If New Zealand decides to send forces to support an international response to the "Islamic State" in Iraq and Syria (Isis), the decision will be made by the Government not Parliament, the Prime Minister has explained. He should think again. In a bygone era it was expected that a decision as momentous as going to war requires broad bipartisan support, expressed by a resolution of Parliament. The principle fell into disuse from the 1960s when the United States went into Vietnam without a declaration of war, which would have required a Senate vote. Since then, military action has tended to be a decision of governments rather than legislatures, though President Obama has been reluctant to act without congressional support and Britain still puts the question to Parliament.
Last year the House of Commons voted down a request from the Government to join the United States in a military response to the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime in Syria. This time, though, the House has voted by a margin of 524 to 43 to support air strikes against Isis. New Zealand's Parliament should have the decision, too.
A consensus is even more important for New Zealand because we have no capacity to contribute to air strikes. If New Zealand joins this war it could only be with special forces on the ground. Australia has sent ground troops with its strike aircraft to a base in the Gulf. No request has been received by the New Zealand Government since its re-election but John Key is wise not to wait for one. The Government ought to make its decision on its assessment of New Zealand's interests, not in response to a request.
If the Government decides to make a military contribution, it ought to put it to Parliament. Mr Key says a parliamentary debate would be likely but it would not make the decision. That would reduce the debate to just another pointless exercise in which opposition parties would criticise the decision and the Government would use its numbers to confirm it. If Parliament was given the power entrusted to British MPs, the debate could be very different.
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All parties would be conscious that their votes would count and all would have to be seen to be responsible in the eyes of the public. If they voted not to go to war against Isis they would have to explain why they were not doing everything possible to rid Iraqis and the rest of the world of a band of murderers who have demonstrated their willingness to decapitate innocent hostages for show on social media. They would be able to argue that the purpose of showing those acts to the world is to provoke the very response the US, Britain and Australia have made and that Isis will gain recruits from it.
That is a risk to be considered and a respectable reason to hesitate, but it has not stopped Labour's leader in Britain, Ed Miliband, supporting the vote for air strikes and taking part in discussions with Prime Minister David Cameron about the plan of action. Britain, of course, has reason to be especially concerned at the Isis outrages since the principle desert executioner has an English accent and the victims have been British as well as American. Provocative the executions may be but they are said to be symptomatic of the terror this mob is imposing on a captive population.
Many on the left of Parliament have a distrust of American military leadership that dates from Vietnam and was reinforced by the disastrous decision to invade Iraq in 2003.
Isis may be a consequence of that mistake but its menace is real.
All members of Parliament would be faced with responsibility if given the power to decide.