News Paul Bongiorno: Atrocious decisions all the way up the chain of command
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Paul Bongiorno: Atrocious decisions all the way up the chain of command

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Scott Morrison has pulled rank over the Chief of the Defence Force and wittingly or unwittingly has exposed who really is the Prime Minister.

He is the one who may not hold a hose or a gun or indeed hit the computer button illegally assigning repayment notices but has a grave responsibility for the consequences of the policies he or his predecessors in government have put in place.

There are dramatic issues to make the point.

The Opposition, with a fair bit of evidence, questions what lessons on bushfire unpreparedness have been learned after not one cent of the $4 billion Emergency Relief fund has been spent.

And that’s before you mention inaction on climate change, the scientifically linked cause of the catastrophic holocaust last summer.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison takes a back seat to NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian at the Wollondilly Emergency Control Centre in Sydney in December. Photo: AAP

Then there is the Robodebt $1.2 billion scandal that the Prime Minister, the architect of the scheme says wasn’t his fault despite three years of warnings on its questionable legality from the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and the anxiety, often extreme for thousands.

These were the years in which Scott Morrison was the Government Services Minister, Treasurer or Prime Minister trumpeting the success in protecting the budget bottom line.

The Afghanistan war crimes outrage, though, shows Mr Morrison’s propensity to blame shift are increasingly lacking credibility.

Last week the CDF, General Angus Campbell was under the clear impression Mr Morrison had left it completely to him to respond to the shocking Brereton report into allegations against Australian soldiers committing murder and other war crimes in Afghanistan.

Chief of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) General Angus Campbell. Photo: AAP

General Campbell immediately accepted one key Brereton recommendation.

The General announced he was writing to the Governor-General to have the meritorious unit citations revoked for special operations task groups who served  between 2007and 2013.

Two days later Mr Morrison, sniffing the public backlash, made it plain the final decision was not yet made and on the weekend the Defence Department in a statement unsurprisingly agreed.

The Prime Minister said it is “important that not only is there accountability in the defence forces … but also for the chain of command”.

It is timely to remember who set in train this chain of command; none other than the duly elected government of the day.

The chain goes all the way up the ladder out of Defence HQ and lands on the Prime Minister’s desk.

As lawyer and former senior federal public servant Ian Cunliffe wrote in Pearls And Irritations, “our prime ministers and other senior ministers must bear the greatest responsibility for atrocious decisions to involve us in wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Vietnam”.

In our longest war, Afghanistan, it was successive prime ministers who kept our Special Forces committed for 20 rotations – many doing up to six tours of duty, which contributed to their degrading loss of a moral compass.

The Greens are now calling for Parliament alone to have the power to send our troops overseas to war.

Jordon Steele-John said the government alone cannot be trusted to decide about entering overseas conflicts. Photo: AAP

Greens peace spokesperson senator Jordon Steele-John says “after the strategic failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, the executive cannot be trusted to make the decision alone to enter into armed conflict overseas”.

Indeed after eight years of our forces being recommitted to Afghanistan with a shifting if not illusive mission statement, PM Tony Abbott finally blew the whistle.

Cunliffe quoted Mr Abbott saying the withdrawal was “not with victory, nor with defeat’’.

He remarks, “politicians can spin anything”.

And as if to prove the point, Mr Morrison last week tried to spin his way out of his responsibility for the biggest class action in Australian history that cost taxpayers millions and that he stubbornly persisted with until a massive legal action forced his surrender.

He refused to agree with 2GB’s Ben Fordham that the scheme was over the odds.

“No,” Mr Morrison insisted. “It was found not to be a valid means of raising debt.”

It was, long before his government called off debt collectors aggressively harassing hapless victims.

If Newspoll is to be believed so far the Prime Minister is getting away with his evasions and obfuscations, but the two-point lead in the preferred party lead suggests the government hasn’t got a comforting buffer.

Indeed, it is within the margin of error for a lineball result.

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics

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