Democratize the peace process – Australians want to change the Prime Minister war powers

An overwhelming majority of Australians – 87% – want the Prime Minister’s war decisions to be subject to Parliament approval, a new poll has found.

87% of Australians think the PM’s war decisions should be subject to Parliament approval always or unless there is immediate danger to Australia.

Just 13% said the decisions should not be subject to Parliament approval.

Currently the Prime Minister and Cabinet have an exclusive right to take Australia into a war. They don’t need Parliament approval.

Democracy: Mike Smith outside Australia’s Parliament House in Canberra

Stronger Together commissioned the poll last week after the recent end of the 20-year Afghanistan War and on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks.

Market research firm The Digital Edge surveyed a nationally-weighted sample of 1500 Australians aged 18+ between September 7 and 10. Full results at the end of this post.

“It’s crazy and undemocratic that our Parliament is shut out of these decisions,” said Mike Smith.

“War does a lot of damage for many generations.

“We need to think very carefully before entering a war.

“Prime Ministers and Cabinets make these decisions behind closed doors. There’s no transparency and accountability.

“Our Parliament must have the final say.”

Public support for Parliament having the final say is growing. The 87% figure is up from 83% in November 2020 in the Australians For War Powers Reform Roy Morgan poll.

Background

The Prime Minister and Cabinet have an exclusive right to take Australia into a war because of an archaic medieval ‘Royal Prerogative’ of the British Monarch to make war and deploy troops, bypassing Parliament.

This prerogative sits with Australia’s Governor-General but in practice is carried out by the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

“Australia’s war powers should be relocated to the Federal Parliament”

Paul Barratt AO

It means Parliament has no oversight of war decisions and cannot hold the Prime Minister and Cabinet to account. It is powerless.

Australia, with the US, UK and Poland, invaded Iraq in March 2003 without UN Security Council approval. The move was bitterly opposed by France, Canada, Germany, New Zealand and other countries. Millions protested around the world.

Australia’s Senate voted 37-32 against the invasion but it went ahead anyway, such is the powerlessness of Parliament. 

An amendment to defence legislation is all that’s required to give Parliament the final say. A Parliamentary Library paper, Parliamentary involvement in declaring war and deploying forces overseas (McKeown, Jordan 2010), says Section 51(vi) of the Constitution gives Federal Parliament power to legislate to “ensure that all major decisions regarding Australia’s commitment to a war are first approved by Parliament.”

The Parliaments of at least 15 European countries have “very strong” or “strong” approval rights, the Geneva Centre for Democratic Control of Armed Forces 2010 paper shows. The countries include Germany, Italy, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, Ireland, Austria, Finland and Hungary. Article here.

Welcome: Dr Sue Wareham, president of Australians For War Powers Reform, and supporters greet Mike at Parliament House, Canberra, November 2016.

The Netherlands constitution states simply and clearly: “A declaration that the Kingdom is in a state of war shall not be made without the prior approval of the States General (Parliament).”

Ireland’s constitution states: “War shall not be declared and the State shall not participate in any war save with the assent of Dáil Éirean (Lower House of the Irish legislature).”

Australia’s Prime Ministers and Opposition Leaders the past 35 years have opposed giving Parliament approval rights.

“In a true democracy Parliament must have the final say”

Mike Smith

Former Liberal Minister Don Chipp, as head of the Australian Democrats, raised the issue in 1985. Since then several minor parties, MPs and public figures have pushed for change, including former Defence Minister Brendan Nelson, former Australian Ambassador to the United Nations Richard Butler and physician and activist Dr Helen Caldicott.

A number of senior Australian defence personnel, past and present, support the change, including former Defence Department head Paul Barratt, Major General John Cantwell, commander of the Australian forces in Afghanistan in 2010, and Lieutenant General Peter Leahy, former Chief of Army and current Director of the National Security Institute at the University Of Canberra.

Mr Barratt, as head of Australians For War Powers Reform, in a submission to a Joint Parliamentary Committee in July 2020, said leaving Australia’s war powers in the hands of the Prime Minister and Cabinet in a post pandemic world was “not a safe and secure basis for Australian defence policy”.

“Accordingly the so-called ‘war powers’ should be relocated to the Federal Parliament, subject to adequate provision for the government of the day to take emergency action in response to direct threats to Australia.”

The ALP national conference in April 2021 resolved for an Albanese Labor Government to hold a public inquiry into the Prime Minister and Cabinet’s war powers. The resolution is not however binding on Labor’s Parliamentary Party.

In 2016 Mike walked 600 km from his local town hall in Chewton, central Victoria, to Parliament House, Canberra, to raise awareness of the issue. The walk took 33 days.

Send Off: Federal Parliament MP for Bendigo Lisa Chesters (Labor), red jacket, and supporters send off Mike, carrying the Chewton Miners’ Flag and a dilly bag from the local Dja Dja Wurrung Aboriginal community, from Chewton Town Hall, central Victoria, before his walk 600 km to Parliament House, Canberra, October 2016. Mike is carrying a draft Bill transferring Australia’s war powers from the Prime Minister and Cabinet to the Federal Parliament.

At Parliament House he presented a draft Bill to his local federal MP Lisa Chesters (Bendigo, ALP). Ms Chesters made a Statement to the House on the walk, the legislation and the issue. 

He also met with representatives from all parties, including from Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s office.

“It’s time to act,” said Mike. “Australians want this change. The Prime Minister and Cabinet’s war decisions must be subject to Parliament approval.”

Poll Results

Market research firm The Digital Edge asked a nationally weighted sample of 1500 Australians 18+:

The Prime Minister and Cabinet have an exclusive right to take Australia into a war. They don’t need Parliament approval. Do you think Parliament approval should be a requirement of such decisions?

Yes, always

Yes, unless immediate danger to Australia

No

Total 1500MaleFemale
Yes, always35%37%34%
Yes, unless immediate danger to Australia52%50%54%
No13%13%12%
Total100%100%100%
Age 18-24Age 25-34Age 35-44Age 45-54Age 55-64Age 65-74
Yes, always44%39%38%29%29%36%
Yes, unless immediate danger to Australia46%49%49%54%59%54%
No10%12%13%17%12%10%
Total100%100%100%100%100%100%
NSWVicQldSAWAOther
Yes, always36%38%31%31%43%29%
Yes, unless immediate danger to Australia52%52%52%58%46%57%
No12%10%17%11%11%14%
Total100%100%100%100%100%100%
Under $40k income$40k-$79k income$80k-$119k income$120k+ income
Yes, always33%37%42%32%
Yes, unless immediate danger to Australia57%52%48%51%
No10%11%10%17%
Total100%100%100%100%

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