Opinion

Tony Windsor
No debate before war is undemocratic

“In extending support and sympathy to the innocent people of Iraq … this prime minister exposes his greatest hypocrisy. Where was the sympathy and support for the Iraqi asylum seekers who fled Iraq and tried to reach our shores in leaky, sinking and in some cases sabotaged boats? They were the so-called illegals, remember? Now the government are truly the illegals.”

Not 2014, but 2003. These words were spoken by the independent MP for Calare, the late Peter Andren. He was describing the then prime minister, John Howard, as Australia prepared for war in Iraq. But his words are as valid now as they were then, as we are dragged again into a Middle East war by faulty reasoning and overeagerness to display loyalty to the US, and in the face of our attempts to demonise asylum seekers fleeing the region.

Peter had always opposed the Australian government’s involvement in the Iraq War, and moved numerous parliamentary motions that Australia should not be involved in any action in Iraq without the sanction of the United Nations.

He moved an amendment that the parliament oppose any such action, seconded by myself, in answer to the foreign minister’s statement to the parliament that Iraq was planning to deploy weapons of mass destruction. Neither government nor opposition supported the motion and, with Labor’s compliance, parliament voted to shut down any debate, so avoiding a formal vote on Peter’s motion.

Saddam Hussein came to power in Iraq the same year Ayatollah Khomeini led a successful revolution in Iran. The Iraqi president was concerned that developments in Iran, and in particular the activities of the Shiite majority in Iran, could see an Islamic revolution overflow into Iraq.

The West and some of the Arab nations that feared the march of Islam supported Saddam even though he knowingly breached international law and perpetrated genocide upon 180,000 Kurds with the use of chemical and other weapons, many of which were funded or supplied by the United States.

So history says the West supported a madman who was comfortable wiping out minority groups. Not much concern about genocide and the survival of the Kurdish people back then. It wasn’t until Iraq invaded oil-rich Kuwait that the oil-consuming West, including Australia, became involved in the first Gulf War and turned on Iraq in 1991.

Howard’s “embarrassed” admission in relation to the non-existence of weapons of mass destruction, and his reinvention of the reasons for Australia going to war in 2003 – latterly deeming it an operation to remove the tyrant Saddam – is akin to Craig Thomson’s absolute belief that he did no wrong. In both cases there was overwhelming evidence to the contrary. In Thomson’s case he denied the evidence. In Howard’s case he ignored it.

In his Channel Seven interview in September this year, confronted with the knowledge that he had taken his nation to war on the basis of a lie, and actively ignored advice to not do so, Howard said: “I felt embarrassed, I did. I couldn’t believe it [when the lie was exposed], because I had genuinely believed it.”

The dissent in the 2003 parliament, led by Peter Andren, must have lingered with Howard. On a number of occasions he would say to mutual friends that he always had an issue with Andren and me, as we didn’t support the war. Perhaps he thought if the two independents had supported him we would all be complicit in the deception!

Howard breached the bond of trust with the Australian people. They want to believe that if our prime ministers are privy to advice and intelligence, they will make decisions on that basis. But Howard did the opposite, blatantly defying that advice.

Now we’re seeing the same dodgy decision-making process in action under Prime Minister Tony Abbott, with the current campaign in northern Iraq. The original reasoning was that Australia was invited by Iraq to prevent genocide, but the protocols that enable the invitation are still being worked out. So much for the urgency.

Describing the conflict, Abbott’s “baddies versus baddies” comment was ridiculed at the time. But it did at least focus on the complicated relationships and historic tribal hatreds that exist in the Middle East, as well as the shifting allegiances based on religion and oil.

Iraq itself is a classic example of this confused circumstance. In 1979 it was a goodie in the Iraq/Iran war; in 1991, against Kuwait, it was a baddie; then a baddie in the 2003 Gulf conflict; and now again a goodie in 2014. Not much has changed in a geopolitical sense but the judgement of those outside Iraq is constantly changing. The one thing that has remained the same externally is the view that democracy is the best form of government, even though when Saddam was a goodie in 1979 his regime was built on and brutally maintained by the Sunni minority group.

In the aftermath of the 2003 toppling of Saddam, the Sunnis have been treated as secondary to the Shiite majority, leading to some sympathy in the predominantly Sunni Kurdish north towards the Islamic State, which are essentially Sunni extremists.

The call to arms to defend minority groups from genocide by the IS at the request of the Iraqi government when the Iraqis themselves have perpetrated genocide against the same minority group confuses people about the motives of some of the participants and the possible long-term implications. It also highlights the role of the UN in circumstances such as these and the need for a more definitive action plan when citizens in any country are butchered by armed forces.

Historically, preventing genocide has not always been a motivator of Australian governments. Only a few years after the first Gulf War, centred on Kuwait oil, our nation and the rest of the world stood by as up to one million Tutsi Rwandans were slaughtered by their Hutu countrymen. The UN deliberated, discussed, moved motions and did nothing until the genocide was over.

I think most Australians would support any global attempts to stop innocent citizens being murdered by marauding fanatics, as appears to be occurring in northern Iraq and Syria. But not permitting parliamentary debate indicates that the motivation is not only about humanitarian concern for minorities. The almost arbitrary selection of which atrocities we oppose with arms, particularly when there is no direct threat to our shores, plays into the hands of those who believe this is more about the West’s access to long-term oil supplies. This view is exacerbated by Australia’s inaction in the West African Ebola catastrophe.

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.

Bob Hawke in 1991 could argue with some legitimacy that he had the support of a UN mandate. Howard and Alexander Downer, the foreign minister at the time, “required” the weapons of mass destruction rationale to justify moving on Saddam Hussein in 2003. Otherwise, Australia would have been in breach of international law. Abbott has made the decision based on little more than the precedent created by the others.

We all want to trust our government, irrespective of political persuasion. Democracy depends on that trust. But the executive of government needs to trust the people as well, and not be afraid of defending decisions it makes by having the logic and objectives of those deliberations tested in the people’s house.

In Howard’s case, a little more trust in the parliament, rather than rushing to war against expert advice and before any substantive debate was concluded, may well have saved him from embarrassment today. Much, much more importantly, it may have saved many lives.

Surely the motive in Iraq has been to create the conditions for minority groups to have their say in an open democracy, freeing them from a dictatorship by the majority. If encouraging this kind of democracy – which we hold for ourselves – is the key motive, why aren’t we practising it here?

Peter Andren may have been a minority in our parliamentary system, but if Howard had taken account of his words and listened to the UN weapons inspectors, we may have changed the course of history in two wars. With the admission that the Howard government relied on concocted advice, Andren’s comments that the government were “the illegals” has proved to be true.

The Abbott government hasn’t learned from Howard’s actions. And future leaders may compound the error by no longer feeling the need to consult parliament, and the people, before sending young Australians to face potential death in wars. We should change this course.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 1, 2014 as "Going to war the Howard way". Subscribe here.

Tony Windsor
is the former independent member for the federal seat of New England. He has held balance of power positions in both the NSW and federal parliaments.