There are said to be no votes in defence or foreign affairs in Australia. Years of bipartisanship on both, and an Alliance that is unquestionable, have disempowered debate. The time for change may be in 2019.  

The ALP national conference should have been in July, but the Government decided to hold the ‘Super Saturday’ by-elections on that weekend. The Coalition tried to turn the timing to its advantage in seats where members’ citizenship was in doubt. Prime Minister Turnbull’s move forced Labor to cancel and rebook the Adelaide conference venue. Bill Shorten had to deal with disagreement in the ALP’s ranks about postponing the conference to December, and rejig his strategy for the 2019 election. The Coalition trick didn’t work: the Government lost seats on ‘Super Saturday’ and in every subsequent by-election. It lost a deputy prime minister, a prime minister and Wentworth too. Prospects which were risky for Labor in wintry July looked much more promising in the summer. Even in drought-ridden Queensland it rained.

Something like the rustle of spring was in the air as the conference approached. But why, some asked, was Bill Shorten steadily pre-releasing his economic policies without saying much else, and nothing on foreign affairs or defence? Because he didn’t have to: Prime Minister Morrison dug holes for himself and repeatedly fell into them, managing to put Israelis and Palestinians, Indonesians and Malaysians off, first with his irrational, unnecessary proposal and then his counterproductive, compromise decision about the capital of Israel. Someone wrote him a sound, statesmanlike speech for the Australian Chinese community which was so out of line with his regular statements about Huawei and the perfidious Chinese that it went almost unreported. He claimed Australia would meet its climate change obligations ‘in a canter’ and was widely disbelieved. His hawkish Ministers bragged about Australia becoming the world’s tenth largest exporter of weapons, including a system they were flogging to the UAE for operations against the starving population of Yemen. Australia sided as usual with the US, Israel, and small numbers of small countries in opposing the UN General Assembly’s Palestine resolution, and refused to join the overwhelming majority of states in signing the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which Australians in ICAN inspired. The opinion polls got worse, not catastrophically for preferred Prime Minister, but decisively for which party people wanted in government.

For Labor, as in 1971, it looked as if it was time. Time to show some leadership, take some risks. Time to face down the king-making college of cardinals in the Murdoch media. Time to stop listening reverentially to visiting US generals about the American burdens they want Australia to bear and the price we should pay. Time to stop just talking about an independent foreign and defence policy, and get one. Kevin Rudd told the Adelaide conference that Murdoch’s agenda – and he might have added the agenda of the big miners and banks and the military/industrial/security complex – had become de facto Australian policy (http://www.johnmenadue.com/michelle-grattan-rudd-says-murdoch-media-is-a-political-party-the-conversation-18-12-2018/).

At the Adelaide conference, competing for attention with the cricket was the first thing. Getting everyone’s most favoured notions (MFN) the attention they deserved was the next. Australians for War Powers Reform has been at it since 2011, first trying to get Australia an independent inquiry into our role in the Iraq War – the UK had its Chilcot Report in 2016 – and then trying by legislation to change the way Australian forces are sent to war. We had no trouble convincing the Greens and some Independents that a debate and a vote in both Houses is the way to head off future ‘captain’s picks’ for war, and further disasters like Vietnam and Iraq. We got a hearing from several back-bench Labour people, but no commitment. We didn’t expect much from the Coalition, so we were not disappointed.

We began to realise that if they thought about it at all, many politicians didn’t grasp the seriousness of the problem. Some assumed troop deployments are carefully considered by those who know all the facts, and that decisions are judiciously made by the right people. The history, going back through Howard to Menzies, suggests otherwise. The Australian Constitution effectively allows a prime minister to decide to dispatch armed forces abroad. This may happen in consultation with his/her closest colleagues but not necessarily, first advising a governor-general but not in recent practice, getting sound legal advice but not lately. Some politicians we spoke to thought a debate in Parliament was required: it is not. Some resisted the very idea of a vote, in a country which claims to believe in democracy and an international rules-based order. (Less is heard about international law, which makes aggression a war crime).

We pressed on with our campaign, not realising that among the politicians we had seen, several had taken up our MFN. On the third day of the conference, when speakers get five minutes to make their pitch, Tim Gartrell did that for our Be Sure On War campaign. The result was:

‘Conference resolves that a Shorten Labor Government will refer the issue of how Australia makes decisions to send service personnel into international armed conflict to an inquiry to be conducted by the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade. This inquiry would take submissions, hold public hearings and produce its findings during the term of the 46th Parliament’.

Dr Alison Broinowski is Vice-President of Australians for war Powers Reform and a member of the campaign committee for Be Sure On War.