Going to war is a decision for parliament


Tony Abbott in Parliament

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 draw the line somewhere and there will be minor interventions where this is not justified. But given the history of the Iraq and Afghan wars this intervention should not be classified as minor. The commitment is already substantial and looks open-ended.

A special recall of Parliament would be worthwhile for several reasons.

First, it would formally recognise the seriousness of the step being taken. It should be the occasion of major speeches by the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader, supported by the Nationals Leader, the Defence and Foreign Affairs Ministers and their shadow ministers in the Opposition. They would speak comprehensively and for the parliamentary record. That record is important when we look back in years to come to reflect on where this step eventually has taken us.

Secondly, it would be an opportunity to put alternative points of view. At the moment those views are being put by Labor MP Melissa Parke and by Christine Milne, Greens Leader, and her colleagues. But others may come forward given the formal opportunity to do so. They would be representing alternative views which undoubtedly exist in the community and should be heard.

Thirdly, a recall would appropriately focus wider community attention. As a nation we should forget our daily routines for a moment and concentrate our full attention whenever a momentous decision such as going to war is taken on our behalf. It should never just be business as usual.

John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and a Canberra Times columnist.

Topic tags: John Warhurst, Tony Abbott, war, Iraq, IS, parliament, David Cameron



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Existing comments

Thank you John. The situation as you rightly say is very serious and should be debated in Parliament. This reads like an open letter. Could you adapt it to suit and start it as an open letter that could be used to send to our local members in the next day or so? We need to mobilise community voices. Anne Lanyon, Columban Centre for Peace, Ecology and Justice.
Anne Lanyon | 30 September 2014

A timely article. One of the phrases that needs to get through to the Abbott government is "responsible government". They need to be aware to who they are ultimately responsible: the Australian electorate. I am unsure the message has got through on a number of issues. Cabinet and its members don't seem to "get" constructive criticism. I cite the recent reaction of Kevin Andrews to the criticism of his proposed social welfare amendments by the joint Parliamentary committee. This is not a good look. I support our intervention, with the USA, Britain AND HOPEFULLY MORE ARAB COUNTRIES against the Islamic State for a number of reasons. However, as an excellent article in today's Australian (30 September 2014) (A Plus p. 11 "Airstrikes are not enough") points out, citing the opinion of a British former Head of their Army, David Richards, we might, ultimately, need to put boots on the ground. President Obama and General Dempsey in the USA are extremely savvy, hence their initial reluctance to enter the lists against IS. The issue and potential alliances are complicated and need national and parliamentary debate.
Edward Fido | 30 September 2014

I support John's statement that "there is a strong case for the immediate recall of Parliament whenever a nation goes to war." However, given that historically, the decision in Australia has always been for the Prime Minister and Cabinet, it is unlikely that such a change from precedent will be made in the heat of the moment. The required change is more likely to be achieved if the question is debated in Parliament when there is no immediate likelihood of Australia being drawn into military action somewhere in the world.
Ian Fraser | 30 September 2014

I agree with this fine article. It is very worrying to me that Parliament is so often used for grandstanding for the next election while something as momentous as war is not given the processes due to it. Erosion of proper structures undermines the values those structures were meant to support. The bid to allow racial and religious verbal attacks, the comments of some politicians about banning the burqa, and this reprehensible weakening of the role of Parliament are attacks on freedom. Australians have the right to be who they are, wear what they choose, and have their elected representatives formally decide, in the Parliament, whether they make war.
Susan Connelly | 30 September 2014

It would seem that at least from the Australian government's and the Opposition's perspective we are talking about a "humanitarian action". Senator Conroy said so on ABC 24 this morning. War is a much abused term. The State of Origin NRL series between NSW & Queensland is not a game. It's war, the promoters tell us. The War on Terror was a fatuous slogan, just as empty as your local supermarket's War on Prices. Down, down, down. The three good reasons Prof Warhurst gives for the recall of Parliament could be the very same reasons why the PM and the leader of the Opposition do not want Parliament recalled. They live for today and not for history. They do not want to hear contrary points of view or to give them (especially The Greens) free air. Wider community attention is the last thing political leaders want. The people might start asking awkward questions.
Uncle Pat | 30 September 2014

Ian Fraser, can you explain why in Australia the decision to go to war has always been made by the prime minister and cabinet? How did this come about? I recall John Howard's decision to ignore the millions opposed to the war with Iraq in 2003. It seems the voice of the people has no importance at all. We are just there to vote every few years and pay taxes.
Janet | 30 September 2014

A timely and essential call, john. This is indeed not business as usual. The whole parliament needs to be debating our commitment, focussing on the increasingly complex aspects of our engagement.
Vivien williams | 30 September 2014

John Warhurst is right. Any decision to put Australian servicemen and women into active combat is by definition not routine. It must be formally debated and voted on by Parliament simply because we are a democracy. Our elected yrepresentatives must be accountable to the community for these life and death decisions. Nods and winks in the corridors of parliament between Coalition and Labor leaders are cowardly abdications of responsibility by both men.
Tony Kevin | 01 October 2014

No Janet, not with any certainty. I would suggest that we were just following "Mother England". But now that we have a Coalition government far more conservative than that of the UK, we have chosen not to preempt the excellent example of parliamentary democracy demonstrated by UK's Conservative-dominated coalition government.
Ian Fraser | 01 October 2014

Regarding the excellent comments on this incisive article about parliamentary answerability I wonder if I am the only one who sees a historic parallel between the behaviour of our more autocratic colonial governors and our more recent elected political leaders? The current federal government and their hooray chorus claim they have a "mandate" from the electorate and that all their drastic legislative "reforms" should be churned through without opposition. This really negates the way parliament is supposed to operate. It is the duty of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition to query the government and not act as a rubber stamp. Besides - one thing the Coalition and their hooray boys and girls forget (conveniently) - is that the Australian electorate deliberately refrained from giving them a majority in the Senate, which is actually the House of Review, thus they do not possess this "mandate" in the sense they claim to. I would also like to see more effective opposition from the Opposition on a number of issues related to civil liberties.
Edward Fido | 01 October 2014

Well said John. Yet I feel something is really missing both here and in the UK parliament and that is a thorough debate and scrutiny on the ethics of waging war. While we might entrust our parliament (not politicians) to make the right decisions in the interest of the nation we all have a responsibility to constantly test the guiding principles that are applied.
Dennis Clarke | 03 October 2014


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