War? Let the people decide

October 5, 2022
An anti-war protest on Hiroshima Day, August 6, at Sydney Town Hall
An anti-war protest on Hiroshima Day, August 6, at Sydney Town Hall. Photo: Peter Boyle

Federal Labor's announcement on September 30 that it will hold a parliamentary inquiry into how Australia makes decisions to send service personnel into international armed conflict is a welcome first step towards a long overdue democratic reform.

As Dr Alison Broinowski, president of Australians for War Powers Reform, explained on October 1: “The current system whereby the Prime Minister and the executive can make this crucial decision without reference to parliament is outdated and needs urgent reform.

“At present, the PM can make the decision, often without even consulting his or her own cabinet. This means the most serious decision of all can be a ‘captain’s call’, left up to just one person. Surely in 2022, with threats of war mounting, that is no longer acceptable.”

This is the way Australians have been sent overseas into one imperialist war after another — without putting it to parliament, let alone the people!

Broinowski explained in Michael West Media that the announcement of a parliamentary inquiry “reflects the concerns of groups across Australia that we might slide into another disastrous conflict — this time in our region”.

If the Anthony Albanese government supports a reform that requires parliamentary approval before Australia joins yet another imperialist war, it would have the support of the Australian Greens and would get through both houses of parliament.

This would be a significant step forward.

It would also enjoy overwhelming public support. The latest poll, conducted last year, showed 87% support for war powers reform, up from 83% in 2020.

However, there is no guarantee that the government will introduce such a reform.

Ever since it formed government it has loyally followed the United States and other imperialist allies in every pro-war position they have taken. 

Labor is holding on to the previous Coalition government’s commitment to waste hundreds of billions of dollars on acquiring nuclear-powered submarines and to make Australia even more of a giant base for US military intervention into the Asia Pacific.

Surveys of federal parliamentarians show that MPs have varying opinions on war powers reform, but tend to go along with their leader’s decision.

Surveys also show that, ever since the Vietnam War, participation in imperialist wars has rarely enjoyed majority support from the public. This was manifestly the case with the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and even public support for the Western military intervention in Afghanistan dwindled as the realities about that war struck home.

Today, despite fever-pitch propaganda for a new war on China, 51% support neutrality in the event of a US war with China, down from 57% last year.

If the people had a real say, Australia would be less likely to be drawn into imperialist wars.

The same would probably be the case for public opinion in the US and other imperialist countries. Yet all of Australia’s allies are also totally undemocratic in making the decision to go to war.

Other Commonwealth nations have inherited undemocratic war power rules from the “mother country” and, although the US has a law requiring congressional approval, US presidents have routinely stretched the limits of their powers.

A reform requiring parliamentary approval to go to war would be a step forward. But you have to wonder why people could not be given a direct say in such a life or death matter?

Equally, shouldn’t we have a direct, democratic say on other critical issues, such as responding to the climate emergency?

Polls show majority public support for closing all fossil fuel-burning power stations; transitioning to renewables by 2030; an end to public funding of all coal and gas mining; and a levy on high carbon-emitting industries to encourage them to switch to renewable sources — but fossil fuel backed governments refuse to act.

Green Left consistently argues that a just and ecologically sustainable future requires a radical expansion in democracy, including democratising the economy which remains largely in the hands of a few big corporations. If you agree, you should become a supporter or make a donation to our Fighting Fund.

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