War power reform needed for accountability, transparency

An anti-war protest in Sydney in November 2020. Photo: Peter Boyle

The Coalition government refused to remove the ability of the Prime Minister and Cabinet to take Australia to war, but Labor has promised to hold an inquiry into war powers reform.

The Coalition decided unilaterally to send troops to join the United States-led war on Afghanistan and Iraq. If the next war is against China, will Australia follow the US into a war over Taiwan? This question is being asked by Australians for War Powers Reform (AWPR).

There is less of a chance of the government committing troops to a new war if the decision has to be debated by both houses of parliament, as the AWPR argues must happen.

Labor promised, again, last year to hold a public inquiry into how Australia goes to war if elected to govern. At two successive national conferences, in 2018 and 2021, delegates resolved that Labor would set up an investigation and report during the 47th Parliament in its first term.

AWPR called on Prime Minister Anthony Albanese on May 23 to act on the promise for an inquiry.

Meanwhile, Independent MP Andrew Wilkie and The Greens support a war power reform law which would mean both houses of parliament debate whether or not to go to war. The Greens argue that “MPs must be forced to take responsibility for the decision to send Australians to war” and say they will bring such an act into the Senate.

“After 20 years in Afghanistan we must immediately start to assess how Australia went to war resulting in the humanitarian disaster that has unfolded.

“We went to war without mission clarity, an identifiable enemy and very little accountability to Parliament. 

“The War Powers Reform Act will ensure that a peace-focused approach is brought to our defense force, and that members of parliament will be held to account for the consequences of sending Australians to war.”

Even the former Defence Force Chief Admiral Chris Barrie wants a change in the way Australia goes to war, saying parliament should have the key decision-making role.

“An overwhelming number of Australians — 83% — want parliament to decide whether troops are sent into armed conflict abroad,” said Dr Alison Broinowski, vice-president of AWPR.

“Ordinary Australians want their local MPs and Senators to oversee this life and death decision, not just the Prime Minister and a few ministers behind closed doors.

“There has been no opportunity for community scrutiny; these conflicts have had unclear goals, minimal accountability and there has been little guarantee that returning veterans will receive the support they need.”

Lowy Institute polling last year shows an increasing wariness among Australians about going to war. “Support for the deployment of military forces has been consistently low for hypothetical scenarios involving China,” it said.

When asked about a military conflict between China and the US, more than half the population (57%) said “Australia should remain neutral”. Four in 10 (41%) said “Australia should support the United States” and 1% said “Australia should support China”.

Young people are the most against a new war: only one in five (21%) aged 18–29 years old said Australia should support the US in the case of conflict, a view held by the majority (58%) of Australians aged over 60.

Labor’s 2021 conference resolution stated: “National Conference resolves that an Albanese Labor Government will refer the issue of how Australia makes decisions to send service personnel into international armed conflict to an inquiry to be conducted by the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade. This inquiry would take submissions, hold public hearings, and produce its findings during the term of the 47th Parliament.”