You have to wonder, really, just what’s going on in Tony Abbott’s head right now. It seems he’s hell-bent on tearing down the reputation of our public institutions. As @Paul_Jarman so succinctly put it, he may well have ‘jumped the shark’ this time.
First, it was Treasury. During the election campaign, Abbott and his Coalition colleagues repeatedly tried to tear down Treasury’s credibility. They claimed that Treasury was responsible for leaking some of their costings, at the behest of the caretaker Labor government, and withheld their numbers from the Charter of Budget Honesty. Once it became clear that the election was going to deliver a hung parliament, Abbott developed his argument even further. When the Independents asked to see the Coalition’s ‘independent’ costings, Abbott refused – and gave several reasons for doing so, all of which were outrageous.
Treasury was incompetent – it couldn’t handle the job of assessing the costings. Treasury was untrustworthy – they leaked documents when told to do so. Worst of all, Treasury was so corrupt that it would deliberately ‘fiddle’ with the numbers in order to make the Coalition look bad. Even though Abbott eventually consented to let the costings be examined – resulting in the discovery of a $7-11 billion shortfall – the accusations still get trotted out from time to time.
Not content with attempting to destroy Treasury’s standing as the economic managers of the country, Abbott next took aim at the Solicitor-General. Part of the agreement with the Independents that was signed by both major parties dealt with the matter of pairing the Speaker. Although his representative had signed off on this, Abbott reneged, claiming that such an arrangement was unconstitutional.
The Solicitor-General investigated the idea, and concluded that there was no bar to an informal pairing arrangement. That wasn’t good enough for Abbott. He engaged his own lawyer – Senator George Brandis – who, unsurprisingly, backed up his leader. Armed with that information, Abbott set about declaring that the Solicitor-General was not only wrong, but perhaps a little bit suspect – after all, he was part of the government’s public service, wasn’t he? Abbott would therefore trust Brandis’ opinion, he stated.
By the time the 43rd Parliament opened, Abbott had attacked two of the most crucial government departments – the one responsible for managing our economy, and the one called upon to deliver the definitive legal opinions on constitutional and legislative matters.
This week, he’s gone after the military. Three Australian soldiers deployed in Afghanistan were charged with manslaughter, dangerous conduct, failing to comply with a lawful general order and prejudicial conduct after a raid in which five Afghani children were killed. Brigadier Lyn McDade, the military’s chief prosecutor, brought the charges – and became the subject of a dreadful campaign of abuse and threats as a result. You might think that, after Abbott worked himself up into a lather chastising Gillard for allegedly ‘politicising’ our participation in the war in Afghanistan*, he might stay well out of this court martial issue. Not so.
Abbott let fly with an extraordinary spray. Gillard, he said, was at fault here. Australian soldiers were being ‘stabbed in the back’, and the government should be doing something about it. Now, although ostensibly aimed at Gillard, Abbott’s comments have graver implications. There is a strong insinuation here that the military justice system either does not work, or that McDade is abusing her position – and that the military are allowing her to do so. By not intervening, therefore, Gillard’s government condones this kind of abuse. What’s more, Abbott carefully did not contradict radio host Alan Jones, who – when interviewing the Opposition Leader – described McDade as a woman who had never fought on the front line, and who had ‘too much uncontrolled power’.
The military justice system is completely independent of Government, as Defence Minister Stephen Smith pointed out today. The Prime Minister cannot intervene, nor should she. At best, the government could make some submissions to the military. Even the Chief of the Army, Lieutenant General Ken Gillespie, and the executive director of the Defence Force Association, Neil James, were moved to comment. Both criticised the Opposition Leader’s remarks and stated that they were supportive of the legal process – and urged all defence personnel to be the same.
Yet Abbott maintains that Gillard should get involved on behalf of the accused soldiers. In other words, that political power should be brought to bear on the military, with the aim of pressuring McDade to drop the charges altogether – to do an end run around the legal process. To help the process along, Abbott seems happy to consent by silence to the character assassination of the chief prosecutor.
Abbott’s position is easy to see – our soldiers in wartime should not be subject to this sort of prosecution. It’s not far removed from the US saying that they would not participate in the International Court, in case their soldiers were prosecuted. Australia, like the US and Great Britain, mercilessly pursued German war criminals from World War II, and recently hanged Saddam Hussein, yet Abbott’s words suggest that there are two standards at work here. Crime in war cannot be committed by ‘our’ side, only ‘the enemy’.
It is precisely this attitude that leads to the creation of justice systems in the first place – impartial organisations dedicated to the pursuit of justice for all, rather than being subject to the whims of politicians. In fact, this was part of the rationale behind the formation of our own system under John Howard’s government. It’s a laudable goal, but one that Abbott now seems to think should be dictated to by the government. In fact, it seems likely that he would have interfered in this prosecution had we ended up with a Liberal-National minority government.
So now Abbott has three notches on his belt. He has called into question Treasury, the Solicitor-General’s office and the military justice system. You have to ask, what might be next – the Australian Electoral Commission, perhaps? Will we see legal challenges to election results that don’t favour the Coalition?
It’s difficult to discern a sound political strategy in what Abbott is doing. More and more, he seems to be on an uncontrolled slash-and-burn. Despite his protestations that he is ‘holding the government to account’, and ‘engaging in robust debate’, the real effect of his words and actions serves only to undermine his character. He’s like the angry kid in the sandpit who kicks over the other children’s sandcastles, because he didn’t win the blue ribbon and the praise from the teacher. He blamed his recent drop in popularity on the Prime Minister calling attention to his ‘jetlag’ gaffe, but the truth may have more to do with his apparent willingness to disparage without foundation anyone or anything that may stand in his way – in effect, to be the backstabber he accuses Gillard of being. Remember, Abbott still considers himself the Prime Minister-in-waiting.
What kind of Prime Minister builds his argument for legitimacy of government by tearing down the foundations of the country?
Yesterday, Abbott described himself as the gatekeeper for the nation’s values. ‘I am the standard bearer for values and ideals which matter and which are important,’ he said. Which values might those be? That the ends justify the means? That it doesn’t matter who or what is damaged, discredited or torn down, as long as power is ‘properly’ vested in the ‘legitimate’ contender (Abbott himself)? Or that, while truth might be the first casualty of war, integrity is the first casualty of politics?
* I refuse to call it the ‘War on Terror’. That title is nonsensical – we are at war with Afghani people, not some abstract emotion.