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Parliament should wield the war power

By Sukrit Sabhlok - posted Thursday, 10 February 2011

Australian forces invaded Afghanistan in 2001, and entered Iraq in 2003. Although the Rudd Government has withdrawn troops from Iraq, our involvement in Afghanistan (allegedly to fight terrorism) is continuing without end. It has become a perpetual war. The mainstream media gives the ongoing financial and human costs far less coverage than they deserve. But there are good reasons we shouldn’t forget the conflict.

Consider this: Australia’s military involvement in World War I lasted four years and World War II was over and done within seven years. The danger posed by terrorism is miniscule compared to the threat from a Hitler or Mussolini, so why has the war in Afghanistan lasted for a longer period of time?

It is time to re-think our involvement. First of all, the war is very expensive. Taxpayers have been put on the hook for billions of dollars. Imagine if that money had instead been spent at home. If the money must be spent, I’d rather it be spent helping re-build Queensland after the recent flood damage than bombing villages in Afghanistan. Second, whatever the initial rationale for invading, the Afghan war can no longer be justified. Australia followed the US into Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban and hunt down Osama bin Laden, the man we are told is behind the attacks on September 11. But the best intelligence no longer places bin Laden in Afghanistan, and many believe he is harbouring in Pakistan.


Here’s what should happen next time there’s talk of a major war: it should be a legal requirement for the Prime Minister to seek approval from Parliament before - or very soon after - deploying troops abroad. There needs to be a formal binding process, with failure to comply declared unlawful by the courts upon review. That’s the only way we’re going to see some semblance of democratic accountability in foreign affairs.

The Greens have introduced proposed legislation aiming to do precisely this. Unfortunately, the major parties have quashed their attempts at reform.

What if we lived in a world where Parliament, and not the government of the day, possessed the power to commit troops overseas? How would things be different? One difference would be that a secretive group of ministers – the Cabinet – could not decide upon questions shielded from public scrutiny. With Iraq for example, the Howard Government would have had to justify the case for war to Parliament’s satisfaction. As it so happens, the Senate voted against going into Iraq. Had the Greens been successful in passing their proposed legislation, Australians would have been spared the terrible costs of that conflict.

Several objections have been raised by opponents of reform. Some suggest that the Greens’ bill doesn't define terms with sufficient precision. Yet this objection is hardly insurmountable, and can be resolved through consultation with stakeholders. If a compromise is struck between defence chiefs, government departments and other interested parties, then it is possible to devise a workable piece of legislation.

Second, it's said that the bill ignores problems associated with releasing classified information. This is a furphy. Most advocates of reform have never called for the release of classified information. The judgement about whether to wage war against a particular country does not require detailed operational information. It is fundamentally a strategic choice made at a high and abstract level of policy. In the case of Iraq the Australian Government informed the public that Saddam Hussein was a threat to national security at a theoretical level and the public was asked to place trust in intelligence reports they had no way to verify the accuracy of. The Greens are not proposing to do away with secrecy.

Third, it's argued that war powers reform could hamper the military’s ability to quickly deploy combat personnel. But why is speed considered to be an unambiguously good thing? Parliament’s slow deliberation can be viewed not a liability, but as a strength because it leads to more considered decision-making.


Democracy is far from perfect. Even wars that have been approved by Parliament may end up being unjust and evil. Transferring the power to make war from the Executive to the Parliament would not be a cure-all, but it would at least reduce the ability of a secretive group to thrust Australia into its most vital moment. Parliament should declare war, the Executive government should fight and win it, and the nation should then exit the conflict as soon as possible.

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A longer version of this article will appear in the March edition of Policy magazine.

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About the Author

Sukrit Sabhlok is a PhD Candidate at Macquarie University Law School.

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