Grattan on Friday: Should parliament have the right to say whether Australia goes to war?

Iraqi Sunni gunmen drive in a pickup truck on a street in Tikrit, northern Iraq. EPA/STR

On his American trip Tony Abbott has met with Jeb Bush, son of one president, younger brother of another and himself an aspirant to be Republican candidate for the White House.

The encounter brought back memories of how John Howard, visiting the United States during the Clinton presidency, had his initial contact (in a phone call) with George W Bush, then running for office.

It was later, as a consequence of Howard happening to be in Washington on September 11 2001, that the very personal and deep bond between the two was forged. Still, that first talk started what was to be a crucial pairing.

Howard’s closeness to Bush was one reason why the then prime minister was such an enthusiastic supporter of Bush’s Iraq war. Given the Australian-American relationship, we were always going to be there for the US. But in retrospect, the Australian government’s lack of critical analysis and absence of scepticism is an indictment of its leadership.

With Iraq now in crisis as insurgents attack and the country descends into civil conflict, its government appealing to the US for help, we look back on a war that was started on false information, ended with little achieved, and has been followed by worsening instability and violence. Countless civilians and many troops were sacrificed. (Unlike in Afghanistan, Australia lost no soldiers in combat in Iraq - there were two deaths from accidents.)

In a retrospective lecture to the Lowy Institute last year, marking the war’s 10th anniversary, Howard was somewhat defensive but unrepentant.

It remained his conviction, he said, that his government’s decision to join the war “was right because it was in Australia’s national interests, and the removal of Saddam’s regime provided the Iraqi people with opportunities for freedom not otherwise in prospect”, an assessment that doesn’t sound too convincing now.

He acknowledged that “a powerful element in our decision to join the Americans was, of course, the depth and character of our relationship with the US. Australia had invoked ANZUS in the days following 9/11. We had readily joined the Coalition in Afghanistan; Australia had suffered the brutality of Islamic terrorism in Bali. There was a sense then that a common way of life was under threat”.

In America, many politicians who supported the war at the time have come to rethink. Hillary Clinton, who may face off in a Clinton-Bush presidential race, writes in her just-released Hard Choices that she deeply regretted her vote, as a senator, to authorise George W Bush to launch military action if diplomacy failed.

“Over the years that followed, many senators came to wish they had voted against the resolution. I was one of them.” Her mistake became more painful, she writes, “as the war dragged on, with every letter I sent to a family in New York who had lost a son or a daughter, a father or mother”.

The modest commitment and absence of combat casualties lessened the impact of Iraq for Australians, especially compared with Vietnam, that other war that proved misguided. Vietnam’s impact was heightened by conscription and many deaths.

For most Australians, Iraq is one of those conflicts relatively easy to put out of mind, and conscience.

But a group of Australians under the name of The Campaign for an Iraq War Inquiry, whose president is a former secretary of the Defence Department, Paul Barratt, has been agitating for nearly two years for an investigation into how Australia decided to join the invasion. This push has been predictably dismissed (most recently Defence Minister David Johnston, who responded that there had been several inquiries).

The group has also pressed for reform of the “war power”, which it argues should be in the hands of Parliament. Barratt said in a letter to Johnston last month: “The current process produced very flawed decisions in relation to Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, and is clearly overdue for careful reconsideration.”

The Howard government reported to parliament on Iraq and there was debate and a motion of endorsement in the House of Representatives, but the Parliament had no role in the decision-making.

In contrast, in the US (where the governmental structure is different) the war power is in practical terms divided between the president and the Congress (though presidents have found ways around Congress).

Critics of the proposal see it as alien to our system of government. They also point out that we don’t “declare war” these days, so the decision would be about approval for the dispatch of a force, which would raise the question of whether further parliamentary approval would be required for that force to be increased.

Working out a precise model for the Australian parliament to have a formal share in the war power would be a challenge in itself. Given that crossbenchers usually control the Senate, it wouldn’t be practical or desirable to require approval by each house. If the government and opposition of the day disagreed on whether Australia should enter a conflict - as they did on Iraq - to have the likes of the Palmer United Party calling the shots (as it were) would be a frightening thought.

Agreement by the House of Representatives would seem the most sensible arrangement (another option would be consent by a majority of the total parliament). This, however, would be open to the criticism that the result would be automatic acceptance of the government’s decision.

While that might be true, the fact that the parliament had some formal responsibility would give greater weight to debate on the matter.

Empowering parliament would not guarantee the “right” decision was made – and with some conflicts what that is may only be clear in hindsight - but it might prompt more voices of caution. Even if reluctant to speak out in the chamber, being involved in the process could encourage MPs to examine the issues more actively and raise their voices in the privacy of their party. (In fact we saw a taste of this in the Gulf War when Bob Hawke had to work hard with his backbench to get backing for the Australian commitment.)

All those voting for involvement would publicly have to carry some individual ownership of the decision, as they defended it in their electorates.

While the debate about the war power has been driven by the historical context Hugh White, professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University, points to its contemporary relevance.

“There is a significant risk that China and Japan could clash militarily over the Senkaku/Diaoya Islands,” White says. “If they do, there is a high likelihood that America would be drawn in and would expect Australia to support them. This would pose to Australia a choice about war and peace far more consequential than the choice we faced over Iraq.”

Listen to the new Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast, with guest Sarah Hanson-Young here.