War: truly the last resort for Australians?

Feb 19, 2023
High rank military commanders and politicians authority people discussing strategy sitting at round table.

If war is the last resort, why doesn’t our governance system enforce that condition? Will our War Powers be reformed in 2023?

A Joint Standing Committee of the parliament is currently inquiring into our “international armed conflict decision making”. There have been over a hundred submissions, and one day of public hearings (on 9 December 2022). Will the committee recommend that the power to deploy our forces abroad – effectively the power to choose war – remains a power wielded exclusively by the Executive? Or will it recommend change?

If change, will it urge legislation requiring parliamentary approval in advance for deployments abroad? Or settle for something less? For instance, a “codification of the convention”, as in the UK, that parliament’s approval must be obtained? Or will it simply recommend that a new Joint Committee on defence, security and intelligence, with access to all the relevant intelligence, must sign off on any proposal before the Executive can deploy our forces into international conflict?

Beyond that, what are the consequences of war for our politicians when they commit Australian forces to foreign conflict?

Parliamentary sovereignty

Existing War Powers arrangements outrage the principle of “parliamentary sovereignty”. Our parliamentarians repeatedly insist that they believe in “parliamentary sovereignty” to curb Executive overreach. The principle is often invoked as something almost sacred.

And yet, in various submissions to the current Joint Committee, and in discussions within it, when it comes to warfare “parliamentary sovereignty” is simply abandoned. According to various defence experts and parliamentarians, to defend Australia we must have both speed and secrecy. They insist it would be too dangerous for the parliament to debate deployments abroad in advance. The Executive must not be so fettered. It must enjoy a “prerogative power” to choose war.

The deployment to Vietnam, 1964-65

How have such War Powers worked in the past, when speed and secrecy have trumped “parliamentary sovereignty”? Let us explore just one example – the deployment to Vietnam, 1964-65.

According to contemporary researchers, the key decision to send a battalion to Vietnam came at a meeting of the Defence and Foreign Affairs Committee of the Menzies Cabinet on 17 December 1964.

A mere handful of ministers, Prime Minister Menzies, Hasluck, Holt, Paltridge, and McEwen, took the decision.

The hand-written minutes (at NAA: A11099, 235) give chilling insights. Country Party leader John McEwen argued that an American request for support was the “acid test” for us. Vietnam was strategically “the only barrier between us and China”. It was time to choose: “Either we go in or crawl out. I would go in, almost asking no questions”. The USA must “decide whether to make Vietnam a battleground and to hell with Vietnam.”

Holt supported McEwen: “We don’t run away from this”. But, for appearances’ sake, “other countries should be in.” McEwen agreed: “Get some brown skins in if you can.” Similarly, Menzies wanted “more nations [to] become involved … Asians better.” He remarked that “If we can provide [a] B[attalion] we have to think hard before we refuse.”

Speed was essential. Menzies did not want any “queries” directed to the USA. McEwen agreed: “We mustn’t appear to be playing for time by asking questions.” Menzies concluded: “no more foot dragging”.

Secrecy prevailed. Menzies told the parliament of the decision to deploy four months later, on Thursday 29 April 1965. He read a letter of support from President Johnson. Obviously Johnson knew of the decision before the Australian Parliament. The press trumpeted the news. Parliament debated it five days later, on 4 May 1965 – as a fait accompli.

All perfectly legal. That’s how it worked – and can still work. Clearly the decision for war did not harm Menzies’ electoral success. Whilst Australian families would mourn lost family members, Australian politicians could count their additional years in power, borne aloft by the nationalist emotions of war.

Looking forward

In the short term at least, war makes politicians popular. It can boost their careers. Consider the Falklands War and Thatcher’s career. Think of Howard’s construction of national security as the defining issue, through his military commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq. Military adventures can save a government otherwise heading for defeat. War is good for politicians.

How can this be rebalanced? How can politicians be made to pay a higher price for their decision to send others off to foreign wars? What additional sanctions might be needed?

Australia already has a formidable list of qualifications and disqualifications for candidates and parliamentarians listed in the Constitution and in the Commonwealth Electoral Act.

Dual citizens are excluded. Convicted traitors and undischarged bankrupts are out, as are those holding “an office of profit” under the Crown. Those convicted of taking bribes are gone. Those under sentence, or awaiting sentence, for any offence punishable by one year in prison, need not apply. They can be tossed out of the parliament. But there is nothing suggesting that a prime minister who deploys our forces into conflicts abroad, in defiance of the United Nation’s Charter, or anyone found guilty of war crimes by an international tribunal, must abandon their political career.

Let us imagine that, into the future, when our spirits are brooding over the land – a proudly independent Australia – a wiser generation than our own faces up to its war problem.

Let us imagine how that wiser generation might truly turn war into a last resort for politicians. Let us imagine that a politician who defies legislation requiring parliamentary approval in advance for deployments thereby becomes ineligible to renominate for subsequent parliaments. From where we sit, this may seem a pipe-dream – like international arbitration, or a permanent “Security Council” in a new world body – must have seemed just over a century ago. But we got there.

Imagine that those who come after us achieve sweeping changes to our Electoral Act and even to our apparently frozen Constitution. Perhaps they will conceive an elegant solution to the imbalance around war, and seek to increase the cost to politicians from engaging in war. Perhaps they will acknowledge that, when our armed services pay with their lives and wellbeing, we must require our politicians to pay with their political careers if they embark upon wars that are not wars of defence, and not wars undertaken as the very last resort.

Heeding history’s lessons: a way forward in peace

Australia’s wars are mostly started by others, far removed from Australia and in war theatres controlled by others. Surely in the future reforms will come that are a fitting response to this reality, changes that will honour the fallen and protect future generations.

If lessons from our war history are not heeded and nothing is done, what shall we say of the war dead of the future? Shall we say: they fought for the nation – that did not fight for them, did not fight to keep them close, and did not fight to keep them safe from reckless deployments?

Let us hope reform of the War Powers is just a start.

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