The historical record of who decided when Australia went to war since federation is detailed in the case study of Chapter 11 of the text book Australian Political Institutions (pp 445-450). Two current decisions provide a case study that can be used to analyse the significance of the various elements outlined in the chapter,
This question has once again become an issue with the Abbott government’s current involvement in military activity against the forces of the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The Abbott government carried out airdrops of humanitarian aid by Australian military aircraft ‘to besieged people on Mt Sinjar and subsequently to the besieged town of Amirli in northern Iraq” and airdrops of munitions to the Kurdish Peshmerga forces in Iraq to assist their fight against ISIL (Abbott, Tony, House of Representatives, Debates, 3 September 2014, p.50). This commitment strengthened on 14 September with the prime ministers’ announcement that the government was ‘sending 600 Australian personnel to the Middle East in preparation for militiary action against Islamic State (IS) militants in Iraq’ (www.abc.news/news/nsw, 14 September 2014).
Response to a great and powerful friend
Do these decisions indicate an Australian government responding unquestionably to the USA? (For a discussion of this issue see pp 429-430 of the text book).
There are some indications that this may be the case. For example, the prime minister said on 31 August 2014: ‘the United States Government has requested that Australia help to transport stores of military equipment, including arms and munitions, as part of a multi-nation effort’ (media release, http://www.pm.gov.au/media/2014-08-31/international-supply-mission-iraq).
On 1 September 2014 he stated: ‘This involvement has been at the request of the Obama administration, and with the support of the Iraqi government’ (Abbott, T., House of Representatives, Debates, 1 September 2014, p. 52).
On 14 September he said that ‘the United States had specifically requested Australia contribute to an international strike against the militants, who have captured large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria’, but he added that ‘the action was part of an international coalition, “not simply something that is an American-Australian operation”‘ (www.abc.net.au/news/nsw).
There was comment in the media of Australia: being ‘ready to do Washington’s bidding – again’ (McGeogh, P. 2014, ‘Abbott shows Australia still at America’s beck and call’, Sydney Morning Herald, 1 September, p. 4); that ‘Tony Abbott is eager – and just as importantly, wants to be seen to be eager – to lend Australia’s military muscle to US operations against Islamists in Iraq’, (Fitton, D. 2014, ‘PM should ask Indonesia and Malaysia for assistance’, Sydney Morning Herald, 1 September p. 4) and of Australia having ‘positioned itself near the centre of the White House’s plans to take down the brutal Islamic State terrorist organization currently cutting a bloody swathe through northern Iraq and Syria’ (Kenny, M. ,6 September 2014, http://www.watoday.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/australia-will-tackle-iraq-mission-headon-says-julie-bishop-20140906-10ded6.html).
Australia’s national security
The prime minister stated that a consideration in the decision was the fact that ‘the rise of Islamic State terrorism was ‘a material threat’ to Australia which could not be ignored’ (Kenny, M., Sydney Morning Herald, 15 September 2014, p. 1).
No role for parliament
The role of parliament in making foreign policy is discussed on pp 437-439 of the text book. In regard to the current issue, Greens Senate leader Christine Milne asked leave in the Senate to move a motion relating to parliamentary approval for the deployment of Australian troops in Iraq which was not granted. She then moved a motion for the suspension of standing orders to allow her to move a motion for consideration of this matter where she said: ‘There is no greater responsibility that a parliament has, than to send or armed service men and women into a war zone, into a war. I believe it is time that the Australian parliament was brought into this debate and given the ability to approve such an action’ (Milne, C., Senate Debates, 1 September 2014, p. 1). Her motion was not supported by the government and the opposition so it was defeated.
‘The Role of the Australian Parliament when going to war’ is the subject of a talk delivered on 12 September 2014 to the Australian Senate Occasional Lecture Series by the Hon. Dr Brendan Nelson, a former Coalition government defence minister and leader of the Opposition. The speech provides a comprehensive examination of the process of making Australian foreign policy, including the role of the Constitution, executive power and associated principles of responsible government and the role of the Australian parliament. The speech can be viewed on the Australian Parliament web site at: http://parlview.aph.gov.au/mediaPlayer.php?videoID=236961&operation_mode=parlview.
The significance of the executive in the foreign policy process is explained on pp 432-433 of the text book.
It is evident that the executive had a central and decisive role in determining what Australia should do in relation to the Iraq issue. The prime minister said: ‘the government would stick with the “standard procedure” for such decisions – which he outlined as consideration by the National Security Committee of Cabinet, Cabinet itself…the decision to commit troops is not a matter for the parliament, it’s a matter for the executive government’ (Griffiths, M. ABC News, 1 September http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-09-01/no-intention-to-send-combat-troops-to-iraq-pm/5709986). On 14 September he stated that the decision to commit 600 Australian personnel and military aircraft to Iraq had been discussed by Cabinet and the National Security Committee (www.abc.net.au/news/nsw, 14 September 2014). Senator Johnston, Minister for Defence, said: ‘This is probably the most important decision a Prime Minister or his cabinet can ever make’ (Senate, Debates, 1 September 2014, p. 2).
Input from the bureaucracy is also essential in making these decisions (see pp 436-437 of the text book). In this case the Defence Department had to be involved because of the commitment of personnel and military equipment. Defence Force chief, Mark Binskin, stood alongside the prime minister at his press conference ‘to confirm that Australian planes would soon be flying in arms and ammunition’ (www.abc.net.au/news/2014-09-01/no-intention-to-send-combat-troops-to-iraq-pm/5709986).
Bipartisanship between the government of the day and the Opposition is very likely to occur in the making of Australian foreign policy. In this case the Leader of the Opposition, Bill Shorten, iterated Labor’s ‘support for the government on this question’, and commented that ‘national security is, and always will be, for Labor above politics’ (House of Representatives, Debates, 1 September 2014, p. 53). Shorten said that the prime minister had briefed the Opposition on its decision ‘to contribute to an international coalition to fight ISIL’ and that Labor supported ‘the announcement of the deployment of an Australian military force- including RAAF assets and personnel – to the United Arab Emirates’ (http://australianpolitics.com/2014/09/14/alp-supports-iraq-commitment-greens-opposed.html).
The foreign policy process in relation to the Australian government’s decision to provide assistance to the Ukrainian government in its struggle against rebel forces made in a different context is also indicative of the power of the executive.
The reasons for doing so were different from the Iraq situation. The prime minister told the parliament that Australia was ‘truly grateful’ for Ukraine’s assistance in recovering the victims of the downed MH17 aircraft and ‘would like to repay Ukraine for its support and friendship’. As part of that package he said the government was considering ‘non-lethal military assistance to Ukraine, and in the medium term’ would consider ‘civil and military capacity building assistance’. The Australian government would also establish an embassy in Kiev, the Ukranian capital. (Abbott, T. House of Representatives, Debates, 3 September 2014, pp. 51-52).
The significance of the executive in making these decisions is evident from the prime minister’s response to a comment by the Chief of the Defence Force that ‘a small team of ADF logistics experts could be sent to look at military systems’ in Ukraine’ where Abbott denied that the Australian government was ‘considering sending military trainers and advisers to Ukraine’ (Taylor, L. 5 September 2014: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/sep/05/abbott-denies-australia-is-considering-sending-military-personnel-to-ukraine).
Dr Gwynneth Singleton
15 September 2014