Will Labor's war power reform inquiry delve deep enough?

October 18, 2022
Ukraine’s ambassador to Australia Vasyl Myroshnychenko speaking alongside the ADF in August. Photo: Australian Strategic Policy Institute

It would be no great surprise if Australians were to join British military instructors in training Ukrainians to fight. Defence Minister Richard Marles hinted at that when he visited Britain in September.

The Australian personnel would join others from New Zealand, Sweden, the Netherlands and elsewhere, who have been supporting Ukraine’s side in the war as trainers of civilians in using weapons, patrolling and first aid.

Apparently, the training would take place outside Ukraine. According to David Kilcullen on ABC Radio National on October 13, other NATO countries, including the United States, have been training Ukrainians elsewhere in Europe in the use of donated weapons’ systems.

But Australians are puzzled about which foot the government is kicking with.

Ukraine’s ambassador says no Australian trainers have been invited. So who proposed it? Marles or his British and US counterparts?

What public consultation will precede a deployment of ADF trainers? Will “mission creep” apply to it? When will it end? RAAF personnel were sent to Britain to do drone targeting last year, with no details given.

Many remember the dispatch of a training team that preceded Australia’s full-scale deployment in Vietnam and the “humanitarian missions” before the RAAF went into Iraq and, later, into Syria.

War powers inquiry

Just as Marles was lining this up in Britain, he was establishing a parliamentary inquiry into how Australia goes to war.

On September 30, the inquiry was referred to the defence sub-committee of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade. No mention was made in the announcement of the ADF training mission for Ukraine.

While waiting for government, the Labor opposition twice agreed to hold an inquiry into changing the rules which enable a prime minister to have the defence minister dispatch troops at will.

Civil society groups had almost lost hope that this reform would happen. So they were delighted when Marles referred the inquiry to the committee. Neither he, nor Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, has publicly supported reform of the war powers. Nor have about half of their party colleagues, who either defer to their views or make no comment.

Of Labor politicians who support reform, many are not members of the defence sub-committee, which is conducting the inquiry.

Leading proponents of the inquiry are Labor’s Julian Hill, who will chair it, and Josh Wilson. They stress that the outcome will be a matter of compromise.

The fact that it has been referred by Marles is encouraging for those who feared Labor would not keep this promise. Others saw his statements in opposition as more bellicose than those of the former defence minister, now opposition leader, Peter Dutton.

The members of the inquiry sub-committee are a curious bunch, some with no known expertise in Australian or international law, or in defence.

Several surveyed by Michael West Media offered no comment on whether the war powers should change. There is no independent MP and no one from the Greens, despite Western Australia’s Senator Jordon Steele-John having twice put up a bill for war powers reform. Its Deputy Chair, Andrew Wallace from the Liberals, is adamantly opposed to it.

Cautious terms of reference

The terms of reference of the inquiry into international armed conflict decision-making show evidence of cautious drafting.

The first investigates how other Westminster-style democracies make such decisions. Hill and Wilson are asking the Parliamentary Library to update research dating from 2010. It shows that Australian parliamentary oversight of commitments of its armed forces is one of the weakest among comparable countries.

The sub-committee will also consider parliamentary processes and practices, including opportunities for debate on a proposed war.

This may deliver better transparency and accountability on ADF deployments, but mere scrutiny or debate is not enough: a vote in both houses is needed to make all MPs and senators responsible to their electorates on this vital matter.

The third term of reference concerns the security implications of publicly discussing a deployment of Australian forces in advance. Other democracies manage this satisfactorily, and the sub-committee will have to weigh their practices against continued resistance to sharing information.

“Any related matters”, the fourth term of reference, will cover whatever else people submit to the inquiry.

The sub-committee can expect to hear from people who have recently been to war, from veterans facing serious consequences and from others concerned about our long, slow investigation of alleged war crimes.

It may receive submissions from those who are concerned about what happens to civilians in countries where we fight. Others will argue against the dependence on the US alliance which gets Australia into wars. Many will object to the AUKUS security treaty. But about that, and the trainers for Ukraine, few facts are disclosed.

After hearings in early December, the committee’s report can be expected next March or April.

That may be an ill omen for reformers. It coincides with the end of the AUKUS consultation, the report of the Defence Strategic Review and the 20th anniversary of Australia’s invasion of Iraq.

Before then, the ADF will probably be training Ukrainians for their war.

Australia’s slide towards war has continued since the May election and the current inquiry may do nothing to stop it.

If such a war is against China, Professor Hugh White expects it to be disastrous. For Australia, the consequences will be much worse than those of the Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq invasions.

Civil society groups, such as Australians for War Powers Reform, have for years advocated acting now, before there is a crisis. Yet surprisingly, avoiding war is not front of mind for many, nor for most of their elected representatives.

[Submissions to the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee are open until November 18. Alison Broinowski is a former diplomat, author and academic. She is President of Australians for War Powers Reform. The article was first published in Pearls and Irritations.]

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