When John Kenneth Galbraith was Kennedy’s Ambassador to India in the early 1960s, he reported that he had inspected a guard of honour and they seemed to him to be fine. His dry wit was lacking when the Murdoch media reported the safe return from Afghanistan of Pauline Hanson, her colleague Brian Burston and Labor’s Senator Kimberley Kitching. There they had inspected a Bushmaster MR6 multi-role armoured vehicle (built in Australia by the French company Thales, which makes a counterpart in Canada) and a Chinook helicopter (made in the US by Boeing). They were briefed on the ‘security situation’ and took a three-day intensive training course, including instruction on how to ‘handle firearms’ (The Australian, 20 April 2018: 5).
Photos showed the One Nation leader ‘decked out in army camouflage and protective armour’ beaming at two soldiers. The ADF having abandoned Uruzgan in 2013, 300 remnant personnel are in Afghanistan training, advising and assisting the Afghan national army, as they have been almost continuously since 2001. Senator Hanson revealed that Australia must stay on to prevent the tentacles of Islamic extremism spreading ‘throughout the world’ (The Australian, 20 April 2018: 5). Another Senator, a shadow minister, told me last year she too had been on the ADF parliamentary program, and from seeing it on the ground was similarly convinced. Labor evidently smokes the same hashish on defence and foreign policy as the government gives out.
In spite of the mansplaining they received, Senator Hanson and her fellow-travellers didn’t know or weren’t asked to say why, since Australia’s efforts in Afghanistan over 17 years have made no difference, we are still there doing the same thing and if that is value for taxpayers’ money. We remain ignorant about why the senators couldn’t have inspected the military hardware, had the briefing and done the three-day course in Australia, saving time and contributing to balancing the May budget. It is doubtful that Afghan soldiers need the ADF to help them shoot their enemies, which they have done for centuries. If they do, then visiting senators are a distraction. It is inexplicable why senators (apart perhaps from David Lyonhjelm) should want to be able to shoot anyone. Journalists in the mainstream media might investigate these mysteries, but they are either similarly hooked on the same free dope, or are too fearful for their jobs.
The media countdown to Anzac Day has begun again. ABC TV Gardening Australia had a poppy day special on Friday night, in the rubber boots lamentably vacated by Quentin Dempster. Over the weekend (21-22 April), Fairfax had Jonathan King mining the archives on Australia’s efforts at Villers-Brettonneux, and Matthew Bailey at Macquarie University questioning the ‘carefully curated process’ of what some now call Anzackery. But Murdoch’s ‘Anzac Day special’ had seven broadsheet (broadwhat?) pages including Kelly, Dalton and Lunn banging on about identity and mateship forged in war.
So it falls to others to challenge the bipartisan line. UNSW Professor Clinton Fernandes got in early in Crikey (18 April 2018) telling politicians they ‘should not just be able to stand beside soldiers, striking patriotic poses, and not have to take responsibility for sending them there.’ Views like his proliferate in online journals, where citizen journalists fossick for international stories whose existence Australia’s incredible shrinking newspapers ignore. We know the Russians and the Assad government have won the war against IS in Syria. We dispute the Anglo-allied official line about what if any chemical attack occurred in Douma, who released chlorine at Khan Sheikhoun, and if Sarin was used in Ghouta, and weigh up the evidence as best we can. Citizen journalists are trying to find out what toxic nerve agent was used in Salisbury on Sergei and Yelena Skripal, by whom, and who made it.
Eminent novelist Richard Flanagan abandoned fiction on 18 April and memorably told the National Press Club what questions real journalists should be asking before Anzac Day. Why is the Australian government, having hounded its predecessor about debt and deficit, spending $600 million on commemorating World War I? Why is it spending $1.1 billion on war memorials between 2014 and 2028? Why is it expanding the Australian War Memorial for $500 million? Why is it at the same time cutting foreign aid and funds for Australia’s cultural institutions? Instead, promoting what Flanagan called the ‘growing state-funded cult of Anzac,’ the Prime Minister will launch a war museum and ‘interpretive centre’ named after Sir John Monash at Villers-Bretonneux, which cost $100 million. The country that produced a leader like Monash, Flanagan warned, could find itself ‘suddenly entrapped in a new authoritarianism wearing the motley of the old lies’. We have a ‘preening peloton of potential leaders’ but no leaders (‘Our politics is a dreadful black comedy’. https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2018/apr/18/richard-flanagan-national-press-club-speech-full-politics-black-comedy).
But the Booker Prize-winner is hopeful. He believes the marriage equality vote showed that Australians are not ‘the mean and pinched people we had been persuaded and bluffed for so many years that we were.’ Ministers may be ‘small-minded bigots,’ but that doesn’t mean the rest of us are stuck in outdated prejudices and reactionary beliefs. Let’s hope he is right. Having proved this again with the Royal Commission on the banks, Australians have warned politicians not to prejudge them. Now all we need is a Republic and democratisation of the war powers.
Dr Alison Broinowski is Vice-President of Honest History and of Australians for War Powers Reform