The House resolves to give death-with-sense
8 Sep 2014|

PM Tony Abbott with Chief of Defence Force Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin announcing Australia will join international partners to help the anti-ISIL forces in Iraq.In the Australian system going to war is extremely simple. The Prime Minister and Cabinet agree, the order is given and the shooting starts. Then there’s the hard stuff—not just the fighting, but handling the politics and policy and the people.

As Vietnam and Iraq showed, a government that goes to war must be able to give its people death-with-sense and maintain that sense for the long haul; there must be purpose and principle, a reason for the sacrifice and justification for the funerals. Not least important is the belief by the military that their country understands and supports the mission.

If the death-with-sense argument falters and can’t be maintained, people turn against the war—and against the government. Here we come to the hard political argument and policy requirement to strengthen existing parliamentary precedents on the use of the Australian Defence Force. Beyond using its majority in the House, any Australian government should use the Parliament to offer death-with-sense, to sustain the will to fight and define the mission.

The Australian Constitution, indeed, gives all power to the executive on war. But that’s the start, not the finish. The way Australia heads off into conflict matters for how the war-with-sense debate evolves. The start, the foundation—the framing, in minder-speak—sets in place much that matters for what follows. The political and policy logic is that any Prime Minister should use the Parliament to build the broadest and strongest foundation. It’s about taking the country with you.

True, no government—Labor or Coalition—is going to give the Senate a vote on war or overseas deployment. Australian governments don’t usually have a majority in the upper house; end of argument.

For a discussion of those issues, see the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee giving the thumbs down to a proposed law allowing Australian Defence Force personnel to go overseas only if the House and the Senate both approved the deployment.

So, no law. Instead, consider existing precedents and habits that can build towards conventions to be used in the House of Representatives. Consider how those conventions feed existing powers of review held by the Senate, and the way in which the Senate can grill Defence leadership in regular Estimates hearings.

In the House of Representatives, build on the ANZUS precedent, the Afghanistan convention and Abbott’s recent criteria to frame a resolution on war, to be considered even if the government has already declared war.

The ANZUS precedent is the eight-point motion that then Prime Minister John Howard moved in the House on 17 September 2001, invoking the ANZUS treaty following the 9/11 attacks on the US. The motion didn’t go to the military actions that followed, but set out fundamental arguments for why Australia would act. That’s the place to start for all future motions on military action. Before Australia commits forces overseas, the House should approve a similar motion that offers answers to the Abbott questions, as posed by the Prime Minister in the House of Representatives last week on 1 September.

Prime Minister Abbott said if a request for Australian military action in Iraq came from the Obama administration and the Iraq government, it’d be considered against these criteria:

Is there a clear and achievable overall objective? Is there a clear and proportionate role for Australian forces? Have all the risks been properly assessed? And is there an overall humanitarian objective in accordance with Australia’s national interests?

The PM offers good questions for a humanitarian intervention. For a war, add in bigger questions about what victory would look like and the proper end point. What should be the scope of the commitment and what are the aims? What should be the exit strategy? What forces are needed? Hugh White gives the flavour with his questions: What precisely are we trying to achieve by fighting? Is there is a reasonable chance of success? Would success be worth what it might cost?

The resolution that goes to the House of Representatives, even if the government has already ordered war, should address those fundamental issues—of aims, means and ends. The resolution then becomes the measure of what follows in the war-with-sense struggle. If the nature of the humanitarian crisis or military deployment or war changes, a further resolution should go to the House. The executive has the power to give the order, but it isn’t asking too much that it give parliament and the people a clear account of what’s to be done.

Add to that the Afghanistan convention, instituted by then Prime Minister Julia Gillard, that the government gives regular, formal reports to Parliament on the course of the conflict. That’s an important innovation that should become an established convention.

If those precedents become conventions we would see a House of Representative resolution on committing Australian forces overseas, setting out in clear terms the objectives and conditions of the deployment. That resolution should declare:

  1. The mission;
  2. The aims: Abbott’s clear and achievable objectives;
  3. The forces that could be used; and
  4. The end point and anticipated exit strategy.

We’d also see regular, detailed reports to parliament setting out the progress of the mission, measured against the terms of the original resolution.

Moreover, there should be a standing reference to the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence whenever Australian forces are deployed. At the least, the committee should hold hearings once a year in which it calls the Secretary of Defence and Chief of the Defence Force to give evidence on the deployment/conflict and to testify how the terms of the mission resolution are being met.

With such a framework in place, the regular Senate Estimates hearings could become the venue to review progress against the stated aims. Parliament would be doing some of the heavy lifting to help the government deliver war-with-sense.​

Note: ‘Death-with-sense’ is drawn from David Morrison’s 1992 book, ‘Television and the Gulf War’ and his observation about the Vietnam war: ‘All governments must have their citizens accept the cost of death and injury that inevitably follows from war as a legitimate price for a correct political policy. And that is precisely what the American television networks could not deliver to their audience with Vietnam – death with sense.’ For Morrison, the death-with-sense problem in Vietnam was not the eventual collapse of national will ‘but the failure to build it up adequately in the first place.’

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of Twitter user @TonyAbbottMHR.