Bali clemency push; Malaysia regresses; Thai military rule makes US uneasy; Delhi in vote against Modi By Hamish McDonald.

Time to strip PM Abbott’s war-making power

A riot policeman blocks a supporter of Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim after Anwar’s appeal on a sodomy conviction was rejected.
A riot policeman blocks a supporter of Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim after Anwar’s appeal on a sodomy conviction was rejected.
Credit: AFP

So it’s Rocky II for our pugilist prime minister, who promises to rein in his propensity for sudden “captain’s calls” on new policies and appointments.

In the new situation of collegiality and consultation, perhaps it’s a good time for our politicians to adopt an idea that’s been kicking around for a couple of years: taking war powers away from the prime minister and giving them to parliament.

After all, it’s what the British have recently done in the wake of Tony Blair’s disastrous folie à deux with George Bush in Iraq. Labour’s Gordon Brown started the change to remove the vestigial powers of making war from the executive, a relic of monarchical prerogative, and his Conservative successor David Cameron has introduced them. So parliament’s authorisation for the British contribution to the fight against the Islamic State comes with a rider that attacks not be carried into Syria without further consultation.

A former secretary of the Defence Department, Paul Barratt, has been pushing the case here for the past couple of years, arising from his attempts to unravel how exactly Australia got into Iraq in 2003, and Greens senator Scott Ludlam introduced a bill for parliamentary war powers last year.

At a talk this week to the Australian Institute of International Affairs in Sydney, Barratt pointed out that making war is indeed a blurry aspect of our constitution. At least until 1931, the British king declared war on the advice of his British prime minister, and we automatically followed. Curtin retrospectively made up for that in 1942 with declarations of war against a slew of Axis powers. The last was against Bulgaria − and we’ve never actually declared war since, despite being almost continually involved in fighting somewhere or other.

Having to go to parliament will force governments to come up with better rationales and objectives, Barratt thinks. The current mission creep in Iraq, from a biscuit drop to beleaguered Yazidis last August, shows the dangers of escalation. While the governor-general is ostensibly commander-in-chief of the armed forces, he says, “All it takes is a captain’s call from Tony Abbott and an order from [defence minister] Kevin Andrews for them to go into action.”

1 . Bali clemency push

While we’ve focused on domestic infighting, large parts of our immediate neighbourhood have been getting into deeper strife.

South-East Asia is the key battleground for strategic influence between China and the United States, and is supposed to be the critical area for Australian foreign policy, yet a lot of its countries are regressing.

We’ve already pointed out the mess that Indonesia’s Joko Widodo has got himself into over the attempted appointment of a controversial officer as new National Police chief, which has led to police and legislators ganging up on the Corruption Eradication Commission. He’s compounded this by endorsing a new car project involving another dark figure, former intelligence chief A. M. Hendropriyono, and Malaysia’s former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad.

In this fraught atmosphere, chances of getting Widodo to review his hasty blanket decision to execute all death-row drug convicts, without examining each case for clemency on its merits, seem very slim. But it’s worth pushing at the highest level, that is, by Prime Minister Abbott. Flaws in the original trial of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, the misleading narrative of them as the “ringleaders” of the Bali Nine, and Widodo’s dodgy statistics about the level of Indonesia’s drug threat are part of the argument.

2 . Malaysia regresses

Meanwhile, Malaysia is reverting to bad old ways, after Prime Minister Najib Razak took some steps to wind back the nexus of arbitrary security arrest powers, Malay racial privilege, tame judiciary and crony capitalism Mahathir Mohamad had deepened.

This week’s decision by the highest appeal court to restore the five-year jail term for sodomy awarded by a lower court against opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim takes Malaysia right back. This was the second case for the offence brought against Anwar, again when he was challenging the incumbent prime minister. He spent six years in jail the first time, before the charge was overturned on appeal.

The evidence in the latest case is even more suspect, hinging on the supposed scientific evidence that the object of the alleged sodomy, a young campaign staffer named Saiful Bukhari Azlan, somehow kept Anwar’s semen in his backside for 36 hours before it was extracted, then kept in an unrefrigerated container for two days before being put to DNA analysis. That this young opposition worker met the prime minister and police officials two days before the alleged sexual attack makes the stitch-up more obvious.

The prime minister is also getting into deeper controversy over the munificent lifestyle of his family circle, with The New York Times this week publishing a deep investigation of the multimillion-dollar US real estate deals involving his stepson, Riza Aziz, and Kuala Lumpur dealmaker and bon vivant Low Taek Jho. Najib will be the face of the Association of South-East Asian Nations this year, as Malaysia takes the rotating chairmanship of the regional grouping that is supposed to open a new tariff-free economic community by year’s end.

3 . Thai military rule makes US uneasy

Thailand, another key fulcrum in Barack Obama’s pivot to Asia, has been showing some convergence with its erstwhile pariah neighbour Myanmar.

Last May’s military takeover and January’s parliamentary kangaroo-court impeachment of deposed prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra makes it an awkward friend for the Americans.

In a speech last month, US acting ambassador Patrick Murphy called on Thailand to lift martial law, and said the Shinawatra trial was “politically driven”. This drew a formal protest, and coup leader Prayuth Chan-ocha has since hosted the Chinese defence minister in a pointed rebuke. The Americans have hung in, continuing the annual joint military exercise codenamed Cobra Gold, though with a reduced number of US troops.

4 . Delhi in vote against Modi

Incredible India continues to surprise. Less than a year after sweeping the national elections in which it won all seven of Delhi seats, Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party bombed out in elections this week for the capital’s legislature.

An anti-politician political movement known as the Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party took 67 of the 70 seats, and its leader, former tax official Arvind Kejriwal, will become chief minister for the second time (his first 40-day spell collapsed early last year).

It shows a vulnerability for Modi, whose fastidious dress sense was partly to blame – he got around in a suit with his name woven into a sort of pinstripe. The BJP got the other three seats, but its star candidate, the former police official Kiran Bedi, failed to win her place. The Congress Party, which had ruled Delhi for 15 years until last year, got nowhere, another blow for Nehru-Gandhi dynastic scion Rahul Gandhi, who, like Modi, campaigned intensively.

India is otherwise bracing for a battle of the burgers, with fast-food chains such as Burger King, Carl’s Jr., Johnny Rockets and Wendy’s entering the domestic market. An earlier wave of fast-food investors produced interesting blowback, with McDonald’s pioneering a local lamb burger to avoid offending Hindus with beef. Now McDonald’s is projecting itself as the healthier alternative, cutting 40 per cent of the fat content in its sauces and 20 per cent of the salt in its fries. Next it will be dal and chapattis.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 14, 2015 as "Time to strip PM’s war-making power".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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