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Firing Line

In reply to James Brown's Quarterly Essay, Firing Line: Australia's Path to War.



Peter Whish-Wilson

A government faces few bigger decisions than whether to commit young Australians to war. So it is striking how rarely questions about defence spending and national security policy figure in Australia’s public and political discourse, especially in parliament.

Firing Line is an important contribution to what passes as debate on Australia’s security interests and priorities. As in Anzac’s Long Shadow, James Brown isn’t afraid to challenge taboos. It is always encouraging when insight and critique are provided by someone of Brown’s military and professional standing, as they are less easy to dismiss.

There is much to respond to in Firing Line, but I will limit my comments to two areas. First, James Brown notes that our country’s national security apparatus is “entirely underscrutinised, and it shows.” Based on my experience as a senator, I agree. “It is extraordinary,” Brown writes, “that so little infrastructure is dedicated to parsing the issues of war.” In the last parliament, I sat on both the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties and the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade. I understand full well what Brown means when he says that our oversight of defence matters is both “underdone and weak.”

Following the release of the 2016 Defence White Paper in February, I bantered with a few well-known journalists at Aussies Café in Parliament House. “What’s wrong with you, Whish-Wilson, are you un-Australian? Where’s your patriotism?” they chided, smiling.

As the Greens spokesperson for Defence, I had been outspoken that week, questioning the need to increase defence spending to an arbitrary 2 per cent of GDP when there had been no escalation in Australia’s overall security threat, and when such an increase ran the risk of dragging the nation into an arms race in the Asia-Pacific region. I also noted that the white paper had been repeatedly delayed, seemingly to coincide with an election year. This risked politicising defence procurement programs and dressing up industry policy as defence policy.

I also warned that without scrutiny and oversight, this increase in defence spending, the biggest outside wartime, brought with it enormous opportunity costs and risk of waste. Every extra dollar spent on defence equipment could potentially be better spent on foreign aid, infrastructure or climate change adaptation, without detracting from both the overt and implicit aims of the white paper.

These seemed reasonable concerns. But my Greens colleagues and I were the only ones in the Senate to raise them, and among very few in the wider parliamentary circles to do so publicly.

It is the job of a parliamentarian, especially in Opposition, to ask hard questions and scrutinise government decisions. But in recent years, Liberal and Labor have been in on virtually all matters of defence and national security – in furious agreement on recent Iraqi and Syrian deployments, draconian new intelligence laws, the machinations of the secretive Operation Sovereign Borders, and now the decision to ramp up defence spending with record-breaking procurement programs.

To many Australians, this unity ticket seems odd. Parliament dedicates an inordinate amount of time to scrutinising the details of where and how defence money is being spent. This gives the appearance of an Opposition doing its job and occupies a lot of time in Senate Estimates. In reality there is little scrutiny of substance on the public record. Next to no time is given to examining whether this spending serves a particular strategy, let alone whether the strategy is the right one in the first place.

In politics, decisions are based on both party policy and the political realities and practicalities of the day. The reality in this country is that we have an aggressive and belligerent right-wing media promoting conservative agendas, especially in defence and national security. Some elements of the Murdoch press, first and foremost, are only too keen to attack and ridicule politicians who don’t support certain agendas. I have been on the receiving end of such attacks. They are designed to belittle the individual, and to undermine or silence proper debate. And they work. I know from conversations with parliamentarians across the political spectrum that there is deep fear of repercussions for speaking out on defence procurement, national security or our participation in foreign conflicts.

The risk of losing political skin is a disincentive to asking too many questions or rocking the boat. Politicians fear being seen to be not “across your brief” – in what are often highly detailed and complex matters. At a more basic level, they fear being accused of not supporting the troops or undermining a strong national defence. This “silent running” acts as a significant and dangerous barrier to transparency and scrutiny.

I’m glad that James Brown has highlighted particular issues that arose during Tony Abbott’s time as prime minister and the pressure Abbott put on our national security apparatus and defence personnel. But Captain Brown was being diplomatic. As I see it, Abbott repeatedly politicised national security issues – especially the threat of violent extremism within Australian borders – for political gain. While instances of extremism are real and need to be taken seriously, the politicisation of this issue was both counter-productive and dangerous. This has noticeably cooled since Malcolm Turnbull became prime minister, although the popular and divisive political rhetoric of One Nation threatens to revive the national security dog-whistle.

Given the recent social media frenzy on the national security threat posed by Islamic extremism, I am inclined to disagree with Brown’s assertion that “for much of the Australian public, Australia’s strategic environment has become somewhat safer” and that “war has largely ceased to be a threat.” In an age of global media providing saturation coverage of acts of violence and terror, I believe that we have rarely felt more unsafe or more under siege. In recent surveys such as the Lowy Institute Poll, the threat of violent extremism ranks as this nation’s biggest insecurity. 

This brings me to my second issue with Firing Line: the idea that we need to move beyond the legacy of the Iraq War and seek new “templates” under which to consider the path to war – or its avoidance.

This is unlikely while the conflict in Iraq remains ongoing and unexamined. Only a full and independent inquiry into Australia’s contribution to the 2003 invasion of Iraq and its aftermath will suffice if we are to learn from our mistakes and recast the debate. This examination is long overdue.

We are also unlikely to move on from the Iraq War while the larger political and media context of this conflict is what journalist Peter Greste calls the “appallingly named War on Terror.”

When discussing the changing nature of war and how Australians perceive conflict, Brown acknowledges “that mental line has moved further and further outwards, pushed by myriad factors since 1945.” Brown suggests that following the invasion of Iraq, there has been public confusion over current or future paths to war, and consequently disengagement. This is perfectly understandable, reflecting the fact that many Australians feel they are in a perpetual state of war – the “long war” promised by Dick Cheney. 

I would argue that as a nation we perceive ourselves to be – and in reality are – less safe now because of the so-called “War on Terror.” Australians rightly question the necessity of foreign deployments and are sceptical of the need to ramp up military spending.

However, this will not be enough to prevent future catastrophes such as Australia’s participation in the unilateral invasion of Iraq as it doesn’t address the core issue that this decision was not made by the entire parliament, but rather by one or a handful of politicians within the executive.

The Chilcot Inquiry has provided us with a chilling indictment of the flawed processes that allowed a few ideologically motivated individuals to lead us into a catastrophic war in Iraq. James Brown also acknowledges that “the way a country prepares for war, the assessment it makes of possible threats, is a deeply human process, prone to bias and instinct.” It is therefore surprising that he doesn’t support giving war powers to parliament, rather than to members of our nation’s executive, who are more often than not motivated by their own narrow political and ideological objectives.

I disagree with Brown that giving parliament war powers would inhibit any “effective response to a crisis.” Any legislation would be structured so that parliament makes the initial decision to go to war, but does not make the operating decisions during the conduct of any conflict. Most importantly, participation must be decided by a conscience vote. Given the gravity of war and the risks posed to the lives and wellbeing of those who serve, each and every parliamentarian should have this decision on their conscience.

Brown feels that Australians are making broader national security decisions based on “instincts, not insights.” That may be true, but when the available insights are often heavily politicised by the Murdoch tabloids, and the bipartisan political interests of the two major parties and other vested interests, the public’s tendency to be deceived, to fail to trust or to disengage entirely, is perfectly understandable.

It is critical that trust be restored. At a recent lecture I attended during the Tamar Peace Festival, Julian Burnside QC stated that “the path to peace starts with honesty.” We can start being honest by holding an open and independent inquiry into Australia’s role in the Iraq War, introducing new legislation to give parliament a conscience vote on future deployments, and adopting new ways to scrutinise defence spending and matters of national security.

Peter Whish-Wilson 

Peter Whish-Wilson was elected a Greens senator for Tasmania in 2012. He is a graduate of the Australian Defence Force Academy and pursued a career in international finance before moving to Tasmania, where he was a lecturer in economics and finance at the University of Tasmania, a wine-maker and an activist.


This is a reply to James Brown’s Quarterly Essay, Firing Line: Australia's Path to War. To read the full essay, login, subscribe, or buy the book.


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