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Should war require parliamentary approval?

So long as bipartisanship on foreign and defence policy overrules argument and debate, any effort to give parliament a say on war will be pointless.

Parliament House viewed from the Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 2012 (Photo: Getty Images/Morten Falch Sortland)
Parliament House viewed from the Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 2012 (Photo: Getty Images/Morten Falch Sortland)

In light of US President Donald Trump's erratic attempts to intimidate North Korea, several prominent voices have argued that Australia's parliament should be granted control over any decision to go to war. I think that would be a mistake, though not for the reason you might think.

Former Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr has argued on Twitter that, though normally opposed to parliamentary authorisation, 'in this case' he sees it as having a role. Mark Kenny has made a similar argument in The Sydney Morning Herald. Wars initiated by The Donald are apparently so distinct that Australia needs new processes and means to address them.

There are the usual objections to parliament having authorisation: speed of decision-making; the chain of command; and executive privilege and responsibility. There's one more that is rarely discussed, but would make any parliamentary decision-making role almost absurd: intra-party discipline and bipartisanship.

For all there is to like about 150 elected representatives taking the time to debate Australia's strategic interests and the situation on the Korean Peninsula, their votes will bear little relation to their true attitudes. This is due to the demand for bipartisanship on defence and security issues, a topic I take aim at in my new report: 'I'm here for an Argument: Why bipartisanship makes Australia less safe'.

An outcome of genuine debate in the 1960s and 1970s, bipartisanship has provided steady policy consistency through the 1980s-2000s. Yet as the world has changed, Australian politics has not – the desire for bipartisanship remains. Once considered an outcome, bipartisanship is now a process that mostly restricts and hinders debate on security and defence issues.

Not only do Australia's politicians believe they should be loyal to their party and bipartisan in spirit on defence issues, Australia's media, academics, and public expect them to act that way as well. Rather than welcoming politicians talking about security issues and offering alternative views, we punish them by saying they need to 'keep politics out of it'.

So if we were to give parliament a role in deliberating on going to war, for every fine word that might be said and every insightful strategic question raised, it's hard to see how the process and outcome will represent anything other than a vote on party lines. If restricted to the House of Representatives, the Prime Minister's authority will be no more than rubber-stamped.

So long as bipartisanship on foreign and defence policy overrules the normal willingness of our politicians to argue and debate, any effort to give parliament a say on issues of war will be largely pointless.

Indeed, I would argue that Australia's parliament already has all the power it needs to debate and decide issues of war and peace. Emergency sessions can be called, prime ministers required to ask questions, votes to withhold funding passed and threats of dissolving the government made. A rogue PM could soon be out of a job and his or her military orders rescinded, if the parliament so desired.

The problem is not the law but the norms. And those norms are not likely to change anytime soon. As much as the recent willingness of Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and her shadow counterpart Penny Wong to openly argue about Australia's foreign policy should be celebrated, such disagreements are the exception. Meanwhile, their colleagues in defence portfolios continue to sing a hymn to bipartisanship – indeed, there's even a committee inquiry underway to examine whether a 'bipartisan' elite group could set defence policy and budgets, which would further restrict parliamentary discussion of security issues.

Unless debate about security and strategy returns as a habit and politicians are freed to express differing opinions without censure, giving the parliament a legal say above and beyond what it has now will not achieve much at all.

But we need not reform any institution or pay a single dollar to see change in the social norms that underpin our democracy. Change begins with the Australian people, 71% of whom consider bipartisanship a 'good thing'. We need to not only accept divergences of opinion, but to encourage the same. Change begins with the media treating differences as not a threat, but a sign of health. Change begins with our politicians remembering that as single-minded and tough as authoritarian societies may look, they are brittle and often misguided about the world, while the very rambunctious nature of democracies gives them a strength and flexibility that genuine strategy requires.

Bob Carr's follow-up tweet suggests that 'before we commit Australians to the meat grinder of a second Korean War let's have days of parliamentary debate'. I could not agree more. A parliament that is vibrant and willing to debate and argue, and an executive that is confident in its chain of command and speed of decision-making in a crisis – sounds like the best of both worlds to me.

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