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Going to War - Who Should Decide?

Speeches in Parliament
Scott Ludlam 25 Feb 2010

Senator LUDLAM-I thank the Senate for flexibility in being given leave to make a couple of brief remarks. The Defence Amendment (Parliamentary Approval of Overseas Service) Bill 2008 [No. 2] is a bill that I took carriage of as one of the first things that I did when I got here. As Senator Bishop has indicated, it does have a long history. It was first moved by Senator Colin Mason of the Democrats in the early 1980s and there has been nearly a quarter of a century of Senate consideration in one form or another of the proposition that the prerogative power of the executive to unilaterally put Australian men and women in harm's way should perhaps be moderated in some form by the parliament. It was originally put forward in amendments to the Defence Act and then down the track it was formalised as a private senator's bill. It has been amended a couple of times down the track. The bill that I inherited was substantially similar to what Senator Andrew Bartlett last introduced in 2003 or a little later.

Since the last substantive debate on this bill was had, we have had a very interesting object case study of what happens when the executive puts Australian troops in harm's way-in the Iraq deployment-against the popular will. I was one of the hundreds of thousands of Australians who marched against the Iraq deployment for the reasons that even the government's own intelligence agencies were telling the executive at the time: ‘This deployment is unwise. The reasoning is unfounded. We are even potentially being misled by some of our closest allies.' If all that is not enough of a reason to reconsider the idea, then consider that a handful of people or constitutionally potentially even the Prime Minister alone can make one of the most important and grave decisions of all. The parliament debates many issues and it is still unknown to me why we have the principle that the parliament should not have some role in decision making to reflect popular will through this place, as imperfect as this building's representation of popular will can sometimes be. At the very least, the Iraq deployment should teach us something about leaving these decisions in the hands of the executive alone.

The major parties, with some notable exceptions, appear to have bipartisan consensus that now is not the time. One notable exception is Melissa Parke, the federal member for Fremantle who put a submission into the bill to register her belief that the party's policy should change in this regard. Some of the language in the committee suggests, as I think the chair, Senator Bishop, intimated earlier, that the principle is not completely without merit and that essentially this is an argument about detail, not intent. I do not intend to verbal Senator Bishop at this point, but I think the wording of the inquiry document that we are tabling this morning is great. It is a very useful, critical examination of the issues of some of the things that have been raised over time, but it does not go down the second step of reflecting on solutions, ideas, answers or propositions. If the bill is flawed but the basic principle is sound, then it is the work of this parliament and the obligation of this parliament to improve the bill and move it forward. If that initiative will not be coming from the major parties, then it will certainly be coming from us.

The principle is that Australia would not be alone in moving towards some form of parliamentary oversight of the deployment of troops into war-like situations or into wars. It is not something that should simply remain with the executive. Many of our closest allies, including the Westminster parliament upon which our foundation and precedent is based, are moving in this direction, and the debate in the United Kingdom is vastly more mature than it is here in Australia. So it is not a tradition that we wish to simply follow blindly.

On the basis of the small number of submissions-but acknowledging that many were of very high quality-the committee decided not to hold a formal parliamentary hearing but a hearing that was extremely valuable. I encourage all senators to read the transcript which we have appended as our dissent to the majority report. We spoke to senior ADF personnel, a former defence secretary, UN peacekeepers, ambassadors and advocates. We deliberately invited people who would not agree with us on all the issues, but they certainly brought something new to the debate and I encourage senators to look at that transcript.

There is not time now to rebut point by point the issues that have been raised by the chair, but we think this is only the beginning. This is something that will need to be debated further by the parliament. As former Clerk of the Senate Harry Evans said of the bill, its chances may be slim but its time will come. (Time expired)


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