Released cabinet papers on Iraq war support still not transparent

January 4, 2024
Australian (left) and US military protecting Iraq’s Khawr Al Amaya and Al Basra oil terminals, November 2006. Photo: Lt Karen E Eifert/Wikimedia

The release of cabinet documents from 2003 under the John Howard government has failed to clarify exactly how it decided to send Australian troops to the Iraq War.

This crucial decision remains largely hidden from Australians, partly due to a decision by the Scott Morrison Coalition government to withhold some of the documents.

Australians for War Powers Reform (AWPR) is calling for those “missing” documents to be released immediately.

“It is unacceptable that the Australian public is still being kept in the dark after two decades,” said Dr Alison Broinowski AM from the AWPR.

“The Iraq war was a disaster from start to finish. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed and no weapons of mass destruction were ever found.

“Howard’s decision to take us to that conflict was opposed by a large majority of Australians, the Labor Opposition and the minor parties, yet he went ahead with his plan.”

Broinowski said it was because MPs were then and are still not permitted to vote on the question of going to war in the House of Representatives.

In the Senate in 2003, a majority opposed it (37 to 32).

The invasion breached international law and contributed to a rise in terrorism in many countries.

From the material that was released on January 1, we know that Howard’s decision was made without transparency or accountability.

The decision to commit troops was made without a written submission to cabinet on the costs, benefits and implications of the deployment.

“It is absurd that this life-and-death decision was made without any proper scrutiny or evaluation and presented to the Cabinet as a fait accompli,” Broinowski said.

“Sending our troops into a dangerous mission without a serious discussion of the all the possible implications is a dereliction of duty by the government.

“It is now clear that the only people involved in the decision were a small number of ministers on the national security committee. Most of the cabinet had no effective input: no ordinary government MPs were given a say and the whole Parliament was prevented from voting on the deployment.”

Twenty years on, we have learnt very little from the Iraq catastrophe. Unlike in Britian, where a lengthy high level inquiry was held into the country’s involvement in the war on Iraq, no such investigation has been offered here.

“We need to end Howard’s ‘captain’s call’ decision-making process and implement war powers reform,” Broinowski said.

“The whole parliament should carefully debate and vote before Australia commits to any future overseas wars. This is the only way to ensure genuine transparency and accountability.”

[Mark Robinson is a member of Australians for War Powers Reform.]

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