War Powers Reform – Part 1

On Friday January 9 John Phillips (former Captain Royal Australian Regiment Vietnam 1971) and myself (2nd Lieutenant Royal Australian Artillery Vietnam 1968-69) gave evidence to the Joint Standing Committee inquiring into War Power reform – how we go to the war.

Currently, unlike a number of other countries, the decision to go to war is the Prime Minister’s and the Executive Government – as in the case with John Howard and the Iraq War.

Listening to the Committee hearings for several hours there is obviously a significant contest of opinion with the opponents of change – particularly the Committee’s Deputy Chair, Andrew Wallace – raising a series of what ifs with witnesses which ended up in debates which resembled those medieval philosophical arguments about how many angels could fit on a pinhead.

Both John and myself knew the Chair, Julian Hill, when he was a young emerging local government politician with both John and Julian being mayors of their respective municipalities at the same time. Years later it was interesting to watch a now mature politician deftly chairing a meeting and displaying total familiarity with the issues while simultaneously being courteous and considerate with those giving evidence.

This post reproduces the opening statements (we got two minutes each) we made to the Committee.  And in succeeding days we’ll post our formal submission to the inquiry and a statement we tabled at the end of our evidence. We’ve not yet had access to the Hansard proofs so there may be a few differences between what was recorded and what’s written here.

My opening statement was:

I would like to suggest that one way to approach the problem this Committee is considering is a thought experiment. The thought experiment is simple: if we knew what we know now would we have committed troops to Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan?

From that follows four more specific questions:

  • First, why didn’t we pause and think a bit more about what we were doing, why and what the consequences might be?
  • Second, was there a genuine threat to Australia in any of these three situations?
  • Third, what would have happened if we hadn’t intervened and/or invaded?
  • Fourth, in the light of these failures, is there a better way of deciding when and how we go to war?

I would also like to mention my observations about the nature of the current debate and the Committee’s proceedings – in particular the way the debate is being framed. On the one hand we are seeing a version of Margaret Thatcher’s TINA – there is no alternative.

Simultaneously we are seeing a framing that the issue is just too complicated and that we should therefore maintain the current system.

It strikes me that the implication of this is that it is beyond the wit and expertise of our political class and public servants to devise a system such as those other nations have devised.

In terms of the public service, I notice the frequent references to the Department of Defence’s submission. Given that the Department seems incapable of providing the resources our troops need on time, on budget and fit for purpose their expertise in this field seems doubtful.

John’s opening statement was:

I want to remind the Committee of the human impacts of war rather than the process of war powers reform.

But first, I am really disturbed by the mixed messages coming from the government about any change at all!

The promise to enquire into Australia’s war powers came from a resolution of Labor’s National Conference (in your name, Chair)

And yet in the same breath of the inquiry being announced, the Defence Minister, Richard Marles, declared: “there will be no change”! What gives?

The effects on mental health of soldiers committed to a war with little support are very real.

These harmful effects of wars, especially those wars with a weak or unconvincing rationale, stay with veterans and loved ones for a lifetime.

This is moral injury.

The Vietnam War (or American War) was justified on an exaggerated threat, a grand deception and some blatant lying.

Very few, if any of the men in my platoon (half were conscripts) felt any enmity toward the Viet Cong. I venture to say, none believed Australia was halting an ideology in Indochina, based on the ludicrous concept of: “dominoes falling over “!

The current (and unique in liberal democracies) practice of a prime minister arbitrarily committing young men and women to harm overseas needs to change.

This assumed power is both unaccountable and open to be exploited for some perceived electoral advantage.

This is exactly what happened in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The US is a very dangerous and expensive ally.