ALISON BROINOWSKI. The silence is deafening.

Jun 14, 2016

We learn belatedly that Prime Minister Abbott tried to persuade the Army to send to the MH17 crash site in Ukraine, were more like 3000, a full brigade! 

In this long election campaign, the major parties are debating anything and everything that will affect votes. Everything, that is, except refugees, foreign policy, and – as if it is a minor matter – the war. Australians who haven’t been paying attention may well be unaware that we have military in Afghanistan (still), Iraq (again), and Syria. In spite of retired generals Peter Leahy and Peter Gration repeatedly questioning the strategy and prospects of their deployment, the Government says nothing, and the Opposition keeps whatever it is confidentially told to itself.

What a difference from the wars about which the Australian colonists argued, the conscription debates in 1916, the Vietnam moratorium, and the pre-Iraq war protest marches! Now, successive governments use wartime to shut down public discussion, by refusing to reveal ‘operational matters’, by making it illegal to even ask about Special Intelligence Operations , and by refusing freedom of (or ‘from’) information requests. We learn belatedly that the 1000 soldiers we thought Tony Abbott, as Prime Minister, tried to persuade the army to send to the MH17 crash site in Ukraine were more like 3000, a full brigade. After Defence brass demurred, he got 200 special forces instead, and this is the first most of us heard even about them.

In James Brown’s Quarterly Essay (June 2016), the former Army officer deplores this and Abbott’s other ‘captain’s picks’, saying we need a better way of deciding where, why, how and against whom Australia will go to war (extract, Weekend Australian, 11-12 June 2016). Australians for War Powers Reform (, which brings together former diplomats, senior defence officials, international lawyers, and retired military people, has been arguing this case for several years. Brown agrees with them, pointing out that the concentration of war powers in the hands of a prime minister, effectively alone, allows a misguided decision to have a disastrous result.

Just as Brown’s essay reaches the bookshops, some movement is detectable in the newsrooms. Late last month, Laura Tingle (AFR 28 May 2016) noticed the foreign policy void in this election campaign. Tony Walker (AFR 4 June 2016) deplored the disregard shown by the ‘political class’ for the returning remains of 33 Australians who died in Vietnam, and went on to argue that we don’t properly account for our past wars, particularly Iraq. Phil Coorey, Tom Switzer and Greg Sheridan have picked up related themes, and Henry Reynolds has recently explored them at length in Unnecessary Wars. Reynolds says Australians have got into the mindless habit, after a war, not of asking what were the results, but simply how we fought, as if it was a football match.

Before he lost office, Tony Abbott committed Australian troops to further war zones in Iraq and Syria, with dubious legality, and with no clearly stated objective, strategy, end-date, or estimated cost. His successor, Malcolm Turnbull, could pull the Australian forces out if he is elected in his own right, just as Spain did after the Madrid station bombing, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did last year. Instead, Australia is likely to go on bombing Syria, with what result we are not told. If we are 100 percent accurate in hitting IS fighters, that may go some way towards ‘degrading’ the movement; but every bombed building and city contains civilians, whose lives, if not lost, are damaged, and whose hostility to the West increases with their suffering. Turnbull will not admit this or bring our forces home, partly because Shorten is not pressing him to, and because until very recently, the mainstream media were putting no hard questions to either of them.

The political silence on these three policy areas – refugees, foreign relations, and war – is deafening. It critically affects Australia’s international standing, but worse is the self-delusion it enables in the community. We inquire assiduously into murderous attacks ascribed to terrorists in Australia, and we express outrage when they occur in other countries. Well-intentioned people try to ‘de-radicalise’ young Australians; the authorities do their best, as international convention requires, to keep them from going to fight in Iraq or Syria; and we punish them under our laws if they return. But none of it is our fault. No matter how often they explain that they believe they must defend Muslims wherever they are being attacked, we fail to make any connection between our bombing and this response. No matter who tells us they will attack those who insult their branch of Islam in this country too, we fail to understand, or admit our ignorance, which only contributes to their anger.

When the Chilcot report appears in the UK next month, the journalists who are beginning to peer into the Australian policy void will realise what campaigners for a matching inquiry into the disastrous 2003 Iraq War have been on about, and will point out the danger of repeating it.

Dr Alison Broinowski is Vice-President of Honest History and Vice-President of Australians for War Powers Reform

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