Unaccountable spin and double standards are the stuff of “good bloke” politicians. It’s a skilful charade that perpetuates unchecked executive power and distances the parliament and public. Kellie Merritt’s husband Paul was killed “whilst on operational duty” in Iraq. She doesn’t want to collude with the “good blokes”. Truth is often the first casualty of war… and cricket.
“I am an Anzac Bradman Australian” John Howard
National identity is a multifaceted and complex construct. The urge to simplify and politicise it drives John Howard to conjure up patriotic and paternal symbols of the past. It is clearly sentimental and I’d argue distracting . As a cricketing soldier there is very little time to be a politician, let alone be accountable for the decisions you make. After all, values of mateship and a fair go seem to be at odds in the political bunker.
There are plenty of examples of John Howard, the cricketer, that allow him to conveniently disassociate from his political role and responsibilities. Like when he declared that the Prime Minister of Australia was the second most important job in the country, the first being the Australian cricket captain. I loved cricketers too, circa 80’s before they got fit and shiny (I wasn’t bad as first drop for my school team either). Maybe Alan Border would have been a pretty good Prime Minister?
John Howard’s judgment of Steve Smith’s behaviour, character and captaincy, over the ball tampering controversy in March, is merciless and unforgiving. Following Smith’s public apology, Howard called him “weak”, deserving of “punishment” for the “young man’s” decision in allowing the “colossal mistake” to occur. He goes onto to say Smith can “never play cricket” for Australia again. Howard states that he eagerly supports and awaits the outcome of a thorough review into the tragedy.
At the same time, also in March, another tragedy, this one involving John Howard the soldier, passed by, the 15th anniversary of the Iraq War. This anniversary was especially significant because it came on the back of the only official Inquiry into the war, undertaken by Sir John Chilcott and an impressive expert panel in the UK. The Chilcott Inquiry (seven years and 2.5 million words in the making) delivers such a scathing verdict of individual and institutional failings, it is difficult to stomach. It finds that the invasion of Iraq, was decided on well before the case for war was made. The results of this war included 5000 dead troops, 600000 dead Iraq’s, millions of Iraq’s were injured, displaced and fled. Trillions of dollars were spent by governments of the Coalition of the Willing to achieve this result. Iraq continues to be mired in bloody violence, with no end in sight. The Inquiry found conclusively that the Iraq War was a colossal disaster, significantly contributing to the continuing violence seen in the country today. A war plan that was hatched by three political leaders, each tampering with evidence and spinning the truth to their publics, abusing their power to have their way and win at any cost. The unimagined costs have been for others to bear.
It would be understandable therefore, if you thought, the shock and awe expressed by then prime minister, while also demanding assurances that the matter be fully investigated, was in response to Australia’s role in this bloody war. Shock and awe, did after all, launch the Iraq war onto our screens all those years go. Bizarrely distancing us from any meaningful comprehension of the enormity of death and destruction, from the hundreds and thousands of missiles and bombs dropped on the country. But he was talking about the bloody cricket. Those of us who don’t care that much about cricket- or even those of us who do- become foolish for not sharing in the enormity of Smith’s mistake and the shame it brought to our nation. Despite demands that cricket’s ball tampering be fully investigated and merciless judgment of Smith, there still has not been an Australian investigation into the political decision making, that led loyal men and women of our defence forces to war, and no prime minister has ever demanded assurances that there should be.
This week, with the delivery of the Longstaff review, Australian cricketing leader’s have been called out as “arrogant” and “controlling’. Cricket Australia has suffered a spectacular collapse. Night watchman prime minister Scott Morrison, while sculling beer at the Prime minister X1 match said, “ as an Australian, a fellow Australian, I think we all know what our expectations are of their need to restore trust, to restore credibility, to restore faith in our great game” . In almost the same gulp he announced a 500 million dollar upgrade of the war memorial, characterising it as the soul of the nation that transcends politics. I was hoping he would announce a Longstaff review into Australian politics, to focus on restoring trust, credibility and faith in the profession he represents as a better placed contribution to national unity…don’t you think? At a time when successive duck innings has become the norm across the political oval, we are craving for political heroes, in their own means and merits. C’mon aussie, I mean ScoMo, lets be fairdinkum about “fairdinkum power” war has never transcended politics, it is politics by other means…and so is the cricket, it would seem.
Powerful politicians hold Smith, and especially soldiers, to a standard which they would fall very well short of.
What we heard at the time of the war, were assurances from John Howard (2003) that, “combat operations in Iraq have been successfully completed” and that “all of the doomsday predictions” raised by opponents of the war “were not realised”. The mission was accomplished. What we hear today is a version of denial, a blatant minimising of the impact of war. That we could have won the war with some more of it, “I don’t accept that all of the deaths that occurred in Iraq since 2003 are directly the result of the intervention. I think a lot of the chaos now is a result of a premature American withdrawal” (John Howard 2017). If only our American mates stayed longer and were prepared to die some more , the outcome would have been different. As for civilian deaths, not sure how they happened. One sided commentary about this war is hardly fair play.
When political leaders attempt to obfuscate the reality of war, the deaths, trauma and injury, brought to service personnel and civilian populations, perhaps it’s time we hold them to account and we limit their power. It’s about time we have a genuine conversation about reforming war power. Leadership requires empathy, vision, transparency and accountability. It doesn’t matter how awkward you think Smith’s apology was, it showed leadership. He apologised publicly. He took ownership. He accepted the consequences for his actions and supports an inquiry into Australian cricket culture. I don’t see the same leadership, commitment to take responsibility, or accountability for leading us to war in Iraq.
By invoking cricketing and soldiering legends to construct his identity, John Howard, the politician, is obscured and so are the decision he makes. “The hardest decision I evertook as Prime Minister was to commit the men and women of the Australian Defence Force to military conflict”. The decision has never been properly or publicly reviewed. Without testing the validity of the reasons that made war possible, we risk making the hardest decision tokenistic, manipulated and self serving. Scared of tarnishing his personal reputation in political match fixing, the former prime minister continues to dictate play from the sidelines and deny that mistakes were made.
I don’t wear a baggy green or a slouch hat, but I certainly don’t call anyone weak for admitting their mistakes. God help anyone who mistakenly asks their mates to be killed or to kill for reasons they’re not also prepared to be transparent about and accountable for. So forgive me, when any prime minister raises the sentimental flag of unity, mateship and a fair go, sometimes I just see a self serving politician. So…Putting the jargon and analogies aside, as all citizens of Australia, we have the right to ask, when war is waged in our name, can we have say? Howzat…
Kellie Merritt is a social worker for a non government organisation, she has been a committee member with the campaign group, Australians for War Power Reform. Kellie’s husband was killed in Iraq in 2005.