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Monday, 23 June 2014
Page: 6836

Mr BANDT (Melbourne) (10:11): I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

There are few credible commentators left anywhere who do not regard the decision by the so-called coalition of the willing to invade Iraq as one of the most significant mistakes in modern Western foreign policy. At the time, Iraq was not threatening war. We now know too that there never were the 'weapons of mass destruction' that we were told there were. Australia committing troops to this war was wrong, not just for the credibility of those who made that flawed decision but, primarily, for those on the front line and of all parties involved in the conflict. The decision by Australia to send our troops to war in Iraq, based on an untruth, has meant that we have become complicit in the hundreds and thousands of deaths of Iraqis that resulted and in the deaths of those who continue to lose their lives. We have also become regarded by a generation of young Iraqis an occupying force. For the record, it is important to state what the casualties as a result of the war are. None of the estimates are fewer than 100,000. Some are higher than a million. And, as is now clear, this conflict has entered a terrible new phase which means that the numbers of people who continue to die in the ongoing sectarian conflicts across Iraq continue to rise. This is an unparalleled tragedy. The latest news reports suggest that ISIS has advanced closer still to the Iraqi capital, Baghdad.

I would like to make this point about the Defence Amendment (Parliamentary Approval of Overseas Service) Bill 2014, which I am introducing today. If this bill had become law in 2003 and parliament had the authority over troop deployments, perhaps the folly of this engagement, the true nature of the flawed decision, would have been revealed if the decision to deploy troops had been fully and publicly debated by parliament. If parliament had had the chance to debate the Iraq war and the sending of our troops into conflict, it is arguable that we would not have been complicit in this disaster. And make no mistake: the possibility that Australia commits troops again in some form or another to Iraq is now real.

Back in 2003, we were told that our involvement in Iraq would stabilise the country and bring peace and was the best way to tackle terrorism. Yet look at Iraq today. More war does not cure more war. Iraq today shows that. And yet more war is what some commentators are advocating. But the Australian parliament, seemingly the country's pre-eminent decision-making body, remains powerless over debating and deciding on sending troops to war. The need for the parliament to have the authority to deploy troops is therefore very real. Following Iraq, of course, Australia has also fought a long and costly war in Afghanistan. By 'costly', I am primarily referring to the cost of the Afghan war on Australian troops. Forty troops have lost their lives in Afghanistan, and two Australian defence personnel lost their lives in Iraq.

It is because of the seriousness of committing troops to conflict that the Australian parliament must debate such a momentous decision. There are few more momentous decisions that a country can take than to go to war or to send its troops into conflict. More often than not, this involves young men and women putting their lives on the line. For this reason, above all else, it is to me and to the Greens inconceivable that such a momentous decision is left to the executive alone. As we saw with the parliamentary debate on Australia's involvement in Afghanistan in 2010, each elected representative that has spoken made worthwhile contributions on behalf of their constituents—constituents who, through their representatives in a democracy such as ours, should have a say in any question to deploy troops.

That the Defence Act does not currently allow for that level of decision making, scrutiny and debate on such important questions is, I believe, a failure of democracy. The Defence Amendment (Parliamentary Approval of Overseas Service) Bill 2014 inserts a new section 50C into the Defence Act to require that decisions to deploy members of the Defence Force beyond the territorial limits be made not by the executive alone but rather by parliament as a whole.

This bill was initiated by the former Australian Democrats and supported by the Australian Greens, who took carriage of the bill after 2007. It is the latest iteration of bills introduced into the Senate since 1985 that aim to increase the transparency and accountability of governments by involving parliamentary discussion and scrutiny of the decision to deploy Australian military forces to overseas conflicts. It was reintroduced by my colleague Senator Ludlam in late 2008 and referred to the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade in August 2009. The committee, while neglecting to hold a hearing, nonetheless made a useful critique of the bill without undermining its essential purpose, in its report of February 2010. Senator Ludlam's dissenting report into the bill provided the transcript of an informal 'hearing' undertaken subsequent to the majority committee decision not to take evidence directly. I am proud to be the latest in a line of parliamentarians to sponsor a bill with this purpose.

This bill seeks to address the absence of checks and balances on the power of the executive which are characteristic of, and broadly considered essential to, any functioning democracy. Under the Defence Act 1903, the Prime Minister can commit Australian troops to conflict zones without the support of the United Nations, the Australian parliament or the Australian people. The Prime Minister can exercise this power as part of the government's prerogative powers or through a cabinet decision. The absence of appropriate checks and balances on this decision-making power saw the Australian Prime Minister rapidly deploy troops to an illegal war in Iraq in 2003 without consulting the people's representatives in parliament. A lesson can and must be learned from this kind of mistake, which is more easily made when a handful of people take closed and secret decisions on behalf of a nation without due consultation or participation.

This bill would bring Australia into conformity with principles and practices utilised in other democracies like Denmark, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Slovakia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and Turkey, where troop deployment is set down in constitutional or legislative provisions. Some form of parliamentary approval or consultation is also routinely undertaken in Austria, the Czech Republic, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Norway. Even our ally the United States has a similar provision that subjects the decision to go to war to a broader forum—section 8 of the US Constitution quite clearly says, 'Congress shall have power to declare war'.

Arguments against utilising our democratic structures on the important issue of troop deployment made by governments include that it would be impractical, restrictive and inefficient. Such arguments, though, ignore the fact that parliaments can and do make complex and nuanced decisions, and rapidly when necessary. But, as we have seen, decisions about war and peace made in undue haste that do not enjoy the mandate of the population are not legitimate or acceptable, especially when they involve sending Australia's sons, daughters, fathers and mothers into battle.

There are appropriate exemptions made in this bill that do not interfere with the non-warlike overseas service with which Australian troops are engaged—and I refer the House to section 50C(11). There are also appropriate exemptions in the bill to provide for the practicalities of situations where parliament cannot immediately meet—and I refer the House to section 50C subsections 3 and 7, which provide for the Governor-General to be able to make a proclamation regarding the declaration of war, provided that parliament is then recalled within a period of two days.

The decision to deploy troops overseas into a war zone is always difficult, always dangerous and always important. Such a decision should always demand debate and scrutiny and should be one that Australian citizens can own and be engaged in. When we look at other states, and so-called security sector reform during post conflict restructuring phases, we require security forces to be retrained and, importantly, decision making to be restructured to conform to democratic principles. A core component of regaining public faith in an effective security sector is placing it under democratic control. One standard espoused by the international community is military forces coming under the general rules of parliamentary control—accountability and other procedures seen as important in establishing transparent and legitimate government.

It is time that Australia joined its closest allies and like-minded democratic states by involving the parliament in the decision to send troops into battle. Only by returning the power to deploy troops overseas to the most representative branch of government, by requiring both houses of parliament to agree, can sufficient debate and scrutiny exist for a decision to made democratically—for a decision to be as representative of the will of the Australian people as possible. I commend the bill to the House.

The SPEAKER: Is the motion seconded?

Mr Wilkie: I second the motion and reserve my right to speak.

Debate adjourned.