The question of how Australia goes to war is no longer hypothetical. Warnings that there could be conflict with China in two to five years have been repeated by several US generals. A panel commissioned by Nine Network newspapers in March put Australians on "red alert" about a Chinese invasion. Their predictions coincided with the 20th anniversary of the Iraq war, in which Australia joined a US coalition, leaving that country and others destabilised and devastated. Australians who protested against that illegal invasion, based on false claims, now warn against repeating the experience. This time it could be in our own region, and against a much more powerful enemy. Warnings from civil society groups, such as The Independent and Peaceful Australia Network (IPAN), Raising Peace, and The Medical Association for the Prevention of War, coincide with the findings of a parliamentary committee which has spent the last six months inquiring into how Australia enters overseas conflict. Opinions put by individuals and organisations to the Inquiry into Australia's Entry into Overseas Conflict reveal a wide gap between them and many federal politicians. Of 111 submissions, 94 favoured reform of the war powers which currently permit the ADF to be dispatched to fight at the will of a prime minister alone. Despite this overwhelming view, the committee decided to reaffirm the role of executive government and has declined to recommend giving MPs and Senators a vote on overseas deployments. The multi-party committee's recommendations suggest the views of its members barely connect with those of other Australians about our foreign and defence policies. In successive surveys, the majority of respondents who want reform of the way Australia decides to go to war has grown from the mid-80s in five years to reach 90 per cent in a Guardian Essential poll released on April 3. The lead civil society organisation on this matter, Australians for War Powers Reform (AWPR), has welcomed some of the committee's recommendations. To have government state to Parliament the objectives and legality of a war will make for more clarity than in the past. The proposal that Parliament should be urgently recalled when government makes a decision for war makes obvious sense. Regular, updated statements to Parliament during a war - as is the practice in several other democracies - will be an improvement. So will the proposal for Defence white papers and strategic updates to be tabled more promptly than they are now. The committee presents as its major achievement the recommendation for a separate, joint statutory committee on defence to be established, taking Defence out of the present joint-standing committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade. This appears to reduce the role of Foreign Affairs in consultations about war, and to increase the power of Defence. READ MORE: The Defence minister, it recommends, should be able to decide what classified information the new committee can hear and see. Decisions about which other ministers or shadow ministers can join its meetings, it appears, will also be for the Defence minister. Such change as the inquiry has recommended was hard won over the objections of members who wanted none of it. But real reform was written off even before the committee took submissions by Defence Minister Richard Marles, who stated the present system should not be disturbed. Foreign Minister Penny Wong on February 9 endorsed the war powers remaining the prerogative of the executive government. That prerogative is not stated in the constitution, which doesn't say who decides Australia should go to war. The prime minister is not mentioned in the constitution, but several of them have dispatched the troops. The governor-general, as commander-in-chief, did so in 1914. The Defence Act of 1903 gives the minister for Defence responsibility to "general control and administration of the Defence Force", but not for sending the ADF to war. AWPR is alarmed by the committee's recommendation that the governor-general should act to commit the ADF to conflicts for which there is no resolution of the UN Security Council, and no invitation from "a sovereign nation" to Australia to intervene. While that appears to rule out Taiwan, it seems to acknowledge the possibility of Australia engaging in wars of choice or aggression. If Australian forces are to operate legitimately, they need to be clear about where the command comes from. All Australians are entitled to know what legal grounds exist for any war, as well as whether an emergency is genuine. Unforeseen problems may arise if a ministerial statement and parliamentary debate are deferred because of what is claimed to be an impending threat. As it currently stands, all the real power remains in the hands of the prime minister and excludes most of our elected representatives - MPs and Senators. At least the war powers reform process has begun. It is a start, but a very modest one. There is a lot more work ahead on this reform journey. Most Australians will hope we have enough years of peace to get it done.