You are currently viewing War Decisions

War Decisions

  • Post category:Blog
  • Post comments:0 Comments
By Barbara Hart

Sending Australian forces into conflict zones must be the most momentous of all decisions our government can take. It is suggested in this post that Parliament should be the body that takes the decision to send Australian men and women into armed conflict situations – Parliament should make any ‘war decisions’[1]. The basis for this position is that such an important decision should be supported by the majority of the elected representatives of the Australian people. Authority for making the decision should be vested in the Parliament, giving the power to all the Federally elected representatives of the Australian people.

Under the Constitution, the executive power of the Commonwealth vested in the Queen is exercised by the Governor General (Section 61). Since the action by the then Governor General, Sir John Kerr, in 1975, the possibility of a Governor General actually exercising this power has become remote. “Contemporary practice … is that decisions to go to war or deploy troops are matters for the Prime Minister and Cabinet and do not involve the Governor General or the Federal Executive Council”[2]. It is the Prime Minister and Cabinet that holds power to make ‘war decisions’.

‘War decisions’ made by the Government of the day are sometimes followed by a Parliamentary debate, but not always. On 4 October 2001, the then Prime Minister, the Hon. John Howard, announced Australia’s commitment to engage forces in the US led Afghanistan conflict. No statement was made in Parliament, nor was there any debate. Similarly, on 24 May 1962, the Minister for Defence announced that Australian Service personnel would be sent to the Republic of Vietnam on the invitation of that Government. There was no involvement of Parliament for this first step into the Vietnam War.

The delegation of power results in the concentration of power. There is a general trend in Australia for Prime Ministers to have increasing decision making powers. The consequences are that there is less debate, less consideration of complexities, fewer diverse views expressed, less scrutiny, and the potential for personal bias influencing the outcome.

Power in ‘war decisions’ is the power over life or death – the power to send people into life threatening situation, to put lives at risk; the power to expose them to extreme trauma and injury that can affect them and their families for the rest of their lives. It is the power to make or break alliances with other nations. It is the power to shape Australia’s future relationships, and indeed Australia’s future. It can determine who is your enemy, and who is your friend. It is an immense power.

If authority for war decisions was instead held by Parliament, those making the decision would be openly and visibly responsible through the mechanisms of the parliamentary debate and vote. Secondly, if the majority of elected representatives of the Australian populace decided to send forces into armed conflict, then the majority of Australian people could be taken to support the engagement. The members of the armed forces whose lives will be jeopardised will know that they are supported by their country. The decision is thereby legitimised by the agreement of the majority of Australians.

The words ‘authority’ and ‘power’ have been used so far. Authority rests on respect while power entails control. As respect for politicians and political systems has declined in recent decades, authority, trust in leadership and in decisions being made in the best interests of the country as a whole have all faded from popular perceptions and discourse. The use of power has come to be associated with vested interests, lobby groups and re-election prospects. This is another reason to extend responsibility for war decisions to all the elected representatives, so that the decision is respected and authority is restored.

Parliament’s responsibility

Parliament, through open debate, would be in a sound position to consider first the doctrine of responsibility to protect[3] under the United Nations, and the possibility of using means other than military intervention, such as diplomatic or humanitarian actions. The Secretary General Ban Ki-moon presented the Report on Implementing the Responsibility to Protect on 12 January 2009.

139. The international community, through the United Nations, also has the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means, in accordance with Chapters VI and VIII of the Charter, to help to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. In this context, we are prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council, in accordance with the Charter, including Chapter VII, on a case-by-case basis and in cooperation with relevant regional organizations as appropriate, should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities are manifestly failing to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.[4]

If all other paths have failed and military action is to be considered, then Parliament can examine the proposal in terms of the five criteria for military intervention, reached by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty in 2001. These cover consideration of the seriousness of the threat of harm, the purpose of any intervention, whether every other non-military option has been tried, the proportionality of the proposed action and the balance of consequences of the proposed action.[5] Former Foreign Minister Gareth Evans chaired this Commission and has spoken and published on the right to protection and the criteria for taking decisions on military interventions. [6]

This is the international framework to assist Parliamentary decision making. It will still be the hardest of all decision, because of its consequences.

Major General John Cantwell writes in his final chapter of Exit Wounds:

Some will argue that the men and women we send to war are all volunteers, who know the risks and take them willingly. Others say that casualties are the unavoidable cost of doing business in a combat zone. There is the argument that the lives of a few sometimes need to be expended for a greater good. Another line of reasoning takes the grand-stand view of international affairs, putting the case that Australia – a relative minnow in terms of military might, albeit well trained and reasonably well-equipped minnow – has no choice but to maintain strong bonds with a large and powerful friend, the United States. That friendship sometimes demands reciprocal payments, in the form of going to war and spending some lives. A cold clear-eyed analysis of these claims tells me that they are all true, much as it pains me to admit it.

 But these arguments only work at the intellectual level. They do not make sense at the human level at which everyday life is precious, where each dead soldier is someone and not just a number. These men had parents, sisters, brothers, partners and children who loved them. They had all lived and had expectation of more living to come. They all had dreams and hopes and potential.[7]

Can Governments afford to consider the ‘human level’? Unfortunately, the consequences of war decisions are not usually borne by those who make them. Hannah Arendt has written in The Eggs Speak Up:

… world history, insofar as it aspires to greatness, has always demanded and received great sacrifices. No matter how grandiose this greatness might appear to those who were drunk on history, its practical application coincided uncannily with the pseudo-wisdom of popular proverbs … you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.[8]

Yet considering carefully all consequences is essential for the continuance of democracy and for increasing our respect for democratic processes. Arendt goes on to warn about making democracy itself a cause that justifies the means.

The democratic way of life can be threatened only by people who see everything as a means to an end, i.e. in some necessary chain of motives and consequences, and who are prone to judge actions ‘objectively’, independently of the conscious motives of the doer, or to deduce certain consequences for opinions of which the holder is unaware…….each good action, even for a ‘bad cause’ adds some real goodness to the world; each bad action even for the most beautiful of all ideals makes our common world a little worse.[9]

These are the tasks for Parliaments in the future – to consider all factors, to see as far as possible the consequences, to look critically at both means and ends, to think on both the intellectual and the human levels. War decisions are far too important not to be made by the Australian Parliament.

The British Precedent

The decision to allow [the UK] Parliament a vote on military action in Iraq in 2003 has been regarded by many as a precedent for prior Parliamentary approval in any future deployments of the Armed Forces in conflict situations. However, it remains the case that Parliament has no legally established role in approving participation in military action and any formal Parliamentary involvement continues to be determined by the Government.[10]

Like Australia, the UK Parliament’s role is not established. In Australia “the Commonwealth Constitution does not say expressly who is responsible for declaring war or deploying troops. In addition, there is no requirement in the Constitution or Defence legislation for parliamentary involvement in most aspects of declaring war and deploying troops.”[11]

In opening the debate, the UK Prime Minister David Cameron said “I want to unite as much of the country and of this House as possible. I think it is right, on these vital issues of national and international importance, to seek the greatest possible consensus.” The ensuing debate was both broad and deep. Members had access to Joint Intelligence Committee reports, legal advice and House of Commons Briefing Papers. The motion was rejected. The Prime Minister concluded “It is very clear tonight that, while the House has not passed a motion, the British Parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action. I get that, and the Government will act accordingly.”[12]

So in August 2013, the House of Commons voted against UK military action in Syria. This was an unprecedented vote, in that the Parliament’s decision over-ruled the Government’s ‘war’ position. This decision had authority, as can be seen in its acceptance by Prime Minister David Cameron. Both authority and respect were generated by this process.

It is an example of how authority and legitimacy can result from Parliament making the final decision.


“There set out, slowly, for a Different World
At four, on winter mornings, different legs …
You can’t break eggs without making an omelette
That’s what they tell the eggs.” -Randall Jarrell “A War” http://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88/jarrell-bio.html



Hannah Arendt 1994 “The Eggs Speak Up” in Essays in Understanding 1930-1954 Harcourt Brace, New York.

Major General John Cantwell 2012 Exit Wounds; One Australian’s War on Terror Melbourne University Press

Deidre McKeown and Roy Jordan 2010 “Parliamentary involvement in declaring war and deploying forces overseas”. Parliamentary Library Background Note, Parliament of Australia__


[1] “War Decision” is a short cut term to include both the rare declarations of war and any engagement in armed conflicts outside Australian territory.

[2] McKeown and Jordan 2010 page 2

[3] Responsibility to Protect home page http://www.responsibilitytoprotect.org/, accessed 22 October 2013.

[4] Implementing the responsibility to protect. Report of the Secretary-General http://responsibilitytoprotect.org/implementing%20the%20rtop.pdf accessed 22 October 2013.

[5] Report December 2001 http://responsibilitytoprotect.org/ICISS%20Report.pdf accessed 22 October 2013

[6] Evans in Open Democracy 9 September 2013 http://www.gevans.org/opeds/oped147.html accessed 22 October 2013

[7] Cantwell 2012 page 358

[8] Arendt 1994 page 276

[9] Arendt 1994 pages 280-281

[10] House of Commons Briefing Paper http://www.parliament.uk/briefing-papers/SN05908 accessed 22 October 2013.

[11] McKeown et al 2010 p.1

[12] House of Commons – Hansard 29 August 2013. http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201314/cmhansrd/cm130829/debtext/130829-0001.htm#1308298000001 accessed 22 October 2013


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the Campaign for an Iraq War Inquiry (Inc). Readers should note that theCampaign for an Iraq war Inquiry (Inc) seeks a diversity of views and opinions in order to identify common ground.

Originally published by AWPR, 12 March, 2014 | 1:44 am

Leave a Reply

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap