News National Embattled Malcolm Turnbull goes on a war footing
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Embattled Malcolm Turnbull goes on a war footing

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The Prime Minister announced Lieutenant General Angus Campbell as the new Chief of the Defence Force on Monday. Photo: AAP
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Before he jets off to discuss international security in London, Brussels and Berlin, Malcolm Turnbull has announced a new Australian Defence Force chief and made sure he is in lock step with Donald Trump.

Mr Turnbull says the appointment of the hero of Operation Sovereign Borders, Lieutenant General Angus Campbell, to the top defence job before he departed for Europe was a “coincidence”.

But it did provide a welcome aura of authority to an embattled leader, as he stood surrounded by the nation’s top brass in his Parliament House courtyard. It was a handy reinforcement of Mr Turnbull’s claim to be the best person to ensure Australians are safe behind secure borders and in complete harmony with our great ally the United States.

It is no secret the new Defence Force chief is a particular favourite of senior ministers Peter Dutton and Scott Morrison for the way he successfully implemented refugee boat turnbacks and told the media it could go jump over details on how he did it.

It was Lieutenant General Campbell who said details of “on-water operational issues” could not be divulged. The suspicion is that secrecy was needed because these “matters” were at best dubious under international law. Just look at the way Indonesian sovereign maritime borders were breached and the resultant forced apologies from Canberra.

But international law is dispensable in the face of political expediency. Our ‘all the way with the USA’ over its weekend missile strikes in Syria is a case in point. Although it should be noted the Labor opposition lined up with the government on this one.

Former defence secretary Paul Barrett says the air strikes lacked UN Security Council authority, Mr Trump lacked congressional support, and the United Kingdom’s Theresa May avoided a querulous parliament. In other words, the strikes were a clear breach of international law.

It makes Mr Turnbull’s indignant condemnation of Syria’s gas attacks more than a tad hypocritical. He said: “The use of chemical weapons by anyone, anywhere, under any circumstances is illegal.”

He would have been safer to say “abhorrent”.

Mr Barrett is not the only commentator who believes Ms May’s and France’s Emmanuel Macron’s weak political standing at home was a key motivator in them quickly backing Mr Trump. It made them look stronger leaders.

Apart from Australia’s “moral” support our military was not involved in the air strikes, but the Prime Minister is merely following the precedent of other Australian PMs when he signalled we are ready, willing and able, if called upon.

Who knows, like Sir Robert Menzies and our Vietnam War involvement, we may ask to be invited.

“We are obviously talking to our ally, the United States, constantly,” Mr Turnbull assured us.

The next 10 days overseas will be a definite respite for Mr Turnbull. He leaves behind at least four leadership aspirants who have begun jockeying for his job.

The destruction of the leader is inevitable when that genie is out of the bottle, according to one seasoned backbencher who has seen it all before.

The leaking of a story at the weekend accusing Mr Turnbull of investing $1 million in a contentious fund that profits from Australian companies who fail is a sure sign destabilisation is in full swing.

There may be something of a truce on the World War I battlefield at Villers Bretonneux. Tony Abbott has been invited to join him at the opening of the new $100 million museum commemorating the heroics of Australia’s diggers.

Hostilities are sure to resume.

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

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