As far as the insular Canberra parliamentary press gallery stories go, this surely takes the cake. For 2015 at least.
In The Sydney Morning Herald on Wednesday, James Massola reported that Liberal Party MPs are “increasingly frustrated by a ‘resistance movement’ that has sprung up around former prime minister Tony Abbott”. Massola named the members of the so-called “resistance movement” as Abbott, Kevin Andrews, Andrew Nikolic and Michael Sukkar — all of whom have spoken out on national security and foreign policy matters in recent weeks.
So what’s going on? According to the Herald’s political correspondent, it is this. A group of “like-minded conservatives have been attending lunches on Tuesdays in parliamentary sitting weeks that are organised by Immigration Minister Peter Dutton”. Gosh. The room is called the “Monkey Pod”. Really. And, at the most recent lunch, Abbott brought along “cake for his colleagues”. Well now.
According to Massola, it is the “overwhelming view” of a dozen (anonymous) Liberal MPs that the former prime minister’s “supporters are hanging on to the last vestiges of the Abbott days when conservatives thought they could do or say whatever they liked”.
What a beat-up. A serious “resistance movement” would hardly come together in Parliament House’s “Monkey Pod” on a Tuesday to resist Malcolm Turnbull.
The essential point, which Massola neglected, is that the change in leadership from Abbott to Turnbull has gone relatively smoothly. There have been no serious leaks by supporters of the former prime minister out of cabinet or the partyroom aimed at damaging Turnbull. That’s what real political resisters do.
Abbott and his remaining supporters should be expected to behave professionally in the interests of the Liberal Party — which, so far, they have all done. They cannot realistically be expected to say nothing on the big international and national matters of the day.
Yet there is a view developing in the Canberra press gallery, and in other parts of the media, that the former prime minister and his supporters should be silent.
I was surprised, on the ABC’s Insiders panel last Sunday, to find the Guardian Australia’s Katharine Murphy and The Courier-Mail’s Dennis Atkins wanted to close down debate in Australia about the response to the so-called Islamic State, or Daesh.
Writing in The Australian on November 17, Abbott had argued the US, Britain, France and Australia — along with Turkey, Egypt and Jordan — “should be prepared to contribute more to a military campaign to destroy the terrorist caliphate on the ground in Syria and Iraq”. This “could involve less restrictive targeting rules for airstrikes and the deployment of special forces on the ground in support of local forces”.
Abbott was not critical of the Turnbull government’s approach to national security policy. He was merely arguing that nations opposed to Islamic State, including Australia, could do more. That’s all. Yet some journalists, who normally would be expected to encourage debate and discussion, do not want to hear from Abbott.
On Insiders, Murphy, who is a fine journalist, said Abbott’s contribution was unnecessary and it was unfortunate he chose “to muddy the waters”. In other words, only the Turnbull position should be heard on this complicated issue of national security after the attack on Paris. Atkins, another good journalist, said it “was confusing for a lot of people in Australia if the former prime minister expressed a different view to his successor”. Murphy weighed in: “Pity the poor voter.”
The fact is electors are pretty smart and do not need protection from journalists. In any event, Abbott’s position has substantial, if not majority, support. Monday’s Newspoll indicated 42 per cent of Australians were in favour of committing ground troops to Iraq and Syria to fight Islamic State. Some 45 per cent are opposed, with 13 per cent uncommitted.
Murphy and Atkins are not the only journalists who are of the view that, right now, Abbott should be seen but not heard. On November 15, The Australian Financial Review’s Phil Coorey referred to Abbott’s concern some of the Islamic State terrorists who attacked Paris could be “refugee arrivals” as a “tawdry” contribution to the debate. In fact, this is of real concern to Francois Hollande, France’s Socialist President. Last Saturday, Coorey accused Abbott of acting “passively-aggressively” with respect to Turnbull and alleged he was “eroding the people’s trust in the government to protect them”. The opinion polls indicate the Turnbull government enjoys the trust of the electorate.
In the same paper on the same day, Andrew Clark ran much the same argument, maintaining “there’s something distinctly ordinary about politicians on the same side sniping during … a grave political crisis”. Last Tuesday, Paul Bongiorno, on ABC Radio National’s Breakfast , told an approving Fran Kelly that Abbott was “flicking the switch to khaki and trying to scare the pants off a nation”.
Warming to his self-initiated hyperbole, the left-wing Bongiorno alleged Abbott was presiding over a “government in exile” and that “the chief bomb thrower is Kevin Andrews”. Andrews’s sin was to argue on Sky News that it will be necessary for the opponents of Islamic State to put special forces, not vast armies, in the field in Iraq and Syria to engage Islamic State. This view is widely heard in the US and Europe.
There is no easy solution to the threat posed by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and to attacks by radical Islamists (including Islamic State) in Beirut, Paris, New York, Mumbai, Bamako in Mali and Baga in Nigeria, along with Sydney and Melbourne. That’s why the more voices that are heard in the debate, the better.
Members of the press gallery did not call for Turnbull to be silent in July when he, as communications minister, gave a speech to the Sydney Institute on national security that was different in tone from that of the then prime minister. What was good enough for minister Turnbull in June should be good enough for backbencher Abbott in November.
If Australian journalists do not welcome debate on this issue, well, let them eat cake.