Saturday 18 Aug 2018 | 05:03 | SYDNEY
Saturday 18 Aug 2018 | 05:03 | SYDNEY

Legislating for war


Graeme Dobell

3 November 2010 09:46

The previous post ended on the thought that the hung parliament has a slim chance to reassert some authority over the executive when it comes to sending Australians off to war.

Former Chief of Army Peter Leahy's suggestion is for Parliamentary ratification for military deployments: both Houses of Parliament should be required to authorise by resolution any decision to commit the Australian Defence Force to warlike operations or potential hostilities within sixty days of the decision to commit forces. Given that the contemporary kinds of conflict tend to run for many years, ADF deployments should then be reconsidered by the Parliament annually.

Giving the veto to the Senate as well as the House of Representatives would be just too much of a stretch for both Labor and the Coalition. In government, neither side ever expects to command a reliable majority in the Senate. Getting the big parties to go along with the Leahy idea is going to be hard enough without adding the Senate to the mix. Let's confine the power of the resolution to the House.

Up the stakes by giving the war resolution the status of a money bill, so a government could fall on the vote. This is where it gets interesting. War should be a matter of life or death for a government. Make this the ultimate conscience vote. Even if the vote is to commit – as it would have been for Afghanistan and Iraq – Parliament should require that the course of the conflict and the strategy pursued are returned to the chamber for debate at regular intervals.

In debating war, Parliament is entitled to the independent, written recommendations of the Chief of the Australian Defence Force, and the secretaries of Defence, Foreign Affairs and Attorney General's. Demand that the advice attempt some specific answers: what should be the scope of the commitment and what are the aims' What should be the exit strategy' What forces are needed' Such written updates should be a feature of the regular debates. It would take Australia a long way beyond the sniping of Senate Estimates hearings.

The Howard Government made a point of never asking the bureaucracy its opinion about joining the invasion of Iraq. Howard had made up his mind. He didn't want any contrary views that might be leaked. Secretaries and the CDF giving formal, written advice to Parliament could cause some explosions between departments and the ministerial wing, but that is why top public servants get paid their danger money.

The lack of formal advice from the bureaucracy to Cabinet is a striking feature of how Australia joined the US in Vietnam as well as Iraq. Cabinet decided and afterwards Parliament got a belated say. This is the reality that informs my description of the reflexive manner in which the Australian waltzes off to war. 

In demanding a formal resolution before the bands play and the troops march, the Parliament could be guided by the final words of Peter Edwards' official history of the Vietnam War. In committing to future wars, he wrote, Australians should hope 'both the government of the day and any who opposed it might display greater political maturity, social responsibility and diplomatic awareness that did some of their predecessors between 1965 and 1975.' That sounds like a job for the Australian Parliament.

Photo by Flickr user emmettanderson, used under a Creative Commons license.