Hon Malcolm Fraser & Paul Barratt - make the case for a change in Australian war powers legislation

 The Australian Newspaper

Monday, Sep. 06, 2014

Opinion : Going to war is a matter for parliament

by Hon Malcolm Fraser and Paul Barratt

ON Tuesday here, Russell Trood and Anthony Bergin asserted that the idea of parliament voting on decisions to go to war is poor public policy. None of the arguments they advance hold water.

They argue governments need the capacity to react quickly to events. Quite so, but the occasions would be rare when the capacity of the ADF to deploy would be held up by parliamentary process. Apart from the Ready Reaction Force at Townsville, most combat elements of the ADF are held at a low state of readiness. They are not maintained in a battle-ready state, and before they can be deployed a major investment in both personnel training and materiel is required in order to bring them up to the required standard.

Regarding the high-readiness forces, it would be quite easy to draft into legislation requiring parliamentary authorisation a provision for an emergency response, with a requirement for a statement setting out the nature and purpose to be tabled within three or four sitting days.

They also argue the government might have access to information or intelligence which it cannot reveal. This cannot be accepted within the framework of a Westminster-style system. While government may well be in possession of information that cannot be used in parliamentary debate, it is fundamental to our system that today’s opposition leader could be tomorrow’s prime minister, and in times of crisis government share classified information with the opposition.

For purposes of parliamentary debate, situations will be rare in which a direct threat to Australia would emerge without any warning signs being discernible from open sources. Accordingly, governments can simply follow the commonplace practice of presenting a rationale which derives from open sources, and perhaps simply stating that this picture is confirmed by classified information which has been shared with the opposition leadership.

A third argument is the old ­canard that a parliamentary vote would “simply hamstring the government of the day to the whim of minor parties”. The minor parties only have an effective say when the major parties disagree, so this sounds more like a concern that parliamentary involvement would make it more difficult for the government of the day to inject the ADF into wars of choice — which is of course the whole point of the exercise.

Trood and Bergin also advance the argument that “in a complicated world the occasions and circumstances in which force in its various manifestations is required is becoming more difficult to describe and define”. This is in fact one of the strongest reasons in support of parliamentary involvement: to guard against the possibility of the leadership of the day rushing us off into ill-thought-out military adventures, with no clear definition of the aims, duration, prospects of success or exit strategy.

We are not advocating that parliament be involved in the management of our involvement in an armed conflict, simply that it be the body that authorises our entry into any particular overseas operation requiring or likely to require the use of armed force, such authorisation to last for the duration of the circumstances to which it applies.

 Those who would rule out any role for the legislature other than post hoc debate would have us increasingly out of step with the practice of other representative democracies. Last year the question of British participation in air strikes against Syria was resoundingly defeated in the House of Commons — an outcome which rapidly came to be seen as wise.

 At the end of the day it all comes down to whether we trust the parliament, or trust a single individual. A strong prime minister will be able to convince the cabinet, and that is a one person decision as was the case in the Iraq war. We most certainly should have parliamentary approval before Australia can be taken to war.


 Malcolm Fraser was prime minister of Australia, 1975-83. Paul Barratt is a former secretary to the Department of Defence.