11 March 2012

Tone deaf and defensive

At a time when Labor is supposedly bleeding internally over the leadership and the upheavals in the ministry that flowed from it, you would imagine that the Coalition - unafflicted by if not invulnerable to such ructions, apparently - would be making out like bandits with uncommitted voters. Instead, they are playing to their own base as though they, and not Labor, were in need of defending and rebuilding.

Tony Abbott's comments in defence of ADF culture (here, about three-quarters of the way down) are instructive. It's true that ADF personnel vote Coalition more than any other profession. It's also true that, while pride in the armed forces is not unique to conservatives, it is central to conservative conceptions of Australia, its (sorry, 'her') history and the purpose of government. You can understand why he'd want to represent any sort of criticism of the ADF as a swingeing assault of an institution at the core of the nation's life, one of great pride to almost all Australians, as a political maneuver to portray Labor as antithetical to the nation's values. Even so, it didn't work.

Every Federal MP who has been in office a while will have received complaints from those who had been dedicated members of the Australian Defence Force, but who had found themselves ensnared in some Kafkaesque nightmare and shunted out of what was not only their career but part of an attempt to fuse their identity with that of the nation. I would be very surprised if the office of the Member for Warringah is an exception to that.

Over many years, we have seen story after story after story about how the ADF is endemically unable to deal with the sorts of sexual harassment cases. The "rotten apple" thing becomes unconvincing after a while.

This was an opportunity for Abbott to start identifying his weaknesses and working on turning them around - particularly his standing with women, at a time when a female Prime Minister was supposedly so weak that she was a role model to nobody. By defending the ADF from any and all charges of misogyny and ineptitude, and linking such failure to "the ANZAC spirit", he has not won or retained a single vote. Nobody who is vaguely regretting having voted Labor in 2010 is convinced that they must vote Coalition at the next opportunity as a result of that effort. His whole position on that issue was not worth taking, and almost certainly did his cause some harm.

Abbott's claim that if there is no crime committed then there is no problem, and that a commander who has been clumsy is unworthy of censure, rings hollow. You don't want your leader ringing hollow. Especially not on International Women's Day: the whole idea that Peta Credlin, Julie Bishop, any female Coalition MP/Senator/candidate or even his own daughters provide civilising influences on Abbott's more Neanderthal tendencies is completely rubbished by his attempts to rally the lads to a dysfunctional status quo. Good, positive policy like this sank like a SIEV. It was dopey politics, squandering an opportunity to stick it to a supposedly vulnerable government.

Coalition supporters will tell you that Abbott is under no obligation to release his policies early, and they're right. Policy papers don't have the impact they once did, when journalists and voters would write to the offices of the respective parties requesting policy papers so that they could compare and discuss them. Policy papers these days are advertising copy made up of dot-points. They are not worth writing, let alone reading, and what little detail they have becomes non-core in the face of the inevitable post-election Budget Black Hole. The idea that All Will Be Revealed In Good Time when the policy documents are released is a joke. Every statement, every vote over the course of a term builds a picture of what a government or an opposition is like, a picture that even the most lavish ad campaign can't shake.

All that no, no, no has entered the soul of the Coalition, and has certainly coloured public perceptions of them even if they haven't quite hardened into voting intentions (more reasons why polls are crap). Policy papers promising love and sunshine from the Coalition can't and won't change that, not even with uncritical media coverage. The squandered opportunities to bring out the best in ADF personnel by casting out the worst is one example: if you're going to get rid of dud teachers, surely the task is all the more urgent with dud ADF personnel. ADF personnel don't get to choose the teams they are assigned to, they have to work with whomever they're assigned to work with: in that context harassment/bullying can be seen as insubordination. It is bullshit to assert that a creep who harasses subordinates is really a mighty warrior and must be respected as such. Tony Abbott has committed the Coalition to not improving but maintaining an ADF which is weakened by its failure to tackle the sorts of problems that have largely been addressed (if not entirely resolved) in wider Australian society. Be it on his own head, and on those who would stand with him.

The Australian is rarely more pathetic when it tries to put one over its own readers. It reports this, it reports that, but fails to link the two as part of a whole problem within the ADF, and adequately assess whether it is Abbott or Smith who is taking the most appropriate response. Nobody expects that august journal of record economically pitiful catalogue of Chris Mitchell's insecurities and failures to start shirtfronting Abbott, but it has a role in nudging him away from indefensibly dopey positions.

Abbott insists that the Defence Minister must have the confidence of the ADF, but I can't think of a single occupant of that office who was ever really beloved from the top brass to the lowest ranks for having personnel interest at heart. Peter Reith came closest to bending the ADF to his will when he defended the claim that asylum-seekers had thrown children into the Arafura Sea despite ADF personnel, respectfully and deferentially, disagreeing that any such thing had taken place. His career ended soon thereafter.

The fact that the Shadow Defence Minister is invisible and hasn't mixed it with Defence policy wonks is a concern because it gives no indicaton as to what we might expect in this area from a Coalition government. It's extraordinary for conservatives, who supposedly live and breathe Defence stuff. Contrast Johnston's small-target obscurity with Smith's up-front, almost Keatingesque, approach.

Smith deserves credit for taking on that culture, ending the last vestiges of gender-specific roles and giving the benefit of the doubt to complainants over ossified symbols of an unsustainable way of operating. Airing of those old assault cases, giving hope to the possibility of a military justice system that was destroyed by sticking up for the alco-loser in command of of HMAS Melbourne in the 1960s, is no small thing.

Apart from the essential purchase of transport vessels for the Navy, Smith has avoided being sucked in to the expensive, underperforming defence equipment purchases that have ruined the reputations of his predecessors back to Reith. Drones seem to have almost obviated the tank and perhaps the fighter jet, and it could be that drone submarines are the answer to the problem facing the Navy is staffing and equipping our underwater defences. Smith seems to believe that if he can get the right people and get rid of some dickheads, smarter decisions and recommendations will result. Stephanie Peatling's article on Smith's handling of disciplinary issues at ADFA is the best article on that topic.

Whether we're talking about the Defence needs of the nation, or the right of one person to feel like they're valued on their merits rather than their gender, you have to wish Smith good luck because at least he's trying. It's more than you can hope for from the Coalition under its current leadership.

Update: Hugh Riminton raises doubts for old Walkley's sake, but ends up vindicating Smith rather than condemning him. The differentiation between shaving foam and Jif made Riminton look absurd, rather than Smith being "wrong on every level". As an old scoophound he is no doubt grateful for a leaked document on which to hang a story, but he should have questioned the leaker's/s' motives more closely.


  1. Small point... The alco loser was on the voyager which was sunk by the Melbourne he was known as drunken Duncan. But . Captain of Melbourne was pilloried for years until finally being cleared with help of Edward st john qc. He was also a liberal mp in if I remember it tony abbotts seat

    1. Yes he did and he was, an he left the Liberal Party in 1968. Apart from Michael MacKellar hey have a reputation for picking wasters in that seat.

  2. If Tony Abbott is going for populism, I think he has joined the wrong cause. He may have joined it out of his "I'm the opposite of Labor" reflex.

    The general feeling I'm getting from people is "It's about time someone is cleaning up ADF" (Yes, I know it's subjective opinion).

    However, after years of sexual harassment claims and military budget blow outs, I don't think the average person on the street has much sympathy for the top brass.

    I think Tony Abbott may not realise that Australia is not America. The general public don't ritually masturbate over the military. Criticism of the military is not considered borderline treason.

  3. Andrew, I hope I'm not posting this multiple times (and if I am, please delete freely), but it's "sank", not "sunk".

  4. Alphabajangodelta11/3/12 1:42 pm

    You're right on this. It would've been easy for Abbott to square the circle on ADF reform by arguing in favour of a better non-sexist culture that respects all members but couched in the frame of traditional 'conservative' values like honour, respect, decency, professionalism. This could then have immediately translated into simultaneously highlighting how Smith's 'attacks' on the ADF show he's both insulting tradition and a clumsy manager. This shows the difference in political nous between Howard and Abbott. Howard played the ADF like a stradivarius to the extent that The Flag and a Digger are now symbols indelibly linked to his Prime Ministership and to which subsequent leaders are shackled. Abbott's claim to fame in relations with the ADF is 'shit happens'.

    1. Basically because Abbott believes honesty, loyalty, decency, respect & deference is for mugs.

  5. I've just spent the morning discussing the antics of the boys who resided at St John's College at Sydney University in the 1970s and 1980s. As Tony Abbott did, and let me tell you that I believe that Tony Abbott actually believes in the Warrior culture exhibited by the ADFA Aggros & Female Humiliators, as a result of his time there, among other character-defining periods in his life, as that is exactly the sort of behaviour those boys got up to back then. And worse, though I am not accusing Tony Abbott of any of that.
    However, I don't think it beyond reason to assume that Tony Abbott was an enthusiastic participant in the yelling of sexist barbs out of the windows of St Johns, at the females who walked by to class, nor that his attitude wrt what constitutes allowable behaviour at similar institutions today has altered substantially.

    "By his words, so shall ye know him.'

    Thus it is that Tony Abbott appears to be sanguine with the fact of supporting Authority Figures in institutions who seek to cover up abuse of the opposite sex, and also that no penalty should be accorded to them for doing so, nor for seeking to intimidate the victim post facto.

    The women of Australia should be afraid and suspicious of this man, and his re-branding efforts with women voters. It is obviously a sham.

    1. Bushfire Bill11/3/12 5:57 pm

      The feeling I'm getting around Town is that the brass have run a cover-up operation designed to protect their own.

      The punters are sick of the misogynistic culture of the ADF and the sooner it's cleared up the better. "Kafer got off on a technicality" could best sum it up.

      As for the rest of the ADf wallahs, the ex-members organizations, absurdly alleging that Smith wants to be PM and saw this as an opportunity to clean-up his tarnished image with female voters (no sources for this given, because there ARE none), the less said the better.

      The Herald trotted out some recently retired Major General to say that nobody like Smithy anyway, so best to get rid of him. Abbott then chimes in an hour or so later with a perfectly timed call for his resignation based on ONE article and nobody smells "Bootstrap"?

      Gee, Smith has lost the confidence of Tony Abbott, a couple of retired Colonel Blimps and Dennis Shanahan. Spare us, please!

  6. marrickvillemauler11/3/12 9:14 pm

    Thanks Andrew. I would like to see more people coming in with the point that its only in crap non-democracies that people take seriously for a moment arguments that the military has lost confidence in the elected civilian government? All those tools from the convoy of no consequence might reflect for a moment on what treason actually looks like


  7. My only problem with this piece (as with almost all your work), Andrew, is selecting which of the many gems to use as teaser when I link to FB.

    As for all the retired military wallahs wheeling themselves - or being wheeled? - out in opposition to Smith, well, being the "successful" products of the dysfunctional, misogynistic, boyzone culture of the ADF, they would say that, wouldn't they...

  8. Polls may be crap, but it is pleasing that consensus seems to be coalescing around a new norm of 48-52, which at this stage of the electoral cycle just about makes Gillard a favourite to get re-elected. One wonders if the likes of Grattan and Carney will wake up and call off their relentless (and failed) campaign. Maybe they're auditioning for a Murdoch/Rinehart job after Fairfax falls over.

  9. In addition to his reflexive "oppose!!!-no!!!" & boy's club stance, Abbott would've been swayed by the opportunity to utilise Smith in keeping the whole leadership/mutiny thing going.

  10. That story of Rimington's is written entirely in vindication of Smith or am I missing something?

    1. I don't think it's intended that way but it does so indirectly.

  11. Casablanca13/3/12 1:52 am

    Like Hillbilly Skeleton @ Mar 10, 2012 07:22 PM I have spent much time discussing the unacceptable antics at ADFA and St John’s College though my focus has been more contemporary in view of the experience of a friend's daughter since the College went co-ed about a decade ago. The previous rector strove mightily to "de-tribalise" St John’s College - to take students from everywhere, not just Joeys, Riverview, etc, so that the large bands of ex-GPS boys ("louts in tuxedos") did not rule and terrorise other students. The new rector has taken a tough stand against the louts in tuxedos, let’s hope that the University supports him against the expected avalanche of protests from parents of the offenders.

    Michael Mullins has a useful article in Eureka Street: ZERO TOLERANCE FOR RITUAL HUMILIATION

    ‘When a cocktail of such factors [namely, violence, alcohol and substance misuse and mental health problems] is placed in the hothouse environment of a military academy or university college with a tradition of robust behaviour, there is a certain inevitability in the result. But this need not be the case if those in charge are prepared to take decisive action to stop behaviour that has been tolerated in the past.’


  12. Well I think it is intended given that Rimington has pushed cadet Kate's case from the start. The revelation about the Jif-not-shaving foam was very significant since the excerpts from report given at press conference left the impression that no such incident had taken place. It is outrageous and I cannot imagine why Smith allowed that to happen since the omission is not helping his argument. I get the strong impression that the report is not as favorable to Kafer as has been made out, and it is strange that Smith did not insist on more excerpts being released. His status already weakened by his failure to see off Uncle Bob is further eroded by the lack of clarity around the report. Yes, strange, since on this issue he should have the high ground.

    There's no political mileage in Abbott weighing in on behalf of the cadet. Hasn't got the coalition to where it is by apeing Malcolm Turnbull. What, if anything, he gained from women would be more than outweighed by his male fans wondering what planet he's suddenly on.

  13. Pretty much agree Andrew, Smith can`t really be blamed if the ADF is hell bent on crapping on itself. Smith can only try and clean it up as each crapper is found.

    Agree too with Bobalot, Aussies `don`t ritually masturbate over the military.` That`s a Yank thing.

    With the amount of fact free Limited News donkey data, Mitchell / Oz can really only nudge `toward` dopey position on many topics.

  14. Slightly off topic, but seeing as Crikey was mentioned above: does Crikey have the worst 'IT/server down' record in the history of the internet?