Reshuffling before Myanmar election; Canada’s hardline prime minister. By Hamish McDonald.

PM Tony Abbott answers his own call to fight in Syria

Myanmar’s speaker Shwe Mann, left, arrives at a parliamentary session.
Myanmar’s speaker Shwe Mann, left, arrives at a parliamentary session.
Credit: AFP

Veteran newspaper readers may recall a splendid article by investigative journalist Evan Whitton in the old National Times about how we got into the Vietnam War. After egging on an ambivalent Washington to commit ground troops in early 1965, Robert Menzies decided to offer a battalion of Australian troops “if and when requested by the United States”.

Just before the announcement of the commitment, Canberra realised a request for military assistance under a regional security treaty had not been given by the government we were supposed to be defending against the downward thrust of communism. The Australian ambassador in Saigon, David Anderson, duly hotfooted it around to South Vietnamese prime minister Phan Huy Quát with a request and got it signed, cabling the news back to Canberra three-and-a-half hours before Menzies spoke.

Echoes of this come as Tony Abbott solemnly weighs up a “request” from the US for the Royal Australian Air Force F/A-18s already pounding Daesh in Iraq to extend their operations across the border into Syria. After all, says Abbott, if Daesh doesn’t respect the national order, why should we? We are assured by Defence Minister Kevin Andrews that Barack Obama raised the matter when Abbott called him last month with condolences over the Chattanooga shootings. Yet many of Canberra’s most seasoned political reporters are getting the word from their sources that the request was “engineered” from this end.

The background is that a prime minister sinking in the opinion polls is desperately ratcheting up the military and security service campaign against Daesh in the not-unreasonable belief Australian voters fall for khaki politics. Recently The Australian Financial Review’s Laura Tingle reported orders going out from Abbott’s office for one national security-related announcement or event every week until the next election.

RAAF involvement will make little difference to the fight against Daesh, who seem able to mount large-scale motorcades and ceremonies in broad daylight at will, despite the US, British, Canadian and other air forces complaining it’s hard to find clear targets. Even those strategic commentators who support the wider RAAF role concede this. A counter critic is the Australian National University’s Rodger Shanahan, who points out that involvement by the regional Sunni states in the campaign against Daesh has been falling away. Turkey, which has one of the biggest air forces in NATO, has carried out 500 air strikes against its Kurdish foe, the PKK, and only three against Daesh. It risks looking again like a Western line-up against an Arab enemy, Shanahan wrote in the Lowy Institute’s The Interpreter.

The regional states are more intent on shoring up domestic power. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is bashing his Kurdish population ahead of fresh elections called for November 1. The Saudis and others are stepping up the battle against Shiites in Yemen. McClatchy, a widely read Washington newsletter, reports that the Turkish intelligence service betrayed a batch of US-trained Syrian rebels to the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra because the Turks wanted Daesh to keep tying down Syria’s embattled Assad regime. US Defence Secretary Ash Carter has been openly criticising Turkey for not doing much to control the traffic of Daesh volunteers and supplies across its border into Syria. Washington has at least announced it is accepting up to 8000 Syrian refugees. What are we doing?

1 . Political reshuffling ahead of Myanmar election

Myanmar’s politics are mutating in strange directions ahead of the elections called for November 8, with this month’s abrupt sacking of the parliament’s lower house speaker, former general Shwe Mann, from the chairmanship of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party by his former army colleague President Thein Sein.

Shwe Mann had made little secret of his hopes to become the next president after the election, by forming an alliance with Aung San Suu Kyi, who is barred from the top office by the military-written constitution but whose National League for Democracy is likely to sweep the vote. In the NLD’s absence at the first election under the current constitution, the military-backed USDP won a comfortable majority.

The ructions in the USDP, which took place with military cordons around party headquarters, suggest that either Thein Sein is hoping for a second term, or is clearing obstacles for current military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, who recently indicated he would be ready like a good soldier to serve the nation if called upon. However, Shwe Mann continues as speaker, and a bid to bring in a new recall provision that looked aimed at knocking him out of parliament failed when the USDP split.

Suu Kyi is meanwhile coming under fire for her apparent timidity about provoking the military. The NLD’s list of 1090 candidates for the election shows she has rejected all but one of a dozen figures of the so-called “88 Generation” who applied for NLD nomination. These are leaders of the student protests in 1988 against the then military regime, put down with great bloodshed. Those not killed or forced into exile endured years of harsh imprisonment. The survivors, such as Ko Ko Gyi, showed a Mandela-like political maturity when released three years ago, and with Suu Kyi just turned 70, should have been welcomed as future leaders by the NLD. 

2 . Harper’s lead-in

Canada used to be seen as a nicer, more inclusive and more idealistic − if colder − Anglosphere counterpart to Australia. That is until the Conservative Party’s Stephen Harper became prime minister nearly 10 years ago, and proceeded to trash much of that reputation.

He is a leader who thinks as much oil as possible – even the heavy version of it extracted with much side-pollution from Canada’s tar sands – is good for humankind. He has conducted a war on environmental research, trying to cut funding where possible, and placing gags on government scientists from discussing their work in public. He stopped the holding of the traditional “long-form” national census, drastically cutting the information needed to back social policies. The appointed senate has been stacked with dubious cronies, one of whom is under trial charged with rorting expenses. After a gunman attacked the federal parliament, Harper introduced a law allowing dual nationals to be stripped of Canadian citizenship. Sound familiar?

Now he is going for elections on October 19, after calling them 79 days ahead − the longest campaign since the 19th century. He is counting on three things. One is the weight of money. Canada barred political donations from corporations and trade unions in 2004. The Conservative Party has been more adept at amassing donations from well-off individuals. Second is the disarray of the Liberal Party, which has installed Justin Trudeau, son of the late prime minister, Pierre Trudeau, as its leader in a dynastic exercise seen as at least premature, given Trudeau jnr’s inexperience. Third is fiddling with the electoral system: a new law tightens the requirements for voting and the electoral authority is restricted from promoting the vote as a civic duty. It’s called the Fair Elections Act, of course. But it may just be too much, too long for the Canadians. Opinion polls show the left-wing New Democrats ahead of both the Conservatives and Liberals, putting them in a position to form a minority government.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 29, 2015 as "Abbott answers the call he made himself".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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