When Australia first entered the Iraq war in 2003, Prime Minister John Howard gave a cursory nod to representative government. Calling all Federal MP’s back into session, Howard gave them each a chance to vote for “war or peace”. The result of this vote would not overturn the Cabinet’s decision, but it would allow MP’s a chance to voice their objections to the war.
However, even as a symbolic exercise the vote was beyond that which the Prime Minister was bound to do under the Constitution. The Constitution authorises the Executive Government (the Cabinet) to declare war with whomever they wish, whenever they wish, without regard to the Australian people. Howard, and now Prime Minister Abbott, could declare war unilaterally if they so wished. If the Australian people dislike it, all they can do is vote the government out at the next election. But as Abbott loves to say: “Better to ask forgiveness, than permission”.
(As an aside, if a war is supported by both Major parties, then voting out a government at the next election will have no practical effect – in this way, the Australian people have practically no say on matters of defence).
Today, we face the prospect of war in Iraq, again. This time, Abbott seems to be avoiding the recall of MP’s to have a vote on whether war should occur. Instead, he is acting unilaterally, authorising drops in Iraq using powers vested in his Cabinet under the Constitution.
Abbott has not ruled out any further military intervention aside from ruling out the use of ground troops. At no point did he specify that any decision on future involvement would be vested in the Australian people. Instead, foreign minister Julie Bishop insisted that Australia will, once again, follow America’s lead. Whatever America does, Australia will do too. We are in a grand puppet show, where the puppets are military arsenal, and the crowd is Iraq, about to be fired upon.
Blindly following America raises significant questions about the nature of Australia’s representative democracy.
Government “by the people” should, by its very nature, mandate that the Australian people –rather than the US government- be asked whether Australia should enter the war. Regardless of what the Constitution says about the matter, the very nature of representative government demands that a Government should not act dangerously without the people’s consent.
War is a unique situation because it poses an existential threat to the country’s citizens. There is no guarantee that Australia’s second entry into Iraq will not inspire counter-attacks on the Australian people, for instance.
Asking the Australian people directly whether we should enter Iraq would be a very costly exercise. Referendums cost millions of dollars: voting booths would have to be set up, officials would have to be appointed and paid, ballot papers counted and so on… However, even if 50% of these kinds of referendums (on war) led Australian governments to not enter wars, the government would save money. Referendums are expensive; wars are exorbitantly more so.
Ruling out the objection of cost, what would be the outcome of a referendum?
According to Australia’s history since Federation, any referendum is more likely to fail than succeed. The Australian people have passed only 8 of 44 since Federation. This ratio is linked to the “double majority” rule; referendums require a majority of voters in a majority of states to succeed. This “double majority” prevents controversial decisions succeeding. The tendency is that only referendums with bi-partisan support go through.
A referendum on war in Iraq would allow the Opposition to voice any doubts and concerns about Australia’s entry that they are currently discouraged from doing due to the (general) bi-partisan nature of defence. With Opposition doubts on the table, and with Australia’s general war-weariness from Iraq and Afghanistan considered directly, a vote on a second war would likely fail.
Here the people would be able to deny the war if they so wish, or follow into it if they so desire. The will of the people would rise above the will of international relations, and Australia would re-entrench its representative democracy.
*Originally published on The Australian Bulletin.