The Voices of War

83. Dr. Alison Broinowski - How Australia Goes To War And The Prospect Of War Powers Reform

VOW 83 | War Powers


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My guest today is Dr. Alison Broinowski, AM, who is an Australian academic, journalist, writer, and former Australian diplomat. She is also the President of Australians for War Powers Reform.  

Alison joined me to explore the current debate on Australian troop deployment, compare it to other democracies, and discuss the possible outcome of the ongoing parliamentary enquiry into war powers.


Some of the topics we covered are:

  • Alison’s background and motivation for war powers reform  
  • Changes in Australian defence policy during Prime Minister Howard’s tenure
  • Impact of Global War on Terror on defence and foreign policy 
  • The current approval process for military interventions 
  • Proposed changes to the war approval process and potential impact 
  • Benefits of a parliamentary vote for accountability 
  • Risks of inaction and views on Responsibility to Protect (R2P) 
  • Reflection on US hegemony and ANZUS treaty misunderstandings 
  • Arguments against war powers reform 
  • Possible impacts of Australian involvement in US-led wars 
  • Parliamentary inquiry outcome and report release timing 
  • Alison’s greatest fears if war powers remain unchanged

Listen to the podcast here


Dr. Alison Broinowski – How Australia Goes To War And The Prospect Of War Powers Reform

Here’s a quick note before we get to the episode with Dr. Alison Broinowski about how Australia decides to deploy troops to war. As we become apparent, I broadly agree with Alison’s reasoning behind the need to change Australian war powers. I have previously expressed concern on the show and elsewhere about the fact that our leaders send our troops to war with impunity. To change this, we need to change the incentive structures and infuse greater accountability in the decision process.

I believe they’re forcing the whole parliament to decide on whether we go to war or not is a small step in that direction. Importantly, as I explained towards the end of the episode, as my bias is obvious and strong in favour of Alison’s position, I would like to speak with someone who holds the opposite view, someone who wants to retain the status quo and leave the decision to go to war with the Prime Minister and their cabinet. If you know someone qualified to discuss this issue, please drop me a note at Let’s get to the discussion with Dr. Alison Broinowski.

My guest in this episode is Dr. Alison Broinowski, who’s an Australian academic, journalist, writer, and former Australian diplomat. She has published several books, many of which explore how narratives surrounding war can shape identity, foreign relations, trade, and the future of a nation. Since her retirement from public service, Alison has taught at the Australian National University, Macquarie University, and Wollongong University.

She’s also the President of Australians for War Powers Reform. She joins us to discuss the ongoing debate about how Australia deploys its troops, how this compares to other democracies, and what we can expect from the ongoing parliamentary inquiry into these questions. Alison, thank you very much for joining me on the show.

It’s a pleasure.

Before we dive into the topic of war powers, it’s worth learning a little more about you. Given everything you’ve done in your career, how do you describe what you do? How did it all start?

That’s a long story, isn’t it? I joined the department of what was then External Affairs in the dim Dark Ages in 1962 before any in your audience were born, no doubt. My husband was also a diplomat. Some of the time, we’re together. Some of the time, we’re not. We went to all sorts of countries. Mostly, we concentrated on Asia. It’s twice for me to Japan. It changed my life. I learned Japanese and got into that in a big way.

I did a few other things in Burma, Iran, and the Philippines. My husband was in Seoul for the Seoul Olympics. I was there for a year. I went to Jordan. I then went to the UN in New York and all of that stuff. Most of the time, I was doing my best to represent Australia and do whatever it was that the Australian government wanted.

When I came back in 1996, I realised under the Howard government that I wasn’t going to be a very useful person to have in the foreign service. After the Pauline Hanson episode and all of that, I could see that his approach to the Asian region that I had spent most of my life concentrating on was counterproductive and was taking us backward to what we had hoped we’d left behind in the past, so I resigned.

By the age of 60, I got myself a PhD in Asian Studies, which kept me going on the Asian kick for quite a long time, which remains my main focus. That’s one of the reasons too why I am doing what I do now because I see no reason for Australia to be planning a war in our region against any of our regional neighbours. Such an idea is misguided.

I’m very disappointed that it hasn’t died with the last government together with their lack of interest in Asia. We now have an Asian-origin foreign minister who understands the countries and region and has done very well there, but she can’t get past this defence business and these preparations for war against China, which are so irrational and misguided. That’s partly what has led me to where I am.

However, a few years ago, I joined a new movement called CIWI, Campaign for an Iraq War Inquiry, which we never got. It became Australians for War Powers Reform, so it’s a broader agenda. It’s not just an inquiry into how we went to war in Iraq, which was certainly still necessary, but a campaign to ensure that if a future government proposed a war, the way we decided on that would be different from what had been done in the past, and we can discuss that.

The President of that was Paul Barratt, who was a Former Secretary of the Department of Defence. A few years ago, to our great grief, he died. I had been Vice President of the outfit. I was forced into the chair for which I was not nearly as well qualified as Paul. I’ve been there ever since. That’s what we’re doing. We can talk about the inquiry and where that goes.

There are so many interesting threads to unpack from what you said. It won’t come as a surprise to my audience at all that I’m speaking with you because I’ve been rather critical of our decisions to go to many of our wars, especially with the way we go to war with our leaders, effectively sending us to war with near impunity. As a serving uniform member, that concerns me slightly. Before we get to that, I do want to pick up on one of the first points you made. There was a change during the Howard government. When you retired in ‘96, what do you mean by change? What was different? How do you explain that? What motivated that change?

One thing I was doing on and off from being a diplomat was writing books, which is what I’d always thought I was going to do when I left the university. In 1991, I wrote a book called The Yellow Lady: Australian Impressions of Asia. That came out at the time when Paul Keating became Prime Minister. As a result of Keating’s ideas, not mine, there was a huge upsurge in enthusiasm and interest in Asian countries.

VOW 83 | War Powers
The Yellow Lady: Australian Impressions of Asia

It had already been there to some extent, but Keating encouraged it and made it something that people could talk about in a knowledgeable way. The study of Asian countries took off, and my book took off. It was a great time. Keating still talks that talk every time he gets an opportunity. In my view, he’s still right. That kept me going for quite a while, and a few more books as well.

In ‘96, after Pauline Hanson had started doing her anti-Asia rhetoric, John Howard became Prime Minister. He went around the region saying, “Australia doesn’t have to change to be who we are.” People in the countries that I knew went, “Here we go again.” They knew. They had seen Australia in the past. They knew what conservative Australian governments were like and what their thinking was. They knew all the talk that we had been going on about multiculturalism and how Australia might even be part of Asia. That was the talk.

They knew that that was so much, as the Filipinos used to say, “Palabas,” or rubbish in a polite way. They gave up on us or waited until we got through our unpleasantness, which took quite a long while for us to do. Even when we did, everything changed in 2001 because of the War on Terror. Foreign policy was militarised from there on in Australia and elsewhere.

The militarisation, not only of our foreign policy but of our whole society, has been a creeping phenomenon that most of your audience will have observed. The laws we have against terror are still there. They enable all kinds of things to happen that were never to be able to happen. All of us are quite scared of saying or doing things that will get us into trouble with some very wide-ranging security laws.

The media have been intimidated. They don’t dare write the sorts of things they used to. Anyone who does is vilified by the media themselves, which is very disappointing. We used to have quite a lively media debate going on. There were no longer. It’s the same people reciting the same junk all the time. Most of it is directed at the support of the American alliance and anything American, no matter what it is.

Even during the Trump years, they were happily backing Trump. Governments that were beholden to the mainstream media went along with it, facilitated it, and are still doing that. That’s why things have changed. Unfortunately, with the great change that we achieved in May in the Federal election, which many of us hoped was going to change everything, it still has not changed the basis of our foreign and defence policy, which is to do whatever the Americans want.

There’s something I’ve spoken about in the show. It has become public discourse or public knowledge. For example, the war in Iraq. We went to the war in Iraq purely in support of our alliance and the need for the security umbrella of the US rather than for any altruistic reasons of bringing democracy or even chasing out weapons of mass destruction, which, even at the time, the evidence was rather dubious.

That speaks to that point. Maybe this also brings us then to the question of how Australia decides to send these troops. John Howard for the war in Iraq is a prime example of how we went. Maybe you can enlighten our audience. What is the process? How does Australia decide to go to war at the moment? Who makes the decision?

To go back to your first point about the Iraq War, indeed, that is how we went into it. You’re quite right. Maybe people don’t remember that, but it’s also the way Australia had gone to every single war that we’ve ever been in, except in 1941 when we went to war against Japan to defend Australia itself. In every other war that we have been involved in, going right back to before 1901, we have been there as a result of our British allies being at war or as a result of our American allies wanting us to join them in one.

The Iraq War was no different to that. What was different in 2001 was how we got into Afghanistan. As you would remember, John Howard was there on September 11th. On the plane on the way back to Australia, he and Alexander Downer, the foreign minister, unilaterally invoked the ANZUS Treaty and applied it to war anywhere in the world, which the ANZUS Treaty doesn’t say. I won’t go into the ANZUS Treaty, but take it from me, as you know already that it doesn’t.

He committed Australia, himself and Downer to the War on Terror, which continues to this day. That is what America used to justify all their war expenditure and get the money out of Congress. The War on Terror, as it was designed to do, has never come to an end, and it’s still being fought. Every time there’s a terrorism attack, as there was in Somalia, the Americans went in and killed a whole lot of people just like that because they could claim that they were terrorists. This happens all the time and people don’t even notice anymore. That’s point one.

Every time there's a terrorist attack, as there was in Somalia, the Americans go in and kill a whole lot of people just like that because they can claim that they are terrorists. This happens all the time, and people don't even notice anymore. Share on X

Point two is how Australia can get out of this habit that we have had for more than centuries. It’s deeply ingrained in the minds of our people and politicians. Most of them don’t dare to suggest anything different. My organisation has been working for years to change the way Australia goes to war, which is a decision made by the Prime Minister virtually alone or with a few close advisors who are appointed by him or her.

It just happens. There is no consultation. There can be a debate in the parliament but that’s just talk. The decision is already made. What we have been trying to do is to change that not by a constitutional amendment, which was very hard to secure but by a change in the law, the Defence Act, which has been used in recent times by the Prime Minister today to simply say to the defence minister of the day, “Dispatch the troops.” This is Section 8, “Manage the troops in such a way as to send them to war.”

What we want is a simple amendment to that which says, “Before that happens, there must be a debate and a vote in both Houses of Parliament to approve that. If they approve it, then it happens. If they don’t, then it doesn’t.” That is what the British convention does. They don’t have a law because they don’t have a constitution, but they have a convention that says that. Tony Blair did this in 2003. They must go to the House of Commons with a proposal to send troops to war.

Tony Blair did that in obedience to the convention, and Commons voted for it because they believed his lie. They have done it again. In 2013, David Cameron said, “The Americans want to attack Syria. We want to attack Syria with them.” He took it to the Commons, and the Commons rejected it. They learned their lesson, and they’ve never done it again. Keep that in mind because I’ll come back to conventions later. A convention can’t be relied upon to do the right thing.

Where is Australia on this? We promoted the idea for a long time, and a few forward-thinking people in the Labour Party got the Labour National Conference twice in 2018 and 2022 to agree that in the first term of a Labour government, they would hold an inquiry into how Australia goes to war. We were very pleased that that was agreed to. We kept on with our campaign. After Labour was elected in May 2022, at the very end or towards the end of the year in late September, they announced that there would be the inquiry that we had been waiting for such a long time. That is underway.

We’ll get to that because that’s an interesting point and also a timely one because we’re expecting some results from that inquiry. That’s a good example where Blair used the convention in 2003 and the House of Commons supported and went again to a war that ultimately proved to be an illegal war against international law and breaching the just war principles that we so hold dear, which perhaps works against the point you’re trying to make though, isn’t it? Even if you have to debate in parliament, it was still a wrong decision. It was still misinformed and ultimately proved to be wrong. Even if we did have the debate in parliament on whether to go to war or not, how would that make us any more resilient to wrong reasons for going to war?

Only as resilient as the democratic system allows. The people elect their representatives. The representatives sit in the parliament. They hear the arguments one way or the other, and they decide. Whatever they decide is the result of the democratic process. We don’t have anything better. You might say, “We need a dictator who will decide the right thing.” That might not necessarily be right either. We’re stuck with the system that we’ve got.

To that extent, my organisation says that we have to accept the results of that. If we argue for a debate and a vote, and the debate and vote go against what we think is right, we back off. Here is the thing. When there’s a debate, if the politicians know that every one of them has to vote on this, instead of it just being a few ministers at the top or unaccountable to anybody, they themselves in both houses will have to face their own electors at the next election who might say, “You sent us to that disastrous war. You voted for that. What the hell do you think you were doing? You told us that this and this were the reasons why you have made that decision.”

Here’s where one hopes the democratic process might work. It might concentrate the minds of a number of people in the parliament who don’t think much about foreign policy or defence policy, leaving it to the higher-ups and saying, “That’s too complicated for me. I’ve got enough already to worry about with health education, welfare, social services, and all that stuff,” which would be much better off if we weren’t spending so much money on war but they would then have to take more of an interest.

They would have to inform themselves and vote. Even if some people say, “I’ll vote the party line,” they may, but on a matter like that, if the party in government has to rely upon party discipline to get a thing like that through, I would be very surprised if they could do it. We have crossbenches and independence. We have a lot of people who are concerned about these matters. The result would be different from what we’ve been describing.

That strikes me as an important point because what I hear you talk about is incentives. It’s ultimately incentivising behaviours in the parliament from the elected officials or using their internal incentives, or staying in power. The voters will judge them on their decisions rather than that occurring somewhere with impunity, and ultimately, everybody else in parliament is washing their hands off, “It wasn’t my decision. I didn’t have a say in it. It was the Prime Minister and the cabinet that made those decisions. Therefore, I have nothing to answer for.” Whereas what you’re saying is if both Houses of Parliament are responsible, then every individual within those houses is ultimately responsible to their electorate. Is that what I’m hearing you say?

That’s right. The other thing that gives us hope about that is that increasingly, from our polling in my organisation and others who have done polls about this matter, the overwhelming majority, 80%-plus of respondents say, “This needs to be changed. We can’t go on like this.” Particularly people who are watching what’s going on and worrying that the next war might not be halfway across the world but right in our region and right involving us. This is something that they can’t afford to forget about and leave to somebody else to decide. It’s too serious for that.

That’s an important point because many of us are rather empathetic toward war. We send our troops forth into faraway lands, and there’s very little effect on the everyday Australians in those wars. Apart from the troops whom we send and come back with all sorts of injuries, whether mental or physical, it’s a very small percentage of the Australian population that has truly felt the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, even our deployments to East Timor and Solomon.

The next one won’t be like that, I can tell you.

That’s certainly the reason why I’m rather vocal about this point as well. Going back to one of those points, whether the parliamentarians or those who we elect will be held accountable both ways when we go to war and when we don’t go to war. I wonder if you have any figures, thoughts, experience, or understanding of whether the British parliamentarians paid any price for choosing not to support an intervention in Syria against the Assad regime. That was the second circumstance you mentioned, where Cameron ultimately listened to the House of Commons and chose not to become involved, which resulted partially in hundreds of thousands of dead in Syria and millions displaced.

Britain is not the only country we should be comparing ourselves with the war. The first answer to your question, why didn’t the people get rid of the Tories? It’s because they weren’t only thinking about war. That’s why. What they were thinking about was Brexit. Brexit was, in a way, the same as war thinking. It was finding foreign enemies saying, “We don’t want those people over here.” It’s very racist and xenophobic.

The conservative voters were right behind the Tory Party on that. They only needed to pull that string, and people would jump into line. When people vote for a government, they’re not just voting for the war issue. They’re voting on broader things and what they think is going to affect them economically, socially, and so on. That’s how they played Brexit and got a majority in favour of it.

When people vote for a government, they're not just voting on the war issue. They're voting on broader things and what they think is going to affect them economically, socially, and so on. Share on X

What happened when Theresa May was the Prime Minister? Looking at what David Cameron had done, being told by the Americans and the French what was going on in Syria, and it was false about them using chemical weapons on their own people, she wanted to do a bombing campaign together with the United States and France in 2018. She didn’t go to the Commons. She said in March that it was an emergency, so they had to do it. It got put off. It didn’t happen until April. They then bombed these sites. It was pre-planned and pre-prepared in Syria.

What emergency was there for Britain? None at all. What you have to be very careful about, and people talk about this when we recommend a change in the warpath, is they say, “What do we do in an emergency?” We say, “The emergency has to be genuine.” If there’s a genuine emergency, every government has the right and obligation to defend its territory. That’s not what Britain was doing. What Britain was doing was attacking someone else at the request of the United States, just the same as we do.

Can I then ask you for your personal view on the idea of responsibility to protect? It’s the idea of intervening to prevent a genocide of one’s own people or where the people are simply powerless to defend against a much stronger opponent. I come from a country like that in Bosnia, where the politics are beside, and the reasons for the war in forming Slavia were varied in many. Ultimately, it was NATO that intervened under the auspice of R2P to stop the war there and then. My opinions on that aren’t clear cut so I wondered what you think about R2P in general then. If I understand what you’re saying, an emergency would only constitute an attack on one’s own sovereign territory.

That’s what international law says. International law doesn’t cover R2P, except to the extent that an R2P intervention has to pass through the UN Security Council, which then makes it legitimate. I’ve never been a great supporter of R2P. I greatly respect what Gareth Evans and his colleagues did to get that up. It was idealistically sound and humanitarian. It came from the best parts of human nature if you like.

It’s a little bit like prosecuting people for war crimes. It’s funny how White males never get prosecuted for war crimes. It’s always the others. As in Bosnia and so on, it happened to be on the opposite side of the ideological fence of the governments who are making these decisions in the Security Council. After all, the UN is not a Democratic organisation at all. The powers given to the nuclear-powered five victors of World War II are enormous.

It doesn’t represent the will of the people of the world who only get one vote in the General Assembly. They can pass resolutions that don’t change anything. What I think about R2P is that it was a good-sounding way for interventions to take place in countries where we didn’t like what was happening before, but we didn’t want to go in there and have a war. It was a stepping stone before the war without completing the crossover. It hasn’t worked, quite frankly.

I don’t mean to be resistant, but I wonder whether we can use the same argument as the one you said previously about, “It’s the best we’ve got at the moment,” given the circumstances. I fear. I empathise with your position. I’m as dubious about the United Nations, the Security Council, and especially the veto powers. When you’re trying to do things on consensus, that can be side swept by one of the five simply through a veto. You’re not going to achieve anything.

In a way, it’s the best we’ve got. In the absence of a mechanism to respond as a world to protect those who can’t protect themselves, I feel like we need something. If we’re not getting the resolutions through the UN and UN Security Council, then what’s left? Ultimately, it’s people that are suffering. Syria is a prime example. The Balkans are another. Libya is probably another more recent example. If we stand by and don’t become actively involved, then what remains?

I didn’t mean to suggest, and I certainly don’t believe that we ought not to support the UN and all the good works that it does. I was only talking about R2P. I worked at the UN, and I have great regard for it while recognising all its faults, which are those not of the organisation but of the people involved in it, the countries, and the decisions that are made there.

The UN is our last best hope. It’s all we have. If we didn’t have it, we would have to reinvent it in some way that wouldn’t necessarily be any better because there would still be people controlling the way a new organisation was formed, just as it happened in the first place. The only time you get this kind of international movement for something as wide-reaching as the UN is after a catastrophic war. That’s how we got it after World War II.

Even then, the United States wanted to control it, wanted it to do what it wanted, and resisted it when it didn’t. The United States, our great ally, does not accept the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice. It does not sign up for numerous conventions that countries put their trust in because they want to run the show their own way, and that’s what they do.

Unfortunately, Australia goes along with them a lot of the time. We have been starting to edge out of that a little bit on a few issues like Palestine, climate change, and things like that. Not that the US has gotten a position against climate change, but on certain weapons and so on. Australia has been trying to get back to the kind of agenda that we used to have under Labour governments. Ever since the War on Terror, we’ve been living in the pocket of the Americans, and they expect us to be there.

VOW 83 | War Powers
War Powers: Australia has been trying to get back to the agenda that we used to have under Labor governments. Ever since the war on terror, we’ve been living in the pocket of the Americans, and they expect us to be there.

In your view, doesn’t Australia need our alliance with the US and the security umbrella that it provides?

I don’t know what we need it for. I talk to students about this and they say, “How can we possibly manage without the ANZUS alliance?” I said, “What does it do for us?” “I don’t know. It protects us.” It doesn’t, as you know it. It doesn’t say that at all. When it was signed, it said that both Australia and the United States offered up the bare minimum commitment. They didn’t offer to protect each other at all. What they offered was to consult with each other in accordance with their constitutional processes. That’s all, also, in the event of an attack or a threat in the Pacific area, not all over the world, as John Howard said.

Article 1 says that it is in accordance with the principles of the United Nations Charter. The United Nations Charter says in Article 1 that threat and use of force will be refrained from. What are we doing? Threatening and using force wherever the Americans tell us to. What is the good of an alliance that doesn’t commit the other party to protect us and makes us go into situations of great danger and loss of national interest for no good reason except for our ally telling us to?

What Australia ought to be doing is saying to the United States, “We need to review the ANZUS Alliance, have a good look at it, and see how it needs to be brought up to date. It was signed in 1952. It’s way out of date. We need to look at it and see what it commits us both to see if we’re all happy with that and proceed from there.”

Here’s my pious hope. When we say that, we also say, “We are good friends. We’ve always been good friends. We remain good friends, but we want you to know that in the event of a war against China, Australia will not join an American coalition because the Americans always have to have a coalition for war. They won’t do it without it. They can’t get Congress behind it unless they have a coalition. Australia should say in advance and very politely, “We are not interested in joining such a coalition because it’s against our national interests.”

It’s certainly a decision I dread, especially being someone in uniform. It’s partially what’s motivating many of my discussions because it’s certainly not a war I wish upon anyone and certainly, not one that I’m keen to partake in. Going back to that decision point, which is why you’ve been so vocal putting your argument forward is because the risk of such a war is so tremendous. What are the most cited arguments by those who wish to preserve the status quo? In other words, those who don’t want to change the way they decide to go to war. What are their most cited arguments?

We heard some of those from the people who responded to the Michael West Media survey. They went around from 2022 asking all the Federal politicians they could get to respond to a simple question, “Do you think that we should change the way Australia goes to war?” A lot of them didn’t reply. A lot of them said they had nothing to say. A lot of them referred the question to superior people in their party, but half of all the people asked said yes. They thought perhaps things should change.

They weren’t all specific about the change. A lot of them put conditions around it like that one I mentioned in an emergency, which is not something we are saying is a problem at all because every country has a right to defend itself in a genuine emergency. One of the most amazing responses that came to the parliamentary inquiry was from the deputy chair of the committee that is running that inquiry, who’s a liberal. He said, “I think that the current practice has served us well for many years. Therefore, it doesn’t have to change,” to which we responded with amazement.

Either he doesn’t know or hasn’t taken an interest in all the wars that Australia has fought with the United States since 1945. Not one of which has ended in a victory for us, and every one of which has caused enormous suffering and damage to the countries where they were fought. He thinks that the current system has served us well. I don’t know what he meant.

VOW 83 | War Powers
War Powers: In all the wars that Australia has fought with the United States since 1945, not one of which has ended in a victory for Australia. Each one has caused enormous suffering and damage to the countries where they were fought.

I like to see what his definition of not serving us well would look like then. No victories and certainly a loss of global standing in our region.

There have been other responses. Even the survey that Michael West Media did make some people think about it in ways that perhaps they haven’t before. Among the serious points that some of them raised, the most important are two, not the emergency thing. It’s the legal, constitutional thing. In the views of people who don’t want change, it’s the executive that makes decisions like that, not the government as a whole or the parliament. They don’t want that decision to be put in the hands of ordinary parliamentarians or politicians. It’s a real put-down. People like us can be trusted with confidential information and to make this decision, but the rest of the parliament can’t. That one is quite often cited.

Can we explore that one a little bit because it might not necessarily make a lot of sense for everyone? What we’re talking about here is that the prime minister and the cabinet will have access to information or perhaps intelligence that is not publicised more broadly in the parliament for security reasons. It’s in the interest of national security not to disclose our sources or means of collection. Therefore, the Prime Minister and the chosen cabinet are in a privileged position to make a decision based on the information they have available as opposed to information that’s available to the rest of the parliament. Is that broadly the argument?

Yes, it is. That’s one of the serious arguments that is brought forward and raised in the committee hearings several times in December. I’d say two things about that. One is that if the government has that information and it’s so important, it’s important for the opposition to have it as well because today’s opposition could be tomorrow’s government in a democracy. They need to be at least as well-informed as the government is. If they can be trusted with it, what is wrong? Why should only the executive government hold it?

Secondly, if that information could be relied upon and if it was so precious as to be safeguarded in the way we’re describing, then what was happening in 2003 when we were told about that thing? Who we’re going to protect this confidential information so slavishly that we can’t even trust politicians with it? It needs to be true and reliable. The people who give it to us have undermined their own credibility.

Here’s the other point. The whole of parliament doesn’t need to know how the information was collected, which is one of the main reasons for its confidentiality. It also doesn’t need to know the specifics of the strategy and tactics that are planned. That is not necessary for the parliament to make an informed decision. What they need to decide is a motion that Australia should send X number of troops to X War in X country. That’s all.

If there’s an immediate threat to Australia, they need to know what that is. If there’s not, they need those answers plus, is it legal? Is it a lawful war? If it’s an emergency, how is it an emergency? Those are simple questions that the electors and their elected representatives can understand. They don’t need to be exposed to secure intelligence to make those decisions. If there’s secure intelligence that somehow contradicts all of that, it’s hard for me to imagine what it is.

Intelligence can also be downgraded in its classification and presented in such a way as to protect sources, if necessary. That’s something that anybody in the military is fully aware of.

Also, given that politicians, ministers, and officers are as well. Isn’t it? Otherwise, they’d be up before the Crimes Act.

To me, it feels like we’re elected. We’re in cabinet. We hold the power. Having had some exposure to intelligence work, as well as people with clearances, when you hold a particular clearance, that in itself comes with a huge responsibility. For some people, it’s a little bit of ego as well. That’s something that’s not necessarily often discussed. Anybody who’s dealt with people who have higher clearances than them can attest to that. There’s a little bit of power that’s infused. Knowledge is power. That saying exists for a reason. You said there were three reasons. That was one of the main ones. What are the other two that you wanted to mention?

We collapsed 2 into 1, but I’ve got one other. I might say that I agree with you about the status that people acquire on the level of their security clearance. Knowledge is power. “I know this. You don’t. I am more important.” Do people have to be that petty when the nation’s interest is at stake? Coming back to your point, there are two things. In this day and age, what we’re up against is a different kind of war altogether.

Countries don’t declare wars anymore. We just slide into them. They happen. There’s no formal declaration any longer. The only thing that’s declared is sending announcements that the troops are being sent off and for what reason, which is what we want to change, but the way wars are fought, declared, and indeed ended has changed. They don’t end. There are no amnesties or peace conferences.

The other aspect of war that has changed is the technology. Wars can be fought remotely and are being fought from Australia as we speak. We target drones in the Middle East from Alice Springs and Pine Gap. We do all kinds of things like that. We collect intelligence from all over the world, process it, and send it to our allies. All of this is war-making material.

We enable messages from submarines to be collected, interpreted, and used in the system. We are now talking about all kinds of new sorts of warfare, which are called a grey zone, where you’re neither at war nor at peace, but this is going on all the time. The problem with the grey zone, and this sometimes involves even artificial intelligence and weaponised drones and so on, is that none of us know what’s happening. We’re not told that security, you see.

Politicians are probably not told apart from the very top levels that we were talking about. None of us has any means of control over that. That kind of thing that we are doing could expose Australia to retaliate action from an enemy and could expose Australia to attacks on our territory. Here’s the last point. We’re making ourselves a target for war by vastly expanding the American presence in the North of Australia and new bases of several kinds. Also, home porting of American ships, including nuclear-powered and armed submarines.

We are making ourselves a forward base for the United States and hence a target for attack. That attack could be directed at America but use Australia as a surrogate target when we have done nothing, and we have no wish to have a war with someone who might wish to attack us but who might attack America’s forward positioning in this country. Instead of discouraging that, we are bending over backwards to encourage it. That’s what AUKUS is about.

Australia is making itself a forward base for the United States and, hence, a target for attack. Share on X

You are quite well-versed in our region. What do the heads of state or leaders more broadly in our region think about Australia’s posturing over two decades past? Are you seeing a shift in that?

There are lots of shifts. The Chinese have opposed our position for a long time. As it’s grown, their opposition to it has grown. They see us as being subservient to US policy. They don’t like US policy, and hence, they don’t like what Australia is doing as a result of it. That’s their view. Japan didn’t take a strong line on this until they acquired even more conservative governments. They’re now trying desperately to join AUKUS and get in with the American-led action against China.

The other countries in the region, the Southeast Asians particularly, are sticking to what they have always tried to do in ASEAN, which is to remain non-aligned and not to have US bases on their soil and keep out of great power rivalry. By making themselves greater than the sum of their parts as a whole because they stick together on these things, they’re influencing whoever wants to change that situation in the region.

They are equally concerned about China and the US. They’re equally concerned about the line Australia is taking because they’re worried that that could start an arms race in the region. They don’t see any point in an arms race. In terms of guaranteeing their security, it would only expose them to more danger than it does us.

My feeling, and I share this with Paul Keating too, is that it would be a good idea for Australia, instead of telling our neighbours what we think to go and consult with particularly our ASEAN neighbours and say, “We understand your position on this. We don’t like what’s happening either. How can we best head off any prospect of there being a conflict between China and the United States in our region?” I might say you probably noticed an American general who said that he anticipated war between the United States and China in two years’ time.

That’s scary. To hit the nail on the head here, the reason you are arguing to change our war powers is to prevent Australia from simply sliding into such a war with not even as much as a parliamentary debate or discussion, but it is decided purely on the whims of a few individuals committing Australia and Australian troops. Most likely a war of grand attrition that, if it comes to pass, is certainly going to be one that’s going to change a lot.

Where do the main political parties sit on the issue of the changes of war power? You’ve mentioned certain individuals, but as parties, how do you read the room? Perhaps this is a good time to also pivot to the parliamentary inquiry and explore what that’s about and what you are expecting from the parliamentary inquiry.

Neither of the major parties has a policy on change of the war powers. Labour’s only policy is to hold the inquiry, which is being held, and the liberal policy has no change. What’s even more alarming is that the Labour Defenseman, Mr. Richard Marles, said on the very day that the inquiry was announced that he saw no need for any change. In a way, he prejudiced the outcome from day one, and he’s the Defence Minister.

Why did he say that? That’s odd. I do recall that.

It’s what he’s always said. That’s his position. As we do to lots of politicians, we’ve been spoken to, and he said, “If we had the kind of thing you are talking about, Hitler would have invaded Australia.”


He’s one of these people who look at the past and say, “We must never ever do appeasement again.” I may be putting words in his mouth unjustly. I’m not sure, but he has told us that he’s opposed to this change. There are people in the Labour Party who are in favour of it. The Greens are in favour of it and have put forward bills proposing it. Several of the old Independents support it. Some of the new ones are getting used to the idea and sorting it out among their other priorities. They’re all talking to us, but we haven’t got real decisions from them yet.

The two leading Labour members who are behind it and behind the inquiry are Julian Hill from Melbourne and Josh Wilson from Perth. They have been pushing the inquiry forward ever since the idea came up. I have to say, to answer to your next question, which is what’s the result going to be, there are two things. One is that there were 111 submissions made to the inquiry. Of those, 93 from individuals and groups all over Australia were firmly in favour of the reform that we’re talking about. Among the others, some wanted certain conditions met. There was only the smallest handful of people who made submissions who were against the idea of reform.

We all made submissions. We went and presented them at Parliament House. We were asked for supplementary submissions, and we put those in. We’re waiting until March to hear the result. My instinct for what the result is going to be is this. They’re going to come up with something that sounds reasonable to the ordinary punter, even though there has been no publicity given to this thing, and most people are not even familiar with the fact that it’s been going on.

To the ordinary punter, they’ll come up with something that sounds halfway all right. It sounds so positive, as if some progress has been made. It will say this, “This is a serious issue. We’re going to move to codify the conventions.” We already have conventions that there should be some debate before a war. That’s not written down anywhere. They say, “We’re going to codify that.” That means they’ll write it down and say, “There is this convention.” That’s all. It’s not amending the Defence Act. It’s not passing a new law. It’s not actually changing anything. The reason it’s not changing anything is there has to be a vote. The convention doesn’t entail having a vote. The convention is a debate. That’s all.

It can be post the fact that a decision has already been made by the Prime Minister.

It could be after the fact or before the fact. The very notion that the idea is brought to the parliament supposes that the government knows what it wants to do. Whether they’ve decided or not, the parliament can scrutinise and debate anything it likes. Unless there’s a vote, nothing changes. The executive, having done that and codified the convention that it will be scrutinised and debated, has changed nothing because we have the status quo.

VOW 83 | War Powers
War Powers: Whether they’ve decided or not, the parliament can scrutinize and debate anything it likes, but unless there’s a vote, nothing changes.

How different is this from other democracies like Australia?

Everyone asks that. That’s another question that Julian Hill and Josh Wilson are interested in. They’re proposing that the parliamentary library do more work on this. In 2010, they’ve done some comparing various democracies, but it’s out of date now. Most countries that don’t have British constitutions have war powers either written into their constitutions or legislation. There are requirements in most democracies around the world that the process we’ve been talking about happens before a commitment to war is made.

Britain has conventions. Canada, Australia, and New Zealand don’t. We have conventions, but we don’t have the kind of requirement that most other democracies do. Even the constitution of Ireland requires a report once a war has started. Those are regular reports back to the parliament saying how it’s going on. If the Parliament doesn’t like it, they’ll stop it. This is terrific stuff. This is modern thinking, whereas our constitutions are very old.

We find out how it’s going. We got the media.

We don’t even know from the media that the inquiry exists. When it reports, that probably won’t be covered in the media either. We expect that report in March, and March is not a good time for it to be publicised because March is when they’re going to announce the AUKUS agreement. By March, they will be up to their ears in discussing the defence’s strategic review.

Although this might be on our side, March is the twentieth anniversary of our invasion of Iraq. Our issue is going to be crowded to the sidelines. I suspect that the spin darkness will either bury it or make it sound the way I described it as halfway reasonable. That will mean that twelve years of our work will go nowhere because we’ll never get it up again under this government. Under a successor government of the opposite persuasion, we won’t get it up at all.

I have no doubt that this particular discussion on this particular episode will be viewed as controversial by some. I certainly invite somebody from the opposing camp because it’s very obvious that my bias very strongly leans towards your views. Also, because of my own experiences that you and I talked about briefly. I’ve seen the side of the war as a civilian and a child and what that does to a nation, families, and people. Also, I have had the displeasure of participating in some of our nation’s adventures in the past.

My bias is rather strong toward your views. I do invite anybody who’s strongly opposed to what you say to reach out for an interview. Perhaps this is my last question to you. What is your greatest fear in relation to the war powers? Perhaps you already stated that nothing will happen. Is there something else that you are losing sleep over each night?

First of all, I’m glad that you are going to talk to people who don’t agree with me or you. It’s very important. I’m delighted that people with those views should be invited to discuss them and put them forward. People who are following your program can then weigh them up and make up their minds. The only thing is I don’t think that anything I have said is unfactual. These are the facts. What has happened, we know it. What is likely to happen, we’ve been told. The risks we are facing are clear. Anyone who thinks that an alliance with the United States forces us to go to war whenever they say so is a good idea is welcome to express that view and argue as best they can in support of it.

As we should be able to do in democracy and as should be done in parliament.

That is the principle on which we operate.

What is your greatest fear in relation to what we already discussed? Perhaps you already mentioned it, but what do you lose sleep over?

It’s pretty clear from what I’ve said that I fear the next war. If that American general is right, that is a war between the United States and China. When two nuclear powers face each other with nothing being achieved, the temptation to go nuclear becomes overwhelming. That is an absolute disaster for our region and the world. Why do it? One reason only propels this general’s thinking, and that is they want to fight so that the United States can remain the world’s hegemon.

When two nuclear powers face each other with nothing achieved, the temptation to go nuclear becomes overwhelming, which is an absolute disaster for our region and the world. Share on X

China is challenging that, and they don’t like it. They can’t cope with it. The British Empire, at least, was forced to collapse in a relatively graceful manner and accept that other countries were going to take over power. The United States will not accept that. They want us to fight their enemies for that alone. That is my greatest fear. My second greatest fear is that Australia will not have the courage to understand that and say, as I recommend it, “We’re not in it.”

It’s very pragmatic and perhaps a little bit scary. Unfortunately, I agree with you wholeheartedly. That’s probably some of my greatest fears as well. We blindly stumble into something that we don’t understand and appreciate how we fit into the big picture. I do echo what you said. We do need to have discussions about this and more debate. On that note, Dr. Alison Broinowski, thank you very much for giving me so much of your time. We’ve gone slightly over our agreed allocation, but I do appreciate it. Thank you very much.

It’s been great to talk to you. Thank you.


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