Democracy has proved itself a friend of peace. No fully self-governing country has provoked a war within a century’s memory . . . Democracy, being founded on the rights of the individual Citizens, concerns itself ﬁrst and foremost with the domestic well-being of its people . . . In the grim struggle between guns and butter, it prefers butter. It feels in its bones that war is a destroyer, and that conqueror and conquered may be at the end ’in one red burial blent’ Robert Menzies, ‘The Achievement of Democracy’, from The Forgotten People radio broadcasts, 1942
John Howard began 2003 by farewelling our troops, for what we all knew would be war in Iraq, with the support of only 30 per cent of the Australian people and without the prior parliamentary debate he had promised.
Imagine how those poor bloody troops must have felt. It’s always a sacriﬁce to risk your life for your country, but to do so in a war of aggression against a nation posing no threat to your homeland is the biggest ask of all. The least you’d want is the assurance that most Australians believed the war was in their interests, because they’re the ones you’d be dying for, not John Howard.
Yet Howard sent the troops off with what veteran commentator Michelle Grattan was calling ‘the big lie’ – that he hadn’t already decided upon war on the nod from George Bush. The troops must have sensed the lie more deeply than the rest of us because they’d been preparing for months. Invasion plans had been drawn up and Australia was inextricably linked to the US Iraq war machine.
The idea that we’d pull the plug on our closest ally if the United Nations said no was unthinkable, but still Howard pretended to our troops and to us.
John Howard stated that we had only recently started preparing for this looming conﬂict. Bullshit! We, that is, 1 SAS Squadron . . . were given orders to prepare for a war with Iraq around July 2002 . . . I write this [email] because I am sick of John Howard and the Federal Government’s lies about our position re Iraq, and our role within the coalition. Webdiarist ‘Brian Dabeagle’, 7 March 2003 (Dabeagle also sent his pseudonymous email to Greens Senator Bob Brown)
In June 2002, just after George Bush had begun telling the world he’d invade Iraq and ‘if you’re not with us you’re against us’, John Howard jumped to attention. Long before the intelligence agencies of what would become the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ pulled together their dossiers on what weapons of mass destruction Iraq had, and long before Bush went to the United Nations, Howard promised Bush an armoured brigade for invading Iraq. As well, Foreign
Minister Alexander Downer labelled Labor ‘appeasers’. But Howard had to publicly backtrack hard in the face of disapproval from Australian voters. By September 2002 he was telling Australians that ‘we won’t just automatically click our heels and follow the Americans’, and that talk of what military assistance we might offer, and what increased risk to our security might result if we did, was ‘hypothetical’. John Howard was lying. We now know that at the same time he was discussing with George Bush the best route to war. He told the Australian newspaper a year later, in September 2003:
‘When Bush rang me in Brisbane in early September last year, he said some people wanted him to go back to the UN, some of his people – you can probably work out who – didn’t want him to go back to the UN. He said: “What do you think?” and I said: “I think your case will be that much stronger if you’re seen to have tried.” I also said it would make our domestic political job easier in Australia to take public opinion with us.’
Yet for ordinary Australians the debate was just starting in September 2002, and the last ANZUS disaster was in the forefront of people’s minds. In July Chief of the Defence Force General Peter Cosgrove said ‘we probably shouldn’t have gone’ to Vietnam and that the Iraq debate was ‘an important issue for the Australian people’ to discuss. RSL President Major-General Peter Phillips, a fellow Vietnam veteran, responded, ‘It’s timely that [Vietnam] is raised now, given the possibility of an American invasion of Iraq.’
Then, on 26 September 2002, former prime ministers Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke and Gough Whitlam, former Liberal leader John Hewson, Major-General Phillips, former Australian Defence Force chiefs General Peter Gration and Admiral Alan Beaumont, and former Royal Australian Navy chief Admiral Michael Hudson all signed off to this: ‘We put this conviction directly and unequivocally: it would constitute a failure of the duty of government to protect the integrity and ensure the security of this nation to commit any Australian forces in support of the US military offensive against Iraq without the backing of a speciﬁc United Nations resolution.’
So what were we ordinary Australians to think, John Howard, when blokes like this, who knew about these things, spoke out so forcefully?
And what were we to think when former federal Liberal Party president John Valder – your supporter, John – also said that invading Iraq without UN backing was crazy, as did former Labor defence minister Kim Beazley, both men acknowledged friends of the US?
What were we to think when no Australian expert would publicly support what you planned?
Most importantly: why didn’t you give a damn what they – and we – thought?
Right up until he sent us to war in March 2003, our Prime Minister wouldn’t discuss the risks for the world, or even for us, and avoided all questions by saying he wouldn’t make up his mind until the United Nations had decided what to do. During all the terrible, fraught months before we invaded Iraq he never once spoke of our interests, our region, our special concerns or the impact of a United Nations refusal to ratify war. He never once gave us an assessment of the increased risks of terrorism.
Nothing. Everything was ‘hypothetical’.
And Howard became an echo chamber for George Bush. He left us to ﬂoat unanchored, forced to watch Bush’s speeches and close-read the President’s pronouncements just to ﬁgure out where we, Australia, were at. We sensed, rather than were told, that sometime, somehow, our leader had endorsed America’s revolutionary new security policy: the September 2002 war-cry that proclaimed that Bush’s America would do whatever it liked regardless of what any other country or the UN might think, regardless of international law – including invade its enemies’ territories and impose its own ‘superior’ values on the people it conquered.
On 24 January 2003, the day after Howard farewelled HMAS Kanimbla to the strains of ‘I Still Call Australia Home’, Neil Mitchell pressed him on Radio 3AW to explain how he would persuade Australians to his cause to avoid a divided country in wartime. The Prime Minister replied: ‘People are wanting to hear from the Government as to why. I understand that, and I’ll do my very best to talk to them and to explain it.’
Crap, John. You never intended to do any such thing, and you never did.
We still don’t know why, even now.
The closest anyone got to piercing your contemptuous spin was on 6 February 2003 in the Sydney Morning Herald, via columnist Paul Sheehan, who reported ‘a close adviser to Howard’ saying: ‘ “The PM is losing sleep over this. He knows this policy doesn’t have the feathers to ﬂy with the public. But he thinks it’s the right thing to do. He’s thinking long-term. If one day we ever have to face a militant Indonesia, we’ve only got one ally who can do the job”.’
So you want us to believe in the old insurance policy theory, last used without question during the Vietnam War, John?
The one you touted as the 24-year-old president of the NSW Young Liberals back in 1964, when you visited university campuses advocating support for that war? You didn’t trust the US to meet its obligation under the ANZUS Treaty to protect us from attack, John? You had to obey America without question and ﬁght all its wars, just to make sure?
Did you give no thought to whether the US administration was going through a foreign policy rogue phase? After all, even George’s dad’s security advisers James Baker and Brent Scowcroft opposed the youngster’s radical pre- emptive doctrine, picked up from the neo-conservatives after September 11. As did the CIA. As did great slabs of the US defence and foreign policy establishment.
So – no doubts about young George, John? No question of seeking to dissuade the US? No thought that we’d be better off out of it, given the fundamentalist tensions in our region? Or that ‘softly, softly’ might actually be in America’s interest, too? Or that joining a non-UN invasion, despite the pleadings of Indonesia’s establishment not to, might help cause the very crisis with Indonesia that would see us cashing in our insurance policy quick smart? Or that invading a country of no threat to us might provoke a counter-attack?
Was that all there was to it, John: the ‘insurance policy for the future’ line? If so, then why not get the argument out there and let the Australian people into your secret? Did you reckon that that policy wouldn’t have the feathers to ﬂy either?
On the weekend of 15–16 February 2003 Australians everywhere marched in protest, breaking records in every capital city and many regional centres. We wanted the Prime Minister – and his MPs, who’d done nothing to air our concerns or ask him our questions – to know we were concerned that what he was doing could make the world, and Australia, a more dangerous place, not a safer one, and that we expected his considered response.
Together we roared, Hey, John, this is OUR country! Convince us that you’re doing the right thing, please. Lots of us are having nightmares about where this decision might lead us.
Growing up in country NSW, I once saw a huge funnel-web which scared the life out of me. Instinctively I picked up a rock, took aim and threw. I hit my target, but the rock also ripped open the spider’s nest. To a 10-year-old it looked like I’d unleashed a swarm of hundreds of spiders spreading out in all directions. For years after I had nightmares [in which there were] spiders spewing out, envelop[ing] me, my family and everyone I knew. Ever since it’s become clear that Bush, US Vice-President Cheney and the charming Defence Secretary Rumsfeld have decided to invade Iraq regardless of the consequences, the same horrible dreams have come back to haunt my nights again.Webdiarist Andrew O’Connell, who marched in Edinburgh, 20 February 2003
A nun I’d just met drove me to Sydney’s peace march on that historic weekend of worldwide people power. It was a day on which you’d prefer to avoid crowds – hot, airless, muggy – and I could hardly breathe, sardined in at Hyde Park. I glanced around for older protesters or parents with toddlers who might need help in the heat and caught the eyes of others doing the same. There we were, out of our enclaves, North Shore matrons and Westie skinheads side by side, holding up handmade banners and looking a little bemused that so many had taken the trouble to be there. But no one looked scared, despite the crush. Patience, and giving everyone as much space and respect as possible, created a sense of stillness. And of hope.
Everyone wanted to be able to say they were there that day: to their parents, their kids, their grandkids. It mattered.
I rummaged through the T-shirts on offer from the various political parties and interest groups, but didn’t buy one. I didn’t want a political brand on my statement – the issue was above politics – and I didn’t want to wear an image antagonistic to Bush, America or Howard. I was there, as I guessed were the vast majority of Australians around me, because I feared the consequences for the West, for my country, and particularly for our children, of a non-UN invasion of Iraq. I wanted a T-shirt that said ‘Please Explain’.
I edged towards the road where the march would begin, through more of my fellow Australians than I’d ever seen before. There I found three familiar ones: Laurie Brereton, NSW Labor Right hard man, the bloke who’d disowned Labor’s East Timor policy as shadow foreign affairs minister after the 1996 election defeat; Bob Brown, the difﬁdent small-l liberal who’d turned activist to save his beloved Tasmanian wilderness and now spearheaded Australia’s most radical party, the Greens; and Peter Baume, a distinguished physician who became a Liberal senator in 1974 – one of the true Liberals who fought and lost the war for the soul of the party in the 1980s before he retired in 1991 to become a community health professor.
I watched these three tough democratic stayers – who’d embraced different political persuasions in their public life – link arms to lead Sydney’s largest-ever march and shout in unison ‘NO WAR!’
I peeled off back towards Hyde Park to see how many blocks the march stretched for. There was no end to it. When I rang a friend later she said she hadn’t marched at all – she was still waiting to leave when those three old timers led the marchers back into Hyde Park. As I walked I saw police ofﬁcers more relaxed than any I’d ever seen at a protest. Some were smiling. This was no mob of ratbags.
It was a magic moment, a day of community for all of us.
All weekend people marched in extraordinary numbers: in Europe, Africa, Asia, South America, the United States. We, the world’s ordinary people, expressed the earnest wish not to wage war against Iraq and implored our leaders to ﬁnd another way to disarm Saddam Hussein. Australians across the country and the globe – most of whom had never protested before – emailed Webdiary their march reports and photos, relating the hope, even joy, they had felt.
Australians had marched in numbers too big to ignore, I wrote.
I was wrong.
John Howard’s response? ‘Well, I don’t think the mob, to use that vernacular, has quite made up its mind on this issue, and it can’t really make up its mind until we know what all the alternatives are.
’ The ‘mob’.
It was heartbreaking for those who’d marched. And that was before Howard’s tame columnists, mostly in the Murdoch press, and his shock-jock cheerleaders on radio started
My wife and I have just returned from the anti-war march held today here in Brisbane. Ten thousand were anticipated – ten times that turned up. The crowd had come downtown from across the board – mums and dads pushing strollers, old couples shading themselves under brollies, pimply and excitable teens, Vietnam vets sporting medals of service. Perhaps the best evidence of the broad base of the protest could be seen in the numerous protest banners and placards. The slick logos and professional print-work of those ‘seasoned’ campaigners such as the Greens, Democrats and various unions were there, sure. More noticeable, however, were the home-made jobs – a crayon and Texta message scribbled on the ﬂip side of a cut-up removalist’s box. A recycled primary school project, turned over, nailed to a piece of dowel from the shed, and inscribed with a kid’s plea for peace. A series of anti-war messages done up on the home computer and taped to the outside of a golﬁng umbrella. Someone had even cut up an old banner promoting Ronricco (an 80s hypnotist) in order to ﬂip it over and daub it with a clear message to John Howard – ‘NOT IN MY NAME’. Today’s march made me proud to be a human again. It was a heartening indication that despite the torrent of empty ‘Get Saddam’ rhetoric from our leaders and the fatuous pro-war spin from the chickenhawks in the press, we the ordinary folk are thinking with our heads and talking with our feet. Webdiarist Jim Forbes in Brisbane, 16 February 2003
calling us worse: traitors and appeasers and supporters of Saddam’s vicious regime. There was to be no engagement between John Howard and his worried citizens.
That one disdainful sneer, and the inevitability of what Howard would do in our name that it implied, sent most of us back to our homes feeling hopeless. We’d marched, we’d made our voices heard – and it had mattered not a jot. Many of us gave up, just as Howard wanted.
And so, on 18 March 2003, our Prime Minister took us to war on a long-distance phone call, after Bush reversed his pledge to put the Iraq question to a UN Security Council vote. Most member nations wanted more time for the weapons inspectors, and all his backroom bribes and threats couldn’t muster a majority. So Bush didn’t bother.
But a democratic country is never more ‘its people’ than in wartime. Its soldiers promise to die if necessary to protect its citizens. The compact is a profound one and must
SNAP! The big eagle caught in the trap, Feathers of failed diplomacy drifting. Bin Laden smiling, the hapless waiting, A swift brutal war, a fractured globe. The terrorist wins after all.Webdiarist John Augustus, Sydney medico, 19 March 2003
not be lightly invoked. Dictators go to war without the people’s consent – they don’t require it. In dictatorships neither citizen nor soldier has rights, just an obligation to obey. But according to our Constitution Australia is ‘a representative democracy’. Our forebears voted in more than one referendum before ﬁnally agreeing to form a nation in accordance with the Constitution enshrined by their federation votes. In Australia we, the people, are sovereign, not the leaders we elect.
Their ﬁrst duty in a war is to persuade us, their people, of its rightness; only then can they lead that war legitimately in our name. If you can’t persuade, you can’t lead.
There’s also a pragmatic way of seeing a wartime leader’s duty. None worth the title would take their tribe to war severely divided. A leader has to build an honest framework for war so that the people know the broad goals and can decide they’re justiﬁed and support the ﬁght: then when things go wrong they’ve already dug in for the long haul.
Howard just said yes to Bush straight away, and that was it. He left no space for the Australian people to consider the alternatives, despite his promise to do so. Parliament didn’t get a look in. Howard killed off all debate, along with a community spark, to create two awful precedents in one: Anzacs starting a war, and starting it without the majority support of their people.
A place in history to cherish, John.
‘Why, of course, the people don’t want war,’ Hermann Goering told a psychologist during his trial for Nazi war crimes. ‘It is the leaders of the country who determine the policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship.’ ‘There is one difference,’ his questioner said. ‘In a democracy the people have some say in the matter through their elected representatives, and in the United States only Congress can declare wars.’ ‘Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the paciﬁsts for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.’From Nuremberg Diary by Gustave Gilbert
At a Coalition parties meeting in September 2002 John Howard had soothingly explained how he’d bring the Australian people to his bidding. To a backbench to heel over Iraq in public, but privately skittish about losing their seats, he said not to worry. Patriotism, waving the troops off and all that, would do the trick with public opinion.
And we did fall in behind the war. Of course we did. We’re a patriotic people. Howard’s decision made (by Bush), it was time to support our troops and pray for a short war, with few casualties and no ramiﬁcations.
But Howard wasn’t ﬁnished with shredding the democratic rulebook. Not by a long shot. Having diminished our traditions, pride and unity before the war, he sought to do it afterwards, too, rewriting history before our eyes, again using our troops as props.
In May 2003 he announced multiple welcome-home ‘victory’ parades for many of them. No matter that 850 remained in and around Iraq; that their American and British comrades continued to die there; that the Iraqi people faced mayhem and death thanks to the coalition’s failure to plan the peace; or that resistance in Iraq was gaining, not losing, force.
This was now John’s ‘victory’. And John wanted a parade. In truth, Howard had largely cut and run on Bush and Blair. He’d helped them win the war, then politically scarpered before they’d won the peace – the tricky part. Another awful stain on our traditions – Australian soldiers don’t usually walk away from the ‘heavy lifting’. They’d certainly never before paraded a ‘victory’ while other Australian soldiers were still trying to secure it.
I was appalled, and I think a fair few of our troops might have been, too.
To them the ticker-tape parades – presided over by a Prime Minister concerned far more with presenting the Australian people with a triumphant military image than a completed military triumph in Iraq – must have seemed surreal.
Worse: they had to stand there dutifully as he blithely rewrote the reason they’d just fought. Sending them off, he’d stressed the urgency of ﬁnding those weapons of mass destruction. None found, he welcomed them back – as in Townsville on 22 May – thus: ‘You went abroad in our name in a just cause, and you joined others in liberating an oppressed people.’
Beg pardon, sir?
You heard right, soldier. Howard used our troops’ ‘victory’ homecomings to win another grubby one of his own. Safely clothed in patriotic khaki, he blatantly reset his political spin, daring the same people who’d rejected his lies before those troops left to call his bluff now in their ‘victorious’ presence.
At the Sydney parade, one tried: ‘Where are the weapons of mass destruction!?’ he shouted. Howard paused, smiled patiently and resumed his ‘victory’ speech.
John Howard demanded those parades. And John Howard – self-declared protector of Westminster propriety – tore up our protocols and transformed himself into Australia’s de-facto generalissimo to get them. Our troops ﬁght for our country. So our head of state, the governor- general – who is also the commander-in-chief of the Australian Defence Force – ofﬁciates at their parades, taking (and returning) their salutes on our behalf. R.G. Casey did so at the Sydney welcome-home parades in 1968, and Sir William Deane at the Interfet ones in 2000.
But John Howard decided that he would represent our country. That he would play commander-in-chief. That he would take any Anzac salutes on offer. As historian Mark McKenna noted in an essay entitled ‘Howard’s Warriors’, ‘Howard may claim to be a constitutional monarchist, but his vision of the vice-regal ofﬁce is one which sees the Governor-General as little more than the noble puppet of a presidential Prime Minister.’ McKenna wrote:
‘[His] duplicity is clear. When the Australian forces left for Iraq Howard insisted that they went not “in the name of the government of the day”, but “in the name of Australia”. Speaking at welcome-home parades and ceremonies, however, he emphasised that he was “the person who, more than anybody else in Australia, of course accepts responsibility for the decision to deploy you”.’
With Australia largely clear of the electorally dangerous ﬁghting in Iraq and without a single casualty, John Howard now gleefully clutched these latest Anzacs to his political bosom and declared them his alone. ‘Far from being a ﬁgure above politics,’ McKenna concluded, ‘the parading digger is employed by John Howard and sections of the media to increase the popularity of the conservative government.’
I didn’t vote for Howard to be president or commander-inchief. And many Australians voted to retain a governor-general appointed by the Queen precisely to prevent such seedy politicisation of unifying national functions. Yet after ﬁrst politicising it via his election-winning deployments during the Tampa affair and Operation Relex (the naval operation to turn back the boat people), Howard, the democratic institution wrecker, was again railroading that branch of executive power that should remain above politics: our armed services.
Victory parades, indeed.
The consequences of Howard’s lies, since ‘plausibly denied’ – the spooks ‘didn’t tell’ him the war would increase the terrorist risk, ‘didn’t mention’ some WMD claims were disputed, blah blah – are still to be seen.
Will Australians who once trusted our leaders, at least on such grave matters as national security, now lose that trust, too? What happens when we stop believing our leaders about the terrorist dangers they tell us we face? What if the next WMD wolf is a real one?
John Howard’s ‘leadership’ during Iraq brought into question whether we have a real democracy in Australia. His actions demand democratic reforms to ensure that no prime minister can ever again misuse power in such a way. Not in our name. They also demonstrate why Howard must be removed from power – either by the Liberal Party or, failing that, the Australian voters.
I visited a friend after Bush declared ‘mission accomplished’ in Iraq, at a time when the lies, the spin, and the psychological assaults inﬂicted by the Coalition of the Willing’s governments on any public servant who told the truth, were becoming horribly clear.
My friend said, ‘Margo, we usually ﬁnd out thirty years later that they lied to us to send us to war. What happens when we ﬁnd out almost instantaneously? And what happens if . . . nothing happens?’
I answered, ‘I guess it would mean that we don’t treasure our democracy any more. And that means it will die.’
Postscript: there were no WMD, and Andrew Wilkie wasn’t the only expert who’d tried and failed to tell the government the truth it didn’t want to hear before the war. In September 2004 journalist Tom Allard revealed that Bob Mathews of the Defence Science and Technology Organisation, Australia’s leading expert on WMD and counter-terrorism, became so frustrated at ‘public service’ bosses suppressing his views he wrote to Howard as a private citizen, advising that Saddam did not have substantial stockpiles and Australia faced ‘an increased risk of terrorist acts’ if it joined this ‘serious distraction to the ﬁght against terrorism’. For his courage he was stripped of his top-level security clearance while the government considered laying charges against him In February 2005 former Australian weapons inspector Rod Barton told Four Corners he too had advised the government that even if Saddam had WMD they posed no major threat. In July 2007 Defence Minister Brendan Nelson told ABC Radio that oil was a big reason for invading and staying in Iraq. Howard said Nelson was wrong: oil played no part in his decision to invade Iraq and no part in his decision to keep our troops there.