TONY SMITH. The ‘Masked’ Man on Horseback.

Jul 27, 2017

When Prime Minister Turnbull announced changes to the way Australia’s security is conducted, he was accompanied by a member of the military. There is nothing unusual about that – except that the soldier was masked. The Prime Minister seemed to miss the irony in this masking which made our defenders resemble the people who are portrayed as threatening our security.

From the moment the Bush administration started to respond to the attacks on the ‘Twin Towers’ in New York, it has been clear that little thought has gone into the ways in which these responses validate the actions of the terrorists. The bombing of targets in Afghanistan was so predictable that the USA was immediately locked into actions that the terrorists must have expected. No wonder terrorism remains such a threat. It feeds off the unimaginative responses of governments whose knee jerk actions seem to be intended mainly to impress domestic populations.

The Australian government has argued that terrorists hate us not because of anything we have done than because of what we are. The rhetoric is that our very lifestyle is under threat. The emphasis has been on individual freedom and prosperity but less has been said about the democratic systems of government valued in the West. Yet Governments have shown themselves all too willing to sacrifice in the name of counter-terrorism the very civil liberties necessary for democracy.

The paradox involved in the US response was seen clearly in the images from Guantanamo Bay. Prisoners were deprived of liberty because they were suspects. They were kept in conditions which approximated torture and which in many cases meant that they could never be safely convicted of crimes anyway. Hooding and masking characterised both prisoners and warders.

Relations between the civil power and the military have been fraught in many states, but not in Australia. It has been understood here that the military exists to defend the state – rather than the government – and that it acts only in very restricted circumstances. In some states, the military has not been above politics and has intervened to destroy or threaten civil society. The destruction has occurred where governments have been removed in coups d’etat while at other times the threat alone has been sufficient to ensure that particular parties have been favoured. The promise made during a coup is always that democracy is merely suspended but it rarely recovers completely.

Samuel Finer’s Man on Horseback details how the military can threaten a coup, but his warnings are not just about this ultimate possibility. It is no coincidence that we refer to ‘the civil society’ in a positive sense. While there is no suggestion that the Australian military might stage a coup d’etat, the acceptance of a masked soldier warns that the military might become too influential, to the detriment of other sources of advice to government on security and other issues.

The failure of media to comment on the security tableau with mask implies broad, uncritical acceptance of the military role. The mask challenges the notions of openness and accountability, which the Turnbull Government is already so expert at avoiding. Symbolically, the mask is not to protect the identity of the soldier from potential attackers, but to prevent the military and so the government from domestic criticism.

Prime Minister Turnbull’s choice of minister to head the new security super ministry is no surprise. The Prime Minister might note that Immigration Minister Dutton already has a handle on that key portfolio, assuming that immigration and security are linked. Critics on the other hand might well find the choice of Dutton as ominous given that he has been so adept at fostering secrecy, denying responsibility and lacking compassion.

Politicians know that when the military is actively engaged, the Australian public postpones criticism and concentrates on giving our forces the support expected. There is a temptation for any government to welcome a ‘khaki election’ because it is easy to argue for unity and stability. Involving the military in counter-terrorism at home threatens to create a permanent state of khaki politics. A truly democratic government would ensure bipartisanship in security matters, but given the comments by the Leader of the Opposition, the Turnbull Government has not taken this precaution.

This development suggests that the Coalition understands the political potential of the military and is likely to take advantage of it. That grotesque tableau should alert Australians to the dangers for the respect in which the military is held and indeed for democratic practice should we accept the ‘masked Man on Horseback’ as a normal aspect of politics.

Dr Tony Smith is a former political science academic with interests in parliament, elections and political ethics. His recent writings can be found at and

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