Working out exactly what Tony Abbott thinks about Afghanistan is a difficult business.
In the first flush of his victory over Malcolm Turnbull, he declared “I don’t think we should rule out an increase in commitment provided that we are confident the strategy is clear and the tactic is likely to work.”
That position- a fair enough one, given the caveats and conditions he placed on it – held until 23 April this year. In the shadows on Anzac Day, Abbott addressed the Lowy Institute and suggested Australia should take control of Oruzgan province and increase its forces to match the departing Dutch presence. Layered over the top was a sneering suggestion the Rudd Government was too slack to do the job properly. “The Government should explain why it’s apparently right that NATO countries should commit more troops but not Australia,” Abbott said in his speech. “We don’t want to be a country that looks like we are shirking our responsibilities,” he said at the accompanying press conference.
But during the election campaign Abbott’s position changed again. On 31 July, at an announcement about health funding for ADF personnel with Defence shadow David Johnston, he refused to restate the commitment to increase our Afghanistan presence, instead saying that he “supported our commitment to Afghanistan.” When pressed, he said “what I said at the time [of the Lowy Institute speech] was that we would respond appropriately to changing circumstances. Now, circumstances haven’t changed, which is why we support our existing commitment.”
A week out from the election, Abbott refined the position slightly. “I fully support the existing commitment to Afghanistan and in any future decisions about Afghanistan I would be very much guided by the advice of the Defence Chiefs,” he said in Perth.
Four days after the election, Abbott was asked about his Lowy Institute call for more troops. “Obviously the circumstances have changed since then,” he replied. “The Americans have joined us in Oruzgan province and under the circumstances, yes, I think our commitment is the right one.”
It’s not clear what specifically happened between 31 July, when circumstances “hadn’t changed”, and 25 August, when they “had changed”, although that might have been a slip of the tongue.
In any event, that position lasted just over a month, because on 30 September shadow Defence Minister David Johnston rose in the Senate to return to the the position of more troops. Johnston called for 300 more personnel to be sent to Afghanistan, including Tiger helicopters, a mortar platoon, more artillery and tanks. Johnston followed that up by saying he trusted troops on the ground more than the Chief of the Defence Force, which appeared to contradict Abbott’s own statement on 14 August. The following day Abbott forgot Johnston’s name in a radio interview, and said the proposal for increased forces was merely a suggestion.
Yesterday Stuart Robert, who is Opposition defence science, technology and personnel shadow and a former military intelligence officer, said it appeared there wasn’t a need for more troops. Robert had accompanied Abbott to Afghanistan and his views reflected his discussions with troops on the ground.
Abbott has been keen to level the charge of politicisation at the Government in the wake of the kerfuffle over his comments about jetlag, despite there being clear evidence that the Government did nothing to set Abbott up over his Afghanistan trip. Abbott can blame his own “ill-chosen words”, as he himself called the jetlag comment, and the fact that last week was a sepulchrally quiet week for political journalists, rather than any conspiracy against him. Instead, this week he ramped up the rhetoric, and lowered the already unedifying tone of political discourse in this country by complaining of “low bastardry”.
As opposed, presumably, to high bastardry – perhaps that was what Abbott practised against Pauline Hanson a decade ago.
Johnston’s demands for more troops, and attacks on Angus Houston, looked on their face like politicisation, well in advance on any conspiracy to humiliate Abbott that might have been hatched in Julia Gillard’s office. I suggested last week that in fact Johnston’s statement could be interpreted in a less malicious fashion. But any doubt that the Coalition is politicising the conflict vanished with Abbott’s complaints over the last 48 hours about the charging of three ADF personnel, claiming they had been “stabbed in the back” by the Government. To Abbott’s credit, he declined to join the unusually – even by his standards – froth-mouthed attack by shock-jock dotard Alan Jones on Brigadier Lyn McDade, who is enduring a sustained onslaught of misogynistic abuse from serving and former ADF personnel. But Abbott’s determination to exploit the issue is wholly political.
Let’s provide some context here. The Coalition has zero – zero – credibility on military justice matters. Its failure to reform the military justice system while in Government was one of the great scandals – in fact, great tragedies – of its time in office. Hell-bent on wrapping itself in the flag, exploiting national security as a wedge issue against Labor and keeping the ADF on side, the Coalition ignored warning after warning after warning after warning to fix the ADF’s military justice system before yet another Senate inquiry finally forced that Government into action. And it promptly bungled that, setting up an unconstitutional military court against the advice of the ADF’s own lawyers, Labor and the Coalition’s own senators, that the High Court voted 7-0 to dispose of the moment it was challenged.
In the meantime, dozens of servicemen and women took their own lives as a consequence of bungled investigations, bullying, harassment and sexual assault. Between 1998 and 2006, the ADF has said, 76 personnel had taken their own lives, a deep and abiding shame for our armed forces.
If you apply the same logic that the Press Gallery and Opposition applied to Peter Garrett over the insulation program, the Coalition has blood on its hands on the issue of military justice.
And as happened when they were in Government, it seems, the proper functioning of military justice appears to be subordinate to the political interests of the Coalition, which seems determined to exploit the controversy over the charging of the three personnel.
All the while, the mainstream consensus over our involvement in Afghanistan is becoming more and more fragile, an issue that should be of deep concern to those of us who believe there remains a sound strategic rationale for our presence there. There are potentially profound repercussions from this, but Mr Abbott appears not to care.