What’s the purpose of the parliamentary debate on Afghanistan? Perhaps, from the government’s point of view, its only purpose derives from it being forced on it by the Greens courtesy of a hung parliament. After all, neither Labor nor the Coalition saw fit to have a debate on the conflict throughout the nine years since we joined the first attack on the Taliban regime, despite the great cost in lives, health and money.

For supporters of our continuing involvement in the conflict, it should be an opportunity to try to start reversing a deep-seated community unease with, or outright opposition to, our role in that country. Yesterday’s offerings from the prime minister and leader of the opposition won’t reverse anything.

It was Tony Abbott who came closer to providing a convincing justification for our continuing involvement. His was a much better speech. He seems to understand, or at least understand better than the prime minister, that people can’t just be given an intellectual understanding of what we’re doing there and how it aligns with our strategic priorities. That Afghanistan can’t become a haven for terrorists again, and that we need to stand by the United States, are intellectual arguments, and have been repeated ad nauseum over the years. In a conflict in which “victory” is defined by outcomes like a trained Afghan army, or a reasonably stable governing coalition of crooks and warlords, voters need something concrete to focus on if their support is going to be gotten back. Both leaders correctly connected the conflict and Australians killed in Bali, and on 11 September 2001, and elsewhere by Islamic terrorists, but neither emphasised the point.

Abbott actually worded it much better in his address to the joint party room yesterday than he did in his speech, noting that terrorists who had killed Australians had trained in Afghanistan. That’s an important way to connect this conflict with what’s important to voters, to put some substance on the argument that Afghanistan can’t be allowed to become, in Abbott’s silly phrase, “Terrorism Central”.

Abbott also turned the criticism of neo-imperialism and imposition of western values on its head, saying the Taliban and al-Qaeda were the ones seeking to impose their values, and were the ones engaged in imperialism. He rightly didn’t stray into justifying the war based on the Taliban’s human rights record, but tried to put a more vivid face on the enemy we’re fighting.

He also sought to row back from previous attempts at politicisation. The Coalition’s muddled position on force levels, Senator Johnston’s denigration of the Chief of the Defence Force and his and Abbott’s gleeful joining-in of criticism of the charging of ADF personnel all suddenly became “questions for the government” rather than opportunistic attempts to score points on one of the most important issues facing Australia. It was a shameless rewriting of recent history by Abbott.

Neither Ms Gillard nor Mr Abbott succeeded in offering a compelling case, or anything particular new, except to affirm that we would be involved in one form or another in Afghanistan for many years to come, even if our current force level “transitions” to a lower level.

One word doesn’t make or break a speech, but the prime minister’s use of words like “transition” was of a piece with the dry, cerebral nature of the argument she mounted. That’s not to say she delivered it in a dry or cerebral way by any means, but the content itself lacked anything that would engage voters, particularly that half, or more, of voters who think we should get out now. And neither she nor Abbott engaged with the key issues that will surely be raised by critics of the war like Andrew Wilkie and Adam Bandt: why so many Afghans regard the allies’ presence as the real problem, rather than the insurgency, and how the conflict can be ended and stable, if not democratic or non-corrupt, government achieved without engaging the monstrous (and by Abbott’s lights, imperialistic) Taliban.

The government and the opposition’s only offer on the future was a guarantee of a long, costly involvement by Australia, no matter how quickly any victory, or anything that can be spun as a victory, comes.

If the government is serious about trying to turn around voter sentiment on the conflict, a Parliamentary debate isn’t enough — indeed it’s virtually irrelevant except to the press gallery. The prime minister and Stephen Smith and Kevin Rudd should be out in the community talking about the conflict a lot more, in a concerted effort to explain why we are over there and the conditions under which we expect to come home. If Rooty Hill RSL and the Broncos Leagues Club were good enough for community engagement during the election, they should be good enough now for the government to put its case.

Instead, there’ll be a succession of politicians inside the bubble in Canberra, offering a succession of worthy, and doubtless heartfelt, speeches, ignored by 99% of voters. There’s a very great disconnection between our political class and voters over the war in Afghanistan, and this debate isn’t going to do anything to fix that.

Peter Fray

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