25 July 2013

National service

Shou'd foreign foe e'er sight our coast,
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)
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:
  • 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 army hated having to do this work. It received precious little extra to take in thousands who did not share their commitment to a military life. Crusty old drill sergeants who had seen off everything that the Wehrmacht and/or the In Min Gun threw at them had their careers ended abruptly at the hands of teenaged compatriots with those fateful words: "Look Sarge, my rifle's stuck ...".

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 solution agreement thing was as hastily slapped-together as the Howard-Downer Nauru solution shower, and the Gillard-Bowen brainwaves over East Timor and Malaysia. It's appalling in its conception and no doubt ill-considered in its execution. But by comparison with OpSoB (thanks @m0nty!) it stands as a mighty rock before the riven agencies and flaky planning Abbott has dished up.

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.


  1. I saw a very tired and troubled looking Peta Credlin sitting in a chair at a campaign gig..

    Her eyes were fixated right ahead and she was lost in deep thought.

    The she-devil must be contemplating her future and that election date...

    I would really hate to be her and have her job.

    What a hollow woman with all that negativity .

    Her strategy is just pure B.S.

    Thanks for another insightful entry.

    Thank goodness for this outstanding blog.!!

  2. Memo to Peta Cedlin... Some things are beyond even Rupert.. cheers

  3. only one bit I would take you up on, I do feel perhaps this pNG policy was being worked earlier, as surely it could not have been put together that quickly.Also I feel rudd has learned from last time, and as a person who respected JG very much , I am now delighted with our prospected of may be winning this election, for me, I see rudd in a different way this time around.Ministers are having their say, Tony Burke is articulate and has the policy in hand, I love to see it work, as a way of stopping the smugglers, and deaths at sea, also would be very happy to see PNG have more funds for things they need,Health ,education, I do think we should have always been helping them more, after all countries like China could be investing there. So overall I am at this point rather happy with KR, and I think he will turn out to be a rather good pm for us for some time. So that's my only point of just a little disagreement.As for the other one,he has rained down havoc and slogans and for me any way depression, a feeling of what is he going to get up to next or say. Ive never felt so tense and uneasy in my own country. The media of course not doing their job and asking awkward questions have added to the stress, thankyou a
    Andrew as always. denese

  4. highlighted again indeed two articles!1

  5. All looking panicky and desperate on the bridge of HMS Liberal.

    'Sovereign Border' sounds like something your nanna might do around the edge of a quilt.

  6. I note that Obergruppenfurer Scott Morrison in his powerpoint presentation on OpSoB, has ASIO coming under the Minister for Immigration.
    This of course makes perfect sense as ASIO has all that new office space down by the Lake to fill.

  7. A contest between.....two awful, complicated and inadequate men.

    What better description of our current political scene!

    Unlike you, Andrew, I find it disheartening, rather than compelling, and not worth my time to comment. I'll check in daily so that I don't miss the fall of one, or better still both of them. Could it happen with the Libs, by Hockey or Turnbull? And surely Labor heads are thinking through some scenarios for potential challenges before Herr Kevin takes over the country?

  8. Voter Bentleigh26/7/13 11:45 am

    The Coalition declare a “national emergency” and OpSoB (an apt acronym!) with the military apparently overseeing the civil portfolios of foreign affairs, immigration and refugee policy against unarmed, vulnerable people floundering in the seas in rickety old boats. Impressive!

    Rudd's self-absorption is dangerous, but Abbott's continual warrior-style speeches and thinking is very dangerous. It appears that the “three star” Navy commander (that's a Vice-Admiral) will probably be Warrant Officer Abbott, because didn't he say some time back that the Navy would be directed by himself to turn back the boats?

    Sovereign borders? Come again? If Murdoch were a Muslim and a citizen of Asia or the Middle East, would he still be given the dual citizenship he has to advance his economic interests?

    What was it Howard said about getting politicians of calibre (there's that word again) by paying them more? You would think that politicians who had studied law would have some understanding of justice. So let's spray some intelligence gas around.

    Here is Raimond Gaita on justice:

    “Our sense of the authority and dignity of law, by virtue of which we consent without servility to its jurisdiction over us, depends on our seeing it as answerable to a conception of justice that transcends and guides its practices and proscriptions.” ( A Common Humanity, 1999).

    Here is Martin Luther King on notions of justice and illegality:

    “Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. …. An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal.”


    “We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was 'legal' and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was 'illegal'. It was 'illegal' to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler's Germany.”

    On the stance taken by moderates, King had this to say:

    “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill-will. …. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.”

    (Letter from Birmingham Jail, 1963)

    Here, from the grave of the brilliant and brave Martin Luther King, we hear the voice of the asylum seeker.

  9. Sovereign borders indeed is what nannas would say...

    That's because the nannas are the ones voting for Mr Abbott.

    Its going to be close..i saw my local Monash candidate from an Asian background.

    The Liberals have chosen to mix up their candidates with ethnic Asian faces.

    The hypocricy in the era of the politics of HATE.

    I'ts a vomit inducing scenario with factions in the right getting nastier.

    Mr Conroys lovely gift to the A.L.P was a bitchy and horrible factional legacy.

    Oh F.....off boys!!

    Youre embarrassing yourselves and that of your children.

    Assanges launch into the political arena with Dr Leslie Cannold is interesting.

    Using an ethicist to give some credibility to his party is a good move.

    Shes smart and highly respected.

    One to watch!!

  10. Woolworths and Coles have bigger and better pamphlets than LOTO, and they do a new one every week.

    1. VoterBentleigh27/7/13 8:49 am

      Spot on. At least with a Supermarket brochure, we get to see what the goods look like and how much it will cost us.

  11. When are you going to understand that regional solution is only another dog whistle for anywhere but here?

    There are 8 million refugees in the region from Afghanistan/Iraq to here and we are the only ones whining about 20,000 of them and we want the rest of the region to just keep them or kill them whichever comes first.

    We are the only nation not doing their fair share but we sure do waste a lot of money to do very little beyond destroying human lives.

    Doc Evatt and Bob Menzies would be spinning in their graves over these tiny minded little men posturing and preening about our non existent borders.

    1. Thanks as always Marilyn.

    2. When did we ask anyone to kill them?Those sort of idiotic statements really do require some proof, and I would ask you to supply us with the proof that people are being killed if we don't do what?Are you seriously suggesting that the policy adopted by the Govt. has caused people to be killed?

      You are beyond the pale with your accusations for which you have no proof.

  12. I fully approve of your description of the two of them: two awful, complicated, inadequate men.

    After the way Gillard was treated I just can't get interested in any of the politics going on right now, but I can still feel utterly disgusted by the decisions these two awful, complicated, inadequate men (see how good that phrase is?) are making at the moment.