Going to war: Australia’s traditions and conventions (part I)
2 Apr 2013|
Australian official war correspondent Charles Bean near Martinpuich, Somme, France, watching the Australian advance during the German retreat to the Hindenburg Line.

The tenth anniversary of the Iraq war is an opportune moment for the Canberra system to contemplate the need to strengthen its traditions and foster some more robust conventions. Ten years on, emotion remains high and the politics is still noxious, but there has been time enough to look clearly at how Australia went to war in 2003.

In serving that aim, this column—the first of two—looks at what the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated about the demands and questions the Parliament can mount once war is declared: the emerging conventions that need to be enhanced. The next column will return to the role the public service played in the debate and preparation that preceded the Iraq war, pondering how the bureaucracy failed to honour its own traditions.

Three previous columns laid out the ground for this discussion of tradition and convention. The first was on how the Australian political process did its job in the Iraq war while the rest of Canberra system fell silent (a point Derek Woolner expanded on), the second discussed the Prime Minister’s most profound prerogative: the right to declare war and the third looked at the many parallels between Australia’s entry to Vietnam and Iraq.

Those columns prompted responses by Peter Jennings. His first argued that my opening effort was ‘remarkably harsh’ on the public service and went on to do an excellent job of laying out the argument about what the Canberra system did or did not do. Peter’s second piece then did much of the spade work in describing developing habits or conventions that should enlarge Parliament’s place in the process of war, while acknowledging the executive’s war powers.

The Iraq and Afghanistan experiences demonstrate that Parliament can play some role in shaping what governments do in directing military operations overseas. Peter called this an ‘important role’ for Parliament. I agree it should be an important task for Parliament, and that the mechanisms developed over this decade of war show some potential to be significant if they become enduring conventions. They must be broadened and deepened.

The emphasis is on conventions because all the constitutional and legal power lies with the executive and this will not change. Writing on Parliament and foreign policy 30 years ago, a Liberal Senator and an eminent historian commented on the irony that an Australian Prime Minister had the extraordinary power to declare war simultaneously on the US and the Soviet Union, thus bringing ruin and destruction on the land and the people. By contrast, if the same leader wanted to add a cent in tax to the cost of cigarettes, he or she would face a long legislative trek through the Parliament. This ‘marvellous freedom of executive government in external policy’ is the reality today as it was then. The Prime Minister’s profound prerogative will persist.

Certainly, though, the experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan have laid the ground for conventions that broaden Parliament’s role, as Peter explains. Parliamentary committees clearly have great potential, yet experience suggests that party and government discipline always place strict limits on where committees can go. The seemingly simple convention I would highlight is that governments now give regular, formal reports on Parliament on the course of the conflict. This is an important innovation (the fact that it is an innovation is also one more demonstration of how firmly the war powers rest with the executive).

Such regular statements to Parliament matter on several levels—from basic reporting of the facts through to issues of accountability; the Senate estimates process no longer has to carry quite so much of the detailed weight. For all the money Defence spends on its publicity machine, issues of reporting and accountability to the Parliament and public, not just the executive, are still difficult ones for the Australian military. The perennial problem the military has with the Oz media can serve as an example of the larger issue.

Among the many proud traditions of the Australian Army (from the slouch hat to two-up to the importance of having the beer cold) one of the enduring habits is the chronic distrust of journalists. Perhaps reporters just can’t understand saluting, but the conflict between hack custom and hero culture is a recurring theme of the Australian way of war. See this piece by Paul McGeough on his recent reporting trip to Afghanistan for an account of some low-level Army bastardry and middle-level meddling aimed at obstructing a visiting Australian hack.

The treatment given McGeough echoes much that the Army did to shut out Oz hacks in Vietnam and in earlier conflicts. Australia’s first official war correspondent, C.E.W. Bean, remarked that his two bugbears at Gallipoli were ‘Turkish flies and Australian officers’. Bean’s successor in WWII, Kenneth Slessor, resigned as official correspondent in 1944 to forestall any attempt by the Army to have his accreditation withdrawn. Slessor complained of the ‘hyper-sensitive reaction’ to correspondents’ work by Army officers.

A strengthened and broadened set of conventions on reporting to the Parliament and the role of Parliament in the conduct of conflicts will serve Australia’s military as much as it does the public. The next column will look at how the Australian public service should turn to its own traditions to see how poorly it performed in going to war with Iraq.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalism fellow. Image of Charles Bean courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.