Labor’s opposition to Iraq war ‘vindicated’, Richard Marles says
Richard Marles says opponents of the Iraq war have been vindicated, prompting fresh calls from campaigners to reform the Australian government’s war powers to prevent a repeat.
The defence minister, who is awaiting a report from a parliamentary inquiry into how the nation decides to engage in armed conflict, said such deployments were among the most significant any government could make.
The US-led invasion of Iraq – which Australia and the UK joined – began 20 years ago on the pretext of dismantling the despot Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction program. Those weapons were never found.
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John Howard and his Coalition government made the decision to join the conflict in 2003 without the opposition’s support.
In an interview with Guardian Australia coinciding with the 20th anniversary, Marles said: “I think the position that Labor took at the time under [then-Labor leader] Simon Crean has been vindicated. I think that is clear.”
In 2003 Crean declared the Iraq war to be “illegal, unnecessarily and unjust”. Asked about this assertion, Marles said he would “definitely support the position that Simon Crean as our Labor leader took then”.
“These are really important questions,” Marles added. “The terms on which we engage in armed conflict end up being as a significant set of decisions as any government can make. We need to make sure that we get the architecture of that right – and that’s what the inquiry is seeking to do.”
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At present, the executive government can make a decision to commit Australian troops to overseas conflicts. While parliamentary debates on conflicts are common, any votes taken in the chamber are not binding.
To date, Marles and senior ministers have stopped short of endorsing sweeping changes to the existing powers.
He has argued that the “duly elected government of the day” should be able to act quickly in the interests of Australia’s safety and security but has said this should be accompanied by greater parliamentary debate, transparency and scrutiny.
Dr Alison Broinowski, a former Australian diplomat and author who is president of Australians for War Powers Reform, said Australia had gone to war in Iraq on a lie and remained vulnerable to flawed decision making.
“The parliament as a whole has literally no control over that process, and still has none,” Broinowski said. “That remains the case and that’s why people are worried that we could find ourselves in the same situation all over again.”
Broinowski raised concerns that the Aukus nuclear-powered submarine deal – and the associated increased rotations of US forces to Australia – would only increase integration with US strategy.
“Now that may be all very well for the United States, which doesn’t have to live in this region forever and ever, but Australia does – and the last thing I would have thought that we want is to provoke a war with China,” she said.
Marles told the ABC’s Insiders program on Sunday that the government had not made any commitments – explicit or implicit – to the US about Australian involvement in a future possible conflict in defence of Taiwan.
The government has said Australia will have sovereign control of the submarines and that it wants to protect shipping lanes and uphold peace and stability across the region.
But the Greens senator Jordon Steele-John also raised concerns that Aukus would “see Australian military independence undermined and our nation tied to the next reckless American war”.
Steele-John said both major parties had “failed to even try to learn the lessons from the illegal invasion of Iraq”.
Related: Long shadow of US invasion of Iraq still looms over international order
“Politicians from Washington to Canberra actively lied and purposely omitted important information on their march to war,” he said.
“We must reform the way Australia goes to war by implementing a parliamentary vote like so many other countries around the world, so that lies and false intelligence can be called out before people are put in harm’s way.”
The independent MP Andrew Wilkie, who quit his position at the then Office of National Assessments a week before the invasion of Iraq, said the passage of 20 years had not “righted the wrong of the staggering dishonesty behind the war”.
“Regrettably no one in Australia has ever been held to account for this egregious misconduct,” Wilkie said.
“Moreover the opportunity to learn from it and to reform war powers, in other words to give the parliament responsibility for deciding to go to war, has been ignored.”
The war powers inquiry is expected to report back to parliament within weeks.