Tony Windsor
Abbott’s war on governance

It should come as no surprise to anyone who follows politics that Tony Abbott’s natural territory is as a fighter and brawler. The question on many minds is whether he would rather fight than govern. We might also wonder about his capacity to govern without the cover of one “war” or another.

The militaristic theme has come to the fore again recently with the so-called “lawfare” changes to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act in relation to third party appeals to environmental law. It’s there again in the prospect of military involvement in Syria and the recent developments with the Australian Border Force.

Many are questioning the logic and motives of the prime minister on these and other issues. Some would suggest that along with the war on union thugs, the war on “illegal” boat people, even the war on ice, Abbott is using these battles as distractions from the main game of governance of the nation. He is in a continual search for a wedge against the Labor Party that will resonate at the polls. And to what end?

We see the PM’s style in recent attempts to remove the so-called third party “legal standing” provisions of the EPBC Act, put in place by John Howard, which granted rights to community groups and individuals to have their say in the courts in relation to environmental approvals. By focusing on this issue, Abbott has also shone a light on the incompetency of environment minister Greg Hunt regarding the Adani and Shenhua coalmines in Queensland and New South Wales.

While the senate is unlikely to pass the proposed amendments – something of which the PM would have been well aware – the obvious message to the community is that Labor is apparently anti-mining and anti-jobs. Better still, he hopes to rekindle the image of the Labor–Green alliance with which he has previously scared voters. There is no real policy outcome here, no economic benefit; it is purely about politics.

Questions are also being raised about the prime minister’s ambition to send troops to Syria. Is it about caring for those who are trying to flee persecution or about the instinct of a brawler who believes fear can be used as a political tool to win an election a long way from the persecution?

In the short term that election is the Canning byelection, and his survival as leader; in the longer-term, his ambition to win the next general election.

Abbott argues that the destruction of antiquities by Daesh is justification for going to war, and has instanced the historical significance of Palmyra in Syria in the development of humanity as evidence. No mention here in Australia of the significance of the massive Aboriginal grinding stones that will be destroyed by the Chinese-owned Shenhua mine on the Liverpool Plains in the Namoi Valley. In fact, the changes to EPBC could remove the rights of the oldest civilisation on Earth to prevent desecration of our antiquities.

Australia’s “all the way with LBJ” attitude towards partnering with the United States in war is not good. The Vietnam War had enormous impacts on those who participated, apparently to stop the yellow hordes from taking over Australia. Fast forward to today and the contorted posture our nation has towards China – our need to accommodate the country in an economic sense, while still maintaining a military alliance against it with the US – is precarious indeed and does not look to be getting significant thought from our government.

The extraordinary positioning of our Middle East relations over the decades is almost unfathomable, but can be simplified thanks to Abbott’s “goodies and baddies” analogy.

In 1979 Saddam Hussein was a goody in the Iranian conflict. He was a baddie in the first Gulf War against oil-rich Kuwait in 1990. The Americans left him to rule Iraq from a minority Sunni position and watched as he carried out atrocities against other minorities such as the Kurdish people in the north and the majority Shiite Muslims. In 2003 he was a baddie again and was subsequently removed and executed. In his stead, a Shiite goody came to power and persecuted the previous Sunni baddies who prior to being baddies were goodies.

Some of the extremist Sunnis decided democracy wasn’t for them and sided with Daesh, partly because of a lack of faith in democratic processes and distrust of the previous US alliance commitments.

So the context of today’s decision to declare war on the state of Syria – which has been engaged in a civil war where all the participants are or have been baddies – raises the question of how we determine who we are fighting against and whether diplomacy would work better than engaging in an illegal war with all the possible domestic ramifications that may flow from such a decision.

That is, of course, unless those domestic ramifications are in Abbott’s political interest.

Military experts believe Australia will make little difference in any aerial conflict where determining actual targets would be difficult. Others suggest the West needs to engage with the least bad baddie, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has ordered as many atrocities as Daesh. But before we join any unilateral US plan to side with Assad in an attempt to take out Daesh from the air, why would Australia not first engage with the Assad-supporting Russia on the UN Security Council to put in place a legal UN-sanctioned position against Daesh? It wouldn’t suit Tony Abbott’s immediate agenda, but going to war in a country that hasn’t asked us and without UN sanction is potential madness.

One would have to doubt Abbott’s motives on his various war fronts. Is he trying to reproduce the political success of John Howard’s 2003 war, which was based on the lie of weapons of mass destruction? Or has he had a conversion on the road to Damascus about the morality?

If the prime minister rushes to war without engaging the parliament and debating the reasons for engagement, he risks being accused of doing so because of the polls rather than the morality of protecting persecuted people. His record on tyrannical persecution is not brilliant, so the trust bank with the Australian people is in deficit.

Where is Bill Shorten on the war front? He risks allowing political expediency to govern his decision, not wanting to be seen as soft on terrorism. The question he needs to answer is: If he were PM, would he do it? Will he argue for legitimate debate in parliament or will he fall for the Howard precedent of proceeding without debate.

There is something wrong when an elected government that espouses war on the basis of restoring democratic rights in war-torn lands won’t debate its reasoning for going to war in its own parliament. But that is the position we are in.

Meanwhile, the language and theatre surrounding the creation of the border force and the operational secrecy, other than when political opportunities arrive, sends another confusing message to the community.

The summons from cabinet for weekly security announcements until the next election can only be seen in one light – the political need to frighten the Australian people into a position where they disregard all other issues and base their vote on fear and fear alone.

I have no doubt that there are some within the current administration who would be hoping for a domestic event to occur, preferably instigated by Muslims, which could reinforce the generation of fear.

Fear has proved historically to be a valuable political tool. The yellow hordes, the Jews in Hitler’s Germany.

The prime minister’s hot rhetoric about Daesh “coming to get us” may initiate laughter in the pub, but visit an aged-care centre or discuss with older people and children and, combined with some of the shocking scenes of beheading, you will see genuine fear for their personal and family circumstances.

That’s not to suggest that Australia shouldn’t show some leadership in relation to Syria and the atrocities being perpetrated there. An appropriate parliamentary debate would flesh out the various scenarios that exist in confronting a situation where, in the prime minister’s own words, there are no goodies. A debate would also explain the very real likelihood that siding with Assad, himself a despicable despot, may in fact exacerbate the situation, and highlight the need to work through the United Nations. Given recent utterances from the Russians, who hold a key position on the Security Council, there may be a way forward for a global stand against Daesh.

But only time will tell whether such an approach will suit Abbott’s short-term agenda. So far, his lack of consistency on these issues has exposed him as an opportunist. He wants to fight for the persecuted but despises boat people. He stands for the party of personal freedom but wants to restrict at home the principles he says he wants to fight for overseas, whether they be about the environment or the ability of our citizens to go about their daily lives unhindered by goon squads.

The Middle Eastern issues will not be solved by a few more aircraft in the sky over Syria. Proper examination of the root causes of the governance issues that have led to the current circumstance there, and the role that Australia played in the previous debacle in Iraq, may present a clearer view of where we should be going this time around, rather than a gung-ho scenario of bombing the shit out of someone without consideration of the long-term consequences.

Tony Abbott once said he would do anything to get the job of prime minister. The Liberal Party needs to reassess the value of keeping him there. It’s becoming very clear that he thought endlessly about getting the job but gave no consideration to what having it might mean.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 5, 2015 as "War on governance".

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Tony Windsor is the former independent member for the federal seat of New England. He has held balance of power positions in both the NSW and federal parliaments.

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