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Greens demand full release of government documents on ‘disastrous’ decision to join Iraq invasion

Greens demand full release of government documents on ‘disastrous’ decision to join Iraq invasion

The release of the 2003 cabinet papers “barely scratches the surface” of the Howard government’s “disastrous decision to go to war in Iraq” and reinforces the need for a parliamentary vote before committing Australia to future wars, Greens senator Nick McKim has said.

McKim has demanded the full release of all national security committee and cabinet documents related to the 2003 decision, which committed Australia to the US-led “Coalition of the willing” to invade Iraq.

The cabinet papers, released by the National Archives on Monday, had been heavily anticipated for the insights they would offer into the decision by the Howard government.

They show that the cabinet signed off on the decision based on “oral reports” from the prime minister, John Howard.

“There was no submission to cabinet on costs, benefits and implications of Australia’s entry into the war,” Prof David Lee from the University of NSW Canberra wrote in an essay on the release of the papers.

“This indicates that cabinet’s national security committee was the locus of decision-making on the war.”

Under legislation, cabinet documents are released after 20 years, but national security committee documents that do not go to cabinet are precluded from automatic release. They can be applied for released independently from 1 January, with a decision made by the information commissioner on a case-by-case basis.

On Monday it was revealed that the Morrison government had failed to hand over some national security-related cabinet documents from the time of the Iraq war to the National Archives for potential public release.

The blunder means the archives were unable to scrutinise some of the documents for potential public release in time for its usual publication of 20-year-old cabinet documents.

The archives said it intended to make a decision about the release of the additional documents “as a matter of priority”.

The material will need to be examined by security agencies and other relevant bodies and may still be deemed exempt from release.

McKim said the papers that had been released “still don’t reveal the entirety of the flawed intelligence and failures of political leadership” and were “a missed opportunity to learn the lesson that war should never be entered into on the basis of a lie”.

“It’s critical that additional intelligence documents, including national security committee documents used to justify the war on false grounds, are released,” he said.

“Massive questions remain unanswered about exactly when John Howard promised George Bush he would take Australia to war in Iraq, how that stacks up with the timeline of flawed intelligence, and how this informed national security committee and cabinet decisions to proceed with one of the worst foreign policy disasters in Australian history.”

The decision to join the US in 2003 was justified by unconfirmed reports the Iraqi regime had weapons of mass destruction and was harbouring terrorists. An investigation by US and UN inspectors found no such weapons at the time of the invasion and concluded Saddam Hussein had destroyed his last WMDs at least a decade before. About 200,000 Iraqi civilians were killed during the conflict.

McKim said Australians deserved to know more.

“Committing Australia to war in Iraq was one of the most consequential decisions an Australian government has ever made, yet the secrecy which has shrouded that fateful decision continues to this day,” he said.

“Australia remains in the dark about exactly what advice was provided to the government and exactly what process was followed to decide to commit Australian to an illegal war.”

McKim said the decision-making around the Iraq war commitment served as a perfect example of why those decisions “should be made by parliaments not prime ministers”.

“We need a safeguard to protect peace, and that needs to be in the form of a parliamentary vote before committing to war,” he said.

“The Greens demand that Labor reform the war powers so that a parliamentary vote is required before an Australian PM can repeat a mistake like Iraq without basic democratic oversight.”

A joint parliamentary committee chaired by a Labor MP held an inquiry into the war powers and released its findings in March 2023, concluding the government should retain its powers to send Australia to war, but provide more oversight of its decision making process.

The government broadly accepted the report’s findings, while committing “to improving openness and accountability” in any decision using the war powers.

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