How we’re exploiting the terrorism threat

According to our Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, this is likely to be the week in which Australia formally decides to re-engage in the War on Terror.

With the Prime Minister still transiting home from his first mission to the UN Security Council, it was left to Bishop to flag during a weekend television interview that a series of meetings this week would determine whether (or more likely, when) Australia would join the US-led air strikes over Iraq.

Bishop advised that a final decision would be taken by the Cabinet “presumably during the course of this week”, following a meeting of the National Security Committee.

It’s not known whether these discussions will canvass the ramifications of Australia’s willingness to use military force against an extremist group that brandishes elements of Islam to justify its barbaric actions.

It would be fair to say Muslims have had an uncomfortable existence in Australia since the influx of asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran began in 1999. A general antipathy towards people from the Middle East was exacerbated by the Tampa incident in August 2001 and then the Al Qaeda attacks in September of the same year.

Not long after, then defence minister Peter Reith made the first connection in Australians’ minds between boat-borne asylum seekers and terrorists, saying in a television interview “security and border protection go hand in hand”.

By the time of the federal election, the Howard government was shamelessly hinting that asylum seekers could be terrorists trying to slip into Australia through the back door.

Since that time, it has been in successive governments’ interests to maintain voters’ perception that asylum seekers, and particularly those of the Muslim faith, are a “threat” to our nation’s security and “our way of life”. A para-military edifice has been constructed around Australia’s border “protection” regime to simultaneously heighten our anxiety about apparent hordes of maybe-terrorists lingering off our northern shores, while giving assurance that Operation Sovereign Borders will protect us from those same barbarians.

It’s the classic political sleight of hand: create a problem and then provide the solution in order to look like a hero.

This tactic has inflicted a high price in terms of Australia’s social cohesion. The irresponsible branding of asylum seekers as potential jihadists has so infected our collective psyche that we now feel threatenedby the mere presence of Middle Eastern men or Islamic accoutrements like the Burqa.

It’s hardly surprising then that some young Muslims have felt marginalised and been drawn to the siren call of extremists offering a community in which to belong.

Whether Australia is responsible or not for the eventual rise of Islamic State, along with the other prosecutors of the War on Terror, it is responsible at least in part for the radicalisation of its local Muslim population.

No matter how warranted this latest military intervention into Iraq is, there is a responsibility incumbent on all concerned to ensure the “campaign for the campaign” does not exacerbate the isolation already being felt by Australian Muslims or antagonise any antipathy towards them.

It’s one thing for the Government to describe the need for enhanced security measures in terms of the increased threat from which they’re designed to protect us; it’s quite another to create unnecessary anxiety to pressure the community into acquiescence. The latter course simply provides a platform for bigotry and hate-mongering such as that expressed by the Liberals’ Cory Bernardi and Palmer United Party’s Jacqui Lambie.

It doesn’t help either to simply dismiss the Government’s talk of heightened threat levels as a mere shadow under the bed, or nothing more than an attempted deflection from its other woes. This does nothing to placate those members of the community who feel real anxiety about the threat of terrorism, or validate the good intentions of the vast majority of Australian Muslims.

Similarly, hyperbole should have no place in this discussion. It serves no good purpose for the Greens’ Leader Christine Milne to say Tony Abbott’s decision to go to war in Iraq is “tearing apart the fabric of Australian society” and that some parts of Australia are racist and should just give Muslims “a fair go”.

In essence, Milne is no less exploitative of the issue than the Government, by being divisive in the name of inclusiveness.

Any discussion of those exploiting the current terror threat debate would not be complete without a mention of the media.

In the true spirit of the “if it bleeds, it leads” edict, Australia’s media has had a field day reporting the latest campaign in the War on Terror with must-buy front pages and click-worthy headlines. In the rush to secure an exclusive, the print media in particular has presented readers with factually anorexic stories and unedifying headlines such as “Police Kill Abbott Jihadi” and “Jihad Joey”. Another newspaper identified the wrong man altogether on its front page as an alleged terrorist.

When it comes to exploitation of the terrorism threat, nobody’s hands are clean: not those of politicians, the media, or even our own.

Home-grown extremism is a multifaceted and complex issue, fraught with the vagaries of the human condition. It’s a diabolical problem that cannot easily be addressed.

Yet like most incendiary situations, the first step is clear: we need to take the heat out of it. The main players need to resist the temptation to exploit the terror threat discussion by exaggerating, scoring political points, sensationalising or using stereotypes.

This would make a strong first step towards repairing the damage caused by more than a decade of having demonised Australian Muslims. By putting social cohesion first, we could do more for national security than fighting a foreign war ever could.

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Shorten’s timely transition from ‘no’ to ‘me too’

A funny thing happened on our way to war. After almost a year of trialling various iterations of the uber-negative stance taken by former opposition leader Tony Abbott, his successor Bill Shorten neatly pivoted from being “Mr No” to “Mr Me Too”.

It’s not unusual for a Labor opposition leader to support a conservative Australian government taking military action. Of course there are historical exceptions, such as the Vietnam War, as well as the more recent example of Simon Crean opposing the Howard government taking us into Iraq without proof of WMDs or the United Nations’ sanction.

However, being citizens of a fundamentally small “c” conservative nation, Australians are generally supportive of governments taking military action that is seen to “protect” us or our way of life. And we have little time for oppositions that criticise those actions in the name of political point-scoring.

Shorten’s Labor showed an early understanding of this political reality when MH17 was shot down.

No quibbles were made of the overtly muscular language used at the time by the Prime Minister and his Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop. No ironic jibes were levelled at Bishop as she headed forthwith to New York to exert pressure on Russia using Australia’s seat on the UN Security Council, despite her previously suggesting Rudd and Gillard’s campaign to acquire the seat was overly expensive if not indulgent.

Instead, Shorten took Abbott’s lead, also adopting the stance and words of a statesman, and even going so far as to pay tribute in the Parliament to the Government’s handling of the efforts to bring home the Australian victims of the MH17 tragedy:

The manner in which this has been conducted has made me proud to be Australian, and I congratulate the Government.

Shorten has also been swift to shut down any dissent within his own ranks, or any suggestion that Abbott is exploiting Australia’s domestic or international efforts against terrorism to deflect voter attention from the unpopular budget. (Although this is patently the result of those developments.)

As Australia has moved inexorably closer to returning to Iraq, Shorten has stood steadfastly by Abbott’s side, including last Friday when he joined the PM to farewell our first new troop deployment. As he notedjust days before that:

When it comes to fighting terror, we are all in this together. The Prime Minister and I are partners in national security…

The most interesting element of Shorten’s new-found bipartisanship is that it doesn’t appear to end with matters of national security.

The Labor leader reportedly met privately with Abbott before the PM travelled to Arnhem Land last week and resolved to work with the Government to give the best chance of success to the referendum that must be held in order for there to be constitutional recognition of the nation’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The outbreak of cooperation may also have extended to Labor support for the Coalition’s new security laws, which are to be debated in Parliament this week, and scaled-back versions of some of the changesto welfare payment arrangements proposed in this year’s federal budget.

To be fair, Shorten hasn’t signed on to the unity ticket for everything being done by the Government. Abbott’s budget is still “unfair”, the Government’s decision to buy submarines off-the-shelf will “imperil Australia’s national security“, and Labor has now developed a nuanced position on engagement in Iraq and Syria that identifies a number of conditions that must be met by the Government to maintain the ALP’s continued support.

And while Shorten may well have agreed to work cooperatively with Abbott on constitutional recognition for Australia’s first peoples, he was still prepared to put the boot into the PM for his lack of consistency on improving the lot of Indigenous Australians:

The Prime Minister is visiting Arnhem Land this week to see firsthand the issues confronting Indigenous Australians. I think that is a great idea and I welcome his visit … yet he has cut over half a billion dollars from Indigenous services funding. So there are children and family child care centres which are closing. Legal aid is falling; this is at a time when young Aboriginal men, when they finish school, are more likely to go to jail than university.

So Tony Abbott, it is great that you are visiting – but actions count more than words. It’s about time we actually started standing up for Aboriginal Australians, not just visiting them.

Although it is early days with this multi-dimensional approach, Shorten appears to be finding the right balance between “no” and “me too”.

If he were to seek guidance on refining the method, the Labor leader would need look no further than the then opposition leader Kevin Rudd for inspiration.

Rudd ran the perfect “me too” campaign against then PM John Howard. He assuaged any voter concern about tossing out an aged and hubristic government for a TV-celebrity politician by saying he was just the same as Howard, but better. He agreed with Howard on many aspects of policy except for the key points of differentiation: climate change, asylum seekers and WorkChoices.

Rudd knew this tactic would work, because he had observed Howard use it against the tired and hubristic Hawke/Keating Government in 1996. Howard offered the same economic competence as Keating, but promised to govern “for all of us” to differentiate himself from Keating who was seen as having lost touch with everyday Australians.

History tells us the diametrically different style of oppositionism adopted by Tony Abbott was also successful, but that its personal cost was high. It is unlikely Abbott will ever be a popular politician in the traditional sense, nor is it likely he will attain a high level of community respect.

Luckily for Shorten, there is another possible path to electoral success, and it appears to be one that he is exploring.

If Shorten is successful in establishing a more “constructively-negative” approach to opposition, it might not quite lead to peace in our time, but it may well lead to the kinder, gentler polity that until recently has been little more than a wistfully muttered ideal.

Friendship and war: Abbott should tread carefully

The last time Australia went to war, in 2003, the decision was as much about friendship as it was about peace.

The commitment of Australian troops to Iraq was a product of the strong political friendship between our conservative prime minister, John Howard, and the Republican president George W Bush – forged during the dark hours of September 11, 2001 – as much as the need to rid the world of Saddam Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction.

Everyday Australians felt little connection at the time with the need to fight America’s war against the brutal oppressor, but Howard leveraged our shared horror of the tumbling twin towers and the bombings in Bali into a grudging acceptance that overthrowing Hussein would aid in the fight against Al Qaeda.

Eleven years later, it’s hard to see how that campaign or the broader war on terror has made the world a safer place. Howard admitted as much in his autobiography, acknowledging that the “liberating forces” did not adequately think through the consequences of their actions in Iraq, or what might fill the vacuum once they left.

The perpetrators of terror have proven to be as enduring as George W Bush once admitted they would be when he called the war on terror “a task that does not end”.

Al Qaeda spawned the Islamic State in the years that followed Iraq’s “liberation”, and now another conservative Australian Prime Minister has agreed to participate in a new American campaign to deliver the world from this latest manifestation of terrorism.

Democrat president Barack Obama may have called our PM Tony Abbott “my friend” when recently briefing him on the intended campaign, but there is no searing experience shared between the two men to reinforce the ANZUS pact in the way there was between Bush and Howard. Nor has there been a compelling event like the Bali bombings to generate public acceptance of the need for Australia to participate.

This is going to make it more difficult for Abbott to warrant putting the lives of Australian troops on the line. But justify it he will. By participating in this campaign Abbott aims not only to nurture our important strategic relationship with the US, but also to strengthen the only card he has left to play on the domestic front – the protection of national security.

One advantage Abbott does have over Howard in rationalising our involvement in foreign military action is a greater awareness on the part of the general community of the role that terrorism is playing in international events. The downing of MH17 (although by insurgents and not terrorists) first drew the eyes of usually disengaged Australians to foreign shores, and the beheadings by IS of two American journalists and a British aid worker have kept them there.

However, such awareness is only the pre-cursor to public acceptance. Australians must also feel they have a personal stake in the outcome, as they did after the events in Bali.

Similarly, public support for the extreme measures taken to “stop” the boats is grounded in a vague but real concern that asylum seekers who arrive by boat are a threat either to our safety, our predominantly western culture, or to our job security and standard of living. Involvement of defence force personnel and the use of military terms such as Operation Sovereign Borders deliberately reinforce that concern while also presenting the Government as protection from the perceived scourge.

That’s why Abbott and his senior cabinet members have made so much of the “home-grown” terror that could be lurking in our own doorways if we are not prepared to act.

Nor is it a coincidence that the Commander In Chief of Operational Sovereign Borders, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison – the second most popular minister amongst Coalition supporters – was wheeled out on the weekend to make the connection for us, saying that:

We need to act in our interests, we can never be intimidated by terrorists and extremists, and I know that the Australian community strongly supports a very strong stand on this in standing up for our values and our way of life.

That’s not to suggest the threat isn’t real, or that it hasn’t increased in recent times. It is clear, however, that the Government is leveraging the prospect of Australians facing terrorist acts from their own countrymen to justify a range of security initiatives including the mandatory retention of metadata as well as the joint action with the US against IS in Iraq.

The results of this tactic are likely to be mixed. While it may be eminently logical to bolster security measures to deal with the rise of organised and lone wolf terrorists at home, it makes little sense to participate in a military campaign similar to the one that caused home-grown extremists to arise in the first place.

And while Abbott may not really be able to claim the US president as his friend, he should listen closely to the last Australian PM who could. Howard now concedes the folly of entering into an open-ended war in Iraq; Abbott should think carefully before doing the same.

‘Attack by inquiry’ the latest political whip

Just when political pundits thought Parliament couldn’t descend any further into farce, last week the Abbott Government lowered the bar. In doing so, it may have assisted in damaging a political ally and set a risky new precedent.

As part of the deal negotiated with Clive Palmer to repeal the mining tax, the Government agreed to support an inquiry into the establishment of what is essentially a slush fund for failing businesses – even though it doesn’t support the idea.

Dubbed the Australia Fund, the proposed entity would “support rural and manufacturing industries in Australia in times of crisis and support communities affected by natural disasters” through a range of measures including emergency or ongoing financial relief, loans, acting as guarantor, purchasing debt, waiving interest, or even assuming control of the business for a period.

Essentially it’s an industry protection scheme slanted towards struggling operations in the farming sector.

In addition to establishing whether such a fund is needed, the inquiry will also examine whether “existing bankruptcy and insolvency laws” should be modified or temporarily relaxed for businesses in times of crisis.

Unsurprisingly the Government’s most vocal opponent of industry protection, Treasurer Joe Hockey, does not support the concept, stating in Parliament that industries should not become reliant on taxpayers’ support, “because ultimately industry assistance is revenue from another person”.

Hockey did, however, make it clear the Government would  “allow the parliament to have its inquiries and not pre-determine the outcomes”. That’s code for “it’s better to agree to an inquiry and have control over the chairmanship, than have an ALP-chaired one imposed on us by the Senate.”

Committee work goes mostly unnoticed in the to-ing and fro-ing of national parliament; conducted mainly by backbenchers, it is one of their few perks. The chair and deputy chair receive a salary increase, while other committee members benefit from travelling the nation to hold public meetings and receive evidence.

Even more important than that, committee inquiries are a way of raising one’s profile and building political capital through the pursuit of agendas and the gathering of ammunition to be used against one’s foes.

The inquiry into the Australia Fund clearly has this purpose. Being conducted by a specially-created committee, and comprising MPs from both the House of Representatives and the Senate, it will give Palmer and his senators the opportunity to visit rural communities all around the country.

Under cover of the inquiry’s public meetings, PUP MPs will be able to lend a friendly shoulder to representatives of those communities as well as business interests that are under pressure, while exposing the “shortcomings” of various governments that have “failed” to support them. Expect much of the committee’s early action to take place in Queensland as a consequence.

In short, the inquiry into the Australia Fund will be little more than a taxpayer-funded road show that allows PUP to build political capital in rural Queensland for both the state and federal elections.

No wonder Queensland LNP Senator, Barry O’Sullivan has jumped on board, supporting the establishment of the committee inquiry despite seeing no merit in the Australia Fund, noting that he’s nevertheless “keen to start a conversation about how we can encourage investment in agriculture and in rural communities”.

Palmer has made it abundantly clear that he intends to do whatever is necessary to destroy the Newman Government, be it through legal action or the ballot box.

Having snatched voters from the Nationals federally, and more importantly from the LNP in Queensland, as a result of this inquiry, Palmer will ultimately not give a fig whether the Australia Fund is realised. His mission will have been accomplished.

While the Australia Fund inquiry will facilitate PUP’s rearguard assault on the Queensland LNP, Palmer is also negotiating the establishment of a more direct attack on Campbell Newman’s regime with Labor and the Greens.

With the support of the opposition parties, Palmer aims to use his numbers in the upper house to establish a Senate inquiry into the Queensland Government itself. The inquiry’s proposed terms of reference focus on identifying rorting of Commonwealth funds, human rights abuses in the administration of the state’s judicial system and prisons, and breaches of approval processes for the export of resources of services administered by the Commonwealth. They also propose the inquiry committee of five be chaired by Labor, while the deputy chair is to be elected by the committee.

Most tellingly, the inquiry is due to report by March 31, 2015 – in time for the Queensland state election.

Palmer has made it abundantly clear that he intends to do whatever is necessary to destroy the Newman Government, be it through legal action or the ballot box. This Senate inquiry will help him gather further ammunition to do so, while garnering more publicity for PUP in Queensland along the way.

Labor has reportedly indicated it will not obstruct “a senator’s ability to inquire into issues where there are resources available”, while the Greens are said to be reserving judgement until they see the final terms of reference.

If the inquiry is established with Labor’s sanction, it will set a risky precedent for similar inquiries to be held into current or former state governments, with the results being released in time for respective state elections. Such tit-for-tat inquiries could quickly become part of the new campaigning landscape.

Of course, this tactic would not be restricted to scrutiny of state governments. There appears to be an increasing appetite for governing parties at the federal level to launch inquiries and Royal Commissions into each other once elected.

“Attack by inquiry” may soon become the new political game in town. However, the participants would do well to remember that increased scrutiny of this kind tends to come doubly-edged, as the Liberals have learnt in NSW.

Jacqui Lambie: the PUP is outgrowing the kennel

For the vengeful and electorally rampaging Clive Palmer, disaffected disability pensioner Jacqui Lambie would have been little more than the means to an end when he coaxed her to run for the Palmer United Party before the 2013 federal election.

The born-and-bred Tasmanian nursed her own reasons for putting one up the establishment, and her outspoken vehemence dovetailed conveniently with Palmer’s own mangled sound grabs castigating the Coalition at federal and state levels.

But having been peremptorily preselected and then elected on a sweet preference deal, the PUP Senator for Tasmania is now fast outgrowing the kennel.

If the blossoming of Lambie’s political brand continues apace, and canny political operators can find the right enticements to unravel her ties to Palmer, Lambie could become an independent Senate champion for her embattled home state.

Such a turn of events would allow the unashamed champion of the underdog to deliver bounties to Tasmania not seen since the heyday of the late Brian Harradine.

If not for Palmer, Lambie would have been just another Australian downtrodden by bureaucracy.

She joined the army early in life, serving in transport and military policing roles and later losing a stripe for punching a colleague. Lambie finally left the army after 11 years due to a back injury sustained in 1997 from carrying a 40kg pack for a two-day bush skills course.

What does she stand for?

  • Veterans Affairs: Concerned about misogyny in the Australian Defence Force and the high rate of suicide amongst former ADF personnel. Has demanded the Government extend the Defence Abuse Response Taskforce indefinitely, and called for a Royal Commission into the Veterans’ Affairs Department.
  • National Security: Believes Australia’s national security is weak and that defence force spending should be bolstered. Advocates compulsory National Service for all young Australians.
  • Tasmania: Wants an extra $5 billion over four years diverted from foreign aid to establish a special economic zone in Tasmania to help business employ more workers and lower the unemployment rate.
  • Transport: Wants $180 million cut from mainland road and infrastructure to be invested immediately in the Tasmanian Freight Equalisation Scheme.

She battled the veterans’ affairs bureaucracy over the next 5 years, to overcome accusations of malingering and finally be allowed to draw a disability pension. These experiences awakened Lambie’s political awareness in 2008 when she was given work by former Labor senator Nick Sherry as part of her rehab. But in 2009 she attempted suicide, and then spent time in a psychiatric ward, following which she found God and lost 40 kilos. She then led an unsuccessful run for Liberal pre-selection in Braddon for the 2013 federal election.

After deciding to run as an independent anyway, Lambie accepted Palmer’s invitation to jump on the PUP bandwagon after realising she couldn’t afford to bankroll a decent campaign on her own.

Lambie’s and Palmer’s political relationship may be one of convenience, but it is nevertheless a fruitful one.

While the multi-millionaire Palmer may claim to be a man of the people, Lambie is genuinely representative of the underclass that most politicians would never encounter unless they visited the local dole office. Lambie shares the concerns and language of this under-represented segment of the Australian community, and unashamedly gives voice to the disdain they hold for the establishment they believe has abandoned them.

Through Lambie, Palmer has a direct line to these disgruntled voters and the opportunity to harvest their protest votes.

The problem for Palmer is that he needs Lambie more than she needs him. Whether she’s inside PUP’s yellow tent or out, Lambie wields one of the six votes needed by the Government from the eight crossbenchers to pass legislation when Labor and the Greens oppose it. Without Lambie, and on the occasions when Muir decides to vote with the Government, Palmer’s bloc is reduced to two and he no longer has the power of veto.

What does the future hold?

Lambie shares Palmer’s passion for political vengeance, but her future will be determined less by revenge than by ambition.

She has not been afraid to brandish the leadership baton kept in her knapsack, reportedly stating not long after the federal election that she would become Leader of PUP if Palmer was not successful in getting elected in Fairfax.

So it’s hardly surprising that other reports have emerged suggesting Lambie is unhappy with her colleague from Queensland, Glenn Lazarus, being unilaterally made Leader of the PUP in the Senate.

Such quibbles would be music to the ears of Government strategists looking for a way to cleave Lambie away from the PUP voting bloc. It would however be a mistake for the plotters to focus only on Lambie’s ambitions for herself.

More important by far appears to be the Senator’s ambitions for the state she represents and the disadvantaged people she’s determined to champion.

The spoils of victory will go to the party that can deliver on that ambition for her.

A multimedia version of this piece appears on the ABC’s tablet app The Brief, which can be downloaded here.