Accountability Failure: Executive Government’s Unchecked Power to send Australians to War

New research has revealed a fundamental failure in accountability surrounding the process of how Australia decides to engage in armed conflict overseas.

In Australia, the decision to engage in armed conflict is taken by the Executive government without reference to the Parliament. Research by The Australia Institute’s Democracy & Accountability and Security & International Affairs Programs show that this process denies to the Parliament the responsibility it has for the safety and well-being of Australian citizens, and for the proper expenditure of financial resources.

Key points:

  • Parliamentary involvement regarding decisions around deployment and war is far from unusual. However, in Australia, the decision to send citizens into war is an unaccountable exercise of political power by the Executive government.
  • Parliamentary involvement can be before (ex ante) or after deployment, and ranges from as having veto powers to merely a requirement to be informed by the Executive.
  • A review of 49 democracies found that 30% had a parliamentary ex ante veto as of 2004, with a further 5% inconclusive. Many more had other parliamentary involvement in decision-making around war, including the right to be consulted or the power to cut short a deployment.

“The question of who ultimately decides when Australia goes to war goes to the heart of the Executive’s accountability to the Parliament of Australia, and the Parliament’s responsibility for representing and protecting the interests of the Australian community,” said Allan Behm, director of the Australia Institute’s International & Security Affairs Program.

“The memorials and shrines dotted around Australia’s villages, towns, suburbs and cities are a constant reminder of the human cost of war.

“If we are to put the lives of our youth at risk in the defence of the country, agreement to do so must rest with those whom we elect to govern us – the Parliament.

“The security of the nation begins with the security of its people. The safety and security of individual citizens in an all-volunteer defence force should never be a merely incidental aspect in the unaccountable exercise of political power by the Executive.”

The Australia Institute has made a Submission to the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Inquiry: Defence Amendment (Parliamentary Approval of Overseas Service) Bill 2020.

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