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When Australia goes to war, public trust depends on better oversight

John Howard confirms the nation’s involvement in the war in Iraq in March 2003, a decision subject to remarkably little oversight by comparison to Australia’s allies. AAP/Alan Porritt

When Australia goes to war, public trust depends on better oversight

The world is absorbing the implications of the long-awaited release of the Chilcot inquiry into the United Kingdom’s decision to go to war in Iraq. Australia, however, has spent comparatively little time learning lessons from the deployment of thousands of troops to fight overseas in recent years.

An official war history has just been commissioned; if past form is any guide, it will be at least a decade before it is completed. In any event, its brief is to recount what took place, not to reflect on whether it was the best course of action for Australia.

Australia’s path to war

My new Quarterly Essay, Firing Line: Australia’s Path to War, argues Australia needs a National Security Council to guide any decision in the future to go to war.

It is also important to restore public trust in the decision to go to war. For this, better democratic accountability is essential.

Black Inc

This is not just about giving parliament a vote on military deployments; after all, a prime minister will always command the approval of the lower house of parliament. Instead, democratic accountability means developing a system capable of exercising genuine oversight of the national security agencies and departments, particularly Defence.

Currently, that oversight takes place in a few ways: through overly adversarial and hasty questioning at Senate estimates, abridged discussion in the lower house when prime ministers and their cabinets deign to allow discussion of national security or defence issues, and in the committee system.

Here, it is telling to compare Australia’s parliamentary committees for defence and national security with their counterparts in Canada and the UK.

Australia’s oversight of national security is underdone and weak: one joint standing committee covers foreign affairs, defence and trade as a whole. A separate joint committee was established to cover intelligence and domestic security after the Hope royal commission into intelligence in the 1980s.

It is extraordinary that so little infrastructure is dedicated to parsing the issues of war.

The National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), on which the government will spend A$22 billion each year, has an entire committee dedicated to its oversight. The national security apparatus, which accounts for more than 100,000 Commonwealth employees and will soon absorb more than $45 billion each year, is entirely under-scrutinised. And it shows.

If one scans the list of issues examined, they pale by contrast with the omissions, which include the strategy underpinning the acquisition of Australia’s submarines, defence white papers, military education and defence diplomacy.

The next parliament needs committees dedicated to assessing each of the Australian Defence Force, the Department of Defence, national strategy and foreign affairs. This expanded committee system will require trained staff and political advisers with the necessary experience and judgement to grapple with the world of strategy and the opaque language of war – skills that are currently in short supply.

The problem extends to the military itself. Australia’s military gives priority to tactical rather than strategic excellence, and the ability to do battle in the realm of ideas has been more of a liability than an asset.

That is starting to change, but only slowly. Our military colleges are not yet universities for the study of war and our universities still view war as a morally tainted activity.

Furthermore, when so much defence decision-making is based on classified assessments and considerations routinely unavailable to members of the opposition, there is a role for a body that can equip parliamentarians to discuss national security policy.

For these reasons, it might prove necessary to create a parliamentary defence office, which seeks to improve the security debate in the same way as the Parliamentary Budget Office, established in 2012, has in the area of economics.

The need for full parliamentary approval before any substantial military action by the prime minister would inhibit an effective response to a crisis. Successive prime ministers have rightly resisted this. But there is a compelling case for parliament to review whether a military deployment is in the national interest within a period of, say, 90 days.

Here, we have a model in the way the Australian parliament deals with foreign treaties. It is the executive’s role to sign treaties with other countries and, in the past, it was entirely up to the foreign minister to present these treaties to the parliament for domestic legislation. But, in 2005, reforms were introduced that require a new joint committee on treaties to prepare a statement on whether a treaty is in the national interest or not, and table it before the parliament.

A similar system could be applied to the decision to go to war.

Ten questions to guide decisions on war

When should Australia go to war? The more we can think through the circumstances in which this question might arise, the less likely we will be to err in our calculations. Here are ten questions to be asked the next time our leaders want to commit Australian forces:

  • Are our vital national interests threatened?

  • Is there a clear political objective?

  • Are our military aims linked to this political objective?

  • Can the case be made to the Australian people that this campaign is in their interests, and can their support for the campaign be sustained through casualties and setbacks?

  • Do we understand the costs – to the country, to civilian victims, to the enemy and to our veterans?

  • What new dangers might this campaign cause?

  • What proportion of the Australian Defence Force will it commit?

  • What options will close to us if we take this action, and if we don’t?

  • Will the opposition remain committed, should it form government?

  • How does this end?


This is an edited extract from Quarterly Essay 62 – Firing Line: Australia’s Path to War – by James Brown.

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