War: we need a debate and a vote

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Jenny Grounds

As the current parliamentary Labor party leader, Bill Shorten will know that his party has opposed on five occasions the passage of a war powers bill which would require a parliamentary debate and vote on the matter of committing Australian combat troops to war.

Australia is one of a very small number of western countries without such a requirement. Germany, Italy, Denmark, and the Netherlands all require parliamentary approval before military deployments can be made. The USA’s War Powers Resolution restricts the president’s use of armed forces beyond 60 days without support of the Congress.

In Britain two parliamentary committees have recommended constitutional reform transferring the power to declare war from the executive to the House of Commons. Indeed, it is now the convention that a debate takes place in the UK parliament prior to committing troops. This was the case with the Iraq war in 2003 and most recently the Syria conflict in 2013.

While on two occasions such a debate has taken place in Australia, both under Labor Prime Ministers before commitment to war was made, Australia continues to grant the prime minister of the day the power to make war, and on at least two occasions this has led to a long involvement in an unnecessary war which was illegal, based on falsehoods and the cause of huge damage to physical and mental health on all sides of a conflict, which endure through several generations. The Australian people strongly opposed our last involvement in Iraq. If a parliamentary debate had occurred in 2002 and early 2003 the views of the populace would have had more impact on the decision-making process.

The so-called security risk from a full disclosure of intelligence, diplomacy and classified documents for a parliamentary debate is also a furphy. Other western countries do not consider this to be necessary or problematic in order to have a parliamentary debate.

The decision to go to war, I am sure almost all will agree, is the most serious one that a government is called on to make. It is one that should be made with a clear strategy and end point in mind, and must always take into account the loss of life it will cause to civilians and defence personnel alike.

Another worrying aspect of Australia’s attitude to involvement in overseas conflict is that prime ministers have been keen to publicly commit Australia to joining the United States long before that country’s government has made a commitment itself. The ANZUS treaty is often cited as making this somehow “obligatory” and many Australians do not understand that this too is a falsehood, that the treaty only requires our two countries to consult one another.

The current situation has again shown how easy it is for one person to virtually commit Australia to war, even before Labor Shadow Ministers have been granted a briefing.

The Labor leader should provide his views on two specific questions:

What is his view on the current war powers proposals put by Andrew Wilkie?

Would he support this type of legislation in order to reduce the risk from future extended military misadventures?

These are important matters for consideration and I look forward to the response.


This is a slightly adapted text of a letter addressed to the Federal Labor Leader by Dr Jenny Grounds, the President of the Medical Association for Prevention of War.


Suggested citation
Grounds, Jenny, 'War: we need a debate and a vote', Evatt Journal, Vol. 13, No. 6, September 2014.<https://evatt.org.au/news/war-we-need-debate-and-vote.html>