This week the government relentlessly pursued fallen political foes and rhetorical enemies abroad. By Paul Bongiorno.

Paul Bongiorno
Abbott waging war on the past and the future

Make no mistake about it: Tony Abbott has set a precedent that has taken Australia down a very ugly path. Incoming prime ministers in future will be hard-pressed to resist the temptation to pursue their vanquished predecessors beyond the political grave.

The practice historically has been to allow the judgement of the people at an election to have the last word. Not this time. At huge expense, Abbott has set about smearing the former government: $20 million to pursue former prime minister Kevin Rudd over roof insulation and another $54 million to drag Julia Gillard before a royal commission into unions.

The view of one senior former Labor minister puts it neatly: “Petty, vindictive and nasty.” He confirms that in the early days of the Rudd government there was a push for a royal commission into John Howard’s commitment of the Australian military to Iraq. But that was rejected for fear it would be seen as nothing more than a political witch-hunt.

Independent MP Andrew Wilkie has no doubt what that inquiry would have found. We went into Iraq based on a lie. The former intelligence analyst at the Office of National Assessments quit his job back in 2003 and blew the whistle. There was no evidence that Saddam Hussein still had weapons of mass destruction. Howard browbeat United Nations weapons inspector Hans Blix at a meeting in New York over his failure to find any, only later to admit his views were coloured by his thinking the worst of Saddam.

There is an ongoing Victoria Police investigation into the union slush fund set up by Gillard as a young lawyer for her then boyfriend, AWU official Bruce Wilson. But of course, that doesn’t have the frisson of seeing an old political opponent and former prime minister being relentlessly grilled in the witness box of a royal commission.

Gillard insisted in evidence she had no role in the running of the fund and did not know it was used for fraudulent purposes. “None of us get to go in a time machine and go backwards,” she told counsel assisting the commission Jeremy Stoljar, SC. “If one got to do the whole thing again, knowing what I know now, I would do things differently.”

The Gillard commission appearance came in the same week that a ghost of the then Abbott opposition’s past returned to haunt it. James Ashby, the staffer who accused former speaker Peter Slipper of sexually harassing him and rorting travel entitlements, implicated senior Liberal figures in the move. Ashby went on 60 Minutes to say education minister Christopher Pyne offered him a lawyer and job security if he went ahead with the court action. Pyne denied it, saying there was a misunderstanding. Another Liberal MP, Mal Brough, would neither confirm nor deny that he told then opposition leader Abbott about the plan to target Slipper.

A distinctly testy prime minister cut short a news conference after standing by his denials of any “specific knowledge”. He says the episode “was particularly squalid, sordid, miserable period in our national life”. And the Australian public would be pleased it’s now all in the past. That past is two years ago; Gillard’s past with Wilson was 20 years ago, before she was in parliament.

Abbott was much more comfortable talking about the need to protect people in Iraq by disrupting and degrading the so-called Islamic State’s capacity. Although he refuses to refer to the extremists as the “Islamic State”. It is a “death cult”, he says, “made up of people who are pure evil”. He told Sydney shock jock Alan Jones, “That’s why I think it’s quite proper to respond with extreme force against people like this.”

There is conflicting evidence in the polls that the prime minister’s visceral rhetoric is winning broad public support. Both Newspoll and Essential have seen the Coalition’s weak recovery stall. Both have Labor leading 52 to 48.

While Newspoll found 62 per cent were in favour of Australian humanitarian aid and weapons going to forces opposing Islamic State militants, an Essential poll found opinion split 39 per cent against supplying weapons, 38 per cent for it, and 24 per cent in the don’t know column.

Abbott, like US president Barack Obama, seems to appreciate there is no real public appetite for another full-scale military involvement in Iraq. Both men stress there will be no commitment of “combat troops on the ground”. But during the week we saw some mission creep when the prime minister mentioned for the first time the possibility of sending military advisers.

Essential found that trust in the government’s capacity to handle international relations has fallen. A clear majority, 55 per cent, have little or no trust, up from 53 per cent in November. And that despite almost universal recognition that Foreign Minister Julie Bishop is the government’s standout performer. In the national security committee of cabinet it’s understood she has been playing a restraining role.

The coolness among the public towards all this war talk could explain the solid 14 per cent support for the Greens in the latest Newspoll. Greens leader Christine Milne has been highly critical of the major parties and is still demanding a full parliamentary debate on any military commitment.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, who has been Little Sir Echo until now, has seized on reports the Abbott government is considering buying 12 submarines from Japan to accuse the prime minister of contracting out the national security of Australia.

“Tony Abbott is talking about a future where Japan owns the intellectual property and has monopoly control over the spare parts of our sovereign strategic capability rather than us right here, right now. It’s a dangerous idea,” he says.

Sounding more populist than Abbott when he was opposition leader, Shorten raised memories of World War II when Japan was the enemy. “This is a government with a short memory,” he chided. In World War II “366 merchant ships were sunk off Australia”.

But it’s unlikely the opposition will bring this new strident tone into the terror debate, especially after the intervention of outgoing Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) spy boss David Irvine.

Irvine went on ABC TV to tell us he was, if not afraid, “very concerned” about the threat of an imminent terror attack in Australia. “The threat has actually been building … over the last year or so and I’m actually a lot more concerned. I would say I have an elevated level of concern.”

ASIO has identified more than 20 returned jihadists, and while the agency is on to them and monitoring the situation, Irving’s parting gift to the nation would be to raise the threat of a homeland attack from medium to high.

Andrew Wilkie sees a direct link between our military involvement in the Middle East and the rise of extremists intent on making us pay a price. But Irvine, like the prime minister, plays this down. “The fact is that Australia has been named as a terrorist target in al-Qaeda publications and the like for a number of years. So we have to be concerned.”

Just what raising the threat level of an attack means is not clear. The immigration minister, Scott Morrison, wasn’t amused at the National Press Club when he was asked if Howard-era-style fridge magnets would now be issued. They had emergency phone numbers and urged us to be alert but not alarmed.

Morrison channelled the former “wartime” prime minister by reminding Australians “we are living in very uncertain times”.

“We know there is a very real threat by the death cult that is operating over in Iraq and Syria and we know that threat is not just over in the Middle East ... what is happening there poses a threat in this country. It is not imagined, it is not made up, it is real.”

Maybe it’s the success of our counterterrorism measures over the past 13 years that has voters a tad sceptical about how much of the issue is being used for political advantage. Abbott’s record suggests he never misses an opportunity to play hardball.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 13, 2014 as "Waging war".

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Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.

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