Ukraine military instructor decision echoes the lead up to Australia’s deployment in Vietnam

Oct 16, 2022
Ukraine and Australia flag together realtions textile cloth fabric texture

It would be no great surprise if Australians were to join British military instructors in training Ukrainians to fight. Defence Minister Richard Marles hinted at that when he visited the UK in September. The Australian personnel would join others from New Zealand, Sweden, the Netherlands and elsewhere who have been supporting Ukraine’s side in the war as trainers of civilians in using weapons, patrolling, and first aid.

Apparently, the training would take place outside Ukraine. According to David Kilcullen (ABC RN 13 October) other NATO countries including the US have been training Ukrainians elsewhere in Europe in the use of donated weapons systems.

But Australians are puzzled about which foot the Government is kicking with. Ukraine’s Ambassador says no Australian trainers have been invited. So who proposed it, Marles or his UK and US counterparts? What public consultation will precede a deployment of ADF trainers? Will ‘mission creep’ apply to it? When will it end?

RAAF personnel were sent to the UK to do drone targeting last year, with no details given. Many remember the dispatch of a training team that preceded Australia’s full-scale deployment in Vietnam, and the ‘humanitarian missions’ before the RAAF went into Iraq and later into Syria.

Just when Marles was lining this up in England, he was establishing a Parliamentary inquiry into how Australia goes to war. On 30 September, the inquiry was referred to the Defence sub-committee of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence, and Trade. No mention was made in the announcement of the ADF training mission for Ukraine.

While waiting for government, the ALP twice agreed to hold an inquiry into changing the rules which enable a prime minister to have the defence minister dispatch the troops at will. Civil society groups had almost lost hope that this reform would happen. So they were delighted when Marles referred the inquiry to the Committee.

Neither he nor Prime Minister Albanese has publicly supported reform of the war powers. Nor have about half of their party colleagues, who either defer to their views or make no comment. Of Labor politicians who support reform, many are not members of the Defence sub-committee which is conducting the inquiry.

Leading proponents of the inquiry are the ALP’s Julian Hill, who will chair it, and Josh Wilson. They stress that the outcome will be a matter of compromise. The fact that it has been referred by Marles is encouraging for those who feared the ALP wouldn’t keep this promise. Others saw his statements in Opposition as more bellicose than those of Peter Dutton.

The members of the sub-committee are a curious bunch, some with no known expertise in Australian or international law or in defence. Several surveyed by Michael West Media offered no comment on whether the war powers should change. There’s no Independent member, and not one is from the Greens, despite Senator Jordon Steele-John having twice put up a bill for war powers reform. The Deputy Chair, Andrew Wallace (LNP) is adamantly opposed to it.

The terms of reference of the ‘Inquiry into international armed conflict decision making’ show evidence of cautious drafting. The first investigates how other Westminster-style democracies make such decisions. MPs Hill and Wilson are asking the Parliamentary Library to update research dating from 2010. It shows that Australian Parliamentary oversight of commitments of armed force is one of the weakest among comparable countries.

The sub-committee will also consider parliamentary processes and practices, including opportunities for debate on a proposed war. This may deliver better transparency and accountability on ADF deployments, but mere scrutiny or debate is not enough: a vote in both Houses is needed to make all MPs and Senators responsible to their electorates on this vital matter.

The third of the terms of reference concerns the security implications of publicly discussing a deployment of Australian forces in advance. Other democracies manage this satisfactorily, and the sub-committee will have to weigh their practices against continued resistance to sharing information.

‘Any related matters’ will cover whatever else Australians submit to the Inquiry. The sub-committee can expect to hear from people who have recently been to war, from veterans facing serious consequences, and from others concerned about our long slow investigation of alleged war crimes. It may receive submissions from Australians who are concerned about what happens to civilians in countries where we fight. Others will argue against the dependence on the US alliance which gets Australia into our wars. And many will object to AUKUS. But about that, and the trainers for Ukraine, few facts are disclosed.

After hearings in early December, the Defence Committee’s report can be expected in March or April next year. That may be an ill omen for reformers. It coincides with the end of the AUKUS consultation, the report of the Defence Strategic Review, and the 20th anniversary of our invasion of Iraq. Before then, the ADF will probably be training Ukrainians for their war.

Australia’s slide towards war has continued since the May election, and the current inquiry may do nothing to stop it. If such a war is against China, Professor Hugh White expects it to be disastrous. For Australia, the consequences will be much worse than those of the Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq invasions. Civil society groups like Australians for War Powers Reform have for years advocated acting now, before there’s a crisis. Yet surprisingly, avoiding war is not front of mind for many Australians, nor for most of their elected representatives.

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