Still time for talking

Australia does not start wars, it joins them. In conflict, we follow our allies. Save for a ready reaction force based at Townsville, much of the military is not equipped for swift engagement. They take time to prepare for conflict. The information they operate on is as often public as it is classified, and mostly a combination of both.

These points are made in anticipation of Australia’s involvement in Iraq and Syria, and also Ukraine. They are made for a simple reason: each of them dismantles the myth that a government does not have the time to debate involvement in wars.

“At the end of the day it all comes down to whether we trust the parliament, or trust a single individual,” former prime minister Malcolm Fraser said this week. “A strong prime minister will be able to convince the cabinet, and that is a one-person decision as was the case in the Iraq war. We most certainly should have parliamentary approval before Australia can be taken to war.”

Writing in The Australian alongside former secretary of the defence department Paul Barratt, Fraser noted that parliamentary involvement would “guard against the possibility of the leadership of the day rushing us off into ill-thought-out military adventures, with no clear definition of the aims, duration, prospects of success or exit strategy”.

So far in this parliament, debate about Australia’s military engagements has been shunted to the Federation Chamber, a series of platitudes read into the Hansard. Tony Abbott’s preference is always the captain’s pick. His catchcry on various issues is not heartening: “Sometimes it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission.”

Abbott’s goals in Iraq have so far been vague: “Our mission is to work for the betterment of mankind.” While countries such as Germany have debated their contribution to the fight against the Islamic State, Australia has not. Hanging over this is the spectre of Australia’s involvement in the last Iraq war, on the basis of faulty information and in spite of public disapproval.

Marking the anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, US president Barack Obama confirmed he would wage an open-ended campaign of bombing against militants in Iraq and Syria. The war Obama started with his speech on Thursday was begun without congressional approval. “America, our endless blessings bestow an enduring burden,” he said. “But as Americans, we welcome our responsibility to lead.”

America’s blessings, of course, are Australia’s burden as well. At the time of writing, Abbott had spoken by phone to Obama but had made no firm commitments. Unquestioned, however, was his willingness to lend support.

“A specific request for military assistance in the form of air capability, in the form of military advisers could come…” he said. “But it hasn’t yet come and if it does come it will be dealt with in the normal way. There will be consideration by the national security committee, there will be consideration by the cabinet, and there will be consultation with the opposition.”

What there will not be is a broader parliamentary debate, a burden of proof to be met on the chamber floor. And yet, damningly, there is no good argument against one.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 13, 2014 as "Still time for talking".

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