So like many people, my default position on Eric Abetz is that he is a bigoted political dinosaur who is only still in office because he must know where a lot of bodies are buried. But I would rarely be prompted to write anything about his behaviour because it is usually a case of, “Yes Abetz is ridiculously out of touch, but what is new?” but recent actions by Abetz and the equally arrogant Kevin Andrews even surprised me.
Although it is tempting not to, I try to credit men like these as being a little misguided but still partially motivated by a desire to serve their country.
As an MP who cares about the good of your country, when the director-general of ASIO calls you personally to tell you that inflammatory anti-Muslim rhetoric is counterproductive and could constitute a threat to national security, I reckon the responsible thing to do would be to listen to the man who is vastly more qualified and better informed than you and have a good think about your behaviour. In fairness to the backbenchers who director-general Lewis spoke to, they did pretty much that. You wouldn’t think someone with any sense of responsibility to the nation they represent would politicise this, but Abetz was quick to tell the media that the ASIO chief had no place passing on his concerns to backbenchers, who he presumably felt should be able to say exactly what they want, without any need for expert advice.
He almost used this exact line a few weeks later to defend Kevin Andrews’ ill-advised contribution to the national security debate this week. Andrews tried to use his status as former (read ‘fired’) Defence Minister to provide legitimacy for his criticism of Marise Payne’s decision to deny a US request for a commitment of more troops to the fight against IS. Now I don’t pretend to be better informed than our military experts, but I tip my hat to Ms Payne and Mr Turnbull for having the courage to not jump the moment the request, came but to actually consider their military and intelligence analyses of the situation. In this case, the opinion was that Western troops in this war could be counterproductive on several fronts, hence the answer Ms Payne gave.
Despite his references to out of date advice he received as Minister before being fired, as a backbencher with no access to current analysis of the situation, Andrews must know his public outburst counts for little in a policy sense. What it does try to do, is wedge Malcolm Turnbull politically and promote the narrative that Andrews should never have been removed from the Ministry. When a politician is willing to use national security as a political chip to undermine his own government, it speaks volumes about their worthiness to manage the Defence portfolio and shows how entirely appropriate his replacement in that position was.
Instead of being uncomfortable that one of his ultraconservative mates was publically backing his own gut instincts ahead of current advice by military experts, Eric Abetz was quick to add his agreement. He justified his words with the statement that it was the job a backbencher to speak their mind. He even said that with a straight face despite, his previous job as Government Whip being to pretty much tell backbenchers not to speak their minds and to agree with party policy.
Is this the same as Turnbull and other moderate coalition MPs giving their opinions on things such as marriage equality in 2015? Not entirely. Issues like marriage equality (which should not even be a debate) are not ones that a minister needs get up to date classified briefings on. The information on the subject material is readily available and doesn’t require complex analysis so it is perfectly reasonable for MPs to publically voice different opinions to the party line (which isn’t to say that Turnbull was not doing so to pressure Abbott politically). Issues of national security are not the same because few MPs even get access to the full information.