Going wobbly on the war

2013-04-24 04.49.50 amNICK CATER

From The Australian, March 4, 2014

PETER Coleman once wrote about bohemians who met at Sherry’s coffee shop in wartime Sydney to consider “more important things” than the war.

Nowadays the bohemians are organising the Opposition Leader’s diary and have decided that there were more pressing matters to attend to than welcoming home our troops in Darwin after their longest ever war.

Fortunately Seven Network’s Mark Riley persuaded Bill Shorten to change his mind. Riley’s no-show Bill story aired on Friday’s 6pm news. By 6.30pm the bohemians had managed to find a flight. Three hours later Shorten was wedged in an economy seat adopting the conventional Jetstar position; his knees pushed firmly against his chin.

Wittingly or unwittingly, Stephen Conroy’s attack on the integrity of a three-star general and Shorten’s diary omission have taken Labor into dangerous territory. The party may be falling out of step, not just with the military, but popular sentiment.

When Labor split over conscription during World War I, prime minister Billy Hughes knew better than to succumb to the “Wobblies”, the Left-wing radicals inspired by the anti-war Industrial Workers of the World.

The Wobblies preferred the “whiff of anarchist bomb plots and folksy songs” to “winning votes and civilising capitalism”, writes Tony Moore in Dancing With Empty Pockets. Hughes took the decisive step of declaring the Wobblies illegal.

In 1966 during the Vietnam War, Arthur Calwell led Labor to its heaviest defeat in history on a platform of anti-conscription that some voters saw as undermining our troops.

When Gough Whitlam succeeded him as opposition leader in February 1967, he was decidedly cautious about being associated with the anti-war movement, understanding that causes that stouten hearts on university campuses sit awkwardly with the broader population.

Since the 1960s, the ABC has proved to be a treacherous guide to public sentiment on defence matters.

Among the ABC’s earliest controversies was a Four Corners demolition job on the RSL produced and presented by Allan Ashbolt, the father of activist public broadcasting.

Ashbolt marched alongside Jim Cairns on moratorium marches and famously wrestled a pro-war protester to the ground at a public meeting. In November 1971, This Day Tonight interviewed a draft resister live in the ABC’s Gore Hill studio and then allowed him to escape through a back door to evade waiting police.

On the eve of the first Gulf War in December 1990, the ABC’s international service, Radio Australia, stopped its two-hour daily service of messages to Australian sailors in the Gulf. Radio Australia’s acting general manager, Geoff Heriot, said to do so would be tantamount to offering “overt support for a government military/political endeavour”.

When military action began a month later, The 7.30 Report chose as its regular expert commentator Macquarie University’s Robert Springborg, who was an outspoken opponent of military action. Prime minister Bob Hawke attacked the corporation as “loaded, biased and disgraceful”.

Throughout the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns, it became clear that the ABC could not be trusted to provide a balanced picture of a modern military campaign. Setbacks and suffering were played up; successes were played down. When the murderous Saddam Hussein was captured and later sentenced to death, the ABC’s presenters and reporters agonised about the lack of judicial process.

The extra-judicial killing of Osama bin Laden was greeted with hand-wringing about the denial of civil rights. David Hicks was a hero; George W. Bush a dangerous fool. The illegitimacy of the wars was assumed from the start and the script was utterly predictable.

Many at the ABC see nothing wrong in reporting unfounded allegations of brutality by naval personnel towards asylum-seekers. If it wasn’t true, it is the kind of thing that ought to be true.

Is it reasonably likely that trained military personnel would act in such a brutal fashion? In the mindset of the anti-military camp at the ABC, the answer is plainly yes. Naturally there is no such thing as “groupthink” at the ABC – heavens no! – but the military must change its ways to deal with its “institutional culture”.

The obsession with what is wrong with the forces and the reluctance to recognise the stirling qualities of discipline, self-sacrifice and professionalism grate with the broader population.

This exchange from 2011 between ABC 774 Melbourne’s Jon Faine and his listeners over gender balance serves to illustrate two irreconcilable world views.

Faine: “It is suddenly all heat on the generals over discrimination where there is unbelievable ineptitude at every level of their job. How do you engineer change?

Organisationally it seems like it’s a mess. And at the moment some of the top brass are being portrayed as dinosaurs.”

Michael in Keilor East: “I’ll take a different stance on this. They’re not trying to keep them out of the defence force at all, it is a protective thing. I would never want to see my wife go overseas to fight.”

Faine: “Michael I’m sure that you are aware that there are now going to be howls of outrage from people saying you’re joking!”

Moira from Tasmania: “I was appalled by what you said Jon. We’ve got our soldiers overseas, their lives are on the line, and all these negative things are being said about our military. We’ve had a wonderful military.”

For politicians, this is the most treacherous category of cultural debate, one that pits the Wobblies and bohemians against Australians like Michael and Moira.

Clearly there are some Australians, Conroy among them, who think it is entirely possible that the Australian military would stoop to follow the base political objectives of the government of the day and that Operation Sovereign Borders is not an exercise in defending the nation but an elaborate political stunt.

Many more Australians, however, find these ideas preposterous. They are embarrassed the opposition defence spokesman would have made the allegation under the cloak of legal privilege attached to the proceedings a federal parliamentary committee.

There is no room for indifference. You either enlist or you do not. Either Conroy is on to something or he is completely barking mad.