News National ‘Wartime PM’ Abbott fighting battles of yesteryear

‘Wartime PM’ Abbott fighting battles of yesteryear

Tony Abbott
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My father’s memory is of a tall and handsome young man, khaki clad, legs swathed in putties with a bayonet swung by his side.

In fact, Private Stan Smith was only 167 centimetres tall but to a five-year-old he was a towering figure. His 21-year-old uncle had come to say goodbye before he joined thousands of other Australian volunteers fighting for “God, King and Empire”.

My grandmother was her brother’s nominated next of kin. He set sail for the Middle East in December 1914. He survived the first day of the Gallipoli landing on April 25 the next year, only to be killed in action two days later.

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My father’s next recollection in his memoirs is standing by his mother’s knee as she wept reading the telegram of her brother’s death.

Lone pine memorial
The Lone Pine Memorial on the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey. Photo: AAP

Through her tears her only consolation was the thought, repeated often: “The best are always taken first.”

One hundred years later Turkey is again figuring prominently in another Australian military imbroglio in the vicinity – Tony Abbott, on his way to commemorate the centenary of an inglorious defeat, has a new mission.

The Prime Minister will urge Ankara’s Islamist president, Recep Tayip Erdogan, to do more to secure his borders against Islamic State volunteers. Turkey is a favourite route for Australians beguiled by the militant fundamentalism of ISIL to enter Iraq and Syria.

Australian soldiers at Anzac, Gallipoli during World War I. Date: 17 December 1915.

It will be a tough ask. The host of the ceremonies is keen to define the eight-month battle for the Gallipoli Peninsula as a victory for Allah over western infidels.

Whatever the Prime Minister’s chances there, the ceremonies do give Mr Abbott a golden opportunity to strut his stuff as leader of the nation. But his doubters on the Liberal backbench harbour some cynicism about this.

While the Opposition was in lockstep on the decision to send 300 more troops to Iraq as military trainers, not all of his own are so convinced. Some see the mission creep as a transparent attempt to protect himself against challenge. There’s nothing like being a wartime prime minister.

How Mr Abbott seizes the moment in the televised dawn service from Anzac Cove will be instructive. He is instinctively an empire sentimentalist. He doesn’t share former Prime Minister John Howard’s view that the “old myths about the relationship” with Britain are dying. His high-handed restoration of knights and dames was sure proof of this as is his insistence that the British crown is a guarantor of our democratic freedoms.

Bill Shorten certainly doesn’t share this worldview. In line with his Labor predecessor, Paul Keating, he insists that what we lost and gained in that terrible war did not belong to Britain.

“It is wholly, utterly Australian,” he said.

“It was Australia they loved, it was Australia who mourned their loss.”

And according to my late father it was “a senseless slaughter”. He expressed an enduring sentiment about the Gallipoli campaign. He saw his young uncle’s death as “a sacrifice that achieved exactly nothing”.

The weekend arrest of five Islamic extremists in Melbourne tends to lend weight to the view that the real battle for our national security is much closer to home.

An argument that’s now one hundred years old.

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

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