Prime Minister Turnbull recently visited the Philippines to attend regional economic and trade talks attended also by US President Trump. Given the presence of both, what do we know about their commitment of military assistance to their host, President Duterte of the Philippines, to ‘contain’ insurgency in that country?
It will be recalled that last month the Defence Minister, Senator Marise Payne, announced that in addition to previous RAAF P-3 Orion surveillance flights, some 80 ADF trainers would be deployed in the Philippines to combat Islamic militants.
This move creates an uneasy feeling as it is just how the disastrous commitments in Vietnam and Iraq began. The fact that the announcement prompted so little public attention is disturbing in itself as we seem now to be in a situation where the government only has to point to Islamic militants anywhere and they are fair game for our armed forces to be despatched to the ‘global fight against terror.’
On what terms and with what safeguards we might ask? Indeed what checks and balances are in place to ensure that the Executive would be restrained from ‘mission creep’ with this new deployment?
What is it about Australia that it is in constant pursuit of conflict? In the 87 years since World War 2 we have been at war somewhere for all of 60 years. A previous Defence Minister offered the view that when one conflict ended we should expect another to maintain the momentum then achieved by the armed forces. What other country treats the world like this, as a perpetual training ground? Experience shows that ‘training’ is rarely benign once the action starts.
Surely any commitment to a new conflict should be reported to Parliament (if sitting and properly constituted!) and full discussion allowed by our elected representatives. It should be noted in this regard that the Opposition seems too ready to let these serious issues pass through to the keeper. Instead we are left with, as informed comment, such as appeared in The Australian (26.10.17):
“The Turnbull government’s decision to urgently deploy Australian Defence Force personnel to the Philippines to train local forces for the fight against Islamic terrorists is overwhelmingly in Australia’s strategic and security interests” – referring later to the Philippines as a ‘partner and ally’.
When did the Philippines, a country run by a murderous dictator and afflicted by all manner of insurgencies of its own making, become an ally? Is it our role now, being “joined at the hip”, to substitute ourselves for the US when the latter is distracted or involved in contretemps with one or other of its allies? Better that we think from the head, not the hip.
In entering into this potentially open-ended conflict, we ask what are its specific objectives and end-game. Is a status of forces agreement in place to protect our forces from capricious and arbitrary local attention both on and off duty? And how are our forces to be prevented from engaging in actions which are matters of civil conflict or domestic dispute, with a high risk of civilian casualties due to the nature of the Duterte regime?
No such intervention or assistance has been requested by Indonesia, Malaysia or any other Southeast Asian state, to meet what the Minister describes as a direct threat to the region, apart from the alleged direct threat to Australia.
We reiterate our position that any new overseas military deployment must be undertaken in accordance with constitutional requirements and not just based on a subordinate clause in the Defence Act. It should be subject to informed discussion both in the Parliament and with the general public. Frankness and a realistic measure of transparency is what has been missing for years from the government’s notion of accountability in these military matters. It is time the government treated the public as adults.
Andrew Farran is an AWPR Committee Member, former diplomat and senior academic in public and international law.
This article was earlier published in The Bulletin (#56) of Australians for War Powers Reform.