Debate, degrade and ultimately defeat

As you read this, Australian bombs are probably already falling on Syria. Fighter jets are likely flying sorties. Where a month ago the foreign minister, Julie Bishop, said it was too uncertain to drop humanitarian aid over Syria, lest it become a “terrorists’ picnic”, now Australian air strikes will rain.

“It is quite clearly in Australia’s national interest,” the defence minister, Kevin Andrews, said, “because, as we know, Daesh continues to provide a security threat, not just to Iraq and those regions of Syria in the Middle East, but it reaches out here to Australia.”

This mission is conducted with the support of Labor, but not with a debate in the parliament. Legally, one is not strictly required. Sufficient power is invested in cabinet to give the approval. But there is no strong argument for forcing this decision without first making its case on the floor of the parliament.

Secrecy is not an argument. The government’s intentions were flagged weeks ago, when Tony Abbott insisted he had been called on by the United States to offer assistance – despite numerous reports suggesting the inverse had happened.

Urgency, too, is a fallacious reason. Nothing is being decided that a proper parliamentary debate would unduly slow. As it is, no one is suggesting Australia’s contribution will be a swift pace-changer.

None of this is an argument against Australia’s further involvement. The case for involvement in the fight against Daesh is strong on many fronts, the need in this mission to protect Iraq’s nascent democracy just one aspect.

But a lack of debate means this case has not been made. Kevin Andrews’ assertion that Daesh’s threat extends to Australia is evidence of the hollow arguments standing in for proper discussion.

It seems that nothing has been learnt from John Howard’s commitment of Australian forces to the Second Gulf War, a conflict most accept was poorly argued and more poorly executed, the repercussions of which Abbott’s air strikes will partly attempt to remedy. “I felt embarrassed, I did,” Howard said last year, regarding the faulty intelligence on which he went to war without parliamentary debate. “I couldn’t believe it, because I had genuinely believed it.”

At the time, Tony Windsor was critical of the decision and the refusal to debate it. He is again. Writing in The Saturday Paper last year, as Australia became involved in Iraq, he made the following point: “There is something wrong when an elected government refuses to debate in its own parliament the decision to go to war, when one of the main reasons for intervention is to help countries in violent conflict to establish the right to debate and make their own decisions.”

It is too late now to hope that Abbott’s decision will be debated in parliament. As he continues to look for distractions with which to buttress his leadership, it is troubling to consider why it was not.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 12, 2015 as "Debate, degrade and ultimately defeat".

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