When Barack Obama signalled his intent to seek Congressional approval for military action in Syria, the decision was met with derision and the President accused of timidity. Indeed, former Assistant Secretary of Defence, William Beecher, claimed the act characterised Obama as the cowardly lion. However, referring authorisation for the use of military force from the executive to the legislature provides for more accountable, democratic and transparent decision-making on the path to war.
Declaring war is the most grave action that a nation can undertake. It is therefore necessary to ensure that such deployments are considered, serve a purpose and are in accordance with the national interest. Legislative authorisation for the application of military force ensures debate regarding the necessity and merit of any proposed deployment, resulting in a more reasoned basis for declaring war, while conferring greater credibility and political force on any deployment decision.
Incoming Prime Minister Tony Abbott should take note of Obama's democratic referral. In Australia, the Prime Minister maintains the right to authorise the nation's involvement in a conflict and declare the deployment of armed forces without Parliamentary approval. A future Prime Minister could commit Australia to a conflict of dubious national interest, in defiance of public opinion and expert advice, and in breach of international law. The irony of the executive's war prerogative has been previously noted; the Australian Prime Minister has the power to declare war on whomever he or she desires, yet if the same individual sought to add a cent in tax to the cost of cigarettes they would face a proverbial legislative "war" in Parliament.
Debate concerning Australia's war-making process is not new. For several decades Australian politicians and citizens have proposed constraints to the freedom of executive government in external policy. In 2009, the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee tabled a bill that would require both houses of Parliament to authorise overseas warlike deployments. While the Committee noted unequivocal support for the principle that the executive should not be able to make such a decision without reference to, or endorsement by, the Australian Parliament, the report expressed two prohibiting concerns; the use of classified material and potential constraints on deployment.
First, the Committee claimed that providing Parliament with the intelligence necessary for an informed debate would compromise the security of potential operations. The implication is that while the government of the day can be trusted with classified material, the opposition, minor parties and independents cannot. This line of reasoning undermines two major components of Australian democracy: that the opposition is a "government in waiting" and that all elected representatives are imbued with the trust of their constituency. Furthermore, as exemplified in the lead up to Iraq, a government in favour of war can selectively utilise and interpret intelligence to introduce a range of largely unsubstantiated threat scenarios as justification for military action. Moreover, the tactical level intelligence that would endanger Australian operations is immaterial to Parliamentary debate on the necessity and merits of an overseas warlike deployment: the information that there was no evidence of chemical or biological weapons production in Iraq would not have unduly endangered Australian soldiers.
Second, the Committee concluded that Parliamentary debate requires time that may place undue constraints on the ability to deploy Australian defence personnel. Commentators such as Graeme Dobell have claimed that contemporary political structures of Parliament may likely result in a situation whereby the government controlled House of Representatives vote for deployment while the Senate votes against. However, if the government is unable to successfully argue the merits of a deployment in Parliament then clearly the decision is of questionable national interest and requires further debate. As Gary Woodard noted, "there is no pressure of time such as to prevent adequate consultation with and debate within the Parliament".
While conflagrations in the Middle East and Pacific threaten war it is imperative to review the Prime Minister's war prerogative. As Senator Don Chipp claimed in 1986, without reform a Prime Minister could commit the nation to a "disastrous course of action without Parliament and Australian people knowing what the arguments for and against were, and what the potential hazards might be." The requirement of Parliamentary authorisation for the use of military force would ensure an open and transparent debate and would adhere to the proud Westminster tradition of incremental reform. However, the focus on legislating restrictions to the Prime Minister's prerogative should not overshadow the potential of strengthening parliamentary custom. Indeed, enhancing procedures that encourage transparency and promote informed debate should become a routine aspect of democratic accountability.
Discuss in our Forums
See what other readers are saying about this article!
Click here to read & post comments.
12 posts so far.