War Powers Inquiry Report – A failure of democratic will

The Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade (the Committee) commenced its review of how Australia makes decisions to send service personnel into international armed conflict in September 2022.

The Committee held only one public hearing in Canberra and received a modest 113 public submissions. Its report was tabled in the Federal parliament on March 31, 2023.

Australians for War Powers Reform (AWPR) which has championed genuine reform of war powers for many years, declared the outcome of the Committee’s review disappointing. While the Labor dominated Committee recommended some changes by promising better transparency and accountability, AWPR criticised the report for refusing to adopt a fully democratic system where MPs are able to vote before Australia joins an overseas war.

Compared to many European parliamentary democracies, Australia can still be classified  as having weak powers related to parliamentary action required for the deployment of military force. Refer to the typology of European parliamentary war powers here.

Reproduced below is AWPR’s media release on the Committee’s report dated March 31, 2023:

The parliamentary report released today on War Powers has failed to recommend the genuine reform many in the community expect.

“The first recommendation confirms our worst fears – it reaffirms the status quo by insisting that decisions regarding armed conflict are fundamentally up to the PM and the executive,” said Dr Alison Broinowski AM, President of Australians for War Powers Reform (AWPR)

“This means that MP’s and Senators will continue to have no right to vote on a war decision before troops are sent overseas.”

“In effect this means that the Prime Minister and a small group of ministers will still make the decisions just as John Howard did in 2003 with his ‘captain’s call’ on going to Iraq”,

“This inquiry has made these recommendations despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of submissions favoured giving MPs a vote. There were 94 submissions in favour out of a total of [113] submissions.”

“While some of the recommendations are welcome, such as the requirement that parliament must be given a statement of compliance with international law about military action, such advice is not much use if parliamentarians are only ‘consulted’.”

“The sad fact is that even if the Albanese government accepted all of the committee’s recommendations, Australia could still be sent to a “war of choice” overseas and our elected representatives – MPs and Senators, would have almost no say.”

“AWPR had great hopes that after more than a decade of coalition rule the new Abanese government would bring progressive change to defence and foreign affairs. But today’s decision, along with the AUKUS agreement and the decision to spend an obscene amount of money on nuclear submarines, have well and truly dashed those hopes.”

AWPR has prepared a full response to those recommendations which can be read here.

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