Many people don’t realise that going to war (or other, ancillary military activities) in Australia doesn’t require legislative approval; the executive — that is, the Prime Minister and Cabinet — can make the decision without involving all our elected representatives. This is relatively common around the world, although it is also common to find countries that require parliamentary approval in some or other form.
The issue has become a live one again because — as Robert Merkel over at LP points out — the former chief of the Australian Army, Peter Leahy, has called for parliamentary approval to be instituted. This would represent a serious shift in Australia’s jus ad bellum (‘laws to war’) and is, I think, a good idea. It would prevent excesses like Iraq, but still allow deployments where there is considerable popular support for participation. Robert notes:
The Australian Democrats, and the Greens, have tried to pass legislation requiring such parliamentary approval, the first attempts to do so dating back to 1985. The latest attempt is the Defence Amendment (Parliamentary Approval of Overseas Service) Bill 2008 [No. 2]. Both the major parties oppose such a change; some of their public objections can be found in the Senate committee report on the bill.
To the Greens and the Australian Democrats, one may now add the Liberal Democrats (Australian version). I’ve just been sent a party press release where Mark Walmsley, the party’s candidate for the WA Senate points out the following:
Since the initial Iraq engagement there have been two Federal elections, resulting in two new Parliaments taking office. However there has been no parliamentary review of the initial decision.
“The Liberal Democrats believe that following an election, all ongoing Australian military engagements should be re-affirmed as a priority by the new Parliament.
“Unless two-thirds of Parliamentarians vote to stay the course, plans should be drawn up for a prompt withdrawal,” Mr Walmsley said.
The Liberal Democrats want the vote to be carried with a two thirds majority of a joint sitting of both houses as well, ensuring that — if nothing else — any participation at the least has the support of both major parties.
I like the idea of making it difficult for the state to go to war. Many years ago, US Army psychiatrist M. Scott Peck pointed out that Western countries were at their most dangerous when they unleashed their ‘specialists’, and that these ‘specialists’ included their militaries. There is no doubt it is now harder to get the public angry about our soldiers, sailors and airmen being killed overseas in large part because they are all volunteers. They are seen to have made a choice. Were they conscripted, as during the Vietnam War, there is a strong sense that, should one of them be killed, he has been deprived of choice in a very direct way. Not for nothing does Peck note that the opposition to the Vietnam War grow loudest when both the Australian and American governments began to conscript.
To my mind, then, we need to expose war-fighting decisions to public scrutiny by other means. Forcing a parliamentary debate and vote is one way to do it. It also means that, while we still unleash our volunteer specialists, we do in a way where they are not seen to serve the interests of a narrow and unrepresentative group of people.