Syria – the Urgent Debate that wasn’t

I blogged last week about the constitutional shortcomings New Zealand faces in debating issues of foreign policy and international relations.

The Government has committed only to a ministerial statement in the House after a NZ policy-decision has been taken in response to the US request for support for a military strike against Syria. This compares with the experience in the UK whose PM recalled Parliament and respected a vote against his own Motion following an extensive debate before a decision was made.

The Government’s approach is an insult to New Zealand democracy. So on Wednesday I requested an Urgent Debate on the matter in the House. The decision belongs to the Speaker. He is bound by Standing Order 386 which specifies three criteria: timing; responsibility; importance. The Speaker declined the request. Consider his reasoning.

Timing

An Urgent Debate must focus on a ‘particular case of recent occurrence’. I argued that the use of chemical weapons in Syria on 21 August was just that. There was a global perception that chemical weapons had been used that day, and Western democracies had undertaken consideration of the issue over the previous week. New Zealand had been briefed within recent days by the US which had requested our ‘moral support’ for a military strike. The UN Secretary-General had warned that a military response against Syria could unleash more turmoil in the region. He had said the use of force is only legal with the Security Council’s approval or in self-defence.

The Speaker disagreed with my contention. The NZ Government had not yet made a decision on the request by the US Secretary of State. No case of recent occurrence had therefore occurred.

Responsibility

The case must involve the administrative or ministerial responsibility of the Government. I noted that the Prime Minister had said on 2 September that the NZ Government would carefully consider a request by the US Secretary of State asking whether New Zealand would provide moral support for a military intervention in Syria. (He had also indicated that New Zealand might support a strike that was unauthorised by the UN.) Clearly the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister had responsibility for the NZ response.

The Speaker, however, shifted NZ responsibility onto the external actions. There was, in his view, no Ministerial responsibility for the ‘global perception’ that chemical weapons had been used in Syria, or for the response of the US Secretary of State, or for the UN Secretary-General.

Importance

The case has to command the immediate attention of the House and the Government. I argued that the public had a right to know where the Government stood in regard to providing military, logistical or moral support to an international operation led by the United States that, according to the UN Secretary-General yesterday, would be illegal without Security Council support or a sound case for self-defence. The House would be in recess this coming week, and that was the time the UN Security Council would meet, the US would make its unilateral decision, and a New Zealand response would be required. So it required immediate attention.

The Speaker did not directly address this issue.

Reflection on Standing Order 386

This leaves New Zealand scrambling for its democratic integrity. Where the UK now has a convention that the Government may not exercise the royal prerogative to deploy force without parliamentary support, the NZ parliamentary procedure makes it impossible. No debate can be held on New Zealand’s deployment of armed force, or support of military action by another state, until the decision has been made, either to deploy or support.

That precludes any parliamentary input into an Executive decision; it allows only retroactive comment. By definition, such comment is irrelevant to the formation of policy. It relegates Parliament’s involvement to the level of media comment and academic analysis. No offence, but that is not Parliament’s role.

For the sake of our democratic integrity, Standing Order 396 needs to be changed.

Reflection on the Speaker’s Ruling of 4 Sept.

It would not be impossible for a Speaker to interpret the Standing Order liberally, for the sake of democratic debate:
1. The original public statement of the PM could be taken as a particular case of recent occurrence, rather than an anticipated final pronouncement of policy;
2. Ministerial responsibility might be taken to be responsibility for policy development that would benefit from parliamentary input;
3. He could address the question of public importance and acknowledge that the issue is sufficiently grave as to warrant the immediate attention of the House and the Government, given that the following week was a recess.

But he did not.

25 thoughts on “Syria – the Urgent Debate that wasn’t

  1. Hands Off Syria is the obvious and the best answer to the question.
    Do we really need to debate over if we should have any more kiwi lives and tax payers money wasted on fighting other people’s war?
    Althoug we do know what Key will do when Obama says “Jump!”…

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  2. Unbelieveable!….and yet, noting the previous behaviour of the Speaker, quite believeable, in fact to be expected. Mr. Carter continues to behave as if his primary role is to protect the Government, especially the Prime Minister. Syria represents a very serious international crisis, which could easily escalate if the U.S. takes its threatened steps. But I’m not sure if Mr.Carter’s mind is of sufficient breadth to understand that.

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  3. How did the UK gain its convention of parliamentary oversight over military force? What would we have to do, to evolve in the same direction?

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  4. Considering that Her Majesty has accepted the negative decision of Parliament in this matter, even though it was not what the PM wanted, is there possibly a basis for our Governor General to intervene on her behalf to require that our PM be similarly restrained, or at least that he must consult the NZ Parliament according to the precedent set?

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  5. I imagine the British rules of Parliament go back far into history.

    It seems to me that here any government with a one seat majority can do as it darn well pleases.

    Why do our representatives assume they are our masters once they occupy a seat in the House of Representatives? They appear to ignore the wishes of their constituents and appear to believe they are there to decide what we as a nation should do, whether it agrees with popular opinion or not.

    They seem to be more eager to please the USA than the people they were chosen to represent in a fair election.

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  6. I would be very surprised if Key really wants to intervene in Syria unless there is a mandate from the UN. Even then he would probably be reluctant. As for Obama, who on earth supports him anymore? His own countryman and Democrat’s are turning away from him in droves.

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  7. just a couple of points :

    1) why push an urgent debate, when the facts/evidence is still not finalised on ‘whose responsible’ for the attack ?
    2) watching parliament often, I see this current speaker is just a puppet of his party/master.. he just says what he is told by Key !

    BUT I think the debate does need to happen ASAP.. especially if Key is making noises supporting the USA (WAR) at any cost

    kia-ora

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  8. Why do our representatives assume they are our masters once they occupy a seat in the House of Representatives? They appear to ignore the wishes of their constituents and appear to believe they are there to decide what we as a nation should do

    That’s pretty much the way it was designed to work.

    When monarchy gave way to a parliamentary democracy, and this is a few centuries ago, in the Mother Country, the elected representatives were exactly that, each had their own views, and espoused the views of their constituents. Given that every voice in the house had a different view, you can imagine that progress was fraught.

    This ongoing shambles lead to the rise of political parties, where all the members stood for the same thing, and they were elected in as a block.

    Thus when you elect a representative, you are electing the views of the party he represents, not that of the individual member.

    Thus, picking a topical example, the referendum on asset sales; John Key stood up the other day and said (quite correctly) that there already had been a referendum on asset sales, it was the general election. They said if elected they would sell assets, end of story. They were elected in…

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  9. It would appear that David Carter is either unable or unwilling to carry out the job of speaker. If he worked anywhere else than parliament, he would be sacked. Pity normal standards don’t apply there.

    “Do we really need to debate over if we should have any more kiwi lives and tax payers money wasted on fighting other people’s war?”

    Yes, because other peoples’ lives and freedoms matter, even if they aren’t Kiwis.

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  10. How did the UK gain its convention of parliamentary oversight over military force?

    I think calling it a “convention” is to put it too strongly; somewhere in the past a PM decided rather than just make the decision himself (or perhaps to make the sphere of those appearing responsible for the decision to be wider than just himself) he’d “ask” what Parliament thought. He didn’t have to, he just did it.

    Subsequent PMs have chosen to do the same thing, even though they don’t have to.

    What would we have to do, to evolve in the same direction?

    Our PM would have to choose to involve our Parliament.

    But I don’t think he will: our PM is in a strong position, ruling his team with a rod of iron: I suspect that the first PM in the UK to go cap in hand to Parliament was in not so strong a position, and needed a little moral support.

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  11. The Syrians ought to be able to have their civil war without outside interference. Would the Greens have us support military action again Egypt too?

    Just because a matter is reported on the news is no reason to believe it, remember the Weapons of Mass Destruction Iraq was supposed to have had!

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  12. “The Syrians ought to be able to have their civil war without outside interference.”

    The Syrians didn’t decide to have a civil war. The government, the Russian government, the Iranian government, the French government, the leadership of Hizbollah and of various salafist groups, and a small number of Syrian people decided to have a war, or to create the conditions for one.

    Making ‘non-interference’ a moral principle is like ignoring somebody being assaulted on the grounds that they have a right to be assaulted without others getting involved.

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  13. “they just happen to be having a civil war, which is none of my business, nor yours!”

    My point was that they don’t just ‘happen to be having a civil war’ – the war has been orchestrated by a minority, many of them, for what it’s worth, non-Syrians.

    And why exactly is this “none of my business”? Because some clown drew a line on a map and declared Syria to be a different country to New Zealand? Should I similarly shrug my shoulders and declare the welfare of people to be none of my business if this was happening in a different part of New Zealand? Or in a different street?

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  14. Sam, I’m not quite sure what you’re saying. Are you saying that everyone should get involved in every injustice (as they define it) that they become aware of, anywhere in the world? If not, how do you propose the lines be drawn?

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  15. “My point was…..”

    Well that’s your opinion Sam.

    The nation nearest us that has had political turmoil since 1987 New Zealand has taken the attitude from many governments to not directly intervene, that nation being Fiji. What makes Syria more important than Fiji?

    If we can mind our own business when it comes to Fiji, and Egypt, we can mind our own business when it comes to Syria. Which nations nearest Syria are taking sides? Maybe they’re smarter than you, knowing whoever the victor is, that is the regime they’ll have to deal with.

    But then you speaking from your relative safety in New Zealand, and a far from the conflict, can make your protestations of wrong doing from whichever section, knowing when the conflict is over nobody will be hunting you down seeking retribution. Oh unless the government takes a strong pro USA position, anti UN position, and New Zealand becomes the war zone for the disgruntled regime.

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  16. Don’t be silly – of course I’m not saying that – how could anyone get involved in all the injustices of the world? All I’m saying is we shouldn’t consider something that happens to be none of our business because it happens to have happened on the other side of a line somebody dreamed up and drew on a map.

    Why do you feel the need to draw lines of demarcation as to involvement or non-involvement?

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  17. So, if we shouldn’t get involved in all of the injustices in the world, how do we determine which ones to get involved in?

    Your last sentence seems to counter your first. If you don’t feel the need to draw those lines, how can we not get involved in all injustices in the world?

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  18. I think we should draw the line firmly round our own borders. If you want to involve YOURSELF in what you perceive as an injustice somewhere else in the the world, feel free.

    I will not be supporting you.

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  19. “So, if we shouldn’t get involved in all of the injustices in the world, how do we determine which ones to get involved in?”

    Beats me.

    “If you don’t feel the need to draw those lines, how can we not get involved in all injustices in the world?”

    By not getting involved. This is a matter of capacity, not principle.

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  20. OK Sam. Some of your previous comments seemed to suggest that it was immoral to not get involved in the Syrian civil war. Now you seem to be saying that you can’t think of a reason to, or not to, get involved (i.e. you can’t think of how the line can be drawn between injustices to get involved in and injustices to leave alone). I suggest we leave this one alone.

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  21. No – I said it was wrong to declare the morality of non-intervention. Not that we should intervene on principle.

    I can think of reasons why we should intervene in Syria – I just can’t think of, and have no particular interest in thinking about, some sort of ‘one size fits all’ principle for determining whether to get involved in any given situation of injustice. I’ll leave that to the obsessive lovers of doctrine.

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  22. Before intervening, the cost of intervention must be weighted against the cost of not intervening. In this case, it is not clear that any military intervention will save more lives than it will cost – even in the short term.

    Trevor.

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  23. Sure, but this is a practical question, as opposed to setting non-intervention as a moral position.

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