Australian Outlook

In this section

Australia’s Next War: We Need to Talk Now about War-Power Reform

16 May 2019
By Peter E Mulherin
We need to discuss what will happen next time Australia is faced with the decision to go to war. Photo: Australian Department of Defence, Flickr

Going to war is one of the most significant decisions that any country makes, so it’s time we discussed what will happen the next time Australia is faced with the question.

Given the quickly deteriorating relationship between Iran and the United States, perpetual tensions on the Korean peninsula, a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan, and the as yet undefeated Islamic State in Iraq and beyond, Australians would be naïve to assume our next military deployment will be in the far-distant future.  ​

However, international affairs are not election winners. The ABC’s Vote Compass sees foreign policy squarely at the bottom of a long list of voters’ priorities in 2019. Fair enough: the world of the United Nations, World Trade Organization, and the International Monetary Fund is distant from our daily concerns on healthcare, jobs, and education. Foreign policy just isn’t a big deal.

Unless, of course, Australia’s at war, as Charles Miller noted in these pages this week.

Discounting ongoing support and training missions, Australia is not currently at war. Our most recent combat role, in the anti-ISIS mission, wound up early last year.

Invariably, talk of war-power reform comes to the fore when Australia is faced by an emerging crisis, such as ISIS in mid-2014. However, waiting for the next war before talking about war-power reform is a bit like discussing your fire evacuation plan once half the building has burnt down. Those like Paul Barratt and others have long argued for parliament to have a greater say in the decision; however, little has changed since Federation.

The early months of the next government, whether Labor or the Liberal-National Party Coalition, are precisely the right time to (re)start a national conversation on how Australia decides to go to war – specifically, how democratic the decision to go to war should be made. Should our elected members of parliament have a say, or do we trust the government of the day to decide on our behalf?

In 2003, the government of John Howard committed the defence forces to the US-led invasion of Iraq. The decision to deploy was made by the government despite a majority of Australians not buying the argument that the Ba’athist regime of Saddam Hussein was an existential threat to the West.

The failure of the Australian political system to constrain the government of the day raises questions of democracy and accountability. Whether this amounts to a “democratic deficit,” where democracy doesn’t live up to its name, is up for debate.

Democratic theorists from a minimalist tradition would argue that governments are held accountable for all their decisions come election day. However, those in the “deliberative democracy” camp might respond that elections alone are insufficiently representative of changes in public opinion and give governments too much freedom to pursue their own agendas.

The question of how democratic the formation of foreign policy should be is not limited to Australia.

In the aftermath of the 2003 Iraq War, similar concerns saw countries such as France increase legislative oversight of war-making. Even more relevant to Australia, two of our closest allies in Canada and the United Kingdom recently took steps to “parliamentarise” their war powers. This culminated in parliamentary votes in 2014 on the decision to fight ISIS.

In Australia, on the other hand, the Abbott government made the same decision without holding a binding parliamentary debate or bid. This is because, under the current arrangements, going to war remains an “executive prerogative.” This has led some civil society groups, independent members of parliament and the Greens to call for legislative reform.  However, the lessons from Canada and the UK may show Australia how to incrementally reform war powers, by first adopting parliamentary conventions, rather than legislating for change.

That being said, as long as Labor and the Coalition continue to support the status quo any reform is unlikely. It is for this reason that Andrew Carr argues that reforming parliamentary war powers is likely to be a “pointless” exercise. While the norm of bipartisanship remains a “straitjacket” on robust foreign policy debate, talk of war-power reform is premature.

Carr is right that bipartisanship stifles debate. However, I argue in a recent article with the Australian Journal of International Affairs that foreign policy bipartisanship in Australia may be the norm in part because of the executive prerogative, rather than despite it. In other words, politics may “stop at the water’s edge” because parliament’s role does.

Therefore, it is plausible to expect the quality of foreign policy debate to increase if parliament’s role is strengthened. Challenging the bipartisan norm alongside war-powers reform may go a long way towards democratising the decision of when Australia goes to war.

In time, this may prevent governments from entering wars that are unsupported by the public. If nothing else, it will compel governments to engage more thoroughly in public debate about their proposed policies, and to justify their decisions to the nation.

Talking about going to war when Australia is at peace may seem odd, or even downright poor taste. But the relative calm of the present interbellum may be the opportunity our policy-makers need to thoughtfully reconsider the way our nation decides about entering the next conflict.

Peter E Mulherin is a casual research fellow and doctoral candidate in the Alfred Deakin Institute, Deakin University, Australia. His research focuses on the forming of foreign policy in democracies, as well as international relations and Middle Eastern politics. His scholarly publications have appeared in the Middle East Journal, the Australian Journal of International Affairs, Australian Journal of Political Science, and the British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, as well as opinion pieces in the ABC’s Religion and Ethics and the Washington Post.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.