One person can decide if Australia goes to war. Here’s why that needs to change

On this day 20 years ago when missiles rained down on Baghdad, millions across the world braced for the horror to come.

Yet the direst of predictions did not foresee how deeply and irrevocably the invasion of Iraq would alter the world, birthing a new wave of radicalism to wreak havoc across the Middle East and terrorise further afield. That two decades on, Iraq would be left in chaos, a volatile conservative theocracy barely able to function.

Protesters fill Federation Square in Melbourne in February 2003 to oppose the invasion of Iraq.

Simon Schluter

The Iraq invasion has wrought bitter, deadly lessons for the international community, but also timely lessons for Australia, should it wish to take notice.

As millions marched in protest across the world in 2003, I walked the streets of Baghdad trying to convince ordinary Iraqis that Australians did not want to kill them.

“If the Australian people don’t support a war, how can your armies come here with your bombs and guns?” they would ask.

A good question, and one that is currently being examined by a federal parliamentary inquiry into how Australia decides to go to war.

As a democracy, most Australians assume our federal parliament debates and votes on this, the most significant decision any nation can make. Not so.

Australia’s antiquated and opaque system allows the prime minister and executive alone to make the call, without parliamentary oversight, as John Howard famously did in 2003.

A parliamentary inquiry examining how Australia decides to enter international armed conflict was announced in September 2022, attracting 113 submissions, 94 of them in favour of change.

Fans of transparency from across the political spectrum argued a sensible and compelling case for reform that will be difficult for the government to counter.

Donna Mulhearn in Iraq in 2003.

The inquiry’s report and recommendations are due any day now, but noises coming out of government are not indicating a mood for change.

This is extraordinary considering how poorly the undemocratic “captain’s call” has served us, resulting in foreign policy disasters that landed Australian troops in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Protests against the Iraq War in 2003.

Simon Schluter

The heavy cost of those involvements is intergenerational and borne by our whole society via injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, and the diverting of massive amounts of taxpayer funds from urgent needs in health, education, infrastructure etc.

Polls show an overwhelming 87 per cent of Australians support reform to require parliamentary approval before the nation goes to war.

Modest legislative change will bring us into line with comparable liberal democracies and deliver what Australians expect with even the smallest of political decisions: transparency, scrutiny, accountability.

While some parliamentarians resist such reform, Iraqis are still living with the consequences of our “captain’s call” to join the Coalition of the Willing in 2003.

The catastrophic impact of the invasion, and subsequent occupation, civil war and rise and rampage of Islamic State, is well documented and a shocking indictment of that fateful decision.

Even now, my Iraqi friends are deeply pessimistic about the future, their views confirmed by non-governmental organisation reports about the dire state of the unstable nation. They cite out-of-control corruption, the lack of real democracy, and government oppression as the major challenges dampening their hopes.

For its part, the Australia government should call an independent inquiry to investigate its involvement in the illegal invasion of Iraq, as other nations have done. It should apologise, pay reparations and commit to long-term aid for Iraq.

To the protesters of 2003, you were right to take to the streets, history has confirmed that. But 20 years on it is time to protest anew and insist on change to the way Australia decides to go to war.

To the members of the government who marched with us back then and delivered passionate speeches to the crowds: heed the call of your younger selves and do not squander this opportunity.

You were right then – and on the 20th anniversary of Howard’s appalling decision you have the chance to be right again: legislate that the parliament must engage in debate and a vote before Australia goes to war.

To enter a foreign war is a dramatic and extraordinary diversion from the usual progress of a nation.

Why not draw on the strength of democracy when considering the gravest question a nation will face? With a parliamentary inquiry considering this exact question, now is the time to act on the lessons of Iraq.

Donna Mulhearn was a human shield during the Iraq war and later returned as an aid worker and researcher. She is a member of Australians for War Powers Reform.

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