Perhaps I’m unduly sensitive on the subject having just spent a few days in Thailand, where military coups — past or projected — are a real issue in political life. But do we really want to be the sort of country where the military gets to decide on the appointment of government ministers?

Yet that appears to be view of Tony Abbott, who implied at the weekend that Stephen Smith was unfit to remain as defence minister because “defence personnel don’t want him”. This morning, shadow minister David Johnston is reported as saying that “Defence does not want [Smith] in the job” and it is “time for him to be moved on”.

The attack on Smith has certainly been relentless; John Cantwell, a retired major-general, produced a particularly spiteful piece in The Saturday Age, and the usual suspects such as Dennis Shanahan have also weighed in.

No doubt Smith has his faults, but it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the primary factor here is outrage in the Defence establishment at a minister who is willing to take them on. The details of the affair are less important than the principle of upholding civilian control of the military.

That’s a principle that the opposition, and Abbott in particular, seem to have some problems with. A year and a half ago, the opposition leader was suggesting soldiers were being “stabbed in the back” — an especially fraught historical term — by the government. And it’s always worth remembering that Abbott’s mentor, Bob Santamaria, began his political career by supporting military rebellion against a democratically elected government in Spain.

For most Australians this is all no doubt impossibly theoretical, and the Spanish Civil War is as remote as the voyages of Columbus. And we are certainly fortunate in lacking any recent experience of a politicised defence force — we tend to treat the military as just another interest group, albeit one with an exaggerated idea of its own importance.

Countries with a less happy history have learnt to be vigilant, and military officers who resist civilian control either resign or are cashiered. But in the more settled democracies, right-wing politicians have developed an unfortunate habit of placing the military on a pedestal, deferring to its judgment and smearing its critics as disloyal.

Of course, public servants of any stripe tend to think — sometimes rightly — that they know more about their field than their political masters. But Abbott would be outraged if the teachers’ union, for example, were to presume to dictate who was acceptable as education minister. Indeed, one suspects that he would regard hostility from the union as a badge of honour for most ministers.

It’s only the military that the opposition wants to put in such a position of privilege, and that’s a dangerous road for any democracy to start down.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey