A popular Prime Minister leading a party praised for its economic management wants to have a national conversation about expanding the GST. This leaves the Opposition Leader in an invidious position.
To paraphrase a certain former prime minister, Australia seems poised to have a conversation it apparently needs to have. This conversation – at least in the Government’s view – will be about convincing voters to accept an increase to the GST.
The weekend tabloids carried a shock, horror story about the Government’s “secret” plans to hike or broaden the nation’s consumption tax.
Except this expose isn’t exactly a revelation, given the Coalition Government has made various attempts since being elected in 2013 to create momentum for tax reform – including changes to the GST – in a way similar to that initiated by former PM John Howard in 1997.
Howard created a national discussion about Australia’s “broken” tax system, and how it could be “fixed” by scrapping a bunch of inefficient taxes and replacing them with just one.
The campaign started with a comprehensive report from a taxation taskforce (similar to the Government’s current tax reform white paper process), followed a year later by a package of initiatives that included the GST as well as personal income tax cuts, increases in the tax-free threshold and pensions, and the scrapping of wholesale sales tax.
Just weeks later, Howard took the GST to an election that he won – but only by the skin of his teeth. Political pundits still disagree about whether the tax helped or hindered Howard’s re-election chances, but in Coalition ranks Howard’s GST campaign is considered to be the gold standard for “visionary” politics.
Also being rather fond of the vision thing, new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is likely keen to try his hand at something similar. Considering an increased or broadened GST could help fix the Government’s current “revenue problem”, it shouldn’t come as a shock if Turnbull is found to be testing the waters of public opinion with his own tentative plan to take an increased GST to the next federal election.
Some of the groundwork has already been done, with former treasurer Joe Hockey having done some early spadework on the state and territory governments, who’ll be the major beneficiaries of any increased GST revenue.
Admittedly, Hockey was not particularly subtle, essentially trying to extort state and territory governments into acquiescence by flagging in the 2014 federal budget that there would be a $80 billion cut to future funding for schools and hospitals by 2024-25.
Yet this manoeuvre had the planned effect, with NSW Liberal Premier Mike Baird holding a “crisis” meeting to discuss the cuts straight after the budget, and then 12 months later leading the charge to increase the GST.
In a video posted on social media in July this year, Baird argued:
We need revenue. I know that’s not popular, I know that’s not something people want to talk about, but unfortunately, we must. And as I look at it, it’s quite clear. The best way of dealing with this is to increase the GST.
Baird’s move was vital, given he was the most popular politician in the country at the time. PM Abbott needed the support of a leader with the stellar levels of political capital and voter trust that Baird possesses (and Abbott lacked) to calm voters feeling anxious about such proposals.
It would be fair to say that now Baird has been joined by an even more popular politician advocating tax reform, there is an even greater chance that an increased GST will be taken to the next election.
Former Howard chief of staff and now Turnbull Minister, Arthur Sinodinos, admitted as much over the weekend when he responded to the Murdoch tabloids’ non-expose.
“If you’re someone like Malcolm” and “want to do something substantial,” Sinodinos said, “you’ve got to do it quickly and upfront and you’ve got to do it when you’re in a capacity to maximise the use of your political capital to sell a story to the Australian people.”
“But,” the Minister warned, “you need their consent, so you have to do it soon in the context of putting stuff to an election rather than seeking to foist something on people before an election.”
This was also important in regaining the trust of the Australian people as a government, Sinodinos said, “because you can’t get on with reform or anything else unless you have their trust.”
Trust will be a factor for Labor too as it reiterates the party’s broad but not unanimous anti-GST stance. It will be considerably tempting for Opposition Leader Bill Shorten to try to emulate former PM Paul Keating’s attack on John Hewson’s GST, former Labor leader Kim Beazley’s denunciation of Howard’s tax, or even Tony Abbott’s “big new tax” campaign against the Gillard Government’s carbon tax.
But Shorten should keep in mind that opinion polls suggest voters are starting to come around to the idea that a GST increase is needed to fix the budget, while only 23 per cent of voters trust Labor the most when it comes to economic management.
The other complicating factor for Shorten is that the Labor state and territory governments need the money.
South Australian ALP Premier Jay Weatherill has expressed frustration with the extended stalemate on the GST, giving conditional support for an increase and saying “somebody has to step up and be honest about the size of the problem and actually be prepared to advance some positive ideas for solving it”.
Weatherill also warned his Labor colleagues not to play politics with the issue, dismissing Bill Shorten’s strident rejection of any GST increase by noting federal Labor was in opposition, “and I don’t have the luxury of just opposing for the sake of it.”
And while the Queensland and Victorian Labor state governments are still sounding hairy-chested in their opposition to any GST increase, a media report today suggests the Queensland Government could be “open to a broader reform package that included a change to the base or rate, provided it did not leave Queenslander’s worse off” and that the Victorian Government would respect the Turnbull Government’s mandate if it won an election with the GST.
This leaves the federal Opposition Leader with an invidious choice.
If PM Turnbull has his way, Australia is about to embark on a grand adventure involving a national conversation and a mutually-agreed way to fix the budget.
However, if Shorten continues his blanket campaign against the GST, he risks further damaging Labor’s already poor economic record. And if he joins the conversation on tax reform and secures wins for lower-income voters who can’t afford the GST increase, he’ll face accusations of enabling the Government as the Democrats did in 1999.
Malcolm Turnbull’s language, political appointments and policy decisions in his first two weeks as Prime Minister show he is a keener student of former PM John Howard than Tony Abbott ever was.
Australian voters have had only two weeks to observe Malcolm Turnbull’s new approach to government. But it is already clear he is a keener student of former PM John Howard than Tony Abbott ever was.
The first inkling that Turnbull had been paying close attention to the Howard way of doing things was in January when the then communications minister talked to an audience in LA about leadership:
Leaders must be decision makers, but they must also be, above all, explainers and advocates, unravelling complex issues in clear language that explains why things have to change and why the government cannot solve every problem.
Turnbull’s words echoed those delivered by Howard in June last year during an appearance with Bob Hawke at the National Press Club. Australia’s second longest-serving PM lamented that politicians sometimes lost “the capacity to respect the ability of the Australian people to absorb a detailed argument” and that Australians will respond to an argument for change and reform if they are satisfied it is in Australia’s interests and it is fundamentally fair.
If voters and political observers were tempted to think this was a happy coincidence, Turnbull returned to the theme in March this year, and it was also a key part of his leadership pitch two weeks ago.
Turnbull didn’t pull any punches, stating Abbott had not “been capable of providing the economic leadership our nation needs,” and arguing he offered leadership that “respects the peoples’ intelligence, that explains these complex issues, and then sets out the course of action we believe we should take, and makes a case for it”.
This is where the surprisingly engaging Scott Morrison comes in. Progressives are sceptical about the former border protection minister being the country’s chief spruiker on the economy, and conservatives remain cranky that he didn’t throw himself under the Abbott bus, but the new Treasurer is Turnbull’s best chance of fulfilling his commitment to reset the public conversation about economic reform in a more respectful manner.
In addition to committing to the Howard model of communicating with voters, Turnbull also flagged that he’d return to Howard’s administrative structures, declaring the Howard government “a great example of good cabinet government,” and “that’s what we need to go back to”.
The former PM gave some insight to that approach during an address in March. Howard noted that prime ministers who tell “the members of their cabinet via the newspapers or on the morning of the cabinet meeting what the decision is going to be get into a lot of trouble”. He warned that a prime minister is merely first among equals, and that:
The people immediately around you have got to be involved in the decision-making process. This idea that command and direction is what leadership is all about is substantially false.
Turnbull has committed his Government to being similarly consultative “with colleagues, members of Parliament, Senators and the wider public” and to put an end to “policy on the run and captain’s calls”. He appointed Howard’s former chief of staff and now Senator, Arthur Sinodinos, as Cabinet Secretary to put that plan into action.
It is fair to question Turnbull’s sincerity, given he is just another politician and his predecessor gave similar assurances about a collegiate approach. But Turnbull spent time in the wilderness before returning to the Liberal leadership, just as Howard had done. Sinodinos has argued that Turnbull, like Howard, has emerged from that time as a better leader because he’s reflected on mistakes made in the past. Sinodinos said:
(Turnbull) had virtually six years to reflect on the weaknesses and drawbacks of his first period of leadership, just like John Howard did when he lost in ’89 and came back to the leadership in ’95. Leaders reflect. They understand the messages from their first term as leaders and they try again.
Sinodinos could have also added that effective leaders surround themselves with good staff. Given Turnbull’s penchant for all things Howard it is hardly surprising the PM has brought back a number of former Howard staffers, at least on an interim basis, while the PMO is being established.
Perhaps most importantly, Turnbull has also reportedly decided to split the chief political adviser’s role from the chief of staff position, as was the case in Howard’s day, but was problematically a combined role when Peta Credlin held the position.
Given Turnbull’s determination to follow the Howard blueprint, it is also tempting to see his denunciation last week of violence against women as an attempt to replicate Howard’s stand against guns. For all its merit, Howard’s initiative positioned him as stepping above politics to do the right thing for the nation. It put Howard in good stead with voters who would not have otherwise considered supporting a Liberal PM. Turnbull’s domestic violence initiative could be seen in a similar way.
That is not to say the tyro PM’s early days have been blemish-free. For example, Turnbull’s appointment of Mal Brough to the ministry, despite an unresolved police investigation, seems to be a foolish oversight. It can only remind us of Turnbull 1.0 and his lack of due diligence when dealing with Godwin Grech in 2009.
According to former PM Howard, one of the most important attributes that leaders must have is the ability to learn from their mistakes. “You have to get the big things right,” he said “but people who think they will never make mistakes are deluding themselves.”
If Turnbull 2.0 is to survive the stumbles and pitfalls in the days ahead – and there will be many – this is the final lesson he needs to learn from Howard. Given the new PM’s unwavering self-confidence rivals that of even Abbott, it may well be the hardest lesson of all.
While Tony Abbott played to Australians’ conservatism and resistance to change, Malcolm Turnbull and his new ministry are betting their future on making change something voters embrace rather than fear.
As a group, Australians are conservative and resistant to change. Major shifts in their everyday lives, such as the seemingly overnight decision to dump prime minister Kevin Rudd in 2010, can leave voters feeling bewildered and anxious. And as Rudd showed at the time, it doesn’t take much to convert such emotions into resentment and anger.
Former PM Tony Abbott made this inherent conservatism an advantage by playing up to the various manifestations of voter anxiety about our changing future. Now his successor Malcolm Turnbull plans to turn Abbott’s approach on its head, making change something that voters embrace rather than fear.
It is a risky, but not unsurprising, move for the entrepreneurial parliamentarian. And it will define Turnbull’s success or failure.
In trying to avoid the same fate as Rudd, Abbott relied heavily on voters’ conservatism to argue they were unlikely to throw out a first term federal government as long as there were no upheavals in the leadership. Abbott even applied the principle to his ministry, insisting on making only minimal adjustments to what was essentially a relic of the Howard era so that voters had a sense of continuity from those seemingly golden days.
In contrast, PM Turnbull has declared himself an unabashed fan of change, making much in recent statements of fresh starts and embracing the unknowables of the future. The new PM’s “21st century Government and ministry for the future”epitomises that mindset with a substantial injection of talented younger women and men. Only two of Howard’s Liberal Party cabinet ministers remain in Turnbull’s senior ministry – himself and Julie Bishop.
At least one commentator has already noted this is a new Government without having had to resort to an election – a perception that has undoubtedly been created by the Turnbull team to prepare the way for an overhaul of Abbott government policies.
Having “refreshed” the ministry, the PM is now pitching that policy change is a good thing. He attempted yesterday to head off any attempt by the media or Labor to characterise such moves as “a back down or a backflip or concession of some mistake”, stressing that agility is “vital for government success” and that it simply made sense to change policies if they were not effective or could be improved.
There is an attendant risk in creating such an expectation, particularly if the community becomes anxious about the magnitude and direction of change, whatever its merit.
Turnbull’s pitch to colleagues last week focused on economic leadership and the need for “advocacy, not slogans” (which is quite a good slogan in itself). So it’s not surprising the new PM has put one of the Government’s best salesmen, Scott Morrison, into the Treasury role. However, tax reform sits clearly at the centre of Turnbull’s economic repair agenda, evidenced by his promotion of the Assistant Treasurer role to Cabinet.
Noting that the role is “in effect the Minister for revenue and is responsible for the tax system which is at the very centre of our whole productivity agenda,” Turnbull stressed that Australia needs “a tax system that is fair, efficient and creates the right incentives so that we can get the gains in productivity we need”.
This is likely code for increasing or broadening the goods and services tax, among other reforms.
It’s tempting to draw a parallel between the ambitious, even “courageous”, tax reform agenda that former PM John Howard took to the federal election in 1998. It is Liberal folklore that Howard’s audacious move to replace 10 “inefficient” taxes with the GST helped turn around his Government’s flagging electoral fortunes. But in reality it is impossible to prove whether this is the case, or if the GST almost lost that election for Howard given Labor managed to secure the majority vote.
What we can be sure of, based on previous events, is that any Turnbull Government proposal to increase taxes will be ripe for a scare campaign. And it seems the Shorten-led Labor Opposition is just as willing as the Beazley-led one was in 1998 to play on voters’ anxiety about such a change.
The success or failure of the Turnbull experiment will therefore rest predominantly on his ability, and that of his ministry, to explain any proposed changes, why they are needed, and – perhaps most importantly given the 2014 federal budget – how they are fair.
Turnbull may be keen to capture voters’ imagination with his vision for an innovative, agile and changed Australia. But there is still something to be said for Howard’s vision, which was for a nation that was relaxed and comfortable. It was those laid-back voters who returned the wily PM to office, not once but three times in all.
It appears Tony Abbott will try to expand the GST by replicating the campaign blueprint used by John Howard to introduce the tax in the first place. But what worked then might not work now.
More than a decade after the Howard Government introduced a goods and services tax, political pundits remain divided over whether the accompanying GST campaign was effective.
Despite the lack of consensus it appears the Abbott Government is using the same campaign blueprint, this time in an attempt to create public acceptance for increasing or broadening the GST.
Back then, Howard was saddled with an earlier promise to “never, ever” introduce a GST but was being pressured to introduce one. According to one account, senior members of the business community were openly questioning Howard’s economic reform credentials, while the press gallery were asking why he wouldn’t lead (or at least follow).
So the then PM created a situation where journalists and economists, business and welfare organisations and even voters called for him to “reverse” the never-ever promise for the good of the nation. Howard did this by focusing the numerous fragmented commentaries into one national discussion: one that centred on Australia’s “broken” tax system and how it could be “fixed” by scrapping a bunch of inefficient taxes and replacing them with just one.
The mechanism Howard used to focus the conversation was a taxation taskforce (incidentally chaired by Treasury official and former Keating adviser, Ken Henry). It was established to prepare options for tax reform, and recommended that a consumption tax be part of the mix.
A year later, following much public discussion, the Howard government presented voters not only with a proposed GST but an entire package of tax reforms. The package included personal income tax cuts, increases in the tax-free threshold and pensions, and the scrapping of wholesale sales tax. Nine other taxes imposed at the state and territory level were also slated for elimination. Most importantly, all the money raised by the GST was to be provided to the states and territories, supposedly ending their dependence on the federal government’s largesse.
Howard then blitzed voters with a controversial advertising campaign before immediately plunging the nation into a moderately early federal election, which he either cleverly won, or foolishly almost lost, depending on whose analysis one finds more convincing.
PM Abbott is clearly banking on the campaign having been a success for Howard, because his “increase the GST” campaign looks eerily familiar.
A bevy of Treasury boffins is currently developing a tax reform paper, while the general public’s awareness is slowly being raised through discussion in the media about the need to broaden or increase the GST.
Comments such as those made last week by government backbenchers and ministers serve to kick along the public discussion while keeping the PM’s hands clean of the debate until the Treasury report is released later this year.
Those Treasury findings will shape a tax reform package that Abbott will – like Howard – take to the next federal election, which is due in mid to late 2016. Unfortunately for Abbott, even if one accepts the Howard GST campaign blueprint was a winning strategy, his is unlikely to deliver similar dividends.
For a start, the Abbott Government’s “budget emergency” narrative is a harder sell than the “broken tax system” one used by the Howard government to justify its tax reforms.
Back then, voters could see the impact of inefficient taxes on their everyday lives, such as the balance on their bank statements being whittled away by a debit tax AND a credit tax. They also took quickly to the notion that wholesale sales tax was illogical and expensive to administer. In short, voters understood the proposed tax reform was for the public good.
In contrast, the Abbott Government has singularly been unable to explain the budget emergency or what it means for voters. Not long after the budget was announced, 32 per cent of voters remained unconvinced there was a budget emergency, and while another 24 per cent accepted the need to fix the budget they didn’t think the new measures would help.
This lack of a compelling narrative is going to make it considerably harder for Abbott to focus public attention and discussion on the benefits his tax reforms would bring.
It should also be remembered that much of Abbott’s GST conundrum is of his own making. He is hindered by the voter perception that new and increased taxes are bad – largely created by him in opposition – and by the expectation that his would be a low-taxing government.
This difficulty is compounded by the fact that the main tax in people’s lives these days (other than income tax) IS the GST. While Howard offered to scrap 10 taxes and replace them with one, Abbott will be constrained to offering what is essentially an increase to an existing tax, perhaps with modest income tax cuts and compensation for those on low incomes.
Lastly, Abbott’s Finance Minister, Mathias Cormann has helpfully placed the bar particularly high in identifying the level of support the Government will take as being permission to change the GST. According to Cormann, any proposed change will have to have broad support across the community and the parliament as well as the unanimous support of all state and territory governments.
That will be no easy feat, particularly with a contested strategy, a distrusted salesman, and a dubious product.
It is said by those who favour Howard’s tax reform campaign that it rejuvenated his electoral prospects by giving the then PM a new purpose and stature in the eyes of voters. Even if this were true, it’s hard to imagine any reform proposal involving the word “tax” endearing estranged voters to Abbott or making him more electable.
It may be true, as one columnist noted on the weekend, that it was Peta Credlin who drew up Abbott’s successful strategy in opposition, and that the perception in “the prime minister’s office” right now is that a panicking party has forgotten “who put it in power”. But a great strategist in opposition does not necessarily make a competent Chief of Staff in government, or one that is able to adequately perform all of its functions.
According to last week’s political commentary, the Prime Minister’s chief of staff Peta Credlin is to blame, at least in part, for the Abbott Government’s woes.
Credlin is not always named in these articles, with the less courageous mostly referring to her euphemistically as “the Prime Minister’s office”.
So we read in the weekend wrap-ups of what was arguably this Coalition Government’s worst week that much of it was apparently Credlin’s fault. The selectively leaked and then disavowed decision to drop the Medicare co-payment was due to “a unilateral decision taken by the Prime Minister’s office”, and the Dead Man Walking Defence Minister David Johnston would remain in Cabinet only because Abbott “and his office stubbornly insist that there is no need for a reshuffle”.
Another commentator went so far as to suggest that the biggest barnacles weighing down the Coalition ship of state were Abbott’s “deep unpopularity and predilection for listening to his office’s advice rather than that of his parliamentary team”.
And that’s the nub of Credlin’s problem, which is pretty much the same as that faced by most other contemporary prime ministerial chiefs of staff: MPs resent an unelected staffer playing gatekeeper and being the Prime Minister’s principal confidante. So when their access is limited or their pearls of advice are not acted upon, disgruntled MPs whinge to the media that the “prime minister and his office don’t listen”.
That’s not to say there mightn’t be some substance to the complaint. Aside from her capacity to ruthlessly hose down the ambitious manoeuvrings of ministers and wannabe ministers, Credlin is indeed said to be resistant to seeking or taking advice from experienced parliamentarians and strategists, as well as wise heads in the business community. She’s also known to excommunicate individual journalists or whole media organisations that she’s deemed to have crossed the Government in some egregious way.
But whether Credlin can or should be held responsible for the Government’s woes is another thing altogether. One former chief of staff, or CoS, in the recent book The Gatekeepers, says attacks on the person occupying that role are proxy attacks on the leader, and that it’s a fundamental part of the CoS’s job to be the lightning rod for those complaints.
On that measure, it’s Credlin’s job to take the blame.
However, one of The Gatekeepers’ authors, Anne Tiernan, said recently that prime ministers get the staff they deserve. Tiernan was referring to the tendency of successive modern prime ministers to draw organisational functions away from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C), because they want these functions to be managed within their own office, but that the offices are ill-equipped for management.
Tiernan noted this mismatch has been exacerbated by the attendant tendency of prime ministers to personally appoint their CoS, instead of the role being filled from the public service, as often used to be the case.
The need for a CoS to fulfil both the traditional political support role and this additional organisational management role can lead to bottlenecks and logjams, such as that identified by a more courageous political commentator on the weekend, who named Credlin as “the chokepoint through which every decision must pass … according to the universal accounts from inside the Abbott Government”. Apparently this includes setting strategy, making appointments, and deciding policy, and extended to logistics for the recent G20 meetings.
Well, fair enough, that’s Credlin’s job, but it may be too much of a job for one person to handle.
It may be true, as one columnist noted on the weekend, that it was Credlin who drew up Abbott’s successful strategy in opposition, and that the perception in “the prime minister’s office” right now is that a panicking party has forgotten “who put it in power”. But a great strategist in opposition does not necessarily make a competent CoS or one that is able to adequately perform all of its functions.
During much of the Howard years, different aspects of the role currently being performed by Credlin were divided among a trusted few. During the time he was Howard’s CoS, Arthur Sinodinos was the political strategist and confidante who worked with the Cabinet Office on policy development, while Tony Nutt was the political enforcer. Sinodinos brought to the PMO a fundamental understanding of how government works – being a former Treasury official – while Nutt, the impeccably credentialed political fix-it man, did what he does best. Their good cop/bad cop routine maintained discipline while ensuring that everyone felt valued and consulted.
Howard’s best years were arguably when this arrangement was in place.
The arrival of Michael Thawley as the new head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet may signify Abbott’s recognition of the need to do something similar. Thawley is an experienced bureaucrat and diplomat, with almost a decade’s experience in the US investment industry, and as PM Howard’s former international adviser is also an experienced senior staffer.
Thawley’s arrival may see for the first time in recent history a return of some of the functions that successive prime ministers have taken from PM&C, thereby theoretically lessening the load on Credlin.
Media reports today suggest Thawley’s first task will be to get the Government’s economic strategy back on track. So, in this sense, it appears Abbott has realised he IS ultimately to blame for the Government’s misfortunes and in appointing Thawley has done something about it.
Meanwhile, ministers are already making mischief in the media, saying there are high hopes for Thawley being able set effective strategy “unless he meets an immovable object”, which apparently is the new code for Credlin.
Whether the PM intentionally or not brought in Thawley to meet a deficit in Credlin’s skill set, she will at least be partly responsible for whether her working relationship with Abbott’s new man is a harmonious one.
And if it turns out to be obstructionist or acrimonious, then at least this will be something for which Credlin most definitely should take the blame.
Trust me. A multimedia post on political lies for ABC’s The_Brief. (Best viewed on a tablet/ipad.)
Abbott’s Terror Bounce. This week’s column for The Hoopla.
By joining the campaign against Islamic State, Tony Abbott aims to nurture our relationship with the US and strengthen the only card he has left to play on the domestic front – the protection of national security.
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.
Is MH17 Abbott’s turning point? This week’s post for The Hoopla.