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Going to war is a decision for parliament

  • 30 September 2014

The Prime Minister has announced that we are going to war with the Islamic State. He hasn’t actually declared war but effectively that is what has happened. Waging war becomes business as usual rather than out of the ordinary.

We know from recent history that such commitments can escalate through what is called mission creep. One relatively small step can be followed in time by steadily larger ones. Any such decision should not be taken lightly by Australians. But it is taken and announced by executive action without much formal political discussion.

There is a stark contrast between going to war and passing government legislation through Parliament. This has been graphically illustrated by recent parliamentary struggles over the government’s budget.

In the latter, Parliament is essential. In the former, it doesn’t even have to be recalled if it is not already sitting. Our Parliamentary schedule hasn’t been altered.

The difference between the approach by the British and Australian governments is striking. In Britain, Prime Minister Cameron, despite having a large majority, made the parliamentary debate in Westminster central, while in Australia Prime Minister Abbott spoke only of ‘updating’ the Parliament on his return from New York.  His emphasis was on consultations with his Cabinet.

There should be greater involvement by Parliament in Australia for reasons both of substance and symbolism.

There is no chance that the involvement of Parliament would change the decision to be part of a war against the Islamic State because it has bipartisan major party support. Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has made that clear, with only the slightest qualification about the need to avoid upwardly creeping commitments.

The case for parliamentary involvement through the recall of Parliament, despite the expense and inconvenience of doing so, stems rather from a recognition of the multiple roles of Parliament. Too often Parliament is discussed only in terms of legislative power. Its other roles include non-voting ways of keeping governments responsible, such as Question Time and parliamentary committees, as well as its representative role as a popular assembly meeting to inject the people’s viewpoints into public deliberations.

So it is not just a question of whether the government has the substantive support of the Parliament, but of whether the nation’s formal representative body effectively marks the occasion of a serious national commitment of troops into a combat situation.

That is why there is a strong case for the immediate recall of Parliament whenever a nation goes to war. We must