Howard resists calls for inquiry

Australian Prime Minister John Howard is under minimal pressure to follow the lead of United States President George W Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and hold an independent inquiry into intelligence used to justify the war in Iraq.

Australia sent about 2 000 troops to Iraq, including elite SAS commandos, along with fighter jets and warships. Howard, with Bush and Blair, was in the vanguard of nations that joined the conflict last year.

Howard is so far resisting calls from smaller opposition parties to hold an independent inquiry to confirm whether or not the material Australian intelligence agencies presented to him suggesting that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, was in fact false or exaggerated.

Like Bush and Blair, Howard justified Australia’s participation in the Iraqi war on the basis that the Australian government “knew” Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

Howard told the media this week that the findings of an Australian parliamentary inquiry into the intelligence about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction will be released in March and that this report would be discussed before consideration was given to holding a wider, independent inquiry.

However, the left-of-centre Australian Democrats Party is dismissing the parliamentary inquiry as a whitewash.

Democrats leader Senator Andrew Bartlett said this week that government ministers have been able to censor intelligence agency submissions to the inquiry, “as well as the final report”.

While Howard denies that there has been any political interference in the inquiry, he has confirmed that the Australian government is bound by law to pass the inquiry findings to security and intelligence agencies to ensure that nothing in the report would prejudice Australia’s security interests.

Another opposition party, the Australian Greens, is also calling for an independent inquiry.

But in a sign that the Australian public does not see the Iraq issue as being as important as domestic politics, the main opposition party, the Australian Labor Party, is not yet putting direct pressure on Howard to hold an independent inquiry.

Labor Party leader Mark Latham told Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio this week that “we need to have a clear mind, an open mind, in judging the parliamentary report, and if there’s any doubt about the matter, if the truth hasn’t been established, if we need further inquiries, then in the national interest we should”.

Howard has also pointed to the fact that the Australian government relied on British and US intelligence, which, he says, confirmed what Australia’s own intelligence agencies were telling him. Howard has confirmed he was briefed by the CIA and senior British intelligence officials in the lead-up to the conflict.

The prime minister has indicated that intelligence is an “imprecise science” and that “you have to make judgements on the material that you have available at the time”.

He has said that he is not “embarrassed” by the now commonly held view that Iraq did not possess weapons of mass destruction, adding that the world was a safer place for having removed former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein from power — an opinion echoing one held by Bush and Blair.

Australia, as is the US, is holding a general election this year, but unlike the US it does not appear as though the fallout from the Iraq war is a major issue for voters. Both Howard and Latham have indicated that tax cuts, and spending on education and health are key election issues, not national security.

Greg Barns

Greg Barns

Greg Barns graduated BA LLB from Monash University in 1984. He was a member of the Victorian Bar where he practiced in criminal law from 1986-89 and has been a member of the Tasmanian Bar since 2003. Greg was chief of staff and senior adviser to a number of federal and state Liberal Party leaders and ministers from 1989-99. He is also the former National Chair of the Australian Republican Movement and a director of human rights group, Rights Australia. Greg has written three books on Australian politics, is a Director of the Australian Lawyers Alliance, and a member of the Australian Defence Lawyers Alliance. Read more from Greg Barns

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