The Role of Government and Parliament in the Decision to Go to War
Private Jake Kovco—age 33
Captain Mark Bingley—age 35
SAS Trooper Josh Porter—age 28
Trooper David ‘Poppy’ Pearce—age 41
SAS Sergeant Matthew Locke—age 33
Private Luke Worsley—age 26
SAS Signaller Sean McCarthy—age 25
Lance Corporal Jason Marks—age 27
These eight men died as a direct result of decisions I made, supported
or administered during my tenure as Australia’s Minister for Defence.
For me, those at a ministerial level with whom I served, those
ministers who came before me and for those that have followed, the issues we
are about to explore are anything but academic hypotheticals.
They are real. They are very real.
Those decisions, carried most heavily by prime ministers, are
also ones from which enemy combatants will be killed. They, like Australia’s
own defence personnel, have families who love them and give meaning to their
lives, whatever the misguided, distorted and perverse nature of their cause.
When Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II visited Australia in
October 2011, I was watching the news broadcast of her visit to Canberra in my
Brussels office on BBC World News.
The British journalist concluded his ‘package’ on the front
steps of Parliament House. Looking down ANZAC Parade he said, ‘There is
something the Australians have right. Looking from the seat of government here,
in the direct line of sight is the Australian War Memorial. It reminds
Australia’s politicians that some of their decisions come at a very high price’.
The Australian War Memorial was the vision of Charles Bean,
Australia’s official First World War historian. Bean landed with the Australian
Imperial Force (AIF) at Gallipoli on 25 April and stayed with them—at the
front, right through until the war’s end.
In Pozières, France, in 1916 Australia sustained 23,000
casualties in six weeks. It was here, in late July, that Bean recorded the
following in his diary:
Many a man lying out there at Pozieres and in the low scrub
of Gallipoli, with his poor tired senses barely working through the fever of
his brain, has thought in his last moments...well...well, it’s over. But in
Australia—they will be proud of this.
A mortally wounded Australian later asked of Bean, ‘Will they
remember me in Australia?’
And so it was, in discussion with others, Bean resolved that
at the war’s end, he would build the finest memorial and museum to the men of
the AIF and nurses. He returned to Australia to convince the government to pass
an Act to give effect to his idea. The men fighting and dying in France,
Belgium and Sinai–Palestine would know that at war’s end, they would be
The political capital of our nation resides within this, our
national parliament. But the War Memorial is custodian of its soul.
The visiting Chief of the Turkish Air force last year pointed
to one of the names in bronze where Australian have fought and died over one
hundred years. He asked, ‘Why were Australians there?’
I replied, ‘General—that is a very important question. In
answering it, your journey of discovery will lead you to an understanding of
who we are and what makes us tick as Australians’.
Our destiny as a people is determined not by the economic
indices with which we are so understandably obsessed, but our values and our
beliefs, the way we relate to one another and see our place in the world. We
are defined most by our heroes and villains, triumphs and failures, the way in
which as a people we have faced the adversities before us.
Federation in 1901 was the culmination of more than a
generation of debate amongst our forebears in the colonies as to whether we
wanted to be governed as one.
But beyond the nation’s rich Indigenous history, pioneering
efforts of those who came on the First Fleet and immigrants who joined them in
the nineteenth century, we were yet to have our ‘story’.
The cataclysm that unfolded from late 1914 changed us.
Formation of the Australian Imperial Forces, overseas
deployment of Australians in an Australian uniform with an Australian flag and
all that would follow militarily in parallel with the deep divisions that
emerged domestically, gave birth to our greater sense of who we are.
Every nation has its own story. This is ours.
Much of it is embedded in the service and sacrifice of 2
million men and women who have worn—and who now wear—the uniform of the Royal
Australian Navy, Army and Royal Australian Air Force. So too, the decisions our
governments have made to deploy those uniformed Australians are integral to
A history of Australian Government decisions for war
Perhaps the two most significant powers vested in government
are to deny freedom of its citizens and to deploy its defence forces for war.
Since federation, neither the Australian Constitution nor
defence legislation has required the government to gain parliamentary approval
to deploy forces overseas. Nor in the rare cases that it has occurred, has the
government had to consult parliament in its decision to declare war.
It would be reasonable to expect this to be explicitly stated
in Australia’s Constitution. Section 51 of the Australian Constitution empowers
the Australian Parliament to pass laws in relation to ‘naval and military
defence’. Section 68 entrusts the Governor-General, as representative of the
monarch, with commander-in-chief of Australian forces, although in practice
this is purely titular.
There is no explicit statement in the Constitution setting out
specifically who should commit Australia to war.
Paradoxically perhaps, the answer does lie in the
Finding it requires the context of understanding that our
Constitution is a document framed in the nineteenth century according to
British conventions and practices.
For centuries in Britain, the power to declare war was one of
the royal prerogatives, entirely a matter for the Crown. Under the Australian
Constitution, former royal prerogatives—including the power to make war, deploy
troops and declare peace—are part of the executive power of the Commonwealth.
Executive power is recognised in section 61 of the
Constitution. It vests executive power in the Queen and permits its exercise by
the Governor-General on the Queen’s behalf.
The Governor-General acts on advice of ministers in accordance
with the principle of responsible government. That principle is at the very
heart of British and Australian constitutional arrangements. It is one which
requires the ‘Crown’ to act on the advice of ministers who are in turn members
of, and responsible to, the parliament.
Contemporary practice is that decisions to go to war are
ultimately matters for the prime minister and cabinet, involving directly
neither the Governor-General nor Federal Executive Council.
Although the government is not legally required to consult
parliament when declaring war or deploying forces overseas, on most occasions
the prime minister or defence minister has informed parliament of cabinet’s
decision through a ministerial statement or tabled papers. This invariably is
followed by debate and vote on a motion.
The newly elected Howard Government established the National
Security Committee (NSC) of cabinet in 1996. This body has since assumed
pre-eminence in the decision-making process.
It is the NSC that considers, debates and resolves to commit
Australian defence personnel to domestic or overseas deployments. The full
cabinet then considers the advice and recommendation of the NSC. Once a
position is adopted, the Opposition leader, members of the full government
executive and its back bench are briefed.
Since 1985 the Australian Democrats, firstly, and more
recently the Australian Greens, have attempted to remove the exclusive power of
the government to commit Australia to war.
Attempts have been made to repeal section 50C of the Defence
Act 1903, which allows the deployment of Australian troops overseas,
replacing it with a requirement for both houses of parliament to approve a
declaration of war and commitment of troops.
While the power to make war, deploy troops and declare peace
are essential elements of the executive power of the Commonwealth, it is open
to any government to put such matters to the parliament for debate. The Hawke
Government did just this in January 1991.
Both Canada and New Zealand have similar constitutional
arrangements in place to Australia.
The Clark Labour Government offered to supply New Zealand SAS
troops to the United States within days of the attacks on 11 September 2001.
The decision was not referred to parliament until 3 October
2001. Prime Minister Clark emphasised that although the government did not need
the approval of parliament, she brought the matter to a vote because she ‘wanted
the troops to know ... they had the full support of MPs’.
Although the legal position in the United Kingdom remains
unchanged from that of royal prerogative exercisable by ministers, it is
standard practice for governments to keep parliament well informed of decisions
to use force and the progress of campaigns.
Since 2003, and Britain joining the coalition that would
forcibly topple Saddam Hussein, there have been calls for the royal prerogative,
including the monarch’s war powers, to be codified and subject to parliamentary
A precedent for military action being subject to parliamentary
approval was set in 2013. The Cameron Government sought in-principle support
from the House of Commons for United Kingdom military action against the Syrian
government of Bashar al-Assad. The government motion was defeated.
Prime Minister Cameron, speaking in the House, subsequently
ruled out any involvement by the United Kingdom in military action against
Syria. When Opposition leader Edward Miliband asked by point of order for the prime
minister to rule out use of the royal prerogative for the UK to enjoin any
military action before another vote in the House of Commons, the prime minister
I can give that assurance. Let me say that the House has not
voted for either motion tonight. I strongly believe in the need for a tough
response to the use of chemical weapons, but I also believe in respecting the
will of this House of Commons. It is very clear tonight that, while the House
has not passed a motion, the British Parliament, reflecting the views of the
British people, does not want to see British military action. I get that, and
the Government will act accordingly.[*]
The Constitution of the United States grants to Congress the
power to declare war, to raise and support armies, and to provide and maintain
a navy (Article 1, section 8, clause 11). The president is made the Commander
in Chief of the armed forces (Article 2, section 2, clause 1).
The War Powers Resolution 1973 (also known as the War
Powers Act) provides for the president to consult, report and terminate
deployment of armed forces with the approval of Congress.
Presidents have not always followed this Act. Courts have
failed to uphold its legality, the US Supreme Court especially has been
reluctant to take on cases which deal with it, regarding it as a political
rather than judicial issue.
In 2003 the district court’s Judge Tauro rejected the
contention that the president must have congressional authority to order
American forces into combat. He concluded, ‘Case law makes clear that the
Congress does not have the exclusive right to determine whether or not the
United States engages in war’. This decision was upheld in an appeal later that
year to the First US Circuit Court of Appeals.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) arising from the
Washington Declaration of 1949 has two essential articles which govern its
founding principle of mutual defence.
On 12 September 2001, NATO invoked Article 5 for the first and
only time in its history in response to the attacks on the United States the
day before. Article 5 provides for individual and mutual self-defence and is
consistent with Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations.
First World War
A combination of diplomatic miscalculations, brinkmanship and
bluff by statesmen and military leaders gradually escalated a minor conflict in
the Balkans into a large scale European war. Any opportunity for mediation was
lost when on 28 July 1914, Austria–Hungary declared war on Serbia. Russia
mobilised against Germany and Austria–Hungary the following day. Germany
mobilised its armies on 31 July. On 3 August Germany commenced its
invasion of Belgium so that it could attack Russia’s ally, France.
At 11pm on 4 August 1914 (English time), the British cabinet
of Prime Minister Herbert Asquith declared war on Germany as a consequence of
its invasion of neutral Belgium and France, and of Germany’s failure to respond
to the ultimatum by Britain for it to withdraw its forces.
Although Britain was the only major power to debate in
parliament its entry into the war, the British Government did not consult
Australia or any other dominions and colonies about the decision to declare
war. Legally, as part of the British Empire, Australia was at war immediately
upon the British Government’s declaration of war.
Modern day assertions that Australia was ‘fighting other
peoples’ wars’, reflects a failure to understand the nature of the British
Empire at the time and how Australians regarded their own nation. They saw
themselves as ‘Australian Britons’ and cherished their ties to the Empire
through almost every thread of society.
In July 1914 Australia was in the midst of a double
dissolution election campaign. The Liberal Party led by Prime Minister Joseph
Cook was seeking to remove the Labor Party Senate majority frustrating the
Andrew Fisher, leader of the Labor Opposition, announced to an
election meeting in Colac, Victoria on 31 July, that Australia should stand beside
Britain and ‘defend her to our last man and our last shilling’.[†]
Prime Minister Cook told a campaign gathering in Horsham that, ‘all our
resources in Australia are in the Empire and for the Empire, and for the
preservation and security of the Empire’.[‡]
The Governor-General, Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson, had adopted
an interventionist posture in relation to his role. That same day he sent a
telegram to Cook asking, ‘Would it not be well, in view of the latest news from
Europe, that ministers should meet in order that the Imperial government may
know what support to expect from Australia?’[§]
Four days later on 3 August, Cook convened his cabinet in
Melbourne. He subsequently advised the British Government that if Britain went
to war Australia would place the Royal Australian Navy vessels under British
Admiralty control and send a land force of 20,000 men ‘of any suggested
composition to any destination desired by the Home Government’.
The parliament did not sit until 8 October. There was no
ministerial statement to parliament. The Governor-General in his opening
You have been called together at the earliest moment after
the return of the writs to deal with matters of great national importance, many
of them arising out of the calamitous war in which the Empire has been
compelled to engage ... It has been necessary to anticipate Parliamentary
approval of expenditure urgently required for war purposes. A Bill covering all
such unauthorized expenditure will be submitted for your consideration at the
earliest possible moment.[**]
The motion was moved ‘That the Address be agreed to by the
House’. It was resolved in the affirmative without division.
Second World War
In September 1939, the Australian Government did not consider
it had a choice over whether or not to go to war against Germany. Prime
Minister Robert Menzies simply declared that since Britain was at war, so too
was Australia. And so from 3 September a state of war existed between the
Commonwealth of Australia and Germany. The only formal act was a notice in the Gazette
requesting that the British Government inform the German Government that
Australia would be associated with Britain in the war.
Parliament met on 6 September 1939. Prime Minister Menzies
tabled a White Paper and delivered a ministerial statement on the war in
Europe. The paper contained the text of documents exchanged between Britain and
Germany. The motion ‘That the paper be printed’ was debated in both houses.
In his statement, Menzies said ‘However long this conflict may
last, I do not seek a muzzled Opposition. Our institutions of parliament, and
of liberal thought, free speech, and free criticism, must go on’.[††]
In his response, Opposition leader John Curtin expressed
disappointment that Menzies had not outlined ‘the intentions of the Government
in respect of the defence of this Commonwealth, and of the general principles
upon which it proposed to be influenced in framing its programme’.[‡‡]
Curtin added a statement endorsed by his Labor caucus
demanding that to provide maximum protection of the democratic rights of
Australians, ‘it is essential that the Parliament of the Commonwealth should
remain in session’.[§§]
Debate in the House was adjourned. The motion was passed in
the Senate on the voices without division.
In December 1941 Prime Minister John Curtin’s Labor government
pursued a constitutional innovation whereby Australia made a declaration of war
independent of Britain. With the declaration of war on Bulgaria in January
1942, the Australian Government implied that a British dominion could remain
neutral even if a state of war existed between Britain and another nation.
United Nations Security Council resolutions were approved on
25 and 27 June 1950. They had recommended that ‘Members of the United Nations
furnish such assistance to the Republic of Korea as may be necessary to repel
the armed attack and to restore international peace and security in the area’.[***]
Having already placed ‘an Australian naval force ... at the
disposal of the United States authorities on behalf of the Security Council’
and similarly ‘the Royal Australian Air Force fighter squadron stationed in
Japan’, Prime Minister Robert Menzies delivered a statement to parliament on 6
July 1950.[†††] Ben
Chifley, Leader of the Opposition, supported the motion, there being no
division in either house.
The commitment of Australian forces to the conflict in Vietnam
was a gradual process of escalation in the context of Cold War concern over
regional security and ‘communist expansion’.
As Cold War tensions escalated during the 1960s, the Vietnam
conflict assumed disproportionate strategic influence. Vietnam became the focal
point for a supreme struggle between the communist bloc, the United States and
Australia’s gradual military involvement in South Vietnam was
based less on ideology than on two pragmatic principles.
First, the government sent forces to support the emergent
independent state in South Vietnam to frustrate communist expansion through
aggression and subversion in South-East Asia. The ‘domino theory’ was evoked.
Second, by supporting the United States in Vietnam, Australia
was held to be ‘paying the premium’ on an insurance policy. The Australian
Government sought both to maintain a strong American presence in South-East
Asia and to ensure American support of Australia’s own security.
On 24 May 1962, the Minister for Defence, Athol Townley,
issued a press release announcing that Australia was sending a group of
military instructors to South Vietnam in response to a request from its
There was no statement to parliament.
Three years later, on 29 April 1965, Prime Minister Robert
Menzies noted that in a ministerial statement on foreign affairs on 23 March
1965, the Minister for External Affairs had ‘devoted a large part of his
statement to Vietnam’.[‡‡‡]
Menzies advised the House that a request had been received from the government
of South Vietnam for further military assistance. In response, the government
had decided ‘in principle some time ago’ that it would be willing to do so if
such a request had come.[§§§] A
positive response was regarded as necessary for collaboration with the United
In response, Leader of the Opposition Arthur Calwell said, ‘we
oppose the Government’s decision to send 800 men to fight in Vietnam. We oppose
it firmly and completely’.[****] The
House divided along party lines.
The ensuing five years would see early overwhelming public
support for the war and Australia’s involvement in it transform into that of a
deeply divided nation. Opposition to the war and conscription of young
Australians sadly extended to political attacks on Australia’s military
personnel. The latter is not a mistake the nation will make again.
When the president of Ba’athist Iraq, Saddam Hussein,
sanctioned an invasion of Kuwait on 2 August 1990, global condemnation ensued.
The United Nations Security Council moved quickly to approve a trade embargo
against Iraq. A large, US-led multinational taskforce was assembled to block
Iraq’s access to the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman to enforce the embargo.
The UN Security Council set a deadline for Iraqi forces to
withdraw from Kuwait by 15 January 1991. When this was not met, the 40,000
troops from 30 countries assembled in Saudi Arabia launched air attacks on
Prime Minister Bob Hawke announced on 10 August 1990 cabinet’s
decision that day to commit Australia. Australia would deploy naval ships in
support of the blockade and later a small number of intelligence and medical
Prime Minister Hawke was keen to inform parliament and for it
to ‘sign on’ to the government’s decision.
On 21 August 1990, in a ministerial statement to the House, he
I want to take this first opportunity available to me to
inform the House of the view the Government has taken of the situation which
has arisen in the Middle East over the past three weeks and of the measures we
have adopted to meet that situation.[††††]
The statement was supported by the John Hewson led Opposition.
The motion was agreed without division.
On 4 December, Prime Minister Bob Hawke delivered a
ministerial statement on the Gulf crisis. In it he expressed strong support for
the United Nations Security Council Resolution 678, drawing attention to its
request for all nations to provide appropriate support for actions taken under
Parliament was recalled on 21–22 January 1991 to specifically
debate the Gulf War. Whilst refusing to allow questions of him or of ministers
in the House, Prime Minister Hawke said this:
The decision to commit Australian armed forces to combat is
of course one that constitutionally is the prerogative of the Executive. It is
fitting, however, that I place on parliamentary record the train of events
behind this decision.[‡‡‡‡]
The motion moved by the prime minister was strongly supported
by the Opposition. It sought support for the United Nations and Resolution 678.
But it also expressed ‘its full confidence in, and support for, Australian
forces serving with the UN-sanctioned multi-national forces in the Gulf’.[§§§§]
At least one lesson had been learned from Vietnam.
On 11 September 2001, four civilian airliners were hijacked
and used as weapons against targets in New York and Washington DC—principally
the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. Almost 3,000 innocent civilians, including
10 Australians, were murdered that day.
These heinous events had been planned and executed by Al-Qa’ida,
led by Osama bin Laden working from Afghanistan. It was the culmination of
similar, smaller scale, terrorist attacks against mainly US interests over a
Prime Minister John Howard was in Washington when the attacks
occurred. He was witness to the terror, fear, chaos, immediate consequences and
response. He announced his intention at a press conference in the afternoon of
12 September to support a US military response, even though no request had yet
He later acknowledged that this commitment was made without
consultation, but in the belief that he would have the support of cabinet, the
Opposition leader, and the Australian people.[*****]
The National Security Committee first met on 12 September in
Canberra, chaired by John Anderson as Acting Prime Minister. John Howard spoke
to Alexander Downer on 13 September by phone from Air Force Two en route to
Hawaii to discuss Australia’s response. In outlining US thinking, Howard stated
that retaliation was ‘virtually inevitable’.[†††††]
NATO invoked its Article 5 mutual defence clause that day in
support of the US.
Invoking ANZUS as justification was raised by Downer with
Howard during this phone call pursuant to an earlier discussion with Australia’s
ambassador to the US, Michael Thawley.[‡‡‡‡‡]
Cabinet endorsed invoking ANZUS on 14 September with Howard
back in Australia. Opposition leader Kim Beazley supported it. United Nations
Security Council Resolution 1373, passed on 28 September, denounced the 9/11
attacks and affirmed the collective right of self-defence along with the use of
‘all means’ to combat threats by terrorists.[§§§§§]
Prime Minister Howard announced cabinet’s decision for a
military commitment and deployment on 4 October.
The first parliamentary sitting day after the 9/11 attacks was
17 September. Routine business was suspended in both houses. The same motion
was introduced into both houses. Beyond condolences, it also proposed that 9/11
constituted an attack against the United States within the meaning of Articles
IV and V of the ANZUS Treaty. As such, Australia was committed to support
US-led action against those responsible.
Although there was no dissent, some called for a ‘tolerant,
measured, discriminate and just response’. Some Democrats and Greens senators
supported a change to the motion away from what they regarded as an open-ended
military commitment to the US.
On 25 September 2001, the Age newspaper reported a poll
in which 77 per cent of Australian supported the US-led war against terrorism.
The United States was in no mood for appeasement after the
September 11 attacks. Indeed, protection of the United States homeland, its
people, interests and values was foremost in the thinking of its political
class and leadership.
In its simplest form, ‘who and what represented the next
possible, significant threat?’
The regime of Saddam Hussein had used chemical and biological
weapons against Iranian and Kurdish civilians both during and after the
Iran–Iraq war (1980–88). It had also pursued an extensive biological and
nuclear weapons program throughout the 1980s. In 1988, faced with diminishing
Iraqi cooperation, the United States had called for the withdrawal of all UN
weapons inspectors. This was despite its belief that Iraq still possessed large
hidden stockpiles of ‘weapons of mass destruction’ (WMD) and that Hussein was
trying to procure more.
By 2003 in the post-9/11 world, the US was also of the belief
that Hussein was harbouring and supporting Al-Qa’ida.
Passed in November 2002, UN Resolution 1441 outlined breaches
by Saddam Hussein of a succession of UN resolutions—among them its refusal to
grant unrestricted access to UN weapons inspectors. The resolution offered Iraq
its last chance to comply with its disarmament obligations. It failed to do so.
On 8 March 2003 John Howard moved a motion condemning Iraq’s refusal
to abide by UN Security Council resolutions and endorsing the government’s
decision to commit Australian Defence Force elements to the international
coalition of military forces.
Opposition leader Simon Crean said that ‘Labor opposes your
commitment to war. We will argue against it and we will call for the troops to
On 13 March 2003, Prime Minister John Howard addressed the
National Press Club and said in part:
if the world fails to deal once and for all with the problem
of Iraq and its possession of weapons of mass destruction, it will have given a
green light to the further proliferation of these weapons and ... undo 30 years
of hard international work ... designed to enforce ... conventions on chemical
weapons [and] the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.[††††††]
Australia committed a small yet highly effective military
force of all three service arms to the coalition invasion of Iraq.
Within three weeks of the invasion, coalition forces seized
Baghdad and overthrew Hussein’s corrupt and brutal dictatorship. WMD were not
The real struggle was about to begin and for Australia, six
years’ contribution to security, counter-insurgency and nation building.
Personal reflections and observations
I have reached the conclusion that peace is not a natural
state of affairs.
It is something towards which we must constantly work, making
sacrifices and compromises in the pursuit of a peaceful regional and world
A visitor to the Australian War Memorial asked me last year
why we do not tell Australians what the nation does to avoid war. Good
A museum for both democracy and Australian diplomacy could
serve such a purpose.
The R.G. Casey building houses the Department of Foreign
Affairs and Trade (DFAT). Its corridors, theatres and meeting rooms are adorned
with photographs of Australian prime ministers, foreign ministers and diplomats
at key moments in our nation’s history, prosecuting Australia’s interests.
These are often the stories of a nation working to avoid war and shaping peace.
They need to be told.
Giving Australians an insight into and understanding of what
the nation’s leaders and diplomats have done to maintain peace and prevent
conflict is no less worthy than that of telling our experience of war.
I am also reminded each day at the Australian War Memorial
that in the end there are some truths by which we live that are worth fighting
Proponents of the parliament making the decision for the
nation going to war assume and frequently assert that a parliamentary decision
is more likely to reflect public opinion. It is assumed that the executive is
removed from public opinion and as such, the momentous decision to go to war
should be one made ‘closer to the people’ who elect their representatives. It
also assumes that the popular view is correct and should prevail—informed or
One of the most difficult and important tasks before a member
of parliament is to know the difference between what is popular and what is
right. Some parliamentarians regard themselves not as representatives in the
mould of Edmund Burke, but as delegates.
I well recall in debate of the bill to overturn the Northern
Territory’s euthanasia legislation, the then Member for Cowan told the House
that he found the issue very hard, so he had surveyed his electorate. As the
majority supported euthanasia, he would vote in accordance with their opinion.
The parliament, with some notable exceptions, is a reflection
of the society from which its members come. Men and women come from all walks
of life, bringing with them the experiences that have layered their lives,
differing intellect, prejudices, interests and capacity to understand.
Some wars enjoy broad popular support—at least at first.
Others do not.
These decisions are never taken lightly by those who make
them. But they are informed with the best intelligence, military, strategic and
diplomatic advice that can be offered.
Would the House of Representatives make the decision where the
government has a majority? Would the Senate also vote, and what then of it
having a different view from the House?
By definition a divided parliament means the Opposition
opposing involvement in a particular war.
If the key instruments of authority were vested in the
parliament and one deeply divided, the impact on deploying defence personnel,
enemy propaganda and sustaining morale for the operation would be dramatic.
The truth of it is that when these decisions are made, very
careful consideration is given to every aspect of the proposed operation by
those in the executive of government. The prime minister, defence and foreign
ministers are integral, carefully weighing up the many issues.
Where lies Australia’s national interest? What are the likely
consequences of involvement in this conflict? What are the geopolitical and
geostrategic risks? What is the attitude to this proposed deployment of the
international community and of Australia’s key allies? What will be the human
and economic costs? What is our objective and how likely is that to be achieved
and at what cost? What are the precedents and experiences of history upon which
we can draw? What will be the disposition of members of the outer ministry and
back bench? Will the Opposition leader support this? Where will the Australian
public line up on this and how much information can we safely make available to
The prime minister and key ministers know, along with their
back bench, that they will have to explain and defend their decisions
extensively once made. They know that parliamentary question time is likely to
be dominated with probing into what will become increasingly difficult
questions. They know that the media will relentlessly scrutinise, probe and
And of course, they also know that at some point there will be
parents, widows, widowers and children whose questions will be hardest to
answer. If you are not clear in your own mind why lives were lost in a particular
cause, it will never be clear in theirs.
In the end, from my own experience, after all the advice from
the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, DFAT, Defence Intelligence
Organisation, Office of National Assessments, Australian Secret Intelligence
Service, Defence Chiefs and other agencies, it comes down to this—‘what is the
right thing to do?’
Afghanistan was the right thing to do.
Three thousand civilians had been murdered on 11 September
2001 in an attack on the US mainland. Australia activated the provisions of the
ANZUS Alliance to do what would be needed. A little over a year later 88
Australians were among those murdered in Bali by three men who had trained with
Al-Qa’ida under the protection of the Taliban.
Beyond that though, it is clear that our generation is facing
a resurgent totalitarianism in the form of Islamic extremism, having hijacked
the good name of Islam to build a violent political utopia.
But the other reason is that it is the ‘right thing to do’. It
would be delusional and irresponsible to think we should leave this to a
handful of other countries. To do so would violate all this nation has stood
for in its short history.
In hindsight though, we were disadvantaged going into a
NATO-led war without having a relationship with NATO. But NATO suffered also
because it did not know how to effectively engage a non-NATO member turning up
to fight with political will, military capability and financial commitment.
As Australia’s first ambassador to NATO, my job was to ‘get us
to the table’, to ensure that not only were we shaping decisions, but also
making them. The low point had been NATO’s refusal to allow Kevin Rudd as prime
minister to join the Afghanistan discussion at the NATO leaders’ summit at
Bucharest in 2008.
At one NATO meeting prior to the Chicago 2012 leaders’ summit,
I said to representatives of the 50 countries around the table and to NATO’s
military leadership that we were ‘bloody angry’. I said very forcefully, ‘Australia
is the ninth largest overall military contributor. We have the third largest
Special Forces contingent. We are one of the largest funders of the Afghan
National Security Forces and of development assistance. We are fighting in the
south and have sustained significant casualties. And yet you still don’t get
it—you are making decisions without involving us.’
When asked later that day by the NATO Secretary General’s
office of my instructions from Canberra, I was able to say that I had been
advised to ‘Keep sticking it into the bastards’!
With the negotiation and signing of NATO’s first High Level
Political Declaration with a non-NATO member by its Secretary General and
Australia’s prime minister in 2012, this will never happen again. Australia now
enjoys enhanced partner status with NATO. The benefits are already being seen
in the context of events in Ukraine.
Although I was not a member of the National Security Committee
in 2003, I was a cabinet minister when faced with the decision to join the ‘coalition
of the willing’ in Iraq. I supported it.
I knew it was a momentous decision and I was also aware of my
limited understanding of the complexities of the seventh century caliphate and
how removing Saddam Hussein might play out both in Iraq and the region.
But for me, here was a man who had been responsible on average
for over 70,000 deaths a year for 15 years—many by brutal torture
including through two wars. This was after an attack on the US that had killed
more people than had the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941. The US was not
prepared to wait for a second tragedy, possibly sponsored by a rogue nation
We knew Saddam Hussein had had WMD and had used them. But
because of his refusal to cooperate with the UN weapons inspectors, we did not
know if he still had them.
Australia had both a Republican US president and a British
Labour prime minister committed to removing Hussein, effectively asking of us—‘which
side are you on?’
Based on what we knew at that time, it was the right thing to
do. Saddam Hussein in hindsight was not an immediate threat, but he was an
The events that followed were as much responsible for the
ensuing decade in Iraq as the removal itself—dismantling the Iraqi army, de-Ba’athification
of the public service and the use of US contractors to provide services were
among early errors.
I have found over the years and in the many roles in which I
have served, that in the end you have to make your own decisions. In doing so,
you seek and listen to the advice of experts in the particular field in which
you are working.
But I have also learned something about experts, from my
leadership of the medical profession until now. They tend to see the world
through a straw.
In the end, you have to apply intellectual rigor to the
process of exercising judgement in the very best interests of those whom you
lead and represent.
During election campaigns we often hear our political leaders
seeking the office of prime minister, ask the question, ‘who do you trust?’ It
will be specifically directed at a particular field of policy—interest rates,
security, health or education.
But it is the most important question for every Australian to
ask of him or herself before voting.
Although candidates and parties have policies, election
commitments and manifestos, in the end we are choosing a person—a prime
minister, to exercise judgement on our behalf and that of our nation over three
It is not for the known we choose a prime minister—but the
The decision to go to war is the most important any nation
will make. It cannot be one that could be held hostage to populism in any form.
Looking back over our history, in my view all our governments
have made the right decision. It was right at the time based on all the
information available to them, having regard for Australia’s geopolitical
circumstances and best interests.
It is equally clear that when regarded as being in the
national interests, our governments have gone to considerable lengths to
involve the parliament.
In hindsight, it is easy to contest a number of those
decisions. Hindsight is a wonderful thing of course—my kids have it.
But I am also confident that if the parliament had been fully
responsible for making these decisions over more than a century, we would be a
different nation today with a different view of itself and its place in the
In the end, someone has to be held responsible for decisions.
That should be the government and its prime minister of the day.
Whatever the view any one of us adopts for the decisions made
to go to war, to Bean’s ‘man lying out there at Pozières and the low scrub of
Gallipoli’ who in his last moments has thought, ‘well...well, it’s over. But in
Australia—they will be proud of this’, I say—we all say—’Yes we are’.
Question — I was just wondering what you think are the
best indicators for being able to trust a future prime minister? I remember
someone once told me that they look at the relationship between a future prime
minister and their wife, and I thought that was quite interesting. That is the
most important relationship in their life and that should be some determining
factor. I would be interested to see if you had any thoughts on what you think
are the best indicators for trusting a future PM.
Brendan Nelson — Well, it’s like everything in life—we
all make judgements, and I think there are subtle but powerful factors that
influence our judgements about others. In relation to a wife I presume you are
referring to what could be a husband or a partner in the case of former Prime
But I think one of the things that we have seen over our
history is that our prime ministers are generally people who have spent fifteen
to twenty years in public life. We have had an opportunity to get a picture of
them. It is very hard to make judgements about people you have never met; in
fact, one of the pieces of advice I give to young people is never pass an
opinion on someone you have not met. But it is very hard to make judgements of
people that we see in glimpses on the media whether television, radio or print
and so on. But I think over a long period of time we see them reacting to
circumstances, some of which they anticipate and some of which they do not. We
also see how they interact with other people—not just heads of state or VIPs,
but how they interact with the everyday person, the respect and reverence that
they show for other people.
We need people who are clearly intelligent, and as Australians
we want our prime ministers to be intelligent people, but we don’t want them to
make us feel stupid in the process. We also like people who have a sense of
humour, who take their job seriously but not themselves. We like to see them
making others feel respect for themselves. We like to see them having the capacity
to articulate a vision of who we are and where we want to go and what the
outcomes will be for our nation, even if they are things on which we might not
necessarily agree. We need to see people that are prepared to work very hard.
I can tell you two things from my own experience. I stood for
preselection for the Liberal Party in the seat of Bradfield on Sydney’s upper
north shore in May 1995. It was character-building. And at the end of my speech
to an audience of some 200, one of the questions I got from one of the Liberal
Party members was, ‘Dr Nelson, if you are chosen as our candidate for Bradfield
and you are elected, will you put the interests of the Liberal Party first or
will you put the interests of Australia first?’ And I said, ‘Well, that’s easy.
I will put Australia’s interests first every time’. And it is a matter of
record that I was successful.
The other experience I had, which I regard as a wonderful
quality—the first name that I mentioned out of those eight men was Private Jake
Kovco, and you would recall that he died in circumstances that were unusual at
his base in Baghdad as a part of the security detachment. And then we went
through the dreadful business where unfortunately the incorrect body had been
sent back to Australia. As Defence Minister, when I looked at the family, who
were Australian battlers in the traditional sense of it—they were at Sale—I
thought ‘I’ll take the plane down and pick them all up, and take them into
Melbourne’ because their son’s, their husband’s, their father’s body was coming
into Melbourne just after midnight.
And of course, as you now know, just before I left Canberra I
received this phone call to say that the wrong body had been put on the plane.
I won’t tell you what went through my mind. So I said to the Chief of Army,
‘Well, there’s only one thing for it, you and I are getting on that plane and
we are going down there, and even though I’ve had nothing to do with this
directly, I’m going to have to tell them this’.
It was a very, very difficult conversation, shall I say, with
Mrs Kovco, Jake Kovco’s now widow. And I called John Howard. He was sound
asleep at the Lodge. You can only imagine the stresses on a prime minister. I
woke him up and I told him that Mrs Kovco wanted to speak to him and he took
the call. I have heard some pretty rough language in my time, but the one side
of the conversation I got was very aggressive. When Mrs Kovco had finished,
John Howard came back on the phone and he said, ‘Brendan, can I speak to you
whilst you’re away from the family?’ And I thought, ‘Oh, here we go’. So I
stepped out onto the tarmac at the RAAF base at Sale, and he said, ‘Brendan,
that was the right thing to do’. He said, ‘If you need to call me any time
through the night, you do so’. He said, ‘This is really hard, but you are doing
the right thing, and I appreciate it, and you have my support’.
Now, whatever you think—and everybody will have their own
views about John Howard as prime minister—from my point of view, whatever side
we might have them from, I want that kind of person in the Lodge when a
minister takes the call about those kinds of things.
Question — For how long will we be obliged to pay the
premium on our insurance with America?
Brendan Nelson — I am now very privileged. I am the
Director of the Australian War Memorial. There is not a day goes by in this
country when we should not publicly or privately give thanks for American
sacrifice in the Pacific from 1942. Britain let us down twice in the twentieth
century. After the fall of Singapore we knew we could not rely on Britain
anymore for our security, and we had to look across the Pacific. And when
Britain joined the common market in the early seventies, that was another kick
in the guts. And the Americans lost over 200,000 people in the Pacific: 103,000
dead, half the bodies never found. In my very strong view, the American
presence in the Western Pacific since the end of the Second World War has been
a critically important part of the security and stability of the region, and
the bedrock for prosperity of the nations in the broader Asia–Pacific.
I know the average Australian could be forgiven for thinking,
‘Well, Australia always does what America thinks it ought to do’. I can only
say to you, I have been part of very robust conversations with my former
counterparts. I have been party to conversations that have involved prime
ministers and presidents. And whatever you may see publicly, I can assure you
that there are very healthy discussions under the surface.
By the way, whilst it was certainly the case during the Cold
War era, I do not regard, as it was regarded in the sixties, what Australia
does as paying an insurance premium in terms of its relationship with the
United States. If you think about the nations in the world that are deeply
committed to political, religious and economic freedoms, the coexistence of
faith and reason, a free academic inquiry and a free press. Whatever its
faults, which are many, the United States is arguably the champion of that,
along with many of those nations in Europe and I would also include our own.
So, there is one thing I think we need to be more concerned about than American
military adventurism, and that is US isolationism.
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