The Chilcot report should prompt much heart-searching, and not only about Australia’s commitment to the Iraq War in 2003. It should prompt us to think about two long-standing problems: the use of the ‘war powers’ by the Executive, without any requirement to consult parliament; and the broader issue of balancing Australia’s interests in her alliance relationships. In essence, two questions should haunt us. First, should our decision to go to war be made by handfuls of people at the centre of power? Second, do we as a people so crave the approval of powerful allies that we should plunge our military forces into faraway deployments without carefully weighing costs and objectives?
The pattern of Australia’s commitments over more than a century suggests that we are often so desperate to stand tall in the estimation of our friends that we lose sight of our own defence priorities. The unspoken assumption lurks in the background: if we are effusively loyal, then perhaps our great friend might just commit to saving us in the future, from nameless threats. And from threats best left un-named – because in truth they spring from long-standing nightmares rooted in racial fears.
Before the outbreak of the Great War, Australian politicians were fond of highlighting Australia’s total dependence upon British naval strength. They often preached a loyalty that was just shy of servility to the British Empire. George Pearce, the Labor Defence Minister, told the Parliament in 1910 that Australia owed its security to ‘the unassailable supremacy of the British Navy, and to nothing else.’ Any suggestion of Australia reserving the right to choose to give only minimal assistance to Britain in a future conflict was gone. He argued that, because Australia lived ‘under the protection of the British flag’, then the nation ‘must be prepared in the future to take the disadvantages that come.’
‘One of those is that we may at any time be involved in a war in the causing of which we had no voice, and in which we have no desire to take part. But, nevertheless, by reason of the fact that we are part of the Empire, we may be called upon, willy nilly, to bear the consequences of our Imperial connexion.’
William Morris Hughes made plain the racial insecurity driving this sense of subservience. In 1911 he wrote: ‘We stand now in what security we do stand in by virtue only of the power of Great Britain.’ Australia was, wrote Hughes ‘the natural prey of the teeming, sweating millions of the East. Why don’t they come you say? Is it the spirit of the brotherhood of man that keeps them back? It may be so. I think myself it is not love, but fear – fear of the mighty British Navy that keeps them penned up in their overcrowded native lands.
When war came in 1914, Australia was not constitutionally, politically or emotionally able to exempt itself from an imperial war. But the political leaders tumbled over themselves to show loyalty. In fact, Australia had committed in advance to transferring immediately the new Royal Australian Navy to the control of the British Admiralty. Then, in the middle of a federal election campaign, and before Britain had declared war at all, the Australian politicians charged in to offer Australian manhood. Just four members of the Cabinet of Liberal Prime Minister Joseph Cook, with the Governor General tugging at their sleeves, decided to send a public offer to London of an expeditionary force of 20,000 men – to anywhere, for any objective, in any desired composition, under British Command, with Australia footing the entire bill. The ‘Australian Imperial Force’ would soon depart, and others decided upon the destination.
This set the pattern. We would show loyalty – to a fault. And the Executive, not the parliament, would decide on our military commitments.
In the inter-war period dozens of politicians and military figures explained that our loyalty to Britain flowed logically from the fact that the Royal Navy’s ‘White Ensign’ was the indispensable guarantee of ‘White Australia’. When Britain offered Australia its independence under the Statute of Westminster in 1931, the offer was left unratified, until 1942 – after the fall of Singapore. Until then, the romance of the ‘imperial connexion’ still trumped the passion for a genuine Australian nationhood.
Thus, when Robert Menzies announced Britain’s declaration of war in September 1939, quite correctly he explained that Australia was ‘also at war’. But soon after he announced that another expeditionary force would soon leave Australia. Overriding the suspicion of imperial priorities and symbols felt by some Australians at that time, he dubbed the new force the ‘Second Australian Imperial Force.’ The mindset of 1914 was there on display once again. ‘Who’ll put the “I” in the AIF?’ was the popular recruiting song – but the irony must have struck some listeners. It was the same ‘I’ that British officers had suggested in planning an ‘Imperial Australian Force’ as far back as 1902, a force to be ready for expeditionary warfare in the imperial cause.
Fast-forward to the twenty-first century. Prime Minister Howard made an early ‘pre-deployment’ of Australian forces to Iraq in 2003, determined to show unfaltering loyalty to our allies. We jumped when instructed. The explanation offered now, that Howard was the unwitting victim of ‘flawed intelligence’, is conscience washing. The commitment to war was yet another instance of servility to allies. Our participation or not in war was decided by a Prime Minister, based on what he judged to be ‘good for the alliance’. At the Lowy Institute in 2013, on the tenth anniversary of the outbreak of the Iraq War, Howard explained his choice for war in exactly these terms:
‘There were many who argued that we should stay out; we should say “no” to the Americans for a change; that the true measure of a good friend was a willingness to disagree when the circumstances called for it, and that in the case of Iraq we would hurt our country by backing the United States, and that in the long run declining to participate in the Coalition of the willing would be good for the alliance’.
That argument escaped me then, and it still does. In my view the circumstances we recall tonight necessitated a 100 per cent ally, not a 70 or 80 per cent one, particularly as no compelling national interest beckoned us in the opposite direction.
War – because the Prime Minister decided we must be ‘a 100 per cent ally’.
The pattern is now well entrenched. At the White House on 12 June 2014, Prime Minister Abbott, gazing at President Obama, declared: ‘I want to assure the President that Australia will be an utterly dependable ally of the United States.’ Not just close friends, not just cooperative – ‘utterly dependable’.
The ‘war powers’ are still unreformed in Australia. And some politicians still apparently believe that our alliances reduce us to the status of a hireling people.
Assoc. Prof. Douglas Newton is a retired academic. He has taught history at Macquarie University, Victoria University of Wellington, NZ, and Western Sydney University. He is the author of a number of studies of war and peace, including most recently, The Darkest Days: The Truth Behind Britain’s Rush to War, 1914 (London, Verso: 2014) and Hell-bent: Australia’s Leap into the Great War (Melbourne: Scribe, 2014). He is currently writing a book tentatively entitled, Ending Armageddon: The Search for a Negotiated Peace during the Great War, to be published by Scribe in 2017.
 Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, Senate, Vol. 56, 1671-2 (18 Aug. 1910).
 Hughes, ‘The Case for Labor’, Daily Telegraph, 27 May 1911.
 Hughes, ‘The Case for Labor’, Daily Telegraph, 14 Oct. 1911.
 John Mordike, An Army for a Nation: A History of Australian Military Developments 1880-1914 (North Sydney, 1992), p. 110.