Australia’s involvement in Iraq conflict: how should we decide?

Contrasting views were put yesterday on the issue as to whether parliament should decide on our involvement in the Iraq conflict. Tony Abbott put the status quo thus:

The National Security Committee of the Cabinet considers the matter, the full Cabinet considers he matter, a decision is taken, the Opposition leader is consulted.

That’s the standard procedure. It’s always been thus; as far as I’m concerned it always will be thus.

I understand that Abbott made a statement to parliament in the afternoon advising members of developments and the action taken and contemplated. Abbott ruled out giving Parliament a vote on the current airlift to Iraq and any subsequent involvement.

In this he was backed by Labor. Stephen Conroy:

Labor fully supports the role of Parliament as a place of debate, but that should not be confused with requiring parliamentary approval. The role of the Parliament in approving military action is fraught with danger. The Government must retain maximum flexibility to respond to threats to Australia’s national security quickly and efficiently.

The Liberal Democrats think there should be a two-thirds vote in both houses of Parliament to commit forces overseas in foreign conflicts.

The Greens are leading the charge for the parliament to have a vote. Christine Milne:

The Australian Parliament now needs to be consulted and approval needs to be sought from the representatives of the people.


Greens leader Christine Milne says there’s been no United Nations resolution for intervening in northern Iraq, nor, she says, has anyone seen an Iraqi government request.

Andrew Wilkie is very much of the same view. He questions whether we are becoming gun-runners for the Kurds at the direction of the United States.

Wilkie says it’s time Australia followed the lead of a long list of “sophisticated, developed democracies”:

Countries as diverse as Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Luxemburg, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, the United States, and by convention, now even the United Kingdom – all of these countries require parliamentary involvement in decision-making about matters of war and peace.

Flexibilty and speed of decision making can save lives. However, there is concern about mission creep. Also Laura Tingle tells us that modern prime ministers have assumed the right to make a decision irrespective of cabinet’s views. Laura Tingle says:

The trend towards all powerful prime ministers – or to that perception – has been a persistent one in the past 30 years.

There were some ding dong battles in the Howard cabinet: on the early round of industrial relations reforms in 1996, for example, on the GST; on the car industry.

But as the government aged, and the absolute authority of the prime minister grew, the idea of cabinet government started to recede.

It wasn’t that cabinet didn’t meet and debate, it was just that ministers would increasingly be inclined to just shrug their shoulders and gesticulate at the PM’s office down the corridor to explain what was driving the direction of a particular policy.

The same was apparently true under Rudd and Gillard. But under Hawke in the mid-1980s things were different:

A reminder of what has been lost comes leaping out at us from Gareth Evans’s Inside the Hawke Keating Government: A Cabinet Diary, released this week.

It says much that a diary written 30 years ago can still sparkle and shimmy with a vibrancy that puts most recent political tomes to shame.

The striking thing about the book she says is “the sense of both collective responsibility and authority felt by the colourful cabinet ministers who brawl and wrestle their way through complex issues in the pages of Evans’s diary, covering the period 1984-86.”

How the Abbott cabinet works is not known to me. We have heard of Peta Credlin as head of PMO tearing strips off ministers.

Mark Latham argues for a Bastardry Factor as essential in a leader. Apparently Bill Shorten doesn’t have it. Thank God for that!

On the present issue I have the sense that Abbott has been genuinely consultative, and on balance I’d leave the protocols as they are. That’s unless there are to be boots on the ground. Then the Liberal Democrats’ notion of a two-thirds majority in both houses looks good to me.

11 thoughts on “Australia’s involvement in Iraq conflict: how should we decide?”

  1. One thing is for certain. Abbott’s unilateral decision to drag us into Iraq has stymied any and all attempts to highlight the gross inequities of the Abbott budget. Witness the sorry spectacle of Bill Shorten trying to reveal Abbott’s superannuation rip-offs of the poor on ABC TV this morning. All the questions at his doorstop were on Iraq or the Ukraine or Putin.
    If Shorten had revealed some political gumption instead of following the lead of right wing troglodytes like Conroy and exposed Abbott’s obvious use of distractions overseas as a means to keep the public gaze away from his foul budget, we might all have a real idea of what the LNP is actually up to. Instead we have this pointless debate about whether we shoulfd jaw-jaw about our war commitment in the Parliament when we already know, come hell por high water Abbott will send troops in.
    Next thing we’ll hear from Abbott is how it will be unpatriotic to block the budget nasties at this time of international tensionb ecause we need the savings to make war.

  2. Menzies was prime minister when Australia joined WWII and the Vietnam war with Labor being in power when both these wars ended. Menzies was also prime minister at both the beginning and end of the Korean war. Hawke was prime minister at the beginning and end of Iraq stage 1. Howard was prime minister at the beginning of Iraq stage 2 and Afghanistan.
    My guess is that all of these wars would have passed the 2/3 test when war was declared even though Vietnam at least would probably have failed to get approval to continue at some stage.

  3. The various Australian federal governments have been so successful at “crying wolf” that it has become second nature to them. ((For those who never heard the fairy story: Once upon a time, a boy cried “Wolf” when there was no wolf and so had fun when everyone rushed out to catch the non-existent wolf. This happen several times. When a real wolf did appear, he cried “Wolf!” but nobody believed him; nobody rushed out. The wolf then devoured him. End of story)).

    Now, the world faces as grave a danger as it did when Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany went on the rampage. Our current Prime Messenger cries “Wolf!” and there is indeed a savage and cunning wolf, and not just one wolf but a whole pack of ravenous wolves, but now nobody believes him. Gee, I wonder why?

  4. We shouldn’t be committing to wars that don’t have the support of both government and major opposition party. A two thirds majority in both houses is a reasonable test of this. (There should be a provision for quick action provided the opposition agrees and the decision does end up going to parliament for confirmation.)

    We certainly shouldn’t be going into a war on the basis a prime ministers macho tendencies or because the government of the day sees it as an opportunity to improve their poll standing at the expense of the opposition.
    Given the that the Afghanistan commitment ended up stretching for 10 years a there is a need for parliament to confirm its ongoing support from time to time. (Allowing that the process should take account of the undesirability of giving hope to enemies or encouraging them t do things that might encourage us to leave.)

  5. Ben Eltham worries about arming the Peshmerga, the Kurdish irregular militia, who are a bunch of separatists. What does Turkey think?

    Australia itself has almost nothing at stake. To the Americans we would just be a ‘list’ country, along with Micronesia and such.

  6. Rob Burgess of Business Spectator had some sensible things to say about the ISIS conflict. These included:

    What the IS leadership doesn’t want is for political leaders and journalists around the world to focus not on things they hate, but on the things they love — democracy, prosperity, and justice at home.

    As the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius put it 18 centuries ago: “The best revenge is not to be like your enemy.”

    The more IS influences countries such as Australia to curtail civil liberties and the democratic process and to divert public funds from economic and social projects at home and into a war in the desert, the happier they will be.

    That is not to say committing combat forces won’t be necessary — only that it’s a good time to reflect on the things we want to fight for. Free speech, the rule of law, a tolerant and diverse national culture, and a robust version of the Westminster system of parliamentary democracy.


    Representative democracy will never perfectly mirror the will of the people, but since it gets closer to that ideal than any other system of governance, it should be cherished and cultivated.

    That’s why it is alarming to see some describe the call from the Greens and Andrew Wilkie for a parliamentary debate on involvement on a looming showdown with Islamic State as “dangerous” or even “ludicrous”.

    Recent history shows why the opposite is true.

  7. Thanks John D. and Brian. Someone once said that war too important to be left to generals. I agree heartily. The other side of that coin is that political leaders with a testosterone imbalance or who can’t tell the difference between an ultraviolent computer game and the real thing should never be allowed to decide on whether a country goes to war or not.

    Andrew Willkie, a former intelligence analyst and a former Army officer – and, I believe, a man resolutely committed to avoiding unnecessary involvement in war – sought a robust debate in the Parliament on Australia’s involvement. Good on him. So long as people like him speak up, democracy still has a hope of surviving in Australia. Wish Rob Oakeshott and Andrew Bartlett were still in Parliament too.

    Of course, Australia being Australia, the shock-jocks and Rupert’s rabbits will vilify Andrew Willkie, yes-men from the major parties will ignore his sage advice and all the Colonel Blimps infesting the ADF will make out that he is out of touch (with what? The port flask at the orificers’ mess perhaps?). As the saying goes” A prophet in his own land ….”.

    The overthrow of the so-called Taliban should have taken no more than 10 weeks – not 10 bloody years for heaven’s sake!! – so somebody blundered in there ill-prepared and without even a ghost of a War Aim.

    The need to stop the so-called Islamic State and all its spin-offs is obvious – but nobody has the guts to attack them at their most vulnerable points (such as their false and very shaky claims to religion, their increasingly flimsy prestige and attractiveness, their ignorance of who are their real enemies, etc., etc.). Now, every man and his dog wants to play with all those gee-whizz war-toys instead of thinking and planning how to prevail over a very evil banditry complex without the maximum ammunition expenditure in the shortest time..

  8. Here’s an interview with James Brown of the Lowy Institute, which I found excellent.

    It seems there is an ‘Abbott doctrine’ spoken about in Abbott’s office. Probably maximum biffo at least in the talk at all times. Abbott is shaping as a militaristic nutter and Shorten is trying to crawl under a log.

    Brown suggests that we shouldn’t be over there on NATO’s patch unless NATO are going to come over here to help us. That looks highly improbable.

    This was interesting:

    ELEANOR HALL: Now you fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Prime Minister’s now also confirmed that the US has issued what he called a general request for more assistance in Iraq.

    How far do you see this assistance extending?

    JAMES BROWN: Well, I think it’s quite clear that we’re going to do more than just humanitarian air drops.

    It’s a question of whether we want to contain ISIS or destroy them.

    We’ll be able to contain ISIS, stop them from expanding their reach into Iraq, without putting combat troops on the ground, our own at least.

    But if we want to destroy ISIS as an organisation then we’ll need to go into Syria and that will need some sort of ground force.

    It seems to me that Obama will bomb but not put boots on the ground. What he can persuade others to do remains to be seen, but probably not much.

  9. Brian. I am not sure what you want Shorten to do at this point. ISIS public acts are a bit too gross for any major politician to want to be seen opposing short term action.
    The problem is that what really needs to happen is subtle and nuanced. Action that is based on an understanding of a very complex situation made complex by the fight against Assad, the Shiite/Sunni conflict, the EU and US biofuel quotas and the world wide tug of war between fundamentalists, moderates and seculars.

  10. To be honest, there is not much Shorten can do.

    Meanwhile there seems to be a lack of enthusiasm from NATO countries to get too involved. Juan Cole:

    My reading of the reporting from Wales is that most NATO states have little intention of intervening directly in Iraq and most of them have no intention to get involved in Syria.

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