John Howard’s 2003 march to war with Iraq appears to have taught our current parliament little

·5-min read

As Australian politicians weighed in on the 20th anniversary of the US-led invasion of Iraq, there was precious little proof they had absorbed any major lessons from the controversial war.

Almost as soon as the Senate opened at 10am on Monday, the Greens tried to suspend standing orders to debate a motion that “in 2003, Australia was a part of a United States-led coalition which illegally invaded the sovereign nation of Iraq, with catastrophic consequences for Iraq and the broader region”.

Senator Jordon Steele-John channelled the rage of hundreds of thousands of Australians who had taken to the streets two decades ago to oppose the war which occurred without a United Nations mandate. He told the chamber: “They know they were being marched to war by men who wished to see other people’s children placed in harm’s way to suit their political ends.”

Related: After John Howard took Australia to war in Iraq, he was scarcely held to account. Instead, he was re-elected | Paul Daley

Steele-John has repeatedly called for a “re-evaluation” of Australia’s close security relationship with the US. On Monday, he said the Greens stood united in “opposition to ever again, being led into an illegal, immoral and unjust war at the reckless hands of the United States of America”.

But the attempt to bring on a fully fledged debate was opposed by the major political parties and the parliamentary ambush was denounced as a “stunt”.

Still, the ensuing discussion about whether to delay normal government business fast turned into a proxy debate about the war. Coalition senators said vaguely that “there are always lessons to learn” or “mistakes were made” while in the same breath offering fresh attempts to justify the decisions made by John Howard’s Coalition government.

The Liberal leader in the Senate, Simon Birmingham, explained away the failure to find weapons of mass destruction that the leaders of the US, the UK and Australia had claimed to be sure existed. Birmingham came close to saying the despot Saddam Hussein had tricked western countries into invading. In Birmingham’s telling, Saddam had “deliberately sought to lure other nations into believing that he continued to have them [WMDs] and would use them”.

Birmingham cautioned against “attempts to form a black and white view, of right or wrong, of war or conflict”, adding: “the world and Iraq are better off for being rid of Saddam Hussein and his dictatorship.”

His colleague Michaelia Cash insisted the Howard government’s decision “was based on the best available advice at the time” and ensured the removal of “a brutal dictator who subjugated his own citizens, invaded neighbouring countries and used chemical weapons against his own people”.

Related: Labor’s opposition to Iraq war ‘vindicated’, Richard Marles says

The Nationals’ Bridget McKenzie said war “should be avoided where possible” but “sometimes you have to stand up to bullies”.

By the end of the proxy debate, Peter Whish-Wilson appeared to have had enough. The Greens senator told the upper house it was “very sad and very frustrating to see the Liberal party continue to wipe clean the blood they so very clearly have on their hands”.

The Greens found an unlikely ally in Malcolm Roberts of One Nation, who agreed that the way Australia followed the US into Iraq was “not good enough”.

Related: ‘The US army destroyed our lives’: five Iraqis on the war that changed the Middle East

Labor had the benefit of being able to point to its firm opposition to the war. The then-Labor leader, Simon Crean,had given a remarkable farewell address to troops leaving on HMAS Kanimbla. “I don’t want to mince my words, because I don’t believe that you should be going,” he said. “You don’t have a choice and my argument is with the government, not with you.”

One of Monday’s interesting side-debates was whether a Labor leader today would be bold enough to take a similar stand, after two decades of deepening integration with the US – a phenomenon that will only be super-charged under Aukus. Over at the National Press Club, the former US navy secretary Richard Spencer described the US and Australia as “two interlocking bands of steel”. He said he hoped Taiwan would never become a military flashpoint – but if it did “would hope that Australia is beside us”.

Related: Long shadow of US invasion of Iraq still looms over international order

The Labor minister Murray Watt was keen to scotch any suggestion of a diminution of Australia’s room to move. “Let there be no doubt,” Watt said. “Australia makes its own choices. Acquiring Aukus’s military capability was a sovereign decision. Any decision to use this capability will also be ours alone.”

In any case, both major parties maintain their position that the executive government of the day should retain the right to send troops to conflicts without any need for a binding parliamentary vote.

In the House of Representatives on Monday, Anthony Albanese described decisions about war as “among the most serious any government can make”. While a parliamentary inquiry is looking into the current rules, the prime minister made clear his own preference for a minimalist change where “parliamentarians should be given a chance to express their views following a cabinet decision to go to war”.

Birmingham was also in the minimalist-change camp: “Our system is one where there is immense scrutiny of the decisions made by government, but we should enable governments to exercise those powers under the appropriate scrutiny, transparency and accountability of our parliamentary democracy.”

If this same “immense scrutiny” can fail to prevent Australia from entering a war based on false information – and in circumstances where hundreds of thousands of citizens have protested and a major party is opposed – perhaps a more rigorous process is needed.