The Abbott government has tried to prevent the Labor Party from speaking publicly on the nation’s military involvement in Iraq, hinting at a fraying bipartisanship between the two major parties on national security.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Tony Abbott pledged another 300 troops to the Middle East to train the Iraqi army, which is fighting back against the Islamic State terror group.
Contrary to tradition, the PM chose not to officially announce this in Parliament, despite an invitation from the Labor Party, thereby thwarting the Opposition’s response.
Labor leader Bill Shorten tried to read out a four-page speech anyway, but was quickly told to sit down by Speaker Bronwyn Bishop, prompting outrage from the shadow frontbench.
After minutes of confusion, Mr Abbott relented, saying he was “happy” to make a statement to which Mr Shorten could respond.
“The last thing I would like, I would want, was to have the Opposition feel that they were deprived of a full statement from the government,” he said, before launching into a short speech.
When finally allowed to speak, Mr Shorten, who was briefed on the troop deployment an hour before question time, hinted at an ever so slightly different “bipartisan” position to the government.
The new deployment “likely accords with Labor’s principles”, he said, but noted that the “swamp of terrorism” could not be defeated by training alone.
“We need a social, political and economic solution,” Mr Shorten said.
This came after at least one Labor MP reportedly voiced concerns about ‘mission creep’ in a caucus meeting, warning of the danger that gradual troop deployments could morph into all-out conflict.
Monash University political analyst Dr Zareh Ghazarian told The New Daily that Labor was clearly worried about having combat troops on the frontline, but had so far been trapped in the “real tricky” position of supporting the government.
“It’s just basic politics that if the government makes a statement that they believe will safeguard national security, then the opposition really is then in a difficult position,” he said.
“I can sense the frustration of the Labor Party that it needs to be promoting its own policy and legislative agenda, but on national security, on issues of defence it’s very hard for oppositions to do so.”
The Prime Minister has probably used national security as an “electoral weapon” to resurrect his popularity after a disastrous few months, Dr Ghazarian said.
“It’s very cynical for us to say that it’s being used as an electoral weapon, but I think the numbers suggest that is the case,” he said.
Shadow foreign minister Tanya Plibersek told Sky News that Australians remember the “disaster” of the previous Iraqi conflict and are wary of further escalation, but still gave her party’s “conditional” support to the plan.
“It’s important that the Prime Minister and the government explain to the Australian people what exactly our troops will be doing, what mechanism they will use to measure success, and what the exit strategy will be,” Ms Plibersek said.
Earlier this week, UNSW law expert Dr Fergal Davis argued that bipartisanship on issues of national security is a threat to civil liberties.
Labor has so far supported the government’s foreign fighter laws and data retention plan, but cracks are emerging.
The offices of the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader did not respond to requests for comment.