Grey Expectations: where Coalition, Labor, cross-bench stand on war powers reform

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The tragedy unfolding in Afghanistan resonates for Australians because it was our war. Should the PM have the sole call to take Australians to war? Tasha May reports on our politicians’ mostly grey responses to the #warpowers investigation.

A nationwide Roy Morgan opinion poll asked the Australian public: “It is not currently required that Parliament be consulted before Australian troops are sent into armed conflict abroad. Do you believe Parliament approval of such decisions should be required?”

The results released in November 2020 found over 83% of Australians want Parliament to vote on this issue. Michael West Media decided to flip the same question back to our politicians to see what they had to say.

We’ve contacted over 50 so far, with an aim to eventually seek out responses from all Senators and Members of Parliament. Some have been outspoken on the issue, some prosaic, and some so timid so as not to even venture a “no comment.” For this latter group we had to create a new category for politicians “in hiding, refusing to answer us”.

Some responses have surprised us, but others, as one of our Twitter followers put it, “responded exactly how you would have expected them to respond.” Politics, like fashion, sees trends emerge.

Greens and Independents come out in bold colours

With a bill before parliament on the issue, the Greens have been outspoken in support of reform. Their peace and disarmament spokesperson Senator Jordon Steele-John said, “after the strategic failures in Iraq and Afghanistan it is abundantly clear that the executive cannot be trusted to make the decision alone to enter into armed conflict overseas.”

Independents Andrew Wilkie and Bob Katter were just as outspoken in support for reform. Rex Patrick, Zali Steggall, Rebekha Sharkie and Stirling Griff all also told Michael West Media they believed parliament should be consulted before troops were sent into armed conflict abroad.

Of these, some like Rex Patrick made clear they believed this parliamentary permission was necessary in a war of choice. Yet overall, the sentiment among these groups was strong that the Prime Minister alone should not have unilateral power in this grave decision while the Australian Parliament, and by extension the Australian people, should be able to examine the case for war.

Labor’s 50 Shades of Grey

Members of Labor’s shadow cabinet have largely provided the exact same stock standard reply: “Whilst ideally any decision to go to war should be debated and determined by parliament it is critical that the executive government has the requisite authority when there is an urgent need to determine this grave matter. If the executive government makes such a decision, it should do so as a decision of last resort, and it should be subject to parliamentary scrutiny as soon as practicable.”

Alison Broinowski, Acting President of Australians for War Powers Reform said “the key word is ‘scrutiny’. That means perhaps a debate in Parliament, but it doesn’t guarantee a vote. So the executive retains control. In effect, it’s no different from what we have with the Coalition.”

Indeed, when pressed to answer the question Brendan O’Connor’s office told Michael West Media the answer was “no”, the Shadow Defence Minister did not believe Parliament should be consulted before troops were sent into armed conflict abroad.

As for the concern that the executive retains control in cases of “urgent need”, the model for war powers reform in many democracies, and which has been put forward in Australia numerous times over the past three decades, excludes emergency situations and specifically says that in the event of an emergency the executive can deploy troops immediately, and parliamentary consultation can occur later.

Professor Ben Saul, the Challis Chair of International Law at the University of Sydney, says that that of course the capacity for executive decisions needs to be preserved in an emergency situation like a surprise attack, but that most modern warfare, like the most recent deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq, have been wars of choice which have required many months of notice.

Exceptions to this generic response include Bill Shorten and Tanya Plibersek whose offices referred the enquiry to the Shadow Defence Minister while the Shadow Assistant Minister for the Environment, Josh Wilson, gave stronger emphasis to the fact “Labor has made a commitment to hold a parliamentary inquiry into this issue if elected to government.”

Outside Labor’s Shadow Cabinet

Labor backbencher Julian Hill also responded saying the question should be examined through a parliamentary enquiry. Hill shared his thoughts on the issue with an interview with Michael West Media and his concerns war powers reform “may risk national security being subject to nutters or popularists on the senate crossbench and over time it may also weaken the ability of an opposition that felt compelled to vote in favour of military action, to be able to hold the government to account in the months and years thereafter.”

When Michael West Media interviewed Professor David Letts, Director of the Centre for Military and Security Law, at the ANU College of Law, he said that if Parliament were to be consulted before Australian troops are sent into armed conflict abroad, the reform “does not impact on Australia’s ability to defend itself or its sovereign interests.”

Professor Letts couldn’t see how the reform would weaken the opposition’s ability to hold the government accountable for the handling of war, citing the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic as an example of the way in which “oppositions regularly seek ways to hold government to account, even if they’ve initially been supportive of its action.”

Amidst the trend of Labor responses failing to come down either on the side for or against war powers reform, those who have given a firm reply have stood out. Anne Aly voiced her support that parliamentary approval should be required before troops are sent abroad. As well as representing the electorate of Cowan in WA, Aly is also a counter-terrorism expert who has served as an advisor to the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Directorate.

Liberals’ beige responses

Many Liberal politicians like Senator Jim Molan were confident in responding that they were satisfied with the status quo, while others, including the Chair of the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee Senator Eric Abetz and Minister for Home Affairs Karen Andrews, declined to comment.

The ministers responsible for defence portfolios were split between offering “no comment” and affirming that the executive retain control of war powers. Minister for Defence Industry Melissa Price and Assistant Minister for Defence Andrew Hastie both offered “no comment.” Minister for Defence Peter Dutton’s office told Michael West Media: “there are no amendments to the current process” and Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and Minister for Defence Personnel Andrew Gee had similar sentiments, saying “the convention adopted on both sides of the aisle is that the government of the day makes decisions in relation to Australian military activity through the Prime Minister and Cabinet processes. I am comfortable with that and there are no plans to change it.” 





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