Kennedy Graham

Syria, the UN, and parliamentary democracy: Are we up to scratch, down here?

by Kennedy Graham

The game-changer in the Syrian crisis is not the US soliloquy whether a unilateral strike is to be or not to be.  That is a normal phenomenon of the past half-century. It is the impressive working of parliamentary democracy in the United Kingdom.  That is not.

Last week, the British Parliament was recalled to debate possible military engagement in Syria in support of a US-led strike.  Under the British constitutional system, the Executive has exclusive power to decide on deployment of armed forces in the ‘national defence’.  But Prime Minister Cameron agreed to table a Govt. motion before the House, hold a debate, then a vote, and abide by that vote.  He lost by 285 to 272.

The searing experience of British military engagement in Iraq in 2003, and in particular the then Prime Minister’s determination to order up a second legal opinion from his Attorney-General to suit his taste, has instilled in the British psyche a caution over any repetition.  The subsequent Chilcott Inquiry had its critics, but at least it brought the ex-PM before it, testifying with whatever dignity he was able to retain. Second time round 10 years later, a Conservative leader has learnt the lesson of a Labour predecessor’s mistake.

No such luck down here in Aotearoa which, more than any other state, has inherited its constitutional system from the UK.  We have no system for automatic debate on foreign affairs issues.

We did hold a debate in 2003 and got through the Iraq crisis by deciding not to send forces in support.  But in the case of Syria in 2013, it is less likely – we are, after all, led by a National Government.

So yesterday I asked a question in the House of the Prime Minister.  The PM was absent and the question went to Mr Groser, in whatever capacity.

Unlike in the UK, the Government here has no intention of holding a vote, or even a genuine debate, on the Syrian crisis.  ‘Should action be taken against Syria’, a ministerial statement will be given to the House at the appropriate time. That will ‘allow the House and the member to make any statement they wish to make’.

Not totally correct.  A ministerial statement is followed by one statement from each party of 6 MPs, i.e. Labour, Green and NZ First.  The other parties may not speak.  Each statement is limited to 5 minutes.  The Minister may reply for 2 minutes. That amounts to a series of statements lasting 22 minutes.  This compares with the British debate which lasted 245 minutes.

What might justify, I asked, a parliamentary vote, if it is not issues of NZ policy over the use of force in international relations?   Mr Groser ‘would not wish to speculate’.

Does the PM recognise that the legal justification the US is preparing for a strike, pertaining to the ‘responsibility to protect doctrine’, applies to protection of civilians, not punitive action?  Mr Groser: it would be ‘highly irresponsible’ to enter into speculative discussion on the legal questions.

This is what passes for democratic debate on issues of peace and war in the NZ Parliament.

The only way forward is to request an Urgent Debate.  Then, the proposer may speak for 15 minutes and other leaders for 15 and 10.  The number of speakers is unlimited.

But three criteria must be met. Is it a case of recent occurrence?  Does it involve ministerial responsibility?  Does it require the immediate attention of the House and the Government?  Only about 1 in 5 requests are approved by the Speaker.

The NZ public deserve a full and open debate in the Parliament on the crisis of Syria, and what New Zealand’s policy should be.  Right now, it looks as if we shall not get one.

Published in Justice & Democracy | Parliament by Kennedy Graham on Wed, September 4th, 2013   

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