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Flaps up and blinkers on: politicians happy with the unknown unknowns of fighting war

by Zacharias Szumer | Oct 27, 2022 | Government, Latest Posts

When it comes to the powers vested in politicians to send Australians into foreign conflicts, the major parties stand by the cliche: if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. But the system is broken, as war reform advocates have told Zacharias Szumer.

For advocates of war powers reform, Labor’s recently announced Inquiry into International Armed Conflict Decision Making hasn’t got off to a promising start. The defence minister and defence subcommittee deputy chair have already come out against parliamentary approval for overseas military deployments, the desired reform that advocates are seeking.

The Minister of Defence, Richard Marles, has said he is “firmly of the view” that the current system is “appropriate and should not be disturbed”. In a letter referring the Inquiry into International Armed Conflict Decision Making to the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, Marles said the current arrangements “enable the duly elected government of the day to act expeditiously on matters of utmost national importance in the interests of the safety and security of our nation and its people.”

Greens senator Jordon Steele-John, the party’s spokesperson for foreign affairs, peace and nuclear disarmament, told MWM that “Marles’ comments reflect a Labor Party that is self-conflicted. We see Richard Marles endorsing the current system, meanwhile many members of the Labor caucus are pushing for an inquiry.”

Labor MPs Julian Hill and Josh Wilson put forward the resolution at the last ALP conference that got the inquiry added to the party’s policy platform. The defence subcommittee, which is handling the inquiry, is chaired by Hill and also includes Wilson. However, the subcommittee doesn’t feature anyone from the Greens, who have long championed requiring parliamentary approval before overseas deployment of troops.

Don’t mention the war powers: what’s behind Labor’s silence on inquiry?  

Liberal MP Andrew Wallace, the deputy chair of the defence subcommittee, recently told the Guardian that he was “surprised that the Labor Party is even contemplating” a change to a system that had “stood us in good stead for many many years.”

“The executive has got to be given the power to govern the country and particularly in relation to national security issues. I don’t care whether it’s Labor or Liberal – they can’t be hamstrung by the parliament,” he added.

Steele-John said that it was “sad to see Andrew Wallace and the Liberals so adamantly opposed to an inquiry on this matter, but transparency, investigating and making decisions based on that investigation are not the attributes of the party that thought invading Iraq was a good idea.”

Greens senator David Shoebridge, the party’s spokesperson for defence and veterans’ affairs, echoed Steele-John’s sentiments. “This is a disturbingly accurate insight into the attitude of the Coalition and many in Labor – they don’t want parliamentary democracy to get in the way of their ‘parties of government’ club. Imagine letting government be ‘hamstrung by parliament’,” the senator tweeted earlier in October.

“Seeing a democratically elected politician so readily reject oversight by parliament on “national security” issues should worry us all. Democracy is not optional in times of crisis or when the drumbeats of war start,” Shoebridge added.

Steele-John also questioned Marles and Wallace coming out against reform so soon after the inquiry was announced. “I hope to see all political parties and MPs approach this committee in good faith,” he said. “The ability for all MPs and parties to scrutinise the decision of ADF deployment will add a level of transparency and accountability designed to avoid repeating the catastrophic mistakes the executive government has made in the last 20 years,” he said.

Beyond the halls of parliament

Peter Hayes, a former RAAF group captain and Vietnam War veteran, told MWM that he was “disappointed” by Marles’ statement, which he said “seemed to pressure the Inquiry rather than to await with an open mind its conclusions and recommendations.”

“The inquiry could have accepted submissions from the Defence Department and others without any need for Minister Marles to make his personal views public,” said Hayes, who has also previously served as Director of Information Warfare at Australia’s Air Command Headquarters.

Hayes also took issue with Wallace’s argument that the current system had “stood us in good stead for many many years”, saying that the system had “failed utterly” when former prime minister John Howard “alone decided and authorised ADF lethal force elements to be joined with the US-led coalition invasion of Iraq … preceding the public announcement on March 18, 2003, only to be followed by the bombing of Iraq in the early hours of the following morning.”

“Howard’s decision has since been revealed to have been based on false and misleading intelligence. History has also revealed serious defects in the decision to commit Australian forces to war in Vietnam, to Afghanistan, to Syria not to mention other secret clandestine intelligence collection operations in the post-WW2 period,” Hayes added.

Former diplomat Bruce Haigh echoed Hayes’ criticisms of Wallace, telling MWM that “It’s a dangerous statement from someone who’s the deputy chair of that subcommittee”. According to Haigh, Wallace’s claim simply “doesn’t stand up against the facts.”  

“The involvement in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan didn’t go before the parliament,” Haigh said. “There were huge protests against the war in Iraq and they turned out badly for Australia. Had they been properly debated within the Australian parliament, we may not have gone, or the way we deployed our forces may have been different … That puts a lie to anything Wallace says.” 

Haigh was posted to South Africa in the late 1970s, where he initiated Australian embassy contact with members of the South African anti-apartheid movement, including dissident Steve Biko, who died in police custody. He later took diplomatic postings to Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Pakistan, and was deputy high commissioner at the Australian high commission in Colombo.

“Our democracy demands that we should behave as a democracy,” Haigh said. “The issues relating to going into Vietnam, into Iraq and into Afghanistan were all debatable, none of them were top secret, none of them required us to display a level of reticence in order not to alert the so-called enemy. They were all matters which should have received the same amount of debate that they received in the universities at the time.”

University of New South Wales Professor Clinton Fernandes took aim at Wallace’s “good stead” statement from a different perspective.

“The real aim of our defence policy is not to defend Australia independently but to show relevance to the United States,” said Fernandes, who served in the Australian Army Intelligence Corps before becoming an academic. “Our current arrangements are designed with the real aim in mind, and they’ve stood us in very good stead in that sense.”

However, if the aim is to minimise threats against Australia or its citizens, Fernandes does not believe the system has kept us in “good stead”:

In Afghanistan, the real objective was to show Australia’s relevance to the United States. We stayed because of US domestic politics rather than the military situation on the ground. After the Taliban’s comeback in 2008, the Obama administration did not want to be attacked in domestic elections for being unable to defeat the Taliban. And we can see the results – in 2001, Islamic terrorists were based in Kabul, Kandahar, Jalalabad and a few pockets of rural Afghanistan. Twenty years later, the Taliban is back in power, and US wars – enabled by the intelligence facility at Pine Gap – have resulted in a massive expansion of terrorist activity across the globe.

Fernandes’ book Island Off the Coast of Asia contains a proposal for a new system under which the Australian parliament would have greater control over military deployments. He will reportedly be making a submission to the inquiry based on this proposal.

Public submissions to the inquiry are open until November 18.

This means war: how Australia’s main allies take the biggest step a nation can take

Zacharias Szumer is a freelance writer from Melbourne. In addition to Michael West Media, he has written for The Monthly, Overland, Jacobin, The Quietus, The South China Morning Post and other outlets.

He was also responsible for our War Power Reforms series.

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