A decade in the making, an inquiry into how Australia goes to war

by Alison Broinowski

Image: iStock After years of public efforts to get politicians to concentrate on changing how Australia goes to war, the Albanese government has now responded by taking the first step.
The announcement on 30 September of a Parliamentary inquiry into Australia’s war powers reflects the concerns of groups across Australia that we might slide into another disastrous conflict – this time in our region. Those welcoming it are 83% of Australians who want Parliament to vote before we go to war. Many see this opportunity for reform as potentially putting Australia ahead of similar democracies.
While many nations have constitutions requiring democratic scrutiny of decisions for war, Australia is not among them. Nor are Canada or New Zealand. The UK has conventions instead, and British efforts to legislate the war powers have failed. In the US, efforts to reform the War Powers Act of 1973 have repeatedly been defeated.
Western Australian MP Josh Wilson wants research done by the Parliamentary Library to update inquiry members on how other democracies respond to governments’ war proposals.
Leading proponents of Australia’s inquiry are the ALP’s Julian Hill, who will chair it, and Josh Wilson. They stress that the outcome will be a matter of compromise, reflecting the composition of the Defence sub-committee of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence, and Trade.
But the fact that it has been referred to the Committee by Defence Minister Richard Marles is encouraging for those who fear that Australia could slide into another war as disastrous as Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
Neither Marles nor Prime Minister Albanese has publicly supported reform of the war powers. Nor have many of their party colleagues, who either defer to their views or have no comment. Among Labor politicians who support reform, many are not members of the sub-committee conducting the inquiry.
Michael West Media (MWM) began surveying politicians last year about their response to the question ‘Should the PM have the sole call to take Australians to war?’. Almost all the Greens responded ‘No’, and all the Nationals ‘Yes’. Many others, ALP and Liberals alike, had no comment, or echoed their defence spokespeople or ministers. Others again favoured reform, but with certain conditions, mainly concerned with what Australia would do in an emergency.
But since the election, numerous respondents to the MWM survey are no longer in Parliament, and we now have a new cohort of Independents, most of whom campaigned on platforms of accountability and climate change, rather than talking about foreign affairs and defence.
Australians for War Powers Reform (AWPR) points to the connection between these two important issues and military operations, which are highly polluting and unaccountable. Independents Andrew Wilkie, Helen Haynes and Zali Steggall understand the need to subject war-making to the same democratic process.
The 23 members of the Defence sub-committee which will conduct the inquiry reflect a balance of party affiliations and opinions. ALP Chair Julian Hill has as his Deputy, Andrew Wallace from the LNP. Among members vehemently opposed to reform of the war powers, each for their own reasons, are Liberal Senators Jim Molan and David Van. Others responded to MWM’s surveys and AWPR’s inquiries with no comment. Some have not responded to requests for interviews.
There is no Green member in the sub-committee, not even Senator Jordon Steele-John, who has twice put forward a bill for reform of the way Australian forces are deployed in overseas conflict.
Two contrasting responses stand out. Labor MP Alicia Payne said clearly that she wanted a Parliamentary inquiry and supported the government’s initiative: ‘I recognise that in some instances the executive government may need to make such decisions as a matter of urgency, however, such urgent decisions should still be subject to parliamentary scrutiny’. Ms Payne is not a member of the sub-committee.
On the other hand, Senator Ralph Babet, of the United Australia Party, told MWM that ‘A clear distinction should be made between war powers and matters of defence…A multipartisan view of hope exists for future global peace and stability, within the halls of Parliament’. Senator Babet is a member of the sub-committee, which may hear from him what this means.
Not all the members of the sub-committee have made their views about war powers reform known to MWM or AWPR. A rough assessment shows that a majority didn’t reply or had no comments. The proceedings promise to be interesting. But the results are critically important, influencing as they will Australia’s position in March 2023.
That’s when the 18-month consultation process ends for AUKUS, the Defence Strategic Review reports, and the 20th anniversary of Australia’s invasion of Iran occurs. Reform of the war powers has never been more urgently needed.