Monday, November 3, 2014

Kellie Merritt on the 'War Powers'

One of my valued colleagues on the Committee of the Campaign for an Iraq War Inquiry, which is also seeking reform of the so-called ‘war powers’, is Iraq War widow Kellie Merritt, whose husband Paul Pardoel was killed in 2005 when a RAF C-130 Hercules crashed north of Baghdad.

Visiting Canberra where she will speak at a symposium at the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture, she spoke to senior Canberra Times reporter Ross Peake:

I end up with the conclusion that we invaded Iraq for no reason, that the fall-back reason has backfired (especially for the Iraqi people) and that my husband did not die for any tangible purpose.

This leads me to question the nature of the contract between the military and our government.

Conventional democratic wisdom holds that it is disastrous for the military to second guess our democratically elected government's decisions.

This makes it all the more important that our government exercises its decision-making processes with caution, transparency and a sense of accountability.

Read Ross Peake’s full account of the interview, as published in today’s Canberra Times, here.

Friday, October 31, 2014

The case for an Iraq War inquiry in Australia

In May this year I had an article with the above title published in the journal Global Peace, Change and Security (formerly Pacifica), Volume 26, Issue 3, 2014. It was posted by Taylor and Francis Online on 27 May 2014 (see here). For a while it was available for free download but accessing it now requires the payment of $US 39.

This is the abstract:

This article examines the background to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq with a view to identifying when and by what process Australia committed itself to the invasion. It provides evidence and assessments from a variety of sources that the Australian Government was effectively committed long before it announced a decision on 18 March 2003, the eve of the invasion. Many questions about the decision making process remain; in the absence of a properly constituted inquiry there is little solid evidence that the Government considered the matter of entering into armed hostilities with the diligence that the Australian public might expect. It is the thesis of this paper that one of the key lessons from the Iraq War is that the current system of decision making in relation to the deployment of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) into international armed conflict contains insufficient checks and balances, and needs to be changed.

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Saturday, October 25, 2014

What on earth was he thinking?

In the wake of the murder of a soldier on guard at the War memorial in Ottawa, on Friday Prime Minister Tony Abbott told Melbourne radio station 3AW that the piper playing the Last Post at the War Memorial in Canberra could be a terrorist target. According to a 24 October report by national political reporter Latika Bourke, in the online edition of The Age (see here):

Mr Abbott said while the attack abroad had not "furthered the risk" for Australia's Parliament he warned "there's a copycat tendency amongst these people".

He said authorities has not considered Canberra's War Memorial a target "prior to yesterday" but now would because it serves as a "symbol of our nation".

"I suppose to extremist fanatics it could therefore be a target. There's the Last Post at our War Memorial every day and I guess if someone wanted to do something gruesome that's the kind of thing that could be looked at…”

Why anyone would want to plant that seed in the mind of a potential terrorist or a disturbed loner is an unfathomable mystery to me. The thought is father to the deed, as the saying goes. What on earth was he thinking?

Friday, October 24, 2014

Treasures of modern physics

Last Saturday morning I dropped into Boobooks, Armidale's wonderful second-hand bookshop, and came away with two classics of modern physics: Louis de Broglie's Wave Mechanics (1930 - translated from the French original) and Paul Dirac's The Principles of Quantum Mechanics (3rd edition 1947, first published 1930). These two authors made fundamental contributions to their respective branches of physics, de Broglie winning the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1929, and Dirac sharing the prize with Erwin Schrödinger in 1933.

The flyleaf of de Broglie’s Wave Mechanics showed it to have been the property of “R.H. Healey B.Sc., Physics IV 1932”.

Imagine my delight on subsequently discovering on another flyleaf that it once belonged to my physics professor, J.M. (Jack) Somerville, who was also my first year tutor (those were the days!). Jack Somerville was one of the four original staff members of the New England University College, teaching the full University of Sydney Physics and Mathematics curriculum, and became the first Professor of Physics at UNE. Sadly, he died suddenly in 1964, while I was working as a research assistant in the Department, a great shock to the University community as a whole.

I already have a copy of a more modern text on quantum mechanics (David Beard’s Quantum Mechanics), sent to him by a publisher, which he gave to me in 1963, inviting me as he did so me to give him my opinion of it (which was highly favourable). I am very happy to have fortuitously acquired this additional link with such an admirable man.

On looking to see who R.H. Healey might be, I find that he was a student at Sydney University who shared with physicist, radio astronomer and school teacher Ruby Payne-Scott (1912-1981) the Deas Thomson and Walter Burfitt scholarships for physics.

As for Dirac’s Quantum Mechanics, that belonged to one N.W. Taylor. That will be Nathaniel Wesley Taylor, an outstanding mathematician who was one of the first two recipients of a University of New England Ph.D., at the Graduation Ceremony in 1958, and who was in the Mathematics Department when I was a student.

I think I will go back to Boobooks and see what other treasures I can find amongst the mathematics and physics texts.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Parliament should decide on the deployment of armed force

Malcolm Fraser and Paul Barratt

In “Parliamentary Vote Would Dangerously Restrict Executive in War” (The Australian, 2 September) Russell Trood and Anthony Bergin assert that the idea of Parliament voting on decisions to go to war is poor public policy. None of the arguments they advance in support of this claim hold water.

The point is made that Governments need the capacity to react quickly to events. Quite so, but the occasions would be rare when the capacity of the ADF to deploy would be held up by Parliamentary process. Apart from the Ready Reaction Force at Townsville, most combat elements of the ADF are held at a low state of readiness. Quite properly, most units are not maintained in a battle-ready state, and before they can be deployed a major investment in both personnel training and materiel is required in order to bring them up to the required standard. Preparation of a brigade group for deployment to East Timor took six months and hundreds of millions of dollars.

Regarding the high readiness forces, it would be quite easy to draft into legislation requiring Parliamentary authorisation a provision for an emergency response, with a requirement for a statement setting out the nature and purpose to be tabled within three or four sitting days.

A second argument – one often regarded as the supreme card to play – is that the Government might have access to information or intelligence which it cannot reveal.

This is an argument that simply cannot be accepted within the framework of a Westminster-style Parliamentary system. While it is certainly true that a government may be in possession of information that cannot be used in Parliamentary debate, it is fundamental to our system that today’s Opposition Leader could be tomorrow’s Prime Minister – even without an election. All that is required for the government to fall is for it to fail to win a confidence motion on the floor of the House of Representatives, at which point the Prime Minister of the day will normally advise the Governor-General to prorogue Parliament and call a general election, but the Governor-General would have the alternative of giving the Opposition Leader an opportunity to test the confidence of the House. It is clear that in recent days the Government has been giving the Opposition leadership briefings which the Opposition feels unable to share with the public.

For purposes of Parliamentary debate, situations will be rare in which a direct threat to Australia would emerge without any warning signs being discernible from open sources. Thus whatever secret intelligence the government might possess which confirms its suspicions about an emerging threat, it is safe to assume that for Parliamentary purposes it will be able to follow the commonplace practice of presenting a rationale which derives from open sources, and perhaps simply stating that this picture is confirmed by classified information in the government’s possession, which information has been shared with the Opposition leadership.

A third argument is the old canard that a Parliamentary vote would “simply hamstring the government of the day to the whim of minor parties”. For the negative vote of a minor party to be effective, however, it would be necessary that there also be a negative vote from the major Opposition party: the combined votes of Government and Opposition would make the views of the minor parties irrelevant. As it is difficult to conceive of a major (or indeed a minor) party voting against deployment of the ADF at a time that the nation is genuinely under threat, this sounds more like a concern that the involvement of the Parliament would make it more difficult for the Government of the day to inject the ADF into wars of choice – which is of course the whole point of the exercise.

Trood and Bergin also advance the extraordinary argument against Parliamentary authorisation that “in a complicated world the occasions and circumstances in which force in its various manifestations is required is becoming more difficult to describe and define”. This is in fact one of the strongest reasons in support of mature Parliamentary debate and resolution: to guard against the future possibility of the leadership of the day rushing us off into ill-thought out military adventures, with no clear definition of the aims, duration, prospects of success or exit strategy.

It needs to be clearly understood that we are not advocating that Parliament be involved at every step in the management of our involvement in an armed conflict, simply that it be the body that authorises our entry into any particular occasion requiring or likely to require the use of armed force. Authorisation could be given prior to it becoming certain that conflict is inevitable, but it would need to address a defined situation in a particular geographical region. Once the authorisation is given, it would last for a defined period, say 60 days, beyond the cessation of hostilities and within that period it would be left to the Government of the day to determine how to react to circumstances as they evolve.

Those who would rule out any role for the legislature other than post hoc debate would have us increasingly out of step with the practice of other representative democracies. As recently as last year the question of UK participation in air strikes against Syria was put to the House of Commons and was resoundingly defeated – an outcome which rapidly came to be seen as wise.

At the end of the day it all comes down to whether we trust the Parliament, or trust a single individual, no matter how clever he/she might be.  A strong Prime Minister will be able to convince the Cabinet, and that is a one person decision as was the case in the Iraq War.  We most certainly should have Parliamentary approval before Australia can be taken to war.

Malcolm Fraser was Prime Minister of Australia, 1975-83. Paul Barratt is a former Secretary to the Department of Defence and is President of the Campaign for an Iraq War Inquiry .

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Genevieve Lacey and James Crabb

Late this afternoon I went to a wonderful Musica Viva performance in Armidale Town Hall: Genevieve Lacey (recorders) and James Crabb (classical accordion). No I didn't know there was such a thing as a classical accordion either, and was wondering what to expect, but there is, and it's a pretty serious instrument - a lot of intricate mechanisms to enable all the required chords to be played in both major and minor keys. About $50,000 worth and weighing in at 20 kg. In the hands of a master it makes a wonderful sound - or rather, a wonderful range of sounds: best thought of as a kind of portable organ. They played a very diverse program, from 16th century music (Diego Ortiz, Palestrina, Matthew Locke, Jacob van Eyck) to Bach, children's songs by Chick Corea, an extraordinary solo piece for classical accordion by John Zorn - a representation of the musical score for a Road Runner cartoon - some commissioned pieces written by composer friends, finishing with renditions of two folk songs from Crabb's native Scotland. Don't miss them if you have the chance to hear them. Well worth it, and their enthusiasm for what they are doing is infectious.

Resuming normal transmissions

My apologies to my readers for a two-month silence, the reason being that in that time I have moved from Melbourne to Armidale, and with the exigencies of selling a house, packing up a lifetime's possessions, finding and purchasing a new place in which to live, and settling in, something had to give. Happily life is returning to something more like normal, so normal transmissions can resume.