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The red and green houses of parliament are being tinged with khaki as an increasing number of former defence force personnel enter politics. By Sophie Morris.

Tony Abbott’s affinity with ADF reflected in parliament

Prime Minister Tony Abbott speaks to troops at the Joint Operations Command Centre in Carwoola, near Canberra, last week.
Credit: AAP IMAGE

When Tony Abbott made his about-face on Australian Defence Force pay, he was flanked by two first-term MPs who had run a covert operation to force his hand.

While independent senator Jacqui Lambie had threatened to block legislation if there was no further pay rise, Andrew Nikolic and Linda Reynolds had used tactical nous gained through decades of military service to campaign for change behind the scenes.

Their role has exposed the growing links and occasional tensions between the Liberal Party and the Australian Defence Force at a time when a prime minister who prides himself on an affinity with the military is dispatching more troops to Iraq but also scrounging for budget savings.

As the ADF has grown in profile during the past 15 years, so too has the number of former military personnel in parliament. Overwhelmingly, they are Liberals, with a few notable exceptions.

It’s an imbalance Labor is aware of and is hoping to rectify by fielding prominent former military candidates in a handful of seats at the next federal election.

Abbott acknowledged his “distinguished colleagues” Nikolic and Reynolds. Both were brigadiers in the army, a senior “one-star” rank. Both are now Liberals.

They attained the highest rank of the 22 current MPs who defence lobby group the Australian Defence Association (ADA) says have some military service.

Molan seeking preselection

An even more senior former military figure, who attained a “two-star” rank, wants to join them. Retired major- general Jim Molan, co-author with Scott Morrison of the Coalition’s Operation Sovereign Borders policy of turning back asylum seeker boats, is seeking preselection for the Liberals’ senate ticket in New South Wales.

Molan, who controlled 300,000 allied troops as chief of operations for the allied force in Iraq in 2004-05, argues that these uncertain times require hard-headed strategists. “The world has changed. The greatest change in the world is the change in power relativities, many of which are manifest in our part of the world,” he tells The Saturday Paper.

“I’m not saying that we are facing imminent conflict and therefore you’ve got to have defence people in the parliament. What I am saying is that the future is more uncertain now than it has been for many, many decades. We can’t, in defence or in any other areas, do things for the next 30 years as we have for the last 60.”

If he secures a senate spot, he will become the first retired general to sit in parliament since 1932.

Unlike the United States, Australia has not had a strong tradition of former senior military figures pursuing a political career. Perhaps that is now changing.

The Coalition has a headstart in recruiting former military candidates, such that it is beginning to look like the khaki party, and not just because of Abbott’s enthusiasm for warfare and all things military. 

“It’s not possible or right for me to go into the field with you, but if I can’t fight with you at least I can sweat with you as a sign of the respect I have for everything you do,” the prime minister recently told troops in Darwin after working out with them.

More in the Coalition

The ADA’s figures reveal that 13 of the 22 serving MPs with some military experience come from the Coalition and just five from Labor. 

That equates to about 6 per cent of Labor’s 80-strong caucus, and just over 10 per cent of the Coalition’s 123 members.

Another four MPs with military experience sit on the crossbenches: Lambie, Andrew Wilkie, Bob Katter and Greens senator Peter Whish-Wilson, an Australian Defence Force Academy graduate.

More than half of the 22 were, or are, reservists, including Labor leader Bill Shorten, who served briefly in the army reserve while at Monash University. 

Of those who at some stage pursued a military career, as opposed to reservists, most are Liberals, including Assistant Defence Minister Stuart Robert, Luke Simpkins, Mal Brough and David Fawcett.

In the last parliament, former Labor frontbencher and decorated army lawyer and soldier Mike Kelly was the only war veteran. Now that title belongs to Nikolic, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Kelly, now an adviser to Shorten, is expected to recontest the seat of Eden-Monaro, which he held from 2007 to 2013. 

The backlash against the government’s initial below-inflation pay offer to the ADF gave Labor hope it could pick up voters in seats with a heavy military presence, such as the Coalition-held seats of Herbert, based around the Queensland city of Townsville, and the Darwin-based seat of Solomon. 

After months of pressure, Abbott finally agreed on March 4 to increase the pay rise from 1.5 per cent a year to 2 per cent, though there are still concerns this may not match projected inflation over the three years of the agreement.

Neil James, executive director of the ADA, is loath to admit that there is a conservative bias within the ADF, insisting it is one of the last truly non-partisan institutions in Australia.

Myth of conservatism

“The myth is that the military is conservative,” he says. “In fact, they’re not much different to the rest of society. The mistake you’re making is not looking at state parliaments, where Labor often has more military people.”

Indeed, one of Labor’s star recruits, former Special Air Service Regiment major Peter Tinley, who unsuccessfully contested the federal seat of Stirling in Western Australia in 2007 after criticising the Howard government’s involvement in Iraq, is now a state MP and president of the WA Labor Party.

But there have also been prominent state Liberals with military pasts, notably former Queensland premier Campbell Newman.

Despite insisting the ADF is non-partisan, James says psephological studies have shown that, while defence voters swing more than the general population, booths near barracks tend to vote conservatively. “Senior non-commissioned officers tend to split roughly three to one in favour of the conservatives,” he says. “In the officer corps, the split varies between two to one and 50:50.”

James, who advocates for increased defence spending, says there has been a “bit of a surge recently” in senior defence types standing for the Liberals. One factor motivating them, he says, would be defence cuts under the Gillard government.

“I think it was the straw that broke the camel’s back for a lot of military people,” he says. “People who understood what was going on knew it had to be stopped.”

Molan lends credence to this theory.

After retiring from the army in 2008, he took what he describes as his first public political stance two years ago, in an article in Quadrant magazine, arguing that defence policy under the Labor government “should truly dismay all Australians, and its consequences for the Australian Defence Force are terrifying”.

As prime minister, Kevin Rudd’s relationship with the ADF leadership was testy at times, particularly when he kept defence chiefs waiting for briefings. But it was the three-year tenure of Stephen Smith as defence minister that really pitted Labor against senior elements of the ADF, who resented the funding cuts and the minister’s blow-up at the head of ADFA over his handling of the Skype sex scandal. Labor sources concede it will take years to repair that rift. 

One observation from within the opposition is that the top brass tend to like Coalition governments that send them to war, but resent Labor governments that bring them home.

Relationship with Labor soured

The relationship soured further when Labor’s current defence spokesman, Stephen Conroy, last year accused the military commander in charge of asylum seeker boat turn-backs, Lieutenant-General Angus Campbell, of a “political cover-up”.

By contrast, Abbott has been in lockstep with defence chiefs. Defence was quarantined from widespread budget cuts, securing a funding boost to $29.3 billion for 2014-15. The deployment of military trainers to Iraq will ensure the continued prominence of defence issues. However, bungles over submarines and shipbuilding plans and delays in the defence white paper have caused some rumblings, amid concerns political imperatives could trump strategic planning.

The parsimony of Abbott’s initial defence force pay offer was a contrast to his adulation of the troops. He is fond of citing Samuel Johnson’s quip that “every man doth despise himself for never having been a soldier”. His hero Winston Churchill was a journalist, politician and soldier. Abbott has done two of these jobs and regrets he never tried the third.

It’s no surprise, then, that during his most challenging time as leader he found an ally in Nikolic, who brings his military mindset to parliament. 

Last month, as Abbott’s leadership came under intense pressure, Nikolic wrote to Liberal MPs urging them to stop the infighting and focus on destroying the “political enemy”.

His letter was peppered with military references, including to the “warlike nature of political debate” and to Prussian general Clausewitz’s exhortation to know and contain your adversary.

If “words are bullets”, as Treasurer Joe Hockey said in defamation proceedings this week, then Nikolic was using them to defend his prime minister.

Abbott rewarded this loyalty by promoting Nikolic to the whips team when he dumped Philip Ruddock as chief whip in the days after his “near-death” experience in the spill motion of February 9.

‘More deference than they deserve’

Professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University Hugh White says that, at one level, it is good to have former military people in the parliament, and that any increase in their representation reflects the rise in prominence of the ADF since deployment to East Timor in 1999.

However, he adds that it would be wrong to assume former ADF personnel necessarily possess the strategic abilities needed for setting sound defence policy.

“The ADF is not a strategic organisation. It is very much focused at the tactical level,” he says. “One of the risks is that military personnel are given more deference than they deserve.”

Deference to the military is Abbott’s inclination. The special deal on defence  pay is unlikely to be the last time Nikolic and Reynolds make their views known. Or that Abbott, if he remains prime minister, lets it be known he has heeded them.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 14, 2015 as "Abbott’s army". Subscribe here.

Sophie Morris
is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.