Monday, February 27, 2017

Today by Jamie Hall

The phoney war
A secret dossier on the Iraq conflict provides lessons for politicians


Tony Abbott was prime minister when Australia’s last combat troops in Iraq returned in 2013. The whole campaign had been based on an error: “No one in the Coalition realised the war with Saddam was nothing more than a prequel,” as a secret Australian Army report put it. Less than two years after the troops returned, Abbott was removed from office by politicians who repeated the same strategic blunder. Toppling a leader, they discovered, is just the beginning.

The Army’s report was revealed by Fairfax over the weekend after a Freedom of Information request. It found that Australia’s contribution was shambolic, with strategy steered by domestic politics and public perception. The operation was intended to strengthen our alliance with the US, but even that was a failure at a military level, because “the three services reverted to their traditional role as competent subordinates”. In short, our defence forces were “lucky” to face an opponent as incompetent as the Iraqi Army. And as the post-Saddam chaos and violence erupted, the Australian government made an explicit decision not to take part in any counterinsurgency.

Our prime minister does not have a similar luxury. Abbott has stepped up his attacks on Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership, as Elle Hardy noted on Friday. Today the PM attempted a feeble comeback, blaming Abbott for the government’s poor standing in the polls, and criticising the media for focusing on personalities. “I am not going to be distracted”, he announced distractedly.

Meanwhile, it was revealed [possible paywall] that a dozen Coalition MPs have been plotting against the PM via a text-message group. Abbott’s former chief of staff, Peta Credlin, described Turnbull’s leadership as “on life support”. And angry right-wingers will also feel emboldened by today’s Newspoll [possible paywall], which shows a slight deterioration in the government’s standing.

To be sure, polls always move by one or two points due to random chance. (“Noisy bullshit” was one polling expert’s comment.) But we did learn one thing from today’s data: Turnbull’s vigorous personal attacks on Bill Shorten three weeks ago were of absolutely no interest to anyone outside Canberra. Beyond that, as Sean Kelly wrote this time last year, it only makes sense to watch the trend. And for Turnbull, the trend is not good.

Even so, and despite Abbott’s posturing, a right-wing rebellion does not seem likely to fire up this week. Mathias Cormann, a prominent conservative, was vocal in defence of the prime minister over the weekend. Andrew Hastie, a hard-right backbencher, raised eyebrows by describing Turnbull as “the prime minister under God”, adding “I consider that a sacred office”. And today’s report on the secret text-message group went on to describe how it had fallen apart in disappointment at Abbott’s self-centredness.

Attention has recently shifted to Peter Dutton as a possible leadership contender. This at least shows that the LNP’s right-wingers are true conservatives, in that they obviously value seniority over any other possible qualification for the job. But all this remains hypothetical. For now, most conservative MPs are solidly behind the PM, provided that he doesn’t change course on same-sex marriage or climate change.

Which is exactly the problem. A year ago, when Sean Kelly was commenting on Turnbull’s mediocre polling, the PM was struggling to define himself as an authentic leader, given that he relied so heavily on the LNP’s conservative wing. Turnbull needed to break out of the terrible strategic position he found himself in. In the ensuing 12 months, only two things have changed: we’re all a year older, and the Coalition’s numbers have fallen five points. The insurgency is gathering, and the PM’s time is almost up.

Today’s links

  • The immigration department has cut the application period for protection visas from one year to 60 days. The application is complex and detailed, and free legal clinics are completely overloaded. Many lives now hang in the balance but the most effective way to help is with money: NGOs need funds to hire translators and lawyers. You can make a tax-deductible donation to the RACS in Sydney or Melbourne’s ASRC.
  • Andie Fox published a widely read article about dealing with Centrelink. She has now responded to what appears to be push back from the department who briefed a journalist with details from her personal file.
  • Australian Council of Social Service has outlined a way to repair the budget without cutting services: extend the Medicare levy surcharge to all high-income earners, not just those without private health insurance.
  • The Liberal Party does not have factions. But in NSW, Michael Photios has formally resigned as the chairman of a group of like-minded individuals who happen to vote together.
  • According to ReachTEL, LNP MP George Christensen is running neck and neck with One Nation for the Queensland seat of Dawson.
  • Mark Di Stefano gets to the bottom of why Clive Palmer’s social media presence has recently become so odd.
  • The White House press secretary has embarked on a furious campaign to root out and punish leakers in his department.

Jamie Hall
Jamie Hall is a data scientist and former Reserve Bank modeller. @jamie_hall


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