and to the wider Australian public, to ensure that any deployment decisions involving international armed conflict are made only upon the most robust and transparent basis, and our principal motivation in calling for an inquiry into the decision making processes leading up to the Iraq deployment was the hope and expectation that this inquiry would make recommendations for a more robust decision-making process in the future.

I am surprised that you would cite the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security’s 2004 report Inquiry into Intelligence on Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction (the “Jull Report”) and the 2004 report of the subsequent Inquiry into Australian Intelligence Agencies (the “Flood Report”) in support of the view that a further inquiry is not required. While this might look to the less-informed observer like an answer to our call for an inquiry, it is not, and by failing to mention the thrust of these inquiries’ findings, it is grossly misleading.

The first point to be made is that these inquiries, as their names suggest, were confined by their terms of reference to the intelligence picture which was available to the Australian Government and an examination of the performance of the Australian intelligence agencies. They were not charged with conducting, and nor did they conduct, inquiries into the decision-making process which led to Australia participating in the invasion of Iraq.

Second, the outcomes of these inquiries are hardly conducive to confidence in the decision-making process which led to that invasion. The Jull Inquiry found

The case made by the government was that Iraq possessed WMD in large quantities and posed a grave and unacceptable threat to the region and the world, particularly as there was a danger that Iraq’s WMD might be passed to terrorist organisations. This is not the picture that emerges from an examination of all the assessments provided to the Committee by Australia’s two analytical agencies.[1]

The Inquiry led by former DFAT Secretary Philip Flood found that the evidence for Iraqi WMD was ‘thin, ambiguous and incomplete’[2].

Accordingly, far from obviating the necessity for a further inquiry, we think the outcomes of these inquiries strengthen the case for a comprehensive inquiry of the kind we are advocating.

I would reiterate the view expressed in my earlier letter that, given the gravity of any decision to commit the Australian defence force to international armed conflict, the Australian people are entitled to know how that decision was made, and what evidence informed the decision. The Australian Government owes to those it puts in harm’s way a duty to evaluate the quality of the processes by which it decides to put them in harm’s way, to identify and document the lessons learned, and improve the decision making process for the future.

As matters stand, while Britons will have the chance to learn from past decisions once the Chilcot Inquiry hands down its recommendations, Australians will still be deprived of a comprehensive account of the processes leading to our involvement in Iraq. As I said in my earlier letter, an independent inquiry into the decision making process which led to Australia’s involvement in the Iraq War would also allow for a public discussion of the appropriateness of Australia’s current ‘war powers’, which concentrate power in the executive branch. This could provide a framework for reforming how the decision is made to go to war. The current process produced very flawed decisions in relation to Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, and is clearly overdue for careful reconsideration.

Accordingly, the Campaign for an Iraq War Inquiry urges you to support not only an independent inquiry into Australia’s involvement in the Iraq War, but also a commitment on the part of the Government to reforming the ‘war powers’.

Yours sincerely,

Paul Barratt AO

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