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The Afghanistan debate arrives

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26 August 2010 14:09

Australia avoided an Afghanistan debate during the election campaign but the election result will now deliver it. A hung Parliament has to be polite to independents and the Greens. Part of that politeness will mean a painful examination of the Afghanistan consensus that has been so useful for both Labor and the Coalition.

The consensus between the two sides of politics has not informed debate. Rather, the stay-the-course response has been both the beginning and the end of the discussion for both sides of politics. Australia has certainly agonised over Afghanistan. The Defence Force, the bureaucracy, strategists and wonks have argued long, hard and deep.

Judging by the opinion polls, the Australian people embrace their troops while increasingly  giving the thumbs down to the conflict and the commitment. What has been absent has been any stirring on the Parliamentary stage or any willingness by the Coalition and Labor to step beyond a policy consensus that amounts to a political armistice.

The political ‘don’t argue’ policy has been coming under mounting pressure as the bodies of more young diggers return to grieving families. The new parliamentary equation cracks the Labor-Liberal armistice.

The outgoing Defence Minister, John Faulkner, acknowledged the shift by embracing the Greens’ call for a parliamentary debate:

Look, I very much support parliamentary debate and of course also community debate and discussion on Afghanistan. Since I've been Defence Minister every session of the Parliament, that's four sessions, I have brought down, I think, a very detailed, extensive and frank Ministerial Statement on Afghanistan including both progress, strengths and wherever we feel there might be weaknesses but a very frank assessment of progress and I very much commend that approach to whoever succeeds me as Minister for Defence.

I also believe that it is appropriate for the Parliament to give full consideration to this matter, it is appropriate when a country is involved in a war for parliamentary discussion to take place.

Faulkner is saluting a new political reality. He is also nodding to the truth that as Defence Minister he faced serious questions from Australian soldiers about the purpose and policy of the Afghanistan commitment.

Faulkner’s Parliamentary statements were an important step beyond the previous habit of merely charting the war through Senate Estimates hearings and Defence press releases. The politicians are going to have to pick up the policy load. The constitutional responsibility is clear. So, too, is the media age onus.

John Howard initiated the custom of the Prime Minister going to the funerals of serving diggers. Rudd and Gillard have followed. The TV images ask muted questions that must now be confronted in the Parliament.

The debate Australia is embarking on will need to look back as well as forward. The rear view will ask hard questions of the major parties, on both Iraq and Afghanistan. And the argument will reach well beyond Afghanistan to force some contemplation of the alliance with the United States.

The angst in the argument will be the lack of clear answers. Andrew Wilkie has won for himself an unusual status in looking at what Australia has done in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Most immediate attention has been given to Wilkie’s ‘great lie’ comment, that ‘a lie told by both the Labor Party and the Liberal Party, is that we have to be there [Afghanistan] to fight terrorists for Australia's national security’.

As the debate grows, equal attention will be paid to his more nuanced point. Pulling out quickly from Afghanistan will confront Australia with excruciating choices:

It is clear that on one hand there needs to be foreign forces in Afghanistan to create the stability to allow the government to establish itself but on the other hand it’s the very presence of those forces which is fuelling this ongoing war, mostly by nationalists not by terrorists. Ultimately, we have to get out as quickly as we can and let Afghanistan find its own natural political level and a lot of people will die in the process.

Photo by Flickr user Christopher Chan, used under a Creative Commons license.

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