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Going to war can't wait for MPs

By Anthony Bergin

The Greens plan to reintroduce a bill to debate war powers when Parliament returns this week. A group of federal MPs and senators from different parties are saying that it's time we changed the war powers invested in the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Going to war, it's argued, is too important to be left solely to the PM. We should tame this power, with Parliament acting as a check on this discretion authority of the executive government.

While any government would be criticised if it completely ignored the views of Parliament in any significant overseas operation, Parliament doesn't decide when Australia goes to war.

But the whole idea of Parliament voting on decisions to go to war is poor public policy. Proponents of parliamentary approval appear to be focused on the decision to go to Iraq in 2003. But John Howard's government had a strong majority on floor of the House of Representatives and surely would have prevailed in any vote.

Parliament can now debate deployments. But when time is of the essence, the executive may need the ability to deploy the Australian Defence Force during crises and emergencies. Parliament doesn't sit that often.

What we have now ensures that if the PM and the Cabinet are convinced that our vital national interest requires it to deploy the ADF overseas and a majority of MPs disagree then parliament must either accept the executive's right to decide or withdraw its confidence in the government. That's the bedrock of responsible government as applied to decisions about whether to deploy our military forces.

In simple terms it's about democratic legitimacy: allowing a government to govern, unless Parliament no longer has confidence in the government. In that case an alternative government must be cobbled together or an election must be held.

Australians expect their governments to make difficult policy choices: outsourcing a decision on when military force should be deployed is an abdication of the authority given to government through their electoral mandate.

If we passed legislation to grant the Parliament legal control over expeditionary military deployments it may invite the judiciary to review the legality of our military deployments. We should be very wary of involving judges in what are essentially political questions.

The basis issue is whether we want parliamentarians to prevent the executive from sending the armed forces on expeditionary operations with no immediate consequence to them. It will be all check with no balance: minor parties and independent senators unable to secure a mandate at an election would have power over the most important decision any government can make.

We should not add to confusion and ambiguity when it comes to decisions on overseas deployments. But that's what would happen given the new normal is that the government of the day doesn't have control of the Senate. The executive would be hamstrung in acting, regardless of the political, diplomatic and military circumstances of a crisis.

Time is often of the essence and a decision to go to war potentially mired in political controversy offers little comfort to a deployed ADF, which should be able to take to the field confident that it has the full support of the Australian people as reflected in the policy of the government.

All that said, governments should take Parliament into their confidence more often, providing, for example, a statement to Parliament outlining the basis of the decision to deploy and reporting regularly on the progress of military operations.

The current arrangements are, however, good enough. We should preserve the existing relationship between the Parliament and Cabinet when it comes to decisions about overseas military deployments.

Even if we introduced a vote to go to war it would be unlikely to make any practical difference to the actual outcome. There's not a single example where it would have changed a decision on Australia's commitment to send our troops to war.

Anthony Bergin is a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute

Originally published: Australian Financial Review. 29 August 2016. 

Originally published by: Australian Financial Review on 29 Aug 2016