Much has been said in recent days about the need for parliament to debate and decide whether to deploy Australian military forces in support of international humanitarian relief operations in Iraq and Syria.
The flag bearers of this fanciful notion are principally the Greens Party and Tasmanian independent Andrew Wilkie. Theirs is an idea which amounts to little more than dangerous mischief or unhelpful farce.
There’s nothing in the Constitution or defence legislation that requires the executive to engage in debate, or get a vote through parliament, before committing military forces.
Such a decision is a prerogative of executive government, which in turn is answerable to the parliament. While it is customary to consult with the Opposition, the decision is clearly a matter for the Prime Minister and the Cabinet.
The parliament of course is free to debate those matters and the Prime Minister or Defence Minister regularly provide updates on the use of our troops—and both things are entirely consistent with accepted practice.
In 2008 the Greens Party similarly tried to introduce legislation that removed the exclusive power of Government to deploy troops. A Senate Committee at the time concluded that proposal was ‘not a credible piece of legislation’.
At the time of the Second Gulf War, Bob Hawke said on the ABC AM Radio Program that ‘…of course (it) is appropriate for the executive to make a decision’. Hawke was right.
Students of Australian history might remember that Australia went to war in August 1914 while federal parliament was prorogued. The conservative government of Joseph Cook was elected in May 1913 with a majority of one and a hostile Senate, and went to a double-dissolution election in June 1914. Australia declared war on Germany and Austria-Hungary on 4 August 1914. Labor leader Andrew Fisher won the 5 September 1914 Federal Election.
A case for executive decision—and action—by the Government of the day, can be made quite sensibly and reasonably on four equally clear grounds.
The first relates to the presence of a clear and dangerous threat; the second to the Government’s freedom to respond in a timely fashion; the third concerns the trust, faith and common sense of the Australian people; the fourth reflects longstanding parliamentary convention.
Let’s unpack those, particularly the first three.
First, the threat from ISIL (sometimes known just as IS or ISIS). The danger is clear, present and pressing—a fact underscored by the utter evil of its avowed intention. ISIL is not just another terrorist movement. Rather, it’s an ‘aggregated terrorist corporation’ looking to cement and grow a fundamentalist terrorist home or state. The world has not seen or faced down such a challenge in our lifetime.
ISIL is a cancer on all religions and faiths, and something which, if possible, must be excised completely from the Middle East. ISIL appears to have emerged from nowhere, although perhaps the West has been blindsided by competing strategic issues. The ISIL clarion call to aggrieved young hot-heads will be a serious security threat for Western democracies for the next decade. No nation will be immune.
Second, the imminence of that threat. The threat is close and imminent, and is increasing exponentially. Its proximity includes the possibility of ‘blooded’ ISIL fighters returning to their countries of origin to, in effect, decentralise the mayhem. It’s arguable that ISIL’s grip on some parts of the Middle East now exceeds the point below which its destruction was possible. Perhaps the West must accept that and attempt secondary and subordinate dual objectives—humanitarian relief and containment.
Finally, to the matter of the trust, faith and common sense of the wider electorate. The Australian community has faith in the nature and maturity of our democracy and its institutional structures. It holds an increasingly nuanced appreciation of international affairs. The electorate understands the need for occasioned and even protracted parliamentary debate. Equally, it understands when such a debate is unwarranted, needless, or even dangerous to the livelihood and wellbeing of others.
Australians realise and appreciate that the ISIL abomination unfolding before the world does not warrant further talk by politicians. They know and accept that what is required is leadership and collective international intervention in the name of humanity.
That such a stance also happens to fit with longstanding Australian parliamentary convention just happens to make the acceptance of such a course all the more reasonable, necessary and yes, easy. But it’s action now which will save lives—not more talk.
Recent events reinforce that ISIL is a malevolent wellspring of barbarism, perhaps not seen since the Middle Ages, which must be confronted by the combined efforts of Western, liberal, civilised society.
Some would have Western parliaments debate and pontificate over the starkly obvious—for the sake of public profile and individual relevance—while innocents are dying. The time for action is now. All that Andrew Wilkie and Christine Milne offer is, at best, opaque and uninformed commentary as people outside both the government and the alternative government and, at worst, statements which, however unwittingly, give comfort to Australia’s international protagonists.
It’s more than reasonable for the Government to commit forces now as part of a wider international force, and to consider whether to increase its commitment further in the future, should such a need be consistent with our national interests.
Andrew Nikolic is the Federal Member for Bass and a member of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, and the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade. He is a former senior Australian Army officer and First Assistant Secretary in the Defence Department. Image courtesy of Flickr user Michael Dawes.
The Strategist has invited contributions from the ALP and Greens to this debate and will be posting them as they become available.