No veto powers, but parliament should debate when Australia goes to war: report

Federal politicians would need to rush to Canberra for debate when the nation goes to war under changes being considered by the government following a bipartisan parliamentary inquiry.

The joint standing committee’s report on international armed conflict decision-making, released on Friday, called for more parliamentary oversight of the Australian Defence Force, including the creation of a powerful new committee to examine defence strategy, acquisitions and military operations.

But it rejected calls by the Greens and war power reform advocates for parliament to be given a veto over whether the nation goes to war.

The United States and France require congressional approval for the use of military force and declarations of war while Germany, Denmark, Ireland, Spain, Norway and Sweden require parliamentary approval for overseas troop deployments.

By contrast, the federal government has no obligation to notify, consult or seek approval from parliament when Australia goes to war.

Reform advocates have argued that Australia would not have joined the ill-fated wars in Iraq and Vietnam if both houses of parliament had been required to approve the military actions.

The committee called for more transparency over Australia’s military operations.

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Labor MP and Defence Subcommittee Chair Julian Hill, who led the inquiry, said: “The committee has concluded there is a clear need to improve the transparency and accountability of government decision-making in relation to armed conflict.”

Hill said both Labor and Liberal members of the committee were convinced that “greater transparency and parliamentary consideration of the decision to commit forces to an armed conflict can and must occur”.

While affirming that decisions on war are “fundamentally a prerogative of the Executive”, the committee recommended the Cabinet Handbook should be amended to require the government to recall parliament as early as possible when Australia joins a major international armed conflict.

The government should also facilitate a debate in both houses of parliament before troops are deployed or within 30 days of deployment.

Defence Minister Richard Marles has said the current rules around how Australia goes to war should not be disturbed, but has backed more debate in parliament.

Alex Ellinghausen

The governor-general could defer these requirements if there were high risks to national security or an imminent threat to Australian lives.

Hill said the government should seize “an historic chance to exercise leadership” by establishing a new joint statutory committee on Defence modelled on the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security.

A spokeswoman for Defence Minister Richard Marles noted there was “significant public and parliamentary interest in this matter” and said: “The government will carefully consider the Committee’s report and respond in due course.”

Marles told the committee the current arrangements should “not be disturbed” because they “enable the duly elected government of the day to act expeditiously on matters of utmost importance in the interests of the safety and security of our nation and its people”.

In a dissenting report, the Greens said the committee’s recommendations were the “bare minimum” and that parliament should have to be consulted before Australia goes to war.

“Australia is relatively unique among democratic countries in its lack of parliamentary authorisation or oversight on military deployments overseas,” the Greens said.

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