Back to All News

Parliamentary Approval of Overseas Service Bill

Speeches in Parliament
Scott Ludlam 17 Sep 2008

The Defence Amendment (Parliamentary Approval of Overseas Service) Bill 2008 was initiated by the Democrats and supported by the Australian Greens who now take carriage of the bill.

This is the latest iteration of Bills generated by Senators in this place since 1985 that have aimed 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.

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 of 1903, the Prime Minister can commit Australian troops to conflict zones without the support of the United Nations, the Australian parliament or the 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. The Howard government was the first government in Australia's history to go to war without the support of both houses of Parliament. This bill provides an opportunity to ensure this never happens again.

The responsibility of sending Australian men and women into danger and quite possibly to their deaths should not be solely on the shoulders of a handful of leaders, but more broadly shared by policy makers and the public they represent. While citizens do delegate responsibilities to leaders by electing them into power, the democratic system includes an ongoing forum for discussion where leaders must provide reasoning and accounting for their decisions, the Parliament. Citizens that do regularly participate and contribute to public debates through engaging their representatives are denied their democratic right to participate in the gravest decision of sending the country into war, which often has implications far into the future.

This bill would bring Australia into conformity with principles and practices utilized 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.

The very source of our own Westminster system, the United Kingdom has this year transferred the prerogative power to declare war, ratify treaties and appoint judges from the executive to the parliament. 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 says that "Congress shall have the 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 ignore the fact that Parliaments can and do make complex and nuanced decisions, and rapidly when necessary. While autocracies or dictatorships may well be more speedy and efficient, they are not legitimate or acceptable forms of government. Similarly, 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 the bill that do not interfere with the non-warlike overseas service with which Australian troops are engaged.

The international community supports countries emerging from conflict in a process known as ‘security sector reform'. During this post-conflict reconstruction phase, security forces are retrained and importantly, decision-making is 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 procedure 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.

I commend the bill to the Senate.

Back to All News