It Will Be No Third Time Lucky for Australia in the Next War

By Alison Broinowski, Canberra Times, March 18, 2023

At last, after two decades, Australia is not fighting a war. What better time than now for some “lessons learnt”, as the military like to call them?

Now, on the 20th anniversary of our Iraq invasion, is the time to decide against unnecessary wars while we still can. If you want peace, prepare for peace.

Yet American generals and their Australian supporters anticipate an imminent war against China.

Northern Australia is being turned into an American garrison, ostensibly for defence but in practice for aggression.

So what lessons have we learnt since March 2003?

Australia fought two disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. If the Albanese government doesn’t explain how and why, and the result, it could happen again.

There will be no third time lucky if the government commits the ADF to war against China. As repeated US war games have predicted, such a war will fail, and will end in retreat, defeat, or worse.

Since the ALP was elected in May, the government has moved with commendable speed to implement its promises of change in economic and social policy. Foreign Minister Penny Wong’s flying fox diplomacy is impressive.

But on defence, no change is even considered. Bipartisanship rules.

Defence Minister Richard Marles asserted on February 9 that Australia was determined to protect its sovereignty. But his version of what sovereignty means for Australia is disputed.

The contrast with Labor’s predecessors is startling. Pictures by Keegan Carroll, Phillip Biggs, Paul Scambler

As several critics have pointed out, under the 2014 Force Posture Agreement Australia has no control over the access, use, or further disposition of US weapons or equipment stationed on our soil. Under the AUKUS pact, the US could be given even more access and control.

This is the opposite of sovereignty, because it means the US can launch an attack against, say, China from Australia without the agreement or even knowledge of the Australian government. Australia would become a proxy target for Chinese retaliation against the US.

What sovereignty apparently also means for Marles is the right of executive government – the Prime Minister and one or two others – to do as our American ally demands. It’s deputy sheriff behaviour, and bipartisan.

Of 113 submissions to a parliamentary inquiry in December into how Australia decides to enter overseas wars, 94 pointed to failures in those captain’s pick arrangements, and called for reform. Many observed they had led to Australia’s signing up for successive profitless wars.

But Marles is firmly of the view Australia’s current arrangements for going to war are appropriate and should not be disturbed. The deputy chair of the inquiry’s sub-committee, Andrew Wallace, evidently oblivious to history, has claimed the present system has served us well.

The Defence Minister told Parliament on February 9 that Australia’s defence capability was at the absolute discretion of the executive government. It’s true: that has always been the situation.

Penny Wong supported Marles, adding in the Senate that it is “important for the security of the country” that the Prime Minister should keep the royal prerogative for war.

Yet the executive, she added, “should be accountable to the Parliament”. Improving parliamentary accountability was one of the promises on which independents were elected in May.

But prime ministers can continue to commit Australia to war without any accountability at all.

MPs and senators have no say. Minor parties have for years called for reform of this practice.

A likely change to result from the current inquiry is a proposal to codify the conventions – that is, the government should allow parliamentary scrutiny of a proposal for war, and a debate.

But as long as there’s no vote, nothing will change.

The contrast with Labor’s predecessors is startling. Arthur Calwell, as opposition leader, spoke at length on May 4, 1965 against the commitment of Australian forces to Vietnam.

Prime Minister Menzies’ decision, Calwell declared, was unwise and wrong. It would not advance the fight against communism. It was based on false assumptions about the nature of the war in Vietnam.

With great prescience, Calwell warned “our present course is playing right into China’s hands, and our present policy will, if not changed, surely and inexorably lead to American humiliation in Asia”.

What, he asked, best promotes our national security and survival? Not, he answered, sending a force of 800 Australians to Vietnam.

On the contrary, Calwell argued, Australia’s negligible military involvement would threaten Australia’s standing and our power for good in Asia, and our national security.

As prime minister, Gough Whitlam sent no Australians to war. He rapidly expanded the Australian foreign service, completed the withdrawal of Australian forces from Vietnam in 1973, and threatened to close Pine Gap just before he was deposed in 1975.

Twenty years ago this month, another opposition leader, Simon Crean, deplored John Howard’s decision to send the ADF to Iraq. “As I speak, we are a nation on the brink of war”, he told the National Press Club on March 20, 2003.

Australia was among only four nations joining the US-led coalition, in the face of widespread protest. It was the first war, Crean pointed out, that Australia had joined as an aggressor.

Australia was under no direct threat. No resolution of the UN Security Council endorsed the war. But Australia would invade Iraq, “because the US asked us to”.

Crean spoke, he said, on behalf of millions of Australians who opposed the war. The troops should not have been sent and should now be brought home.

Prime minister John Howard had signed up for war months ago, Crean said. “He was always just waiting for the phone call. That’s a disgraceful way to run our foreign policy”.

Crean promised as prime minister he would never allow Australian policy to be determined by another country, never commit to an unnecessary war while peace was possible, and never send Australians to war without telling them the truth.

Today’s Labor leaders could reflect on that.

Dr. Alison Broinowski, a former Australian diplomat, is president of Australians for War Powers Reform, and a Board Member of World BEYOND War.

One Response

  1. As a citizen of another “commonwealth” country, Canada, I am astounded how successfully America has inured so many people of the world into accepting war as an inevitable consequence. The USA has used every means at its disposal into this objective; militarily, economically, culturally and politically. It uses the powerful tool of the media as a weapon to deceive whole populations. If this influence didn’t work on me, and I am not some kind of fluke, then it should also not work on anyone else who opens their eyes to see the truth. People are preoccupied with climate change (which is good) and so many other superficial issues, that they hardly hear the beating of the war drums. We are now dangerously close to armageddon, but America finds ways to gradually chip away the possibility of revolt so that it doesn’t become a realistic option. It’s really quite disgusting. We have to stop the madness!

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