Tomorrow, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull will meet with leader of the free world, US President Barack Obama, to swap diplomatic niceties on a range of contentious issues. Top of the list will be the Western world’s response to terrorism.
Of all the tricky debates Turnbull inherited from Tony Abbott – tax reform, penalty rates, asylum seekers, climate change – perhaps the most challenging of all is how to combat terrorism.
At first glance, the matter isn’t all that complex given Australia’s approach at home and abroad has bipartisan support. On this issue, if nothing else, voters appear to have approved of Abbott’s muscular approach, and consequently Labor couldn’t afford to use the matter as a strong point of differentiation.
That’s not to say the Opposition didn’t try on occasion to stand up to Abbott’s escalating aggression in response to the terrorist threat, but each time the Government mercilessly beat Labor with the “soft on terrorism” stick.
As a result, Labor trails the Coalition by about 20 percentage points as the party most trusted to handle national security and the “war” on terrorism.
Nevertheless, since becoming PM, Malcolm Turnbull has changed not only the rhetoric used by the Government on combating terrorism, but in recent days also the substance of Australia’s approach.
First, he rejected Abbott’s terminology of fear, refusing to play on community anxiety with references to death cults and the imminent threat of danger supposedly lurking in every Australian neighbourhood.
Turnbull also eschewed Abbott’s non-too-subtle asides that laid the blame for extremist acts on Australian soil at the feet of the local Muslim community.
Commenting on calls made by Abbott last month for Islam to be reformed, Turnbull spelled out the implications for those Abbott supporters who might be slow on the uptake:
Our best allies in the battle against terrorism are the Muslim community and it is absolutely critical that we maintain solidarity and unity within Australia.
What do the terrorists want us to do? … They want us to be scared. They want us to really frightened … They want us to abandon our values of freedom, tolerance and openness … and they want us to turn on the Muslim community in Australia, and indeed in every other country.
That is their objective. So we should not do anything that plays into their hands.
The PM has also stressed that everything he says on combating terrorism is carefully calculated in the light of advice he receives from the Australian Federal Police and from ASIO, and that his comments are aimed at making Australia safer.
The Government’s decision to “decline” a request from the United States to increase its military commitment in the Middle East should be seen in this context.
According to the respected Lowy Institute, only 24 per cent of Australians feel “very safe” and the highest risk to national security is considered to be the emergence of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The think tank also found in a separate survey earlier last year that 55 per cent of Australians believe our participation in military action against Islamic State increases the risk of terrorism to Australia right now.
The Turnbull Government’s refusal to keep ratcheting up Australia’s military involvement in that region may be a way of trying to ameliorate those community concerns.
Australia was one of 40 nations asked by the US to review its military commitment to the Middle East and consider whether additional support could be given. Defence Minister Marise Payne noted at the time of the request that Australia was already making the second largest contribution and that it was time for other nations to step up.
This has also been the tenor of Turnbull’s response. While Tony Abbott’s hawkish approach was to generate voter kudos by ensuring Australia stood head and shoulders above other nations in supporting the US effort, Turnbull appears to be seeking to reduce voters’ anxiety by bringing other nations into the fray and thereby taking the heat off Australia.
Visiting Aussie diggers deployed in the Middle East on his way to the US, the PM stressed the Iraqi government had not made any request for Australia to do more, and that Australia was encouraging other countries, particularly other European countries, to “step up and make a greater contribution“.
The PM also made it clear that Australia did not intend on staying in Iraq forever, which would have been music to the ears of the troops’ families, as well as those voters who believe our presence in the region increases the threat of terrorism at home.
But what of the voters who feel safer knowing Australia is doing its bit in the Middle East? Former defence minister Kevin Andrews and his fellow Abbott supporter Eric Abetz have wasted no time implying the Turnbull regime is going soft on terror by refusing to do more.
Public opinion may well be influenced by what President Obama has to say on the matter. Obama could strengthen Turnbull’s hand by not only thanking Australia for its significant contribution, but echoing his call for other nations to also step up. This would go a long way to helping the PM balance the expectations of both the hawks and the doves in the voting community.