There are conflicting forces at play as Australia wrestles with a resurgent terrorist threat.
Our nation was one of the first to put its hand up to go into Iraq, yet we are still waiting to join the United States and others who were much more reluctant in firing up their forces. And while the government embarks on another Iraqi mission, it is attempting to limit the freedom of the press to report on it.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was ice cool when asked why Australian forces seemed to be twiddling their thumbs.
“I’m surprised you’re asking me why it’s taking so long. We said all along we would be prudent and measured,” she said.
A cabinet meeting is scheduled for Tuesday but the Prime Minister’s office is vague on just when the National Security Committee will press the ‘go’ button as it certainly will. You don’t send eight Super Hornets and 600 personnel to “pre-position” at huge expense unless you mean to be part of the action.
On the sidelines
Bombing raids over Iraq and Syria have been going for a couple of weeks. The fact that we are still in the hangar, as it were, probably demonstrates our involvement is more window dressing than anything else. But it’s dangerous window dressing. Our involvement will, according to a number of experts, make us more of a target for extremists at home.
Eleven years after our first foray into Iraq the Greens make a strong point.
“Recent history suggests we’re going to destabilise the region rather than bring peace and security to it,” says deputy leader Adam Bandt.
Scruples over the mission aren’t the reason for the delay. Ms Bishop says that unlike the United States we do not have a legal framework already in place with Iraq to participate. We do have and have had for at least a month, apparently, the invitation from Baghdad to come and help.
The Foreign Minister is not expecting Syria’s President Bashar Al Assad to call us anytime soon, but she, like the Prime Minister, is leaving open the possibility that the United States might ask us to be involved sometime down the track. Curiously, she is not convinced that the American basis for its air strikes apply to Australia.
Washington is applying Article 51 of the United Nations charter. It talks of the collective right of self defence. Ms Bishop says the government will have to take its own legal advice on whether that will give Canberra the cloak of legitimacy. That begs an important question. If the Islamic State or IS or ISIL is a threat not only to the world but especially to Australia because 60 of our misguided nationals are fighting for it, why isn’t attacking them in Syria also part of our “self-defence”?
Press freedom hit
While these word games are buying time and setting the scene for mission creep and a potential fracturing of bipartisan support, our precious freedoms are being eroded in the Parliament.
Along with the new terror laws which focus on foreign fighters, Labor supported the Liberals in further restricting what the media can report. Out the window went the defence of “public interest” in the disclosing or publishing of information relating to “special intelligence operations”. A 10-year jail sentence will apply to any newshound who falls foul of someone in authority’s judgement that an operation is “special”.
No doubt the more embarrassing to a government the more special the operation will become.
This will have a chilling effect on reporting in this country. As Adam Bandt warns, ”unscrupulous governments use people’s legitimate fears to illegitimately take away their freedoms”.
Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics. He is Contributing Editor for Network Ten, appears on Radio National Breakfast and writes a weekly column on national affairs for The New Daily. He tweets at @PaulBongiorno