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Military decisions such as committing to the Afghan War should be matters for parliament

By Max Atkinson - posted Monday, 1 November 2010

Defence Minister Stephen Smith accepts that some Labor members might agree with a majority opinion that the war is wrong; hence "neither the Prime Minister nor I will be trying to proscribe what individual members say". Well and good; but he cannot quite understand that free votes are no less essential on such an important issue of moral principle. It means that this debate, which was conditional on no motions being put, is unlikely to serve any worthwhile purpose. Like the earlier debate on the Iraq war, it has seen many players strut and fret upon the stage, mostly affirming their support for the troops and the US alliance.

The debate has distracted attention from a political/constitutional issue both major parties are loathe to discuss; this is the power of government both to wage war and to avoid parliamentary hearings to test its factual basis; this is exacerbated by two factors; a long-standing habit whereby the personal judgment of elected members is delegated to party leaders, and the enforcement of this habit by a doctrine of party unity; the consequences of this self-subordination, seen in the Vietnam and Iraq wars, have been appalling.

Given this practice, it would have been far more useful to hold Committee hearings. Such hearings, with access to intelligence and official advice, are a quasi-judicial means to clarify facts and identify issues; they are the best way to lessen the risk of going to war without good reasons, and the best way to see if these reasons still hold. The UK Chilcott hearings on the Iraq War confirmed the speculative nature of the WMD claims, and a need for major reforms. While such hearings are essential, they should precede and be used to monitor the war, not be left to a post mortem.


But the heart of the problem, and a reason why major parties are now so much on the nose, has been a self-serving view of the duty of an elected representative, which puts party policy (and especially the need to avoid an appearance of internal dissension) above the duty members owe the public, which includes the duty to act in accordance with community values; that is to say, it does not distinguish between major issues of moral principle, such as the war, the apology, same sex marriage, treatment of asylum seekers etc., from common garden policies which call for party unity in order to fulfil an electoral mandate.

It is worth going back to Edmund Burke, the great conservative political theorist, to be reminded of why issues of principle call for personal judgment. Burke would have condemned members acting as delegates of parties just as he rejected their acting as delegates of the public; in both cases they must give up their conscience to others. The failure of members to accept personal responsibility to judge issues of principle means leaders are vulnerable to polls and media just as much as they are to hubris and personal ambition; if there was more attention to this preliminary issue, members would need to defend this moral fence sitting; this would be a giant step towards a more responsible, because more intrinsically democratic, system.

The most striking example of this self-censorship was the apology for the stolen children, which raised an important issue of principle. There is no reason to doubt that John Howard had himself acted on conviction; his refusal was wrong, not because he acted in bad faith, but because it made no sense in light of community values. It made no sense because it assumed that the nation, against all the evidence, had no responsibility for its past actions. It was also confused because, in arguing that past officials had acted in good faith, it treated this excuse as if it were a justification.

It is both a tribute to Howard's ability to dominate his party and a reflection on his colleagues that he was able to coerce them into accepting what was always an idiosyncratic view of a government's responsibility to its citizens. There could be no better illustration of how demeaning it is to invoke party discipline on such issues of principle than the fact that members immediately fell into line when Brendan Nelson was elected leader and, with the support of Malcolm Turnbull, chose to align the party with an overwhelming public opinion. This moral submission fits uneasily with a national self-image supposedly based on a fearless individualism.

There is irony in the fact that Howard thought his view of the apology committed him, as a matter of integrity, to stand his ground regardless of the new policy. Unable to see that a denial of responsibility meant the denial of ongoing national identity as a political community, he would at least stick to his guns. Although he absented himself to avoid voting, this does not change the fact that his last act of political consequence was a dramatic refusal to toe the party line.

As for the war, it is clear from major speeches in mid-July by then Defence Minister Faulkner and Prime Minister Gillard that it has nothing to do with democracy or reconstruction; the two reasons for intervention are the security threat that Taliban leaders, if undefeated, will invite al Qaeda to return, and the benefits of the US alliance. Given the US has had to endorse peace talks with Taliban leaders the first rationale, always dubious, is no longer credible.


The alliance argument is fraudulent because it makes sense only as a mutual defence pact, where one party must act in self-defence against an actual or imminent attack. International law sanctions the use of lethal force in such cases and under a UN mandate to keep the peace; but discretionary wars to serve national interests are by definition illegal. Otherwise nations could still (as so much of the history of armed conflict suggests) justify war simply by pointing to the spoils.

The Government is right to say the public does not understand why, after nine years, our soldiers are still dying in Afghanistan; but it does not itself seem to understand why alliance benefits cannot justify the use of force in international affairs. Much can be done to rectify this and other problems raised in this paper; with the power to govern now hanging by a slender thread, it would not take great faith or courage for a handful of party members to insist on the right to decide for themselves which matters call for conscience votes.

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About the Author

Max Atkinson is a former senior lecturer of the Law School, University of Tasmania, with Interests in legal and moral philosophy, especially issues to do with rights, values, justice and punishment. He is an occasional contributor to the Tasmanian Times.

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