Australia is entering a delicate and difficult time with the decision to provide combat support to Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in Iraq. Avoiding the mistakes of our last involvement in Iraq is paramount.
But will we? The call from the Greens and some cross-benchers in the Senate for a parliamentary debate and vote on Australia’s involvement has been brushed aside by the Abbott government.
While the historical record backs Abbott’s assertion that “the decision to commit troops is not a matter for the parliament, it's a matter for the executive government”, the PM would be unwise to become too closely wedded to this position.
A parliamentary research paper prepared in 2010 shows quite clearly that the decision to join combat operations -- which Abbott is currently ruling out on the ground, but not via airstrikes -- has shifted to ‘the executive’.
At federation, the constitution was interpreted as demanding that Australia consult Britain before announcing it was going to war.
However, in subsequent conflicts through the 20th century, the consultation was shifted to the governor general, and finally to the executive as Abbott asserts.
Thus the only requirement, by convention rather than spelled out explicitly in the constitution, is for the decision to be made by the National Security Committee of Cabinet, approved by cabinet, and at least discussed with the opposition leader before being announced.
So Abbott is not doing anything wrong, at present, based on historical precedent. There have been unconfirmed reports of special forces already being deployed to guard an airstrip, but even if that were true it would be undoubtedly be approved via the executive process described above.
That said, the evolution of this process abroad -- and the fact that the locus of responsibility has shifted within Australia through the 20th century -- suggest the Greens/Independents’ calls for a vote should be given more consideration, especially after the scarring experience of the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ intervention in 2003.
A parliamentary briefing document detailing global approaches to approving combat operations shows that parliamentary oversight of combat operations is required by law in France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Denmark, Finland, Netherlands, Sweden and the US.
The UK is not on that list, though by convention the government of the day seeks parliamentary approval.
In the US the briefing document notes 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” -- though the President also has the constitutional power to override Congress.
Tasmanian MP Andrew Wilkie, who has been one of the vocal backers of the call for a parliamentary vote on authorising intervention, points to the UK’s House of Commons vote on intervention in Syria as a prime example of why a vote is needed.
A year ago British PM David Cameron wished to join the US in air strikes in Syria, but suffered a humiliating defeat when enough Tory MPs crossed the floor to defeat the motion 285 votes to 272.
Cameron took the vote on the chin, and 12 months later is probably very glad he did. According to Wilkie, the airstrikes and arming of ‘rebels’ within Syria would have considerably strengthened the forces that soon after became known as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, and more lately as the Islamic State.
These kinds of mistake were made many times during the Iraq and Afghanistan interventions, and will no doubt be made again. However, Wilkie’s point is that sharing responsibility across the parliament can only help minimise such blunders.
Wilkie stressed on Tuesday that he had “not ruled out supporting” the government’s plans for assistance to the Kurds or even potential participation in combat operations.
Moreover, by effectively giving the House of Representatives a conscience vote on military action, Wilkie argues the government would get overwhelming endorsement of its plans anyway -- Labor has been strongly supportive of action to date.
The hideous imagery of beheadings, child abuse, sexual abuse of women and grotesque violence emanating from the region would make inaction virtually unthinkable.
The Greens, who have also made strident calls for a parliamentary vote, look most likely to oppose combat operations -- they fiercely resisted the 2003 intervention, and leader Christine Milne said on Monday that this time around “very few people believe that the Prime Minister of Australia has got a strategic plan for Australia's engagement in Iraq.”
However, even the Greens would likely have on eye on the outrage felt in the community over the grizzly images being sent out by IS fighters on social media.
Indeed, it is not widely appreciated that former Greens leader Bob Brown -- a man not only instrumental in the formation of the Australian Greens, but in other greens parties abroad -- began his career as an activist protesting for issues of peace rather than environment.
When the Kurds in northern Iraq were being ignored by western powers in 1991, Brown gave a speech in the Tasmanian parliament calling for the then-Hawke government to act.
On April 4, 1991, Brown moved: “That this House abhors the abandonment of the Kurd people by countries involved in the Gulf War. The House calls on the Prime Minister, Mr Hawke, to act immediately to put pressure on Australia's allies to intervene in Iraq to stop the slaughter of the Kurds and establish their right to self-determination ... I thank members of both sides of the House for allowing this motion to be brought on, because of the extreme gravity of the situation in Kurdistan.”
There is no doubt that the Kurds are in just as grave a situation today, staring down the advancing savagery of IS.
Given Labor’s support for the first stage of assistance, it is extremely unlikely that a free debate and vote on Australia’s level of involvement in Iraq would tie Abbott’s hands.
And as Wilkie -- a former infantry officer and Office of National Assessments intelligence worker -- points out, such debates always avoid operational details that would assist hostile forces from predicting specific engagements.
The political difficulty for Abbott, of course, is that any capitulation to the Greens and Independents’ calls for a vote, would be a tacit admission that the decision-making process followed by the Howard government for Iraq and Afghanistan, was flawed.
Surely, though, the danger of such an admission must not be prioritised above the dangers of sending Australians into harm’s way and becoming entangled in a complex and horrific conflict that could drag on for years.