Parliament does not need to be consulted before Australian troops are sent to war. What do the politicians who have donned the uniform have to say? Tasha May asks Rex Patrick, Andrew Wilkie, Jim Molan and Bob Katter.
Independent Member for Clark Andrew Wilkie served in the Army for 21 years where he rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel. After his military career, he worked for the Office of National Assessments, from where he resigned in protest over the Iraq war. He was the only serving intelligence official in Australia, the UK or the US to do so publicly before the Iraq invasion.
When asked if Parliament should approve the decision to send troops into conflict abroad, Mr Wilkie told Michael West Media “some things are self-evident. The decision to use deadly force, is surely something for all the people’s representatives to debate or vote on. I can’t think of a more important decision of a country. The fact that a prime minister can unilaterally decide is completely out of step with community expectations.”
When asked why he believes war powers reform has not been passed in Parliament, even though the bill has been debated since the Australian Democrats first introduced it in 1985, Mr Wilkie said “it’s nothing more than self-interest. Australian governments want to retain this freedom of action. Oppositions know they’re going to be in government sooner or later and they want it for themselves.”
Despite the fact that over 83% of Australians want Parliament to decide whether Australia goes to war according to the latest Roy Morgan Poll, neither major party have adopted war powers reform as policy.
“Our lack of war powers reform is a symptom of a bigger problem,” Mr Wilkie said. “And the bigger problem is that we have a government and an alternative government snubbing the whole Australian community by not being responsive to strong majority public opinion.”
As for the possibility of conflict with China on the horizon, Mr Wilkie said he doesn’t like “this so called beating the drums of war.” He sees a peaceful pathway forward in which Australia can stand up for what it believes that doesn’t have to lead to conflict.
“But if for whatever reason the Republic of China resorted to force, the Australian government at the time would feel a strong obligation to work with the US on a resolution, so it does sharpen our focus. Is that something the Prime Minister and National Security and Cabinet might decide on a whim?”
“It’s is a good example of potential conflict that’s years in the making and where there is plenty of time for parliament to debate the issue.”
“Most of my mates ended up in Vietnam,” Bob Katter told Michael West Media, while he himself was primed to fight in the Indonesian-Malaysian confrontation in the early 1960s.
“My battalion, the 49th battalion, was rated F1 ready for conflict and given 24 hours call up to go into warfare. It was a very scary time having to give my two next of kin.”
“You do what your government asks you to do,” the Federal Member for Kennedy said.
Yet he was critical of the power the Prime Minister wields over this decision.
“The Americans have it right,” Mr Katter said. “The President has the right to act in the case of clear and present danger, but that beyond clear and present danger, it’s up to Congress. In Australia, as in America, the decision should go back to legislature, the parliament.”
The War Powers Resolution was passed in the United States in the aftermath of the Vietnam War to ensure the President couldn’t deploy armed forces without Congressional approval.
Mr Katter is critical of the pattern that has seen Australia follow the US and UK into wars Australia should “never have been fighting in.”
“The ultimate argument here is the statement by Menzies when Australia entered the Second World War. Menzies said: it is my melancholy duty to inform you officially that, in consequence of the persistence of Germany in her invasion of Poland, Great Britain has declared war upon her, and that, as a result, Australia is also at war.”
Katter said this statement was “doubly bad.”
“He should not have had the right to make that decision. Secondly, he didn’t take the decision, he believed he was automatically at war because Britain was. Not the slightest whiff of sovereignty in the statement.”
Katter believes the First World War was another instance where “if the decision had gone back to Parliament, Billy Hughes would never have got it through.”
When it comes to war, Katter asks why as a nation Australia does not “look to ourselves. Why don’t we look in the mirror? We never learnt a single lesson from a single war.”
Independent Senator for South Australia Rex Patrick spent eleven years in the Royal Australian Navy, including serving on Oberon and Collins submarines.
Senator Patrick believes that in the case of self-defence, parliamentary consultation should not be required, but that in a war of choice permission of parliament ought to be sought.
He highlighted that the question of how the parliament is engaged is important. Senator Patrick said it’s necessary to recognise that the decision to go to war may involve the need to share intelligence or the description of the type of action intending to take place, which Australia wouldn’t want in the public domain with the possibility of being shared with the enemy.
“There may need to be a mechanism for dealing with this issue, such as closed briefing being made to a joint committee being briefed on the proposed activity,” he said.
With regards future conflict, Senator Patrick said there is a “very worrying possibility of some sort of action against Taiwan, and Australia needs to have a very serious conversation about where we fit in relation to that, as the current policy we have in Australia is one of ambiguity.”
The Australian government’s stance is that they support the peaceful resolution of the dispute between China and Taiwan, but Senator Patrick said the “hidden bit” is what Australia’s action would be in the event Taiwan were attacked.
Liberal Senator for NSW Jim Molan served in the Australian Army for 40 years, retiring at the rank of Major General after having been deployed to Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, East Timor, Malaysia, Germany, the US, and Iraq.
“Ideally it would be beautiful to ask everyone in Australia whether we should go to war, but the practicality rules it out,” Senator Molan told Michael West Media. “That’s why we have representative government. We can’t ask every Australian what they think of every issue. The war decision is even more pronouncedly for executive government only.”
“The reason we have executive government in respect of war powers is because intelligence at the highest level can be managed effectively. At the parliamentary level, it cannot be managed.”
“Regular reporting to the parliament on these issues I agree with. But the decisions based on the highest levels of intelligence to go to wars, cannot be managed.”
“The increasing likelihood of regional war, between the United States and China, with Australia as collateral damage means that the ability of the executive government to make quick and secure decisions is even more important.”
When asked about how soldiers feel about the justifications of past wars, Senator Molan said that it’s every soldier’s right to make a statement as to whether the war the government is requiring them to participate in is a just war.
“It’s critically important to soldiers that they take the aspect of the just war very seriously, which means that governments take it seriously. There’s a great difference between whether war is popular and whether it is just. Just because war is unpopular doesn’t mean it’s not just.”
Assistant Minister for Defence and Federal Member for Canning, Andrew Hastie, who served in the Australian army for 14 years and was deployed to Afghanistan as a Cavalry Troop Leader, declined to comment.
Senator Jacqui Lambie, who served in the Australian army for 11 years, declined to comment at present, as her media advisor said she was occupied with the announcement of the Royal Commission into veteran suicides at the time the enquiry was made.
Natasha graduated with an undergraduate degree in English literature from the University of Cambridge in June 2019 and studied Master of Journalism at the University of Technology Sydney. She is now with The Guardian.