Anthony ByrneLater today (UK time), the House of Commons will begin debating, over more than 10 hours, UK participation in airstrikes against Islamic State in Syria. The issue has badly split the Labour Party and (again) demonstrated the apparently huge gulf between leader Jeremy Corbyn and much of his own cabinet and parliamentary party. The Tories aren't without their own divisions -- the Tory-chaired foreign affairs select committee voted that the Cameron government had not “adequately addressed concerns” about military intervention -- but in the free vote Corbyn has been forced to allow, his own shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn and his deputy Tom Watson will both vote in support of airstrikes while Corbyn is bitterly opposed. The debate hasn't been particularly edifying. Cameron was reported to have called Corbyn a "terrorist sympathiser" in his speech encouraging Tory MPs to strongly support airstrikes in order to offset Labour opposition, and recently made the widely ridiculed claim that there were 70,000 “moderate” fighters in Syria -- a claim his military declined to support and which appeared to rely on defining Islamist extremists not affiliated with Islamic State as “moderate”. A debate, however, there is, in dire contrast to what happened when Tony Abbott took us into the Syrian mire. In Australia there’s been no parliamentary debate about what exactly we might achieve by bombing Syria, what our long-term strategy is -- indeed, now-sacked defence minister Kevin Andrews remarkably admitted we had no strategy there -- how we might know when we’ve achieved whatever it is we’re trying to achieve, how much it will cost and how long it is expected to take. All of these are the kinds of matters we expect to see when developing new policy -- the purported “tax debate” currently underway is filled with modelling on the economic benefits, costs and implementation challenges of a variety of proposals -- but in a bizarre blind spot in the Australian political psyche, the most important decision a government can take, of placing Australia’s defence forces in harm’s way, is routinely undertaken with no costing, no strategy, no goals and no conception of how to deal with challenges along the way. In October, Deputy Opposition Leader Tanya Plibersek moved a motion for a parliamentary debate on our role in Syria and Iraq. That debate -- which is in the hands of the government -- is still waiting to happen. The nearest we have come to any parliamentary discussion was Tony Abbott and Bill Shorten offering statements on indulgence filled with War on Terror boilerplate -- "Daesh death cult", "they hate us for our freedom", etc. Earlier this week, the deputy chair of parliament’s Intelligence and Security committee, Anthony Byrne -- who, via his committee work and because of the Endeavour Hills shooting in his own electorate, is Parliament’s best-informed member on terrorism -- lamented that no debate had been conducted. As Byrne pointed out, the result was that politicians -- notionally our national leaders -- had simply vacated the space in which community discussion of what we should be doing in the Middle East was already occurring -- leaving it to social media, for example (or, he might have added, armchair warriors and media warmongers keen to see an endless War on Terror).
"It is our obligation to have a discussion in this place about this and about how we do this—in a measured, even and bipartisan way. We cannot leave it for people on social media to have that discussion for us. It is not for them to determine what course of action we should take; it is for our sovereign parliament. We are elected to have these discussions on behalf of the community."Labor's Melissa Parke is another who has long lamented the failure of Parliament to engage in any sort of coherent discussion of exactly what we're doing in the Middle East. As she noted in August, "when such a decision can occur with so little scrutiny and so little structure, the potential for mission creep is obvious." Byrne’s critique goes beyond the blind spot some major-party politicians and much of the media have about why we make the most serious policy decisions possible without the most basic discussion -- itself bad enough -- to a more serious issue. It’s as if politicians are, willing or not, erasing themselves from the civic space, outsourcing their role to an ever more febrile media, feeding the disengagement of the electorate. Voters inevitably have varying views on what we should be doing in the Middle East: some want us to invade; some want us to get out entirely; some are content with bombing. But nearly half of Australians believe that what we are doing is placing them more at risk from terrorism, while only a small number believe it will make us safer. That makes the abandonment of this space by Parliament all the more culpable. Tony Abbott and Bill Shorten have taken a decision that places all Australians at greater risk, but have done so without any public debate by the people who are supposed to be our national leaders. If politicians wonder why the electorate finds politics and politicians such a turn-off and lament their inability to connect with voters in a way that enables them to build community support for reform, they should look close to home.