Albanese Government announces War Powers Inquiry

AWPR booklet cover page. Click to enlarge.

The Labor Party has kept its pre-election promise and announced a parliamentary inquiry into international armed conflict decision making or war powers in Australia on Friday, September 30, 2022.

The 2021 ALP national conference pledged to refer the issue to the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade.

That commitment has now been implemented and the Committee will be accepting submissions until Friday, 18 November 2022. Submissions can be lodged via the Committee’s webpage.

Australians for War Powers Reform (AWPR), who have campaigned long and hard on the issue, welcomed the news that the Albanese government will hold a parliamentary inquiry into how Australia makes decisions to send service personnel to international conflicts.

Following the announcement, Dr Alison Broinowski AM, President of AWPR said:

We believe the current system whereby the Prime Minister and the executive can make this crucial decision without reference to Parliament is outdated and needs urgent reform.

At present the Prime Minister can make the decision, often without even consulting his or her own cabinet. This means the most serious decision of all can be a “captain’s call”, left up to just one person. Surely in 2022, with threats of war mounting, that is no longer acceptable.

While this inquiry is a significant step forward for the campaign, serious doubts exist as to the extent of parliamentary war powers that the Albanese government will be willing to support, even if the inquiry recommends the exerise of stonger war powers by parliament.

Studies of parliamentary democracies reveal a spectrum of war powers ranging from very strong (prior parliamentary approval required for the use of military force) to very weak (no parliament-related action required for use of military force). Australia can be classified as having very weak parliamentary war powers.

A typology of parliamentary war powers is shown in the table below:

The strongest exercise of parliamentary oversight is by far the constitutional or legal right to approve or reject the use of military force. Only through the exercise of a veto power can a parliament exert effective control over executive decision-making.

In comparison, a parliamentary veto issued after a troop deployment, while having some utility, is not nearly as effective as a veto prior to a deployment decision. Re-calling troops is much more costly than not deploying them in the first place in military, strategic and reputational terms.

Good practice in relation to parliamentary war powers reform would also support the following requirements:

  • prior approval of military security decisions in any instance of potential military involvement in armed conflicts, i.e. this would be exercised on a case-by-case basis, with no exceptions regarding the circumstances of planned troop deployments, including the deployment of special forces.
  • prior approval by parliament should also extend to any military transit, any military use of national airspace, territorial waters and infrastructure, and any use of foreign military bases on the national territory which is linked to the use of military force.
  • budgetary war powers would mirror or supplement legislative war powers regarding prior case-by-case approval of separate budgets for planned military deployments.

For too long, the Australian people have been been kept in the dark about the real reasons for Australia’s engagement in foreign wars, including the wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Establishing strong parliamentary war powers will help increase transparency and accountability. Such powers can also be designed to deal with a range of contingencies, including the infrequent need for emergency military deployments. Most importantly, strong war powers are likely to keep Australia more secure in the future.

More information

AWPR’s Media Release on the Government’s announcement.

Government’s Media Release and the parliamentary inquiry’s Terms of Reference.

Submissions to the parliamentary inquiry into international armed conflict decision making can be accessed here.

Alison Broinowski, War Powers Reform: those in favour say aye … or maybe “no comment”, Michael West Media, Oct 2, 2022.

Sandra Dieterich et al., Parliamentary War Powers: A Survey of 25 European Parliaments, Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces, Occasional Paper No. 21, 2010.

AWPR’s booklet How Does Australia Go To War: A Call for Accountability and Change, Jun 2015.

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