Monday, 15 February 2021
Defence Amendment (Parliamentary Approval of Overseas Service) Bill 2021; Second Reading
That this bill be now read a second time.
For 36 years, parties in this parliament have been pushing for oversight in the deployment of troops to fight in foreign wars.
Sending Australians—potentially to their death—is one of the most important decisions politicians have to make. It is a decision that is made with unchecked powers of the executive branch of government, but should require approval of the parliament, like much of the rest of the world requires before they send their troops to war.
The wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq were all wars Australia got involved in with the Prime Minister exercising the powers as though they were a monarch. They didn't even consult cabinet. All those invasions were disasters.
Yet for 36 years, both coalition and Labor governments have joined together to stop any attempts of requiring parliament's approval to send Australians off to fight other country's wars. The Democrats introduced this bill in 1985 and 1988 and 2003 and the Greens have introduced it in 2003, 2014 and now again in 2021.
Now it should be debated in the House of Representatives, where by extension we represent the Australian people who should be able to examine the case for war. This bill and these powers have always been right. Australia should always have been at the rank of other countries who require some form of parliamentary or congressional approval before they send troops off to war or keep them there. But it is especially timely again now.
It's timely again now because of the incredibly serious documentation of war crimes by our elite special forces in Afghanistan.
The four-and-a-half year inquiry that culminated in the Brereton report shows why such powers are needed.
This is a point that my colleague Senator Steele-John made in the other place. He made the point: "It is now clear"—with respect to that war and the findings from the report—"that continual deployment without strategic direction was a clear part of the context in which these crimes occurred. This legislation would ensure that in future we are clear on our purpose for engaging"—or re-engaging or continuing to engage—"in armed conflict abroad and allow for a re-examination of the case for continuing."
It is too late to stop what those 19 special forces soldiers did, and that should now be referred to the authorities, the AFP, for war crimes, but what this bill can do is minimise the chance of it happening again in countries that have been afflicted by war.
What this bill does is require the approval of this parliament for the deployment of Australian troops overseas. There are provisions in the bill that deal with exigent circumstances where urgent decisions need to be made but provide that parliament would be called and recalled very quickly to approve decisions that are made. That would allow for a full debate in the first place about whether or not we should be putting our troops in harm's way and potentially exposing them to death, but also, importantly, this bill would require the parliament to make that approval ongoing. In other words, it requires the parliament to be informed about the progress of wars the parliament has approved that Australia's troops get involved in and also the continual re-approval. That would allow parliament to potentially help prevent the kinds of atrocities that we saw, because it would require parliament to be making strategic decisions about whether or not we should be continuing to put our troops in harm's way. That has been something that has been sorely lacking: the parliament has been denied the opportunity to debate whether we should go to war or whether we should stay at war.
When we are putting Australian soldiers' lives on the line we owe it to them to at least have that debate and then to say that the parliament is backing the decision. The parliament, being the overseer for the deployment of troops, is supported by 84 per cent of Australians, according to a recent Roy Morgan poll, which is a six per cent bump since that same question was asked in 2014 after then Prime Minister Tony Abbott decided Australia would invade Syria. We owe it to our constituents to support this bill. It is their democracy. It is their armed forces, their neighbours and their loved ones who may have to go off and fight. It can't be another 35 years of brazen, unchecked warmongering before this bill finally passes and the parliament can have the final say on who lives, who dies and who we trust not to violate the human rights of others in conflict situations.
It is difficult to understand the objection to this unless you are an executive government who wants to preserve the right to send troops overseas for political purposes. That could be the only reason to run and hide from the scrutiny, because all this bill is asking is for a debate and an approval by this parliament before we send troops off to war. We have been involved in too many political wars over the years. Too many wars have been commenced or have been continued for political reasons, not because Australia's national interest is under threat. We have been the only country that has followed the United States into every war, and it has had huge consequences for our people and for our troops. It is time, if we are to be truthful in our commitment to our members of the Australian Defence Force, to at least have the debate here before we deploy troops and continue to approve their deployment. In the remaining time that I have, I invite the seconder of this bill to contribute to the debate.
I second the bill and note that parliamentary war powers reform is something that the member for Melbourne and I have been advocating for for a great many years. In Australia, the Prime Minister alone can send the country to war, which is dangerous, unnecessary, outdated and out of step with the practice in many parliamentary democracies, including the United States, the United Kingdom and a number of countries in Western Europe. We have seen the gut-wrenching impact of this in the dreadful and ongoing consequences of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. That shocking and unnecessary intervention, almost exactly 18 years ago, was decided upon on a whim by then Prime Minister John Howard personally. It was a war based on a lie, and this parliament must ensure it is never repeated.
The decision to deploy troops overseas is not one that should be taken lightly. It affects all of us, not just the Defence Force, and should be made by the parliament and not just the Prime Minister and his mates. That he or she consults with the cabinet is simply not good enough. After all, the decision to resort to deadly force is one of the most significant decisions any government can make. It is not some politician's plaything but instead a decision requiring the most stringent scrutiny.
Research released by Roy Morgan late last year shows that over 83 per cent of Australians believe the prerogative to decide whether to send our troops into armed conflict abroad should rest with the parliament. Eighty-three per cent of Australians understand, that going to war is the most momentous decision that can be made on their behalf and, in a democracy, it's their elected representatives who should have that responsibility, not the Prime Minister. So I say to all members: please listen to the Australian people and support the member for Melbourne's private member's bill, because some things should be above party politics and it's undeniable that war powers is one of them.