28 August 2013

War Powers: Why not Parliamentary control?

In Syria: Feelings of déjà vu I noted that we were once again in a position where the US is poised to undertake a military strike without awaiting the report of the UN weapons inspectors and without UN authority.

Meanwhile, in Australia the nature and extent of our involvement, if any, will be in the hands of just three men – Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, Foreign Minister Bob Carr, and Minister for Defence Materiel Mike Kelly, tipped to be Defence Minister in the event of an ALP victory on 7 September. As two of these gents are appointed on the recommendation of the third, it is reasonable to suppose that the Prime Minister will get his way, so effectively whatever we do in relation to Syria will come down to what one man decides.

This is a precarious way of making such an important decision, and as such is a problem for the Australian body politic and especially for the members of the Australian Defence Force who might be put in harm’s way.

An important part of the solution to this problem is to involve the Parliament in any future decision to deploy the Australian Defence Force into international armed conflict. The right of the Executive, rather than the Parliament, to decide to send troops to war is in the Australian constitutional context a legacy of the Royal Prerogative, which in turn has its roots in the pre-democratic notion that the power to make war is an attribute of the sovereign rather than of the people.  In any society founded on the belief that power flows from the people to the state rather than from the state to the people, it is both an anachronism and an anomaly.

A Private Member’s Bill to this effect, the Defence Amendment (Parliamentary Approval of Overseas Service) Bill 2008 [No. 2], was introduced into the Senate in 2009 by Senator Scott Ludlam, but it was treated with scant respect by the major parties, and the reply from the ALP National Secretariat to the Campaign for an Iraq War Inquiry’s letter of 13 August 2013 indicates that there is no mood for change in a Labor Party led by Kevin Rudd.

Four principal arguments against Parliamentary involvement are raised by those who wish to preserve the status quo.

The first of these is the argument that minor parties might block the necessary resolution in the Senate.  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.

Another argument is that the Parliamentary process will all take too long. This reveals a lack of understanding of the readiness levels at which most of the Australian Defence Force is held. Apart from the Ready Reaction Force at Townsville (essentially the 3rd Brigade, consisting of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Battalions, Royal Australian Regiment, in aggregate about 4,000 civilian and military personnel), 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.

A third 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 – as happened in 1975.

This being the case, it is fundamental to our national security that at the very least relevant leading members of the opposition not only be cleared to deal with national security classified information, but that at times of looming threat they be made privy to the available intelligence so that both government and opposition can conduct themselves in relation to the matter in an informed way.

The truth of this assertion is borne out by the fact that as soon as the Prime Minister decided last weekend to break of election campaigning and return to Canberra for an intelligence briefing about Syria, the Opposition was offered a briefing as well, an invitation that was taken up for the Opposition by Shadow Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.

There is a more subtle point to be made here. While secret intelligence can be very valuable in giving early warning of and filling out the detail of an emerging threat, 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 further argument in support of this approach is the doctrine held by many in the intelligence community that any intelligence assessment which depends entirely upon classified information should be regarded as suspect – an astute analyst would want to know why there is no sign of this picture in publicly available information. Some argue for an 80/20 rule – 80% of the information in a sound intelligence picture should be open source information, with only 20% coming from classified sources.

Finally, there is the argument that the process would be nugatory because everyone would simply vote on party lines. This may be so, but cannot be assumed to be so. Certainly the history shows that on the occasions when deployments have been debated in Parliament, members have voted on party lines. Historically, however, these debates have taken place against the backdrop of a decision already taken. This brings into play two dynamics. First, there is the feeling of obligation towards the members of the ADF who are being put into harm’s way, the feeling that we should not undermine the morale of the troops by suggesting that they should not be participating in the conflict.

Second, there is the defensive shield: “It doesn’t matter what I think, the decision has already been taken by Cabinet and my job now is to support it and to support the young men and women of the ADF”.

I believe, however, that if Parliament itself were to be the place where the matter is decided, quite a different dynamic would come into play. If the matter is to be put to a vote in both houses, each and every member of Parliament would have to participate in that process knowing that their vote would be recorded and would be a matter of history for all time, no matter how the matter turned out. People who felt strongly about it could not absolve their consciences with the thought that the matter has been taken out of their hands; the matter is very much in their hands, and we may see what looks very much like a conscience vote.

If it turns out that the matter is decided on party lines and the government of the day wins the day, one can hardly complain that there has been a failure of the democratic process.

If we persist with the current system in which the Executive clings to the ancient prerogative of the sovereign, we will continue to face the risks of this small group decision making set out so eloquently by distinguished military historian Robert O’Neill in the final paragraph of his submission to the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee on the Defence Amendment (Parliamentary Approval of Overseas Service) Bill 2008 [No. 2]:

In the past, especially in the cases of the Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the decision to commit forces was taken by a small group of ministers, in which the Prime Minister played a dominant role. In such a small group, inhibitions based on concerns about the major ally’s capacity to fight effectively and win within a period of a year or two (if perceived at all) can be easily swept aside by the desire of the Prime Minister, Foreign Minister or the Cabinet at large to remain close to whoever is the US President at the time of deciding. Also in this system of decision-making, broader issues such as the morality of the commitment, which was clearly a major public issue in the cases of Vietnam and Iraq, are relatively easy for the Government to ignore or set to one side. The small group setting also makes it easier to believe faulty intelligence reports, or even to dismiss them where they are inconvenient for the government’s preferred policy. Australia’s decisions on commitment to any of these three conflicts would almost certainly have been improved had the proposal been debated in both Houses of the Parliament.

The Australian public needs to be much more vigilant about the circumstances in which the Australian Government deploys the Australian Defence Force and for what purpose. This vigilance is unlikely to become habitual while a decision to send troops remains the prerogative of the executive — that is, Cabinet, meaning in practice the Prime Minister and a very small group of key ministers — an arrangement which means that a decision, once taken, can be acted upon without significant debate. Vigilance is much more likely to develop if we embrace the republican notion, one which seems fitting also for a constitutional monarchy, that the power to make war should be vested in the legislature. In any polity founded on the principle that power flows from the people to the state, rather than from the state to the people, the spectacle of the executive clinging to the ancient privileges of the sovereign is both an anachronism and an anomaly.

Syria: Feelings of déjà vu

Events over the last 24 hours, in addition to eliciting that feeling of déjà vu, validate Iraq War Inquiry Group's core positions in a most dramatic way.

Here we go again; the US is poised to undertake a military strike against Syria, and does not feel it needs to await the report of the UN weapons inspectors because, as John Kerry puts it, we can rely on our conscience and common sense. It will be without UN authority, but US/UK leaders insist it will be legal. It will be limited and proportionate, says David Cameron – aren’t they all? It is not about regime change (neither ostensibly were Iraq or Libya).

At least the British Government is recalling Parliament for a debate and a vote - but contrary to his position in Opposition, Cameron insists this vote will not be binding; the Government will decide.

Meanwhile in Australia Kevin Rudd is enjoying the spotlight and the prospect that our Ambassador to the UN becomes President of the Security Council from next Monday. Kevin Rudd won't countenance and inquiry into how we got into war in Iraq and is opposed to shifting the “war powers” to Parliament, but apparently on television last night raised doubt about Tony Abbott’s suitability (“doesn’t have the temperament”) to make such decisions. Nothing could better illustrate our concerns – leaving aside any question about particular individuals, a robust decision-making process will not be critically dependent upon the vagaries of who happens to be Prime Minister at the time.

27 August 2013

Reply from ALP National Secretariat

We have today received from the National Secretariat of the Australian Labor Party a reply to our letter of 13 August 2013 to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.  The full text is below:


23 August 2013

Mr Paul Barratt
President Iraq War Inquiry Group Inc
Suite 406, 1 Queens Road
Melbourne Vic 3004

Dear Mr Barratt

Thank you for your letter of 13 August regarding the Federal Labor Party’s policy on Iraq. As you know, the Howard Government’s decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003 was not supported by the Federal Labor Party in Opposition. That is why we had a commitment in opposition to withdraw Australian combat troops from Iraq and why we delivered on that commitment in Government.

1. Executive authority

Under the Constitution, decisions on the deployment of the Australian Defence Force on overseas missions are made by the government of the day.

2. Parliamentary war powers

The Federal Labor Government supports parliamentary debate over all matters of crucial national security importance.

3. The ANZUS Alliance

Australia’s alliance with the United States of America remains a fundamental pillar of our national security and stability in our region.


The Federal Labor Government remains committed to fulfilling all obligations under the terms of the 1951 ANZUS Treaty, which are consistent with the UN Charter’s provisions on the use of force.

5. Iraq War Inquiry

Several inquiries have been conducted into this matter, including through a joint parliamentary committee in 2004. The Federal Labor Government does not propose to initiate or conduct another inquiry into these issues.

6. WMD verification, monitoring and compliance

The Labor Opposition strongly supported the UN inspection regime in Iraq, including the UN Special Commission and the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Mission prior to the 2003 war.

The Federal Labor Government continues to support existing mechanisms for the verification, monitoring and compliance of global non-proliferation efforts. As a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, Australia chairs the committees on Iran sanctions, Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

Labor Governments have a strong record on WMD non-proliferation including establishing export control regimes such as the Australia Group, and ensuring the passage of the Chemical Weapons Convention through the United Nations General Assembly.


Information Services Unit

Authorised by G. Wright, 5/9 Sydney Avenue, Barton ACT 2604.

Australian Labor
PO Box 6222 KINGSTON ACT 2604
T: 1800 10 31 31  E: campaign13@chq.alp.org.au


26 August 2013

Statement by Australians for Reconciliation in Syria

Today 26 August the organisation Australians for Mussalaha (Reconciliation) in Syria has published on its website a statement in response to calls for military action against Syria. The statement begins:
In response to an as yet unattributed use of chemical weapons in Syria, the US and its allies are seriously considering military action against including surgical air strikes in Syria.
Australians for Mussalaha (Reconciliation) in Syria (AMRIS), regards these proposals as an extreme escalation of the conflict.
Military escalation in Syria cannot defuse the crisis, limit the casualties of war or produce peace. Instead, some believe it can lead to a world war.
Over the past eight years all the leaders of the Coalition of the Willing have conceded that they entered the Iraq war on false information.
May our leaders consider what is really at stake in escalating the current crisis in Syria and may they protect not just the interests of the 23 million people of Syria, but also the long-term interests of Australia.
May our leaders have the moral strength and clarity to resist an Orwellian chant: we must destroy Syria in order to save it.
There are powerful voices in the United States who have spoken against war propaganda and military intervention in Syria, while others have adopted a hawkish push for war. Australia must find its own way.
Access the full statement, which contains abundant links to other articles, at The response of AMRIS to calls for military action against Syria.

Letter to The Hon. Tony Abbott, MP

26 August 2013

The Hon. Tony Abbott MP
Leader of the Opposition
Parliament House

Dear Mr Abbott

I refer to my letter of 13 August seeking, on behalf of the Campaign for an Iraq War Inquiry, to ascertain the Liberal Party’s policy in the context of the current Federal Election campaign on several matters which are of central importance to our membership.

The latest developments in Syria, which have led once again to a situation in which we are awaiting for a definitive report from UN weapons inspectors while our major ally contemplates whether to intervene militarily, only serves to underscore the relevance of our questions to the conduct of Australian foreign and defence policy.

Accordingly, I write again to urge you to let our members and supporters, as well as the general public, have your answers to the following questions as set out in my letter of 13 August:

1.   Do you believe the Prime Minister should continue to have the authority to take Australia to war on her/his own?
2.   Would you support a new bill requiring parliamentary debate and approval before the Australian Defence Force is deployed in overseas combat operations?
3.   Do you support taking ANZUS back to its
(a)   Original obligation of consultations (not automatic military action);
(b)   Original geography (the Pacific area); and
(c)   Original purpose (defence against an armed attack)?
4.   Do you support Article 1 of the ANZUS Treaty which obliges Australia "to refrain... from the threat or use of force in any manner inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nations"? Would you support legislation to require UN authorisation for Australia to go to war other than in response to an armed attack?
5.   The United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Denmark have each initiated a public inquiry into their involvement in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Do you support a review of the process by which the Australian Government decided to join the invasion, in order to determine whether the process was satisfactory?
6.   Do you believe that Australia should defer to the established international channels for WMD verification, monitoring and compliance?
I realise that considered answers to some of these questions might require more time for careful reflection than would be available to you in the limited time remaining before election day, but they are important questions and we would appreciate whatever insights or in-principle guidance you might feel able to give us in order to enable us to evaluate your policy thinking about these important matters ahead of the election.

Yours sincerely,

Paul Barratt