Unlike the separation of powers in presidential systems, in parliamentary governments the executive is formed on the basis of a majority in the legislature and thus controls the legislature. Contrary to the belief in some quarters, this makes the prime minister of a parliamentary government more powerful than a presidential counterpart with respect to making executive decisions.
At a panel discussion last year, former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser provoked laughter by saying that, no matter how strong the ministers, only a weak prime minister would fail to get his way in Cabinet on a major policy decision.
On the same panel, former Secretary of Defense Paul Barratt provided a very convincing account of why the need for speed in responding to an urgent crisis is a nonissue. To be deployed into active combat operations overseas, even large, well-trained and well-equipped militaries need advance preparations. Remember how many months it took for the U.S. to mobilize for the 1991 Gulf War?
Besides, when did a major crisis last blow up overnight with little or no advance warning in the form of rising tensions as a dormant dispute escalates into an active conflict?
On Sept. 2, Anthony Bergin of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and former Liberal Sen. Russell Trood argued in The Australian that subjecting a decision to commit Australian forces to combat operations to parliamentary vote would risk a fractious debate and a delay sufficient to endanger the lives of civilians who need immediate protection and possibly also of the Australian soldiers. A Green Party motion for such a requirement was rejected decisively by a combined Coalition and Labor vote. On Sept. 8, Fraser and Barratt argued the case in The Australian for prior parliamentary approval.
Democracies need urgently to modernize procedures and structures for going to war with parliamentary debate and sanction, instead of by government fiat based on the instincts of a strong-willed prime minister or through subterfuge and deception. Those who believe this is directed against the Tony Abbott government should consider this. In recent decades, many Australians have found some Labor Party leaders/prime ministers to be dysfunctional and flaky. The decision to take a nation to war is the most solemn of all foreign-policy responsibilities. Most of these leaders would have been able to get their individual strongly held decisions through their Cabinets.
Under the present system, just like Prime Minister John Howard in 2003, any one of them could have committed Australia to war on personal whim or conviction. Do Australians really want to stay with this system that leaves them all hostage to deeply flawed, as well as sound, political judgment, depending on the prime minister in power?
Abbott, part of the Howard Cabinet in 2003, has been troubling in reacting with his pugilist’s instinct to events in far-off Ukraine and the Mideast, ahead of conclusive evidence. It would be preferable to require the government, regardless of the party in power, to present its case to parliament, supported by suitably sanitized intelligence.
Soldiers have parents, partners, brothers and sisters. Putting them in harm’s way into combat theaters requires extraordinary levels of personal courage and family support. The country owes it to them to try and get the quality of decision making as right as possible. This will ensure a better proportion of right decisions and outcomes coming out of the political process, without guaranteeing that any single decision is the correct one.
In 2003, U.S. President George W. Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Howard pit their judgment against the people’s wisdom. By their writings and speeches since, all three are like Philip II of Spain: “No experience of the failure of his policy could shake his belief in its essential excellence” — historian Barbara Tuchman informs us.
The Iraq mega-disaster was richly foretold at the time. The decade since has done little to soften and much to validate the criticism. U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron tabled a motion in Parliament on Aug. 29, 2013, seeking approval for air strikes on Syria.
The ghost of Iraq 2003 hovered unmistakably in the debate, with coded (“We must not let the specter of previous mistakes paralyze our ability to stand up for what is right”) and explicit (“The well of public opinion has been well and truly poisoned by the Iraq episode”) references to it. Parliament rejected the motion.
A similar effort by U.S. President Barack Obama was abandoned when it became clear that with strong public opposition, support for the military strikes had collapsed in Congress as well.
Subjecting the decision to parliamentary vote is not an argument to reject the war option but to require the decision to be based on informed consent where political leaders are prepared to stand up and be counted. Then-U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton famously accused rival Democratic primary candidate Obama of having made one speech as the sum total of his foreign policy credential. She was right. But what she would not acknowledge until later was that he placed himself on the right side of history by that one speech while she, in voting for the war, became complicit in one of the worst blunders eve in U.S. foreign policy. The two together allowed voters to judge their respective competence to be in charge of U.S. foreign policy as president and commander in chief.
Or consider John Kerry, now the secretary of state. The Gulf and Iraq wars were among the two most critical votes of his political life in the Senate. Foreign policy is supposedly his forte, but he got it wrong on both occasions: Having voted against the 1991 Gulf War, he voted for the 2003 Iraq War. This gave American citizens a good basis on which to judge his potential as the Democratic presidential candidate.
Democracies are powerful pacifists and almost never fight one another. But when they are aroused to the point of war against authoritarian states, they tend to prevail because, by then, their decision to fight is supported by a national consensus. Of course, governments unsure of their case will try to bluster their way through secretively. In that case the decision is likely to remain contentious, the nation divided, and success less assured.
To deny members of Parliament (MPs) their day in the house betrays contempt for the people’s representatives and thus for the people. If the nation is in peril in the face of a clear and present danger, it is inconceivable that Labor and Coalition MPs will not close ranks in the Australian Parliament. The votes of all MPs individually and their parties collectively will be recorded for posterity.
Those who make the right judgment call, whether to support or oppose war, will be rewarded by voters. Those who get it wrong will be punished. It’s called democracy. They should get used to it.
Ramesh Thakur is director of the Center for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.
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