Why has Australia made a ‘significant deployment’ to the Middle East?

November 7, 2023
Defence minister Richard Marles talks with Australian troops based in Britain. Photo: Kym Smith/contactairlandandsea.com

The death toll in what is euphemistically being called “the Israel-Hamas war” — the slaughter of Palestinians living in Gaza by the Israel Defense Force (IDF) — keeps climbing.

Australia has lined up behind other Western governments supporting Israel’s “right to defend” itself argument.

That “right” appears to be the ability to exact disproportionate revenge, compared with the numbers killed by Hamas on October 7. Tel Aviv wants locals to flee Gaza even though its borders are closed and the tiny region has suffered under a severe blockade for 16 years.

It is increasingly clear that Israel is perpetrating the crime of genocide — with Western support. There are fears that Israel’s attempt to exterminate Gazans may spill over into a regional conflict, as the IDF has already struck military infrastructure in Lebanon and Syria

Defence minister Richard Marles announced on October 25 that he had authorised two additional aircraft to join another at an undisclosed Middle East location, along with “a significant contingent” of troops, to help evacuating Australians. 

Australians for War Powers Reform (AWPR) asked Marles on October 31 for details, as the secrecy surrounding it has led to concerns “about the possibility of Australia becoming involved in the current conflict”.

“Can you provide more detail on this decision and are you willing to make it clear that Australian troops will not be involved in military action or war like operations?”, AWPR President Andrew Bartlett asked.

“We hope this is confined within Israel and Gaza,” Marles told the ABC recently. “But we are all watching this, as the world is watching this, and we want to make sure that we are prepared if matters do get worse.” 

Australia has been an unwavering supporter of Israel since the colonial state was founded on 1948. Marles said Hamas’ attacks on Israeli civilians on October 7 were unjustified terrorist attacks and he reiterated Israel’s right to attack Hamas.

The minister’s decision about a “significant” deployment of troops to an “undisclosed” location in the Middle East does not spell out if its purpose is to evacuate citizens. It seems more a warning to Australians and the world that Labor is ready for anything.

“The number of ADF personnel involved and their destination was not revealed and there has been speculation about the exact nature of the deployment,” Bartlett said in his open letter to Marles.

The former Australian Democrat Senator added that the lack of clarity is leading to fears that Australia might become “involved in the current conflict”. While, he said, “some operational confidentiality” may be warranted, there needs to be a high level of transparency.

AWPR asked Marles to provide more information to dispel speculation that Australia will not be party to a war between the US and Iran that “several senior defence experts” have warned is a possibility.

AWPR’s primary campaign is for war power reform, specifically that any decision to go to war be taken to the parliament. Currently, it rests solely with the Prime Minister and a handful of ministers. 

Officially known as the National Security Committee, it is comprised of Anthony Albanese, Marles, Penny Wong, Jim Chalmers, Chris Bowen, Mark Dreyfus, Clare O’Neil, Katy Gallagher and Pat Conroy. There is no requirement that this group has to be any more transparent.

Labor in opposition campaigned for a war powers reform inquiry. But after having established one, Marles told it not to change anything and, a month before it released its report, Wong told parliament there would be no change. She was later proven right.

The outcome of the war powers inquiry seemed to indicate how things were going to be in any war against China. No-one thought a regional war in the Middle East may be around the corner, or that Australia would be sending a “significant” contingent of troops to an undisclosed location.

Albanese responded to the war powers inquiry by suggesting that parliament may be able to debate the decision to go to war after the PM had made a decision and that the debate could happen either, prior to deployment, or within 30 days of it happening.

Bartlett told Marles that the public wants to know whether the recommendation that the executive hold a parliamentary debate on the decision to deploy troops overseas is currently in force.

“Several senior defence experts have also suggested that a wider war may be on the cards including the possible involvement of Iran and the US.

“Can you assure Australians that we will not be involved in such a war? Has the government undertaken any risk assessment regarding our involvement in such a regional conflict?” asked Barlett.

AWPR believes that there is “excessive secrecy” about defence and foreign affairs and that under the Coalition government it had “became ingrained in policymaking”.

He concluded that he hoped that Labor “which advocated strongly for greater transparency” will “move to a far greater level of openness in decision-making”.

[Paul Gregoire writes for Sydney Criminal Lawyers where this article was first published.]

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