In War Powers Bill I outlined the provisions of the Defence Amendment (Parliamentary Approval of Overseas Service) Bill 2008 [No. 2], which was introduced in the Senate by Western Australian Greens Senator Scott Ludlam on 13 February 2008, and in War Powers Bill: Senate Inquiry I noted that the Senate had referred it to the Senate Defence, Foreign Affairs and Trade Committee for inquiry and report by 19 November 2009.
Regrettably but not surprisingly it does not look as though we can expect much help from the Government in progressing this matter. On 26 February 2008 Mr Gary Quinlan, the Prime Minister’s Senior Adviser (Foreign Affairs, National Security, Defence and Trade) responded to representations from Dr Kristine Klugman, President, Civil Liberties Australia, in the following terms:
The Government takes its responsibility in committing to any military operation extremely seriously. The process is legally valid and has been followed by successive Australian Governments. Any decision to commit Australian Defence Force personnel into a conflict involves extensive consultation with various organisations and agencies. The emphasis of all parties in this robust and enduring process is to safeguard Australia’s national interest. The government is satisfied with the existing procedure and has no intention of revising it.
Apart from being a classic example of the stuff-off letter, this letter follows the modern political practice of addressing any issue but the one that has been put. Let us take it point by point:
The Government takes its responsibility in committing to any military operation extremely seriously.
- This is reassuring news but what on earth does it have to do with whether or not it is a good idea to consult the Parliament?
- Mr Quinlan can only speak on behalf of the current Prime Minister and the government Mr Rudd leads. The proposition before the Parliament is to change the war-making procedure not only of the present government but of all governments into the future until such time as one of them is able to persuade the Parliament to hand the power to commit troops to combat back to the Executive.
- Many people feel that the previous government did not take its responsibilities seriously enough when it decided to commit Australian forces to Iraq. A group of 43 former senior officers, civilian and military (of whom I was one) said so at the time. The Australian public was never at any stage given a clear answer as to what the objective of the invasion of Iraq was, and it was known that the Opposition was opposed to the invasion.
- This raises a very important issue concerning the accountability of individual members of Parliament to their electors and the public generally. Because the decision to participate in the invasion of Iraq was a decision of Cabinet, we will never know what was the attitude of each and every member of the Coalition parties to that question. If the matter had had to come to Parliament, Government members would have had to decide whether or not they agreed, and if they disagreed, whether they put the question of principle on a matter as grave as going to war ahead of or behind their obedience to their political party. Opposition members who thought the invasion a good idea would have been placed in a similar position. Everyone would have had to vote on the matter, we would all know where every one of them stood. Perhaps that is why both sides of politics find the proposal so unattractive.
The process is legally valid and has been followed by successive Australian Governments.
- The motive for bringing forth this Bill is not a doubt about the legality of the current process. On the contrary, the explicit intent is to change the law to move to a different, more accountable process.
- The fact that the process has been followed by successive Australian Governments has no bearing on the question of whether the current practice is the best practice. In light of the events of 2003, we deserve better.
Any decision to commit Australian Defence Force personnel into a conflict involves extensive consultation with various organisations and agencies.
- This sounds to me like an argument in favour of the Bill; it is certainly unconvincing as an argument against. If the Government is in the habit of consulting Uncle Tom Cobley and all, why not take the elected representatives of the people into its confidence and consult them as well? At least we can now be sure that consultation with the Parliament would not occasion problematic delay, because there is “extensive consultation” going on anyway.
The emphasis of all parties in this robust and enduring process is to safeguard Australia’s national interest.
- That may or may not be the case, but again, what does it have to do with the question of whether or not it is a good idea to consult the elected representatives of the people?
- An important part of the critique of the Howard Government’s approach to the invasion of Iraq is that it had at least as much to do with the perceived interests of Mr Howard’s political party as it did with the national interest.
The government is satisfied with the existing procedure and has no intention of revising it.
- As Mandy Rice-Davies so insightfully remarked all those years ago, he would say that wouldn’t he?
- The question is not whether the Government is satisfied with the procedure, the question is whether it satisfies the rest of us.
- It is always fascinating to watch people of a purportedly republican persuasion clinging to the ancient prerogatives of the sovereign when it comes to the crunch. I would have thought that a willingness to put the matter in the hands of the Parliament would have been more consistent with the republican notion that all authority flows from the people.