The skirmish as to whether Julia Gillard or Tony Abbott is playing politics with the Opposition Leader’s recent visit to Afghanistan overlooks a more important issue. For the first time since the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Labor is attempting to present itself as more supportive of the Australian army in the field of battle than its political opponents.

On The World Today last Tuesday, Sabra Lane reported that the Prime Minister’s advisers had pointed out that Abbott was offered a seat on the RAAF plane that took Gillard to Afghanistan but he had declined. The line seemed to be that the Prime Minister had given priority to visiting the Australian Defence Force at war but the Opposition Leader had other commitments.

Since then, Abbott has visited the Australian forces who are part of the Special Operations Task Group in Oruzgan province.

Gillard and Kevin Rudd both opposed Australia’s involvement in the Coalition of the Willing that invaded Iraq in 2003 and overthrew Saddam Hussein and his regime. In the US, Barack Obama took a similar stance, while Hillary Clinton supported the decision taken by George Bush, Tony Blair and John Howard. Both Obama and Rudd endorsed US military action in Afghanistan and, when in office, increased their country’s military forces there.

So far, Gillard and her advisers have said that they have no intention of increasing Australia’s military commitment in Afghanistan. But last week the Prime Minister indicated that she would consider an increase in numbers or weapons if this were requested by Angus Houston, the Chief of the Defence Force. This is unusual behaviour for an ALP leader, since Labor is not inclined to endorse overseas military commitments involving the Australian army.

Shortly before the outbreak of World War I, when in opposition, the Labor leader Andrew Fisher declared that Australia would fight to the last man and the last shilling in backing Britain against Germany. The ALP remained supportive of the Allied commitment until hostilities ceased in November 1918. When in government, however, Labor split over conscription in 1916 and its leader Billy Hughes joined what became the Nationalist Party (a precursor to today’s Liberal Party). From the time of the split over conscription, Labor’s backing for the war effort was less intensive than it had been.

After World War I, Labor became wary of overseas military engagements. In September 1939, Robert Menzies committed Australia to support Britain in its declaration of war on Germany. Labor, under the leadership of John Curtin, did not oppose the war effort, as such, but it was against the deployment of the ADF to Europe and North Africa.

Labor, with Curtin as prime minister, did support Australia’s involvement in the Pacific War after December 1941 but, due to internal opposition, was not able to introduce universal military conscription.

Labor endorsed Australia’s commitment in Korea because it had the sanction of the United Nations. The ALP was in opposition in the early 1950s and did not take a high profile in the debate. The ALP opposed Australia’s commitment to the Malayan Emergency in the early 1960s, the defence of Malaya against the communist insurgency. Labor supported the commitment of ADF forces in defence of Malaysia against Indonesia’s Confrontation in 1965 but opposed the Vietnam commitment in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

During Bob Hawke’s prime ministership, Australia backed the first Gulf War. Yet the Hawke government declined to commit ground or air forces – only the navy took part in Operation Desert Storm.

In some nine decades, Labor has only supported the deployment of ground forces far away from Australian shores on three occasions: the Korean, Confrontation and Afghanistan commitments. Only the latter involved an incumbent Labor government.

There has been considerable media focus on the forthcoming parliamentary debate on Afghanistan, which has come about as a consequence of the Labor-Greens agreement. This should not prove difficult for either the Prime Minister or the Opposition Leader. In fact, it may benefit Gillard, since she will be able to use the occasion to demonstrate that her government is not dependent on Senator Bob Brown and the Greens.

There are a few MPs in both Labor and the Coalition who are not in agreement with Australia’s role in Afghanistan. But not many.

In the short term, the debate is likely to demonstrate that, despite personal animosities, Gillard and Abbott essentially agree on foreign policy.