It is regrettable that a fine soldier should be the sacrificial lamb for the political incompetence of Immigration Minister Scott Morrison, Defence Minister David Johnston, and Shadow Defence Minister Stephen Conroy. These men are unfit to hold public office.
Nevertheless, even a veiled public threat against civilian authority is unacceptable from Chief of Defence, General David Hurley, and he certainly made such a threat when he referred directly to Conroy’s ridiculous, crass outbursts to say publicly: ‘Once said, the shadow will linger.’
That Hurley presides over an ADF which does not understand its rôle in a Westminster-style democracy was made painfully clear by comments from Chief of Army, Lieutenant-General David Morrison at a Darwin ceremony today honouring veterans of the Afghan conflict: ‘Having the two largest political parties represented by their leaders here today is a great thing for not just the ADF but for the nation.’ It was a directly and somewhat insulting political statement referring to ALP leader Bill Shorten’s late decision to attend the event, and another indication that the ADF reserves for itself the right to play in a political space that must be off-limits to it.
This is a dangerous development that should be nipped in the bud. ADF officers who feel inclined to play politics should resign their commissions and stand for parliament. That this is not always a positive outcome for Australia is evidenced by the crude, incompetent authoritarianism of Queensland Premier Campbell Newman, a one-time Major, but he can at least claim the legitimacy of a win at the ballot box.
Present circumstances represent a painful situation for citizens, who mostly revere the courage, tenacity, and competence of their defense personnel. Nevertheless, the question is about whether we remain a democracy or move towards a more Indonesian model, where the military is directly active in politics, and regards itself as also something of a police force with authority in civilian matters.
However did we get into this mess?
On Tuesday, 25 February, in a senate estimates Committee hearing, Shadow Defence Minister Senator Stephen Conroy accused Lieutenant General Angus Campbell of being involved in a political cover-up of military activities related to naval interceptions of refugee boats.
Conroy is the ugliest face of the Labor Right faction. An ambitious but crude power broker in the faction-ridden party, his own estimation of his standing and value to the party by far exceeds any evidence of competence and skill. He was at his least nuanced when he drew on the silly verbiage of the fictional US Colonel Nathan Jessup from the film A Few Good Men, trapped by a lawyer into stating: ‘You can’t handle the truth.’ Ironically this childish stab at metaphor trapped Conroy, not his quarry.
To accuse a senior officer of being engaged in a political cover-up is an extraordinary step to take, even if you know this to be a fact; I doubt that there is any evidence for that in this case, but the question now hangs over us all that we will never know. Conroy managed to make an arse of himself at the same time as damaging the reputation of the ADF. This is not the sort of immature behaviour you expect from a backbencher, let alone a would-be leader.
A senior politician should ask hard questions, but never be seen so obviously bullying a public servant.
However, what’s at issue here is not that Conroy is a boor. That matter is settled. news.com.au’s Simon Benson put it rather succinctly when he reported ALP sentiment on Conroy:
Stephen Conroy is rapidly running out of friends in the Labor caucus. And so too will Opposition leader Bill Shorten if he doesn’t do something about him.
A growing number of senior Labor MPs believe Conroy should resign — and if he doesn’t, Shorten should sack him. …
Many had … hoped he would have left parliament at the election, such was the toxicity which many colleagues believe he brings to a factionally fragile Labor caucus.
What’s really at issue, however, is whether the Abbott government has not put the ADF in a position that unavoidably politicises its rôle in a highly controversial domestic issue, which also has critical international relations consequences.
Does the ADF not owe full and frank disclosure to the Parliament of Australia? Of course it does. Was Campbell’s refusal to reveal operational details appropriate? We will never know, but questions about ongoing military operations should not be asked or answered in an open forum like the Senate Estimates Committee, where everything can and will be reported by stenographers for the scandal sheets posing as newspapers in Australia. There are more private oversight channels available to Parliament.
These matters notwithstanding, the intervention by General Hurley was unprecedented and unconscionable, implying not only that he lacks judgement to speak so publicly, even in defense of a senior officer, but also that he feels emboldened to threaten lack of support and obedience to a civil executive that might include Conroy as a minister.
If the Prime Minister had any backbone he would replace Hurley immediately as a signal that such threats cannot stand. But since the threat was made against a political opponent, the PM did not, and will not act. This is in itself a signal that the PM condones and possibly promotes politicisation of the military.
And where was Defence Minister David Johnston during this fracas? He is the one who should have been publicly defending Campbell against a political attack, and his inaction to restrain Hurley by standing in front of Campbell is a significant cause of the ensuing public spat.
It is an unholy mess brought about by an inappropriate deployment of military resources within the framework of incompetently designed operational parameters.
The ideal resolution would be for Immigration Minister Scott Morrison, and Defence Minister David Johnston to be moved out of their portfolios to be replaced with more competent people. Hurley should be replaced as Chief of Defence, and Conroy sacked from the ALP front bench.
What will actually happen is none of those things, but Conroy can now never become defense minister simply because Hurley has signaled that the ADF would not work with him. And that’s where matters get really difficult. No matter the incompetence of the politician, the ADF must never be allowed to publicly or privately repudiate civilian, parliamentary authority.
Looking ahead, I think the fate of the Abbott Government is already sealed, in no small part due to the stunningly incompetent handling of immigration policy, but more broadly because of the arrogance of a government that has turned out to be more inert than the rocks in my backyard.
The outlook for Labor is more complicated, but it seems clear to me that inaction on this issue will inflict damage on the party which will convert into votes for the Coalition.
I believe it is inevitable that Conroy must be demoted and persuaded not to contest the next election. More importantly, Bill Shorten has become untenable as putative prime minister and should be replaced by Anthony Albanese, who is eminently better placed to leverage the rising popularity of his party with his own standing as a preferred leader to Shorten’s union-shenanigan-tarnished image; an image deteriorating daily for his invisibility as a vigorous critic of the government.
Benson, S. (2014, February 27). Stephen Conroy refuses to apologise to Lt General Angus Campbell over asylum ‘cover-up’ claim. news.com.au. Retrieved from http://www.news.com.au/national/stephen-conroy-refuses-to-apologise-to-lt-general-angus-campbell-over-asylum-coverup-claim/story-fncynjr2-1226837928940
Kenny, M. (2014, March 2). Army chief David Morrison applauds bipartisan support of troops. The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved from http://www.smh.com.au/national/army-chief-david-morrison-applauds-bipartisan-support-of-troops-20140301-33t19.html
Mount, G. (2014, February 27). Stephen Conroy was targeting politics in play, not Angus Campbell. The Age. Retrieved from http://www.theage.com.au/federal-politics/political-opinion/stephen-conroy-was-targeting-politics-in-play-not-angus-campbell-20140227-33mjj.html