Politics before three word slogans

Kym Bergmann / Canberra

The death of Edward Gough Whitlam on October 21 has been met with considerable nostalgia not only for a reforming Prime Minister but for someone who used reason, information and logic to persuade an audience of his case. People argue that it was a different pre-internet, pre-social media age and that the situation would be different if he were attempting to prosecute a case today. On Defence matters, his Government is remembered for matters such as completing our withdrawal from Vietnam, cancelling the DDL frigate on Navy advice and implementing the far-reaching Tange reforms.

As anyone who had a degree of exposure to him – as this writer did – would know, he had an insatiable quest for knowledge, an extraordinary memory and capacity for analysis; and occasional disdain for people who tried to argue without having first done their homework. Those characteristics should be as admirable now as they were when he first entered Parliament in 1952.

This brings us to today and a previous editorial pointing out the lack of informed debate about Australia’s re-deployment to the Middle East. One month later and the situation has not improved in the slightest – and given that the move has bi-partisan political support it seems that the mass media has collectively lost the ability to ask questions not spoon fed to it by the opposing side.

These for both the Government and the Opposition include: what is the role of Turkey in the conflict and why are they not intervening on behalf of the Kurds? Why is the massive air force of Saudi Arabia not conducting airstrikes against the Islamic State? What do the Government and Opposition think about the role of Shia death squads in Iraq? Why did it take so long for our Special Forces troops to receive permission to deploy, why were they sent prematurely to the Middle East and why does their presence not constitute “boots on the ground”? The new Government of Iraq did not appear in any particular hurry to save itself from the onrushing ‘apocalyptic death cult’.

The list of questions is very long, but all we get is that Islamic State is a cult that threatens civilization, including Australia directly. The latest evidence for this is a 17-year old youth mouthing off at a camera and clutching a firearm. Politicians are reported to have seen this as chilling and frightening. Well, here are some other adjectives: sad, miserable and depressing. His young life ruined, no matter what happens from now on. Maybe he was radicalized not by a profound existential loathing for western civilization, but by online jihadi videos and then finally pushed over the edge to threaten our Prime Minister because of the two-week long “burqa ban”. We just don’t know – yet this example is being used along with things like a seized plastic sword to bolster the case that we are on a war footing requiring drastically increased anti-terrorism laws.

Another annoying feature of the non-debate is the occasional flare up of confected outrage that the Islamic State calls itself a “state”. How dare they when they are just a pack of murderers! Well, the Irish Republican Army wasn’t an army and their political beliefs didn’t seem to have much to do with a republic – so maybe they should have been renamed the Irish Murdering Ratbags by politicians and the media. How dare the Liberal Party call itself such a thing when it seeks to muzzle the media – and when was the last time someone from the Labor front bench actually dug a ditch or pushed a wheelbarrow full of coal? Maybe every time we don’t like something the French are doing we should call deep fried thin potato chips Freedom Fries. The possibilities for stupid commentary seem limitless, for which we can all thank the Murdoch newspapers in particular.

Speaking of which, the tragic downing of MH17 deserves a mention in this context. The respected German investigative magazine ‘Der Spiegel’ has reported that the country’s intelligence agency the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND) has concluded that the aircraft was shot down with a missile stolen by separatists from a Ukrainian depot. If correct, it would mean that pro-Russian separatists fired a Ukrainian missile – albeit one originally manufactured in Russia – from Ukrainian territory to destroy a commercial airliner. This is not for a moment to suggest that the report is correct – we don’t know.

Perhaps when our Prime Minister made the provocative claim that the loss of life was caused by a Russian-supplied missile, he had been briefed by the Office of National Assessments to that effect. If so, they must have some very good sources since the official Dutch investigation into the tragedy has not yet been released. The Leader of the Opposition – equipped with even less information – has gone further calling for Russia President Vladimir Putin to be banned from the G-20. Perhaps the mainstream media might like to ask both Mr Abbott and Mr Shorten how it is they are so sure of their facts on matters of national security.

But to conclude on an appropriately lighter note: one of the writer’s many amusing memories of Gough Whitlam was the day in 1983 when it was announced that he had been selected as Australia’s next Ambassador to UNESCO. A young and eager journalist thrust a microphone into his face demanding to know what made him qualified for the job. He glanced at his wristwatch and asked: “how much time do you have”?

One wonders how many of today’s politicians would be in a position to give a similar response.

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