Let parliament make Australia’s war decisions

Apr 8, 2023
Flag flying over the Australia Parliament Building in the capital of Canberra.

Australia is an advanced parliamentary democracy, but the Prime Minister and cabinet members decide whether Australia is to go to war. Parliament is like the ghost of Cinderella with no formal voice in it. This is a historical hangover, a part of the “royal prerogative,” passed on from the monarch to the government of the day. It is a political custom not enforceable as law. Yet, on that flimsy basis, Australia has been joining the USA in many unlawful wars and invasions.

The following are some considerations why Parliament should be making this decision:

1, This power of the Prime Minister does not make sense in a modern democracy where constitutional sovereignty lies with the Australian people. As stated by two judges of Australia’s High Court in 1992, “all powers of government ultimately belong to, and are derived from, the governed.” Parliamentary supremacy reflects the sovereignty of the people. As such, Parliament should be the ultimate decision-maker in Australia’s participation in any war.

2, Most Australians want war decisions to be approved by Parliament. A nationwide survey by Roy Morgan research in 2020 found 83% of Australians wanted Parliament to vote on overseas military deployments. Australians want to know Australian lives are not being put at risk in avoidable wars. They also don’t want a war decision to be just to satisfy a political party’s agenda or to ingratiate the USA hoping it will overlook its own interests and come to Australia’s aid in the unlikely event Australia is being invaded.

Dr Hanna3, The Prime Minister by convention should let Parliament know his war decision. But, as put by Dr Hannah White, Deputy Director of UK’s Institute of Government, it all depends on “how the Government wants to interpret past precedent.” Indeed, a number of long established conventions were disregarded in Australia’s constitutional crisis of 1975.

4, The need to assert the supremacy of Parliament is also related to a major concern in Australia, viz its sovereignty. That’s largely a result of Australia’s relationship with the USA being so close. As Australia’s former PM, Malcolm Turnbull, said in August 2017, “We are joined at the hip” to the USA. This is also reflected in how, over the last 70 years or so, the Australia government had in effect subserviently participated in US wars in developing countries even though these are disastrous and unlawful US invasions of other countries.

5, Unlike Australia, in many other advanced democracies the legislature has to approve any decision to go to war. For example, the decision by David Cameron and his cabinet in August 2013 to join the US military invasion of Syria was rejected by Parliament. In the US, the War Powers Resolution of 1973 limits the President’s war power. In effect, the US can only go to war if Congress and the President jointly declare war.

6, Without Parliament acting as a check-point, the government can continue to send troops overseas anywhere to participate in unlawful invasions, as it had done in support of US attacks in Southeast Asia and in more recent times in the Middle East. International law significantly limits invasions (only allowing member states to use military force in self-defence or when relying on a UN Security Council resolution). But it cannot do much to stop the kind of invasions that Australia had participated in the past.

7, It is true that, on 30 September 2022, the Albanese government instigated a Senate inquiry into how Australia makes decisions to send its military to fight a war overseas. Unfortunately, a primitive assumption is that the present system should continue. Improvements are to be made only if short-comings are found. In other words, it is not getting Parliament to replace the government in Australia’s war decisions. To that extent, the Inquiry ignores one reality, viz, Australia does not want to go to war without Parliament’s approval.

8, Joining the US invasion of China will be disastrous for Australia. It will not be the usual bullying of weak countries referred to by former Prime Minister Billy Hughes in a March 1913 speech where he famously said Australia and the USA were “two nations that have always had their way, for they killed everybody else to get it.”

That won’t happen with China, a rising nuclear power in “our” Pacific region. In response to the US encircling China since around 2000, China developed a formidable military force and the world’s largest navy. China’s hi-tech defence capability is likely to be awesome. Very importantly, it has a great geographical advantage. In short, and as indicated in some US war-games, it is unlikely to lose a conventional war.

If the USA resorts to nuclear bombs, China’s estimated 300+ nuclear bombs are enough to destroy the USA. Such a war is likely to end in a mutually assured destruction (MAD) of the world as we know it today.

In the event of Australia supporting any US invasion of China, Pine Gap and other US bases in Australia are likely targets for China’s long-range missile attacks. Many Australians forming the invasion force are likely to return home in body bags.

Also, and very importantly, as China is Australia’s major trading partner, in the event of war, Australia’s trade and prosperity will come to an abrupt halt. We in Australia will feel the devastating impact immediately. Consumer goods from China – taken for granted in Australia – will run out of supply and costs shoot up.

No one wins in such a war.

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