Chair's Foreword

Chair's Foreword

The power to declare war and send military personnel into conflict is arguably the most significant and serious institutional power, and the gravest decision a government can make. Australia’s involvement in past wars has invoked public and political debate regarding key issues, including: the power and method by which the Australian Government commits to war or conducts warlike operations; the nature and extent of parliamentary involvement in such decisions; and the accountability of the Executive for its objectives, related decisions, conduct of operations, and outcomes.

Through this inquiry, the Committee has carefully and seriously considered fundamental questions regarding the quality of decision-making and oversight in relation to international armed conflict involving the deployment of the Australian Defence Force. Thank you to the many stakeholders and submitters who contributed thoughtfully to the inquiry and whose carefully formed and expert views are acknowledged with respect and drawn upon in this report.

The Committee has concluded there is a clear need to improve the transparency and accountability of government decision-making in relation to armed conflict. Australia’s system of parliamentary democracy is likely to be kept healthy, effective and well-adapted to present and emerging challenges by making sensible changes that nevertheless respect our well-established institutions and conventions.

Key recommendations are to:

  • Reaffirm that decisions regarding armed conflict are fundamentally a prerogative of the Executive, while acknowledging the key role of Parliament in considering such decisions, and the value of improving the transparency and accountability of such decision-making in the pursuit of national interests.
  • Amend the Cabinet Handbook to:
  • Restore the primacy of the Governor-General under Section 68 of the Australian Constitution to give effect to decisions of government in relation to war or warlike operations, particularly in relation to conflicts that are not supported by resolution by the United Nations Security Council, or an invitation of a sovereign nation
  • Require a written statement to be published and tabled in the Parliament setting out the objectives of major military operations, the orders made and their legal basis
  • Require Parliament to be recalled as soon as possible to be advised, and facilitate a debate in Parliament at the earliest opportunity following a ministerial statement, based on the 2010 Gillard model, including a statement of compliance with international law and advice as to the legality of an operation
  • Introduce Standing Resolutions of both Houses of Parliament to establish expectations of Executive Government regarding accountability for decisions in relation to international armed conflict, including regular Statements and Updates from the Prime Minister and Minister for Defence.
  • Establish via legislation a new Joint Statutory Defence Committee, modelled on the Parliamentary Joint Committee for Intelligence and Security, able to receive classified information to improve parliamentary scrutiny of defence strategy, policy, capability development acquisition and sustainment, contingency planning, and major operations.

The Committee encourages the Government to exercise leadership and establish the Joint Statutory Committee on Defence which would be a strong enhancement to national security while providing for increased parliamentary scrutiny of Defence.

In 1988 Prime Minister Bob Hawke created the Parliamentary Joint Committee on ASIO against the advice of the Hope Royal Commissions not to enhance parliamentary oversight of the intelligence agencies. History has proved he was right to do so, and the Government is encouraged to emulate Prime Minister Hawke’s example and act to strengthen national security and enhance the accountability of defence to the Parliament.

The Committee is convinced that greater transparency and parliamentary consideration of the decision to commit forces to an armed conflict can and must occur, and through this inquiry has formed and advanced recommendations that would deliver substantial improvement by extending tried and tested forms of parliamentary process like tabling expectations, debate opportunities, and committee oversight.

On that basis the Committee commends this report, on this most serious of subjects, to the Government.

Mr Julian Hill MPChairDefence Subcommittee