It took many months and an exhaustive and ultimately fruitless search for weapons of mass destruction for the manufactured nature of the 2003 Iraq War to become apparent. Yesterday it took barely two hours for the confected nature of Australia’s involvement in the continuation of that conflict to be revealed.
At 2pm, Prime Minister Tony Abbott rose to deliver a statement to Parliament on the government’s plan to run arms to the Kurdish regional government. In doing so, he told Parliament that the operation had the “the support of the Iraqi government”. It was different wording to that he had used on Sunday in making the announcement, when he referred to the operation being conducted “with the permission of the Iraqi government”.
The views of the Iraqi government on the issue are, of course, somewhat relevant. Not only is that government — a client state established by the United States — also engaged in fighting Islamic State militants, but it is at least notionally the government of the Kurdish region as well and would have a view both on the operation of PKK terrorist forces in northern Iraq, who will benefit from our arms, and the ambition of the Kurdish population of that part of the country to establish an independent state.
At around 4pm, Sky News’s David Speers interviewed the Iraqi ambassador to Australia. The arms Australia was providing should be going to the central government, he told Speers, not straight to the Kurdish regional government, comparing the situation to Iraq providing weapons to the Victorian government rather than the federal government. And he hadn’t even had a discussion with the government about the issue; he was hoping for one sometime this week, perhaps when Foreign Minister Julie Bishop arrives back from the South Pacific. The fact that no one in the Abbott government had bothered to speak to the ambassador of the country we’re about to return military forces to was a staggering revelation.
This, naturally, sat very poorly with Abbott’s claim of Iraqi support, leaving the Prime Minister looking as though he had misled Parliament on the very serious matter of putting our defence forces in harm’s way.
Fortunately, the Iraqi ambassador’s memory was jogged overnight. This morning, at an impromptu media conference as he emerged from the ABC’s press gallery offices, he explained that the Iraqi government did indeed support Australia’s arming of the Kurds, that Iraq had been consulted via “all the right channels between the two sides” “a couple of days ago” and that his remarks on Sky had been “misquoted” and “taken out of context” (presumably by himself). Baghdad, he explained, was quite happy for the Kurds to be armed. “They’re Iraqis,” he said, smiling, a statement that might draw a somewhat mixed response in Erbil.
“We don’t trust the political class and intelligence agencies on Iraq, not after the debacle of 2003, nor should we.”
Anyway, thank goodness that was cleared up.
The manufactured aspect of yesterday was further confirmed when Opposition Leader Bill Shorten rose to respond to Abbott and indicate that Labor was docilely following the government back into Iraq; bizarrely, Shorten invoked Simon Crean’s brave and principled stand against the war in 2003 and declared that Crean had been vindicated, but nonetheless proceeded to ignore that example and back the government’s decision to return. When Andrew Wilkie and Adam Bandt rose to make a statement on their opposition to the venture, they were told to go and do so in the obscurity of the Federation Chamber. Parliamentary prime time is, apparently, only for those prepared to nod in agreement.
The other curious element is the insistence of several Labor figures, including foreign affairs spokesperson Tanya Plibersek, that they have been privy to briefings on the issue that have a bearing on important questions but can’t reveal them. This was Plibersek yesterday, talking to Speers:
Speers: Are you worried about any of these weapons falling into their hands, do you still think they [PKK] should be listed as a terrorist organisation, what’s your view on this?
Plibersek: Well, like I say, we’ve had defence briefings and I can’t share those with you. What I would say is that the international community that has put together this humanitarian relief effort has of course considered the risk of weapons falling into the wrong hands and they have put measures in place to reduce the opportunities for that to happen.
Speers: Are you able to say does that involve any Australian elements in making that assurance?
Plibersek: I don’t think I should talk about briefings that I’ve had.
This isn’t an academic issue. Quizzed about the possibility of weapons falling into the hands of the PKK, the Iraqi ambassador suggested such a thing was to be guarded against but was an unfortunate fact of life on the battlefield, where each side picked up and lost weaponery. Bear in mind that under the Criminal Code, if someone “recklessly” provides support to a terrorist organisation, they can end up in jail for 15 years. Should any Australian weapons accidentally end up “lost” to the PKK, a proscribed organisation under Australian law, will anyone be prosecuted? If so, who? But Plibersek’s response is, in essence, trust us, the issue is under control, we can’t tell you how.
The problem is, we don’t trust the political class and intelligence agencies on Iraq, not after the debacle of 2003, nor should we. Asking to be taken on trust, rather than being transparent about intervening again in Iraq, only suggests there is something to hide in all this.