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The decision to go to war should not be made behind closed doors

Speeches in Parliament
Penny Wright 4 Sep 2014

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (11:19): It is with a sense of responsibility and solemnity that I am rising today to contribute to this important debate on the Australian Greens bill to require the approval of the Australian parliament to send Australian troops to fight in wars overseas.

In debating this idea, we are considering one of the most important decisions that any government ever has to make-whether to send its citizens away to war, to face death and injury and to kill other people-and to bear the moral burden of that. These are significant decisions.

On 15 February 2003, 600,000 people around Australia marched to show their opposition to the Iraq war. The rest, as they say, is history. What is necessary in dealing with matters of this sort of gravity-matters of life and death-is that we take that history, we face up to it squarely, and we are willing to learn from it.

The views and feelings of those many Australians who marched against the war were ignored by the Howard government. There was no substantial debate about the wisdom of following the United States into yet another war. The clamour to take action and invade Iraq overpowered the many warnings from knowledgeable and thoughtful people about the potential consequences, and the clear opposition from so many Australians.

As with other US wars to which Australia has too-readily signed up, the Iraq war has been increasingly discredited-vindicating those who counselled reason and care, at the time. It is clear now that the justification for the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was based on the lie of the existence of weapons of mass destruction. It is also clear that the invasion of Iraq and its aftermath have contributed to the disintegration we are now seeing in Iraq and provided precursors to some of the anger and burning sense of injustice that is feeding the extremism and brutality that affronts all of us.

The debate on who should be empowered to send Australian men and women to war is an enduring and persistent one, and so it should be. We should never send our troops lightly; we should do so only with clear-sighted knowledge, taking full responsibility that their lives will never be the same again-some will not come home; some will come home but they will be physically wounded; and others will face mental health challenges such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder for the rest of their lives. None will forget. And so the debate goes on. This is not the first time the Australian Greens have introduced legislation of this nature. We believe this conversation is one that must be had, and we are willing to have it. We will not be silenced by claims that somehow we lack compassion or we support terrorism. They are spurious, hollow, empty claims; they are designed to shut us up and to shut up people who will not go along with the clamour. We will not submit to those efforts. We know that this is the right debate to be having.

This is a highly responsible question about the importance of democratic debate in a democracy and the view that the people who represent Australians have a place in the decision to send Australians to war. How else do we ensure that Australians like those 600,000 who cared enough to get out on the streets in 2003 have their voice heard in this parliament in matters that affect every one of us, sometimes affecting us intimately? How else do we ensure that executive governments are held accountable for their decisions and sometimes the mistakes they make? Merely relying on the next election is not enough in a situation that is as grey and significant as this, because there has been no transparent public process to inquire into the wars that we have been involved in. There has been no full and transparent inquiry into the illegal and open-ended war in Iraq in 2003, and no process to ensure that we have learned from that experience; no process to ensure that this time we will do things better and wiser.

Like everyone, I am deeply, deeply disturbed by what is currently happening in Iraq and what has been happening in Syria. The bloodshed is horrific and in no way would I ever seek to understate the suffering of civilians in that country. How people can live in that environment I think is not only confronting but also inconceivable for all of us. Islamic State is a brutal, barbarous organisation. It is life-defying and it defies the very common humanities of the world's peoples and the world's religions. There is no doubt that something must be done. The question is what. That is the question we have to significantly discuss. I will not subscribe to the tempting but simplistic view that something must be done and war is something, so it must be done. We must ask the fundamental questions before embarking on a war: what will it achieve; will it make things worse? That is the respectful and reasoned debate we must have.

The Australian Greens are strongly supportive of humanitarian assistance for the Iraqi people at this time, with the dropping of water, food and other supplies. During the winter break I had the privilege of visiting the Amberley air base in Brisbane as part of the Australian Defence Force Parliamentary Program. I had the opportunity to see Australia's air force at work at the biggest air base in Australia, and I was able to meet with the personnel there and get a better understanding of and empathy for the work that they do-the job that they do on behalf of all Australians. Indeed it was a privilege, and I came away with a much better understanding. I also had the wonderful opportunity to fly in one of the C17 aircraft-the aircraft often used for delivering loads of humanitarian and other supplies. Some of the C17s are being used in distributing the humanitarian aid that we have been dispensing. They can take supplies or they can be set up with hospital wards. I saw and understood how motivated those pilots and the personnel around them who provide support were in doing their important, lifesaving humanitarian work on behalf of Australia. Certainly it is absolutely important that we do that work.

But military action is another question altogether, and it is an issue that we must approach with the highest level of care, with reasoned thought about why we are doing it and what the consequences will be and what the plan is. We also have to have adherence to international law, because if there is no international law there is nothing. If we do not stand by international law we have no right to ask others to do the same. We must ask the question: is this another case of Australia blindly following in the footsteps of the United States? Australians are rightly concerned about this. They have a right to be. We are already dropping weapons and munitions into Iraq for the Kurdish Peshmerga forces and the likelihood of deeper military involvement seems more likely each day. There is little doubt that, if requested, Australia will agree to the USA's request for further military engagement in Iraq.

In Australia, the executive's decision to declare war and deploy forces overseas has always been taken before Parliament has debated the issue.    Traditionally, parliament has been asked to endorse decisions that have already been taken. Though the opposition of the day has usually supported the government's actions, there have been occasions when they have at least initially opposed Australia's involvement in conflicts. Since 1901, neither the Australian Constitution nor defence legislation has required the government to gain parliamentary approval for the decision to deploy forces overseas or, in the rare cases that it has occurred, to declare war. There have been attempts since 1985 to remove the exclusive power of the government to commit Australia to war.

In 2010 the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee reported on an Australian Greens bill-the Defence Amendment (Parliamentary Approval of Overseas Service) Bill 2008 [No. 2]. The committee stated:

The committee is not in any way against the involvement of both Houses of Parliament in open and public debates about the deployment of Australian service personnel to warlike operations or potential hostilities. It agrees with the views of most submitters that the Australian people, through their elected representatives, have a right to be informed and heard on these important matters.

The Commonwealth Constitution does not say expressly who is responsible for declaring war or deploying troops. In addition, there is no requirement in the Constitution or defence legislation for parliamentary involvement in most aspects of declaring war and deploying troops. Indeed, for several decades after the Commonwealth came into being, in 1901, the Australian government itself was unsure as to whether it could even declare war against another country without British government approval.

Former royal prerogatives, including the power to make war, deploy troops and declare peace are now part of the executive power of the Commonwealth, exercised by the Governor-General on the advice of the Federal Executive Council or responsible ministers. Contemporary practice, however, is that decisions to go to war or deploy troops are matters for the Prime Minister and cabinet and do not involve the Governor-General or the Federal Executive Council.

With Australia generally adhering to the Charter of the United Nations, which requires member countries to seek UN Security Council approval before engaging in hostilities, past comment and debate in this space has focused on the deployment of troops overseas, once hostilities have been declared by the UN. On a number of occasions, the Australian Greens, and the Australian Democrats before us, have pursued legislation that would require parliamentary approval in most circumstances before Australian troops could be deployed overseas. In September 2008, my colleague Senator Scott Ludlam, who has spoken so eloquently on the bill today, sought to repeal section 50C of the Defence Act 1903 and to replace the section with a new provision that would require parliamentary approval before troops could be deployed. Once again, we are bringing legislation to the parliament, with the hope of a real and meaningful debate.

The Australian Greens' bill would be consistent with principles and practices of in other democracies, including

Denmark, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Slovakia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and Turkey, where troop deployment is set down in constitutional or legislative provisions. Some form of parliamentary approval or consultation is also routinely undertaken in    Austria, the Czech Republic, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Norway. Our ally the United States has a similar provision that subjects the decision to go to war to a broader forum. Section 8 of article I of the US Constitution quite clearly says, 'Congress shall have power to declare war'. In the wake of the disaster in Iraq, the UK's Westminster parliament now holds the de facto war power, a new convention that prevented a rushed deployment into Syria earlier in 2014. The real challenges posed about the timeliness of decision-making and the degree of confidentiality that would be required can be met, as is obvious from the number of mature democracies that embrace a more inclusive approach to decisions about war.

The debate we are having is not a new debate but one that constantly evolves and gains depth as global contexts change. It is an important debate. I am grateful that we are once again having this discussion, but I am disheartened that the debate has not matured much in recent years. If the lessons of Iraq in 2003 and the escalating, brutal violence we are currently witnessing in that country do not now compel my parliamentary colleagues to engage in this debate, it is difficult to imagine what will.

As someone with a long personal history of activism, I know that people protest when they feel unheard-when they feel ignored by decision makers and those in positions of influence. With this Greens bill we can ensure all Australians a voice in this place through their elected representatives-not just at an election, after the event, when the die is cast, but at the very time of a momentous decision to be made about whether this country goes to war. This bill will ensure there is a real conversation about what it means to send Australians to war and whether it is the appropriate thing to do.

We must always remember that when we send people into conflict on our behalf their lives will never again be the same. That is why there are significant numbers of veterans and members of the Australian Defence Forces who agree with this Australian Greens proposal. I know this because I have consulted with them, I have met with them and I have spoken with them during the three years that I held the veterans affairs spokesperson portfolio for the Australian Greens. It is not surprising, because they truly understand what it means to go to war. They truly understand who will bear the consequences of that decision. They do not want the decision to go to war to be made in sometimes what is a political context, when they think that it is important that all Australians should be able to have their voices heard through their elected representatives in a truly democratic way. By having the decision made in that way, it confers more legitimacy on the ultimate decision of a country to send its people to war. What a profound responsibility we would all share if this bill were to become law.

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