Shou'd foreign foe e'er sight our coast,In the 1950s and '60s young men in Australia were required to undergo 'national service', which usually involved a cut-down version of army recruit training. There they apparently learned in a few weeks what they had not learned from their families, teachers or other responsible adults:
Or dare a foot to land,
We'll rouse to arms like sires of yore
To guard our native strand;
Britannia then shall surely know,
Beyond wide ocean's roll,
Her sons in fair Australia's land
Still keep a British soul.
In joyful strains then let us sing
"Advance Australia fair!"
- Peter Dodds McCormick Advance Australia Fair (the rarely-sung fifth verse)
- how to be both self-reliant and to work in a team;
- how to shut up and do what you're bloody well told, when you're bloody well told to do it; and
- how to polish leather and brass and to make a bed with hospital corners, and to do other pointless but time-consuming tasks appreciated by nobody apart from those who set the tasks in the first place.
The experience was so traumatic for the Australian Army. When it needed thousands of troops for Vietnam in the 1960s the crusty drill sergeants had faded away, and the 'nashos' had not yet come to look back on their experience so fondly that they would spend the late 1960s leopard-crawling under coils of barbed wire while wearing giggle-hats.
The navy's turn to suffer similar levels of disgrace at the hands of its own citizens came when boatloads of Vietnamese refugees headed to Australia in the 1970s. The then Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, had built up more substantial relationships with regional governments than anyone attaining that office before or since (Fraser had been Army Minister 1966-68 and Defence Minister 1968-71, during the Vietnam War; as Education Minister 1971-72 oversaw the real Colombo Plan). Fraser worked with governments in the region to take on a shared responsibility for refugees, which held until the implosion of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. Navy personnel resented having to take civilians on board and ferry them to Darwin or to Asian camps. At the time, refugees who made it to Darwin were hidden from the authorities in private homes - unimaginable today.
The numbers of boat-borne refugees were less because they had fled one conflict - the Vietnam war - that had pretty much ended by the mid-1970s. Today, weak and duplicitous 'governments' give rise to conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and with ethnic targeting in Sri Lanka and eastern Burma, pressures on refugee outflows are enormous. Like many things that were cobbled together in 1951 the UN Refugee Convention has come under considerable strain.
Regional solutions offer the best hope for legitimate, sustainable outcomes for refugees and refuge-providers. Tub-thumping populism within individual countries works for nobody, and looking wistfully to one international agreement while disdaining others is ridiculous.
Crusty old sailors are belittled when their training and equipment is diverted by politicians to beat up hapless asylum-seekers as invading armies, as threats to our border security and our social security more broadly. The Royal Australian Navy is already finding it difficult to crew submarines and other ships. This task will become harder as the perception grows that being in today's Navy basically involves confronting hundreds of wretched people and being able to do very little for them.
Today's sailors - and soldiers, and airmen, and security agencies - face the prospect of a government that has no clue what they should be doing, how they should be doing it, and why they do it at all. This pamphlet basically aims to cleave each of those agencies in twain and give them separate command structures. Does a sailor have a Navy command when on exercises, then report to the separate command structure when engaging with a refugee boat, and then revert to naval command once the encounter is over?
Abbott's reference to some as-yet undefined person as "three star" is an Americanism that won't appeal to the people to whom it was targeted - marginal seat voters in Australia - and will be confused with the classification scheme for tourist accommodation. Unless wacky Jim Molam is the "three star" Abbott and Morrison have in mind, it is difficult to see how a serving officer would be prepared to tread on so many toes across so many agencies in the everyday execution of their duties.
Abbott has said that some aspects of the Rudd government's agreement with PNG will be abandoned while others will be embraced, but that he won't say which is which. His confusion is leavened by the comfort that no journalist will have the effrontery to ask him for policy clarification.
The whole idea behind the Liberal Party appointing Abbott as leader was to create clear distinctions with Labor policy. This shilly-shallying of a-little-bit-of-this and not-quite-all-of-that is the sort of thing that Malcolm Turnbull, the nearest thing the Liberal Party has to a moderate these days, used to do. Abbott gets lost when offering any sort of detail and his base hates it, which is why he does it so rarely. He cannot link it all back to the light-bright-and-trite themes he seeks to project.
This befuddlement was charming when US President Ronald Reagan did it; the old man would retreat from a political battlefield and let his attack dogs take over. In Abbott such befuddlement just looks worrying, and attack-muppets like Scott Morrison just look like they're out of their depth. The "three star" was meant to reinforce Morrison, not make him look like he needs propping up. It makes him look like he has no real clue about how government agencies - especially armed forces - actually work. A high-profile shadow minister who looks like he has no clue about government depresses his colleagues' chances of getting into government.
Operation Sovereign Borders takes one of the greatest prizes in politics - the benefit of the doubt - and denies it to Scott Morrison, to Tony Abbott, and to the Liberal/National/LNP/CLP candidate in your electorate. It gives the benefit of the doubt to Kevin Rudd. His PNG
The whole idea behind the Liberal Party offering itself as an alternative government is that it had a leader who can confront issues that actually beset the nation and resolve them in a coherent manner. John Howard lost the ability to confront new challenges at all, let alone in a way that was coherent and consistent with his record. Julia Gillard could and did confront new challenges - big ones, heaps of them - and unlike Howard eventually achieved a coherence toward the end (people who had bagged Gillard relentlessly came to admit - some while she was still technically PM - that history would be kind to her). Abbott offers no resolutions, only positions.
Abbott is not coming together at the right time. He is coming apart at the wrong time. Those who think well of Abbott must now consider the idea that the four-year joke is approaching its punchline, and that they may feel unable to join in the laughter once the punchline is delivered.
When even 2GB gruntback starts referring to boat-borne asylum seekers as "poor devils", the gig is up. Scott Morrison has been one of Abbott's strongest performers, and he can't help his leader here - they have both stuffed up, big time, and I doubt they aren't done yet. The line that it doesn't matter what Rudd does, he'll stuff it up, is not one these jokers can pull off. Stick a fork in them, they're done.
Members of the armed forces and security services vote conservative more than any other occupational group. Even the amassed forces of the Neil James Institute are on his case. If you can strain the loyalties of your base without convincing the undecideds, then winning elections just isn't for you.
The good news for PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill is that he has taken a substantial sum of money from the Australian government that his government would not otherwise have received. There is no other good news. He is about to learn that sometimes additional money, even in the quantities promised by Rudd, can be very expensive. O'Neill has sprung this solution on his country without warning or consultation. He does not have a coherent explanation about how all that extra money coming into the country will be a net gain for the citizenry, given all the extra people coming with it; the reason he has no explanation is because there is no actual strategy from which an explanation might be constructed. O'Neill has been Gillard-like in doing the deal but underestimating the politics that comes with it, and as with Gillard the former PM (Sir Michael Somare) will delight at pointing out these shortcomings: sovereign borders indeed.
Some take comfort in the idea that the expenditure of money from Australia to PNG is to be overseen by AusAID. Who's to say what, or whether, oversight will take place? The hoo-ha over pink batts and school halls shows that even the slightest lapse will get more focus than any successes.
We saw what happened when Rudd abandoned "the greatest moral challenge of our time" and when Gillard gave into a fixed-price carbon tax. Rudd's PNG deal cannot and will not be sustained, even though much appears to depend on it. In that deal is his best hope for re-election but also the seeds of his final political demise.
Like Nixon in 1972, Rudd will easily account for an opponent who's the darling of his base but who can't see or reach beyond it, even when it matters and everything's at stake. Like Nixon in and after 1972, Rudd will be busy over the next two years or so meeting with both triumph and disaster, and treating those impostors just the same. Those who follow Rudd and Abbott as leaders of their respective parties will come to distance themselves from them, but for now the contest between these two awful, complicated and inadequate men remains compelling.