November 2014

The Nation Reviewed

One man, one vote

By Judith Brett

As captain of Team Australia, Tony Abbott has plunged us into war without debate

I happened to be in London the day the British prime minister, David Cameron, recalled the House of Commons to request its support for British air strikes against Islamic State in Iraq. I went to listen to the debate, and although I missed the big beasts I caught the three-minute speeches of some of the backbenchers. One after the other, members got up and told the House why they would be supporting the government’s motion or, in some cases, voting against it.

A Conservative who had been a member in 2003 reflected ruefully on the naivety with which he had supported the invasion of Iraq that year. He had thought that once Saddam Hussein was removed liberal democracy would flourish, as if it were the natural state of a people. A Labour woman, a Muslim, spoke of the danger Islamic State posed to Muslims in the Middle East and the travesty of its carnage in the name of Islam. A Labour man who had voted against the invasion in 2003 was voting against the air strikes. Some members focused on strategic issues and international security, others on the domestic context; some focused on the present complexities of the Middle East, others on the historical paths that had led to the current situation.

All the speeches I heard were reasoned, articulate, disciplined, well informed and civil. There was no name-calling, no blaming for the mistakes of the past, no loony claims, and no dog-whistling about Muslims and immigrants. And there were members in the House to listen to them. The contrast with our jeering, sneering question time and the nearly empty chamber when a backbencher speaks was unsettling. Here were members of the political class seriously debating a complex and threatening international situation without trying to score political points. Their names and how they voted were recorded for all to see. There were not many opposed to the strikes, only 43 to 524 in favour, but they were from both sides of the House and from all parties, as party discipline for backbenchers is more relaxed in Britain than in Australia.

By tradition, foreign policy in Westminster parliamentary systems has been an executive prerogative, a hangover from the days when kings and queens wielded the power that prime ministers and cabinets have inherited. There has been no requirement that parliament be consulted about the gravest decision a government can take: when it should declare war and risk the lives of the members of its armed forces.

In Britain this is changing. The executive prerogative over foreign policy remains, in theory, but ever since Tony Blair allowed the House of Commons to debate Britain’s participation in the Coalition of the Willing against Iraq in 2003, a convention has emerged that the government will seek the consent of the House before it commits to the use of armed force. In Canada, too, Prime Minister Stephen Harper put before parliament a motion to authorise air strikes against Islamic State in Iraq.

Not so here. Tony Abbott announced cabinet’s authorisation of air strikes against Islamic State in Iraq at a short press conference. His announcement was followed by very brief statements from the defence minister, David Johnston, and the air chief marshal, Mark Binskin. Simple arguments supported the decision: Islamic State has declared war on the world and is a threat to Australia; Iraq needs our help; we will be part of a US-led coalition; it is essentially a humanitarian mission; it is in Australia’s national interest. Abbott warned us that the task was difficult, dangerous and could last a long time, while Johnston and Binskin reassured us that our armed forces were skilled and ready. That was it: a top-down decision defended with general arguments and with no reference to Australia’s previous engagements in the region and their less-than-optimal outcomes. Abbott also told us that he had briefed and consulted the Opposition leader, Bill Shorten, who supported cabinet’s decision.

The House of Commons spent a full day in thoughtful and nuanced debate; these three spoke for just six minutes before taking questions. There was little space for a national conversation, no recognition even that one might be possible. Our parliamentary representatives had no need to acquaint themselves with the political and strategic complexities of the contemporary Middle East, to reflect on the outcomes of past interventions in the region, to weigh possible effects on domestic cohesion against obligations to our allies. In short, our parliamentarians were not required to think hard about and face up to the responsibility for the decision.

This absence barely registered, although the Greens leader Christine Milne and the independent MP Andrew Wilkie did move unsuccessfully to have parliament debate the commitment. Greg Sheridan wrote in the Australian that “Tony Abbott has conducted a textbook mobilisation of political support, institutional evaluation and executive decision-making in the way he has gone about mounting the operation,” as if there were no other way it could have been done. In New Zealand, which at the time of writing was yet to make a decision about joining the international effort, there were calls for the government to take the decision to parliament.

How are we to explain this absence of debate?

One explanation is that many Australians are not very interested in international events and are quite happy to leave them up to the government. Nor do they have much interest in how the rest of the world sees the country. For them, politics is essentially a domestic matter of warring tribes, self-interest and occasional mild entertainment.

That there is no call for it to take responsibility in decisions of war might also be a sign of how far federal parliament has fallen in public esteem; we don’t trust its members to behave well and not to play politics. A recent survey by Newspoll for Griffith University’s Centre for Governance and Public Policy found that the federal government was the least trusted level of government.

In the same week that Abbott made his announcement, there was a completely unnecessary fracas about the non-existent threat of burqas at Parliament House. The causes of this are obscure. Was it a justified security concern, a paranoid overreaction, or a dog whistle gone wrong? Comments by Niki Savva suggest it may well have been a botched attempt by Abbott’s office to repair his relations with the backbench, and if she’s right it shows a worrying insularity.

Given how badly the government and the parliament handled this non-issue, perhaps it is just as well that the parliament did not get a chance to debate Australia’s decision to engage in air strikes against Islamic State. It is unlikely that Australian parliamentarians could have conducted themselves with the bipartisan civility of their British counterparts, or without at least one of them causing gross offence to Muslim and Middle Eastern Australians and so exacerbating an already very challenging situation.

And then there is the difficulty of criticising a government wrapping itself in the flag. One might be thought un-Australian, a deserter from Abbott’s Team Australia. Like John Howard when he took Australia into the Coalition of the Willing, Abbott appeals to nationalism, but compared with Howard’s his nationalism is curiously thin and lacking in content. As prime minister, Howard made innumerable orations about what it meant to be Australian: Australia Day and Anzac Day addresses, speeches to community organisations, and remarks at state occasions like the celebrations to mark the centenary of Federation in 2001. He praised Australians for their belief in the fair go, their practical mateship and ordinary decency, their unpretentiousness and informality, and their tolerance. This view of Australian virtues has a long history, though previously it had been Labor mates rather than Liberal patriots who had praised “the fair go”. Howard worked hard to give his nationalism experiential content beyond the simple black and white, Them and Us divisions to which it is so dangerously prone. He did not always succeed. His early rejection of multiculturalism and his refusal to condemn Pauline Hanson were bad beginnings, but his nationalism had a core as well as a border.

What is the core of Abbott’s Team Australia, the shared values and historical experiences that he wants the phrase to evoke? It’s hard to know. And Abbott can’t really talk about the fair go, when his government’s first budget is generally perceived as unfair. Team Australia seems like little more than an advertising slogan, a “captain’s pick” with no historical resonance and little content to stabilise it. Thus it can easily seem to be just about Them and Us, with Muslim Australians the Them, especially if they wear strange clothing.

Judith Brett

Judith Brett is an emeritus professor of politics at La Trobe University. Her latest book is From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage: How Australia Got Compulsory Voting.

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