Is playing deputy to America’s sheriff the reason Australian war powers remain unreformed? It’s clear that our politicians remain muddled on this critical issue, writes Zacharias Szumer.
For decades, minor parties in Australia have introduced bills seeking to give parliament greater control over military deployments. In the debates and inquiries that have followed, a wide range of objections have been raised.
We are told that, as military deployments are often made on the basis of confidential information, this information cannot be publicly disclosed to the parliament. Another common objection is that parliamentary decision-making would reduce the flexibility and speed needed to carry out military operations safely and effectively.
Most of the opposition to war powers reform, received as part of Michael West Media’s ongoing survey of politicians, follows similar lines. You can see myriad responses here.
However, some experts think there might be another reason — one that Australian pollies may be uncomfortable acknowledging.
Kowtowing to empires
Clinton Fernandes, professor of international and political studies at the University of NSW and former Australian army intelligence officer, contends that the bipartisan reluctance to infringe upon this executive prerogative should be understood within Australia’s ”sub-imperial” geopolitical strategy.
In basic terms, Australia has sought to integrate itself into the global strategy of great powers — firstly the British and, from 1942 onwards, the United States. In a 2020 article, Fernandes argues that this sub-imperial strategy has meant the “effective exclusion of the legislative and judicial branches of government from Australia’s national-security policy”.
Fernandes does not believe that Australian politicians and policy officials have been forced against their will into this position. Rather, he argues that Australia is an “active, eager participant in the US-led order” and restricting the Australian parliament’s control over the military has been “… a decision taken by the Australian government — at a bipartisan level — and implemented by senior policy planners.
“Australian strategic planners understand that this means a reduction in sovereignty, but they accept it because it achieves a higher objective — upholding US imperial power.”
In addition to limiting parliament’s control over military deployments, Fernandes argues that Australia’s position as a “sub-imperial power” also limits parliamentary oversight of intelligence gathering. In the US, “intelligence committees and judiciary committees in the Senate and House of Representatives are regularly briefed about all authorised intelligence-collection programs, and relevant members of Congress receive detailed briefings prior to each re-authorisation,” Fernandes says.
Five Eyes and whiteness
Meanwhile the Australian parliament has “deliberately restricted its own powers on intelligence matters” through measures such as the Intelligence Services Act 2001 which ‘prevents the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security from ‘reviewing the intelligence gathering and assessment priorities’ or ‘reviewing particular operations that have been, are being or are proposed to be undertaken’ by ASIS, ASIO and the other intelligence agencies, and likewise ‘the sources of information, other operational assistance or operational methods’ available to the agencies”.
Dr Greg Lockhart, an historian and Vietnam War veteran, supports Fernandes’ argument, but stresses the importance of seeing Australia’s sub-imperial strategy through the lens of a wider “cultural self-deception” around racial anxieties. “Fear of the ‘yellow peril’ meant that our Anzac expeditionary strategic reflex was from its inception race-based,” he says. ‘It was also primarily defensive; it depended on “great and powerful” white friends for protection in our region; it has always depended on being in the Anglosphere”.
Dr Lockhart argues that, although the overtly racist rhetoric of the White Australia policy is largely a thing of the past, “our strategic culture is still inseparable from the Anglosphere, from wherein we have never needed to reassess its whiteness”.
Recently, he says, Australia has ”reaffirmed its whiteness in its commitment to expansion of the “Five Eyes” intelligence sharing arrangements between the US, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand and, of course, to the controversial 2021 AUKUS nuclear submarine deal, which was nurtured in great secrecy”.
“And with secrecy comes deception. Sounding like a US proxy in the Pacific while asserting Australian ‘sovereignty’, Scott Morrison’s government “announces it is in ‘lockstep’ with “our allies”, while trumpeting the threat of China’s communism, territorial expansion, abuse of human rights, or its implied role as the origin of Covid 19 — anything but the anxiety about Chinese numbers, ethnic difference, and independent power that has shadowed Australian history since the 1800s – and that now determines the security culture’s mindless dependence on the US.’’
Seen in this wider cultural context, Lockhart believes that “the Constitution was never going to impose legislative or judicial restraints on the autocratic war powers of the sub-imperial state. Since the First World War in 1914, almost every Anzac expedition has been a British or American imperial one. The exceptions are the Pacific campaign in 1942-1945 and Timor in 1999-2000. And in all those imperial campaigns the decision for war has been made undemocratically by the prime minister acting in secret conclave with only a handful of advisers”.
Parliamentary war powers
Fernandes and Lockhart aren’t alone in suggesting that there’s a relationship between strategic objectives and parliamentary control, or lack thereof, over the military. In their encyclopaedic 2010 study of war powers around the world, scholars Wolfgang Wagner, Dirk Peters and Cosima Glahn noted that several Central and Eastern European states — Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia — abolished parliamentary approval for war in the process of joining the US-led North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).
The authors argue that ‘’NATO accession apparently amplified the trade-off between creating legitimacy through procedures of ex ante parliamentary control and gaining efficiency through lean, executive-centred decision-making. From NATO’s perspective, having the governments of some member state tied by domestic parliamentary veto power must seem highly unattractive.’’
However, many of the more powerful NATO countries have far more wide-ranging parliamentary war powers than Australia or the aforementioned junior NATO partners. Although contested, the US War Powers Resolution significantly limits the President’s freedom to order military action without congressional authorisation.
For almost two decades in Germany, all major military deployments have been put to parliament for a vote. In the UK too, a parliamentary convention of seeking approval for military deployments in the House of Commons has also evolved over the past two decades.