Comment: The show must go on - why Abbott can't help his symbolic acts

Social Services Minister Scott Morrison, Prime Minister Tony Abbott, and Immigration Minister Peter Dutton laugh before the commencement of discussion with social and religious leaders during a roundtable event at Parliament House in Canberra, Friday, Sept. 11, 2015. Source: AAP

The Abbott government, in a nutshell.

The decision this week by the Abbott government to respond to the crisis in Syria rather symbolised the Abbott government as a whole.

Firstly, it was hesitant to act - with Tony Abbott unable to depart from his message of the past 5 years of linking everything to stopping the boats.

Last week, when the images of the drowned asylum seeker in Turkey appeared across the world’s media, the Prime Minister reacted by saying, “I think a lot of people right around the world are looking at what we’ve done and said, ‘Well, if Australia can stop the people smuggling trade, if Australia can end the deaths at sea, perhaps we can learn from them.’”

It was a particularly ham-fisted way for the Prime Minister to respond, and displayed an abject ignorance of not only the issue, but also the changing public mood. 

By Monday, even the ALP had discovered it could talk about asylum seekers again, and Bill Shorten in parliament challenged the government to match its commitment to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees.

In the end, on Wednesday the government announced it would take in 12,000 Syrian refugees, and would also provide $44m additional funding to the UNHCR.

It was a sizeable commitment.

If it wasn't as large as some hoped, it at least went someway to undoing the policy of the Abbott government upon coming to office - which was cutting our annual refugee intake from 20,000 a year to 13,750.

But the second aspect of the announcement that encapsulated this government was that it was done in a manner which left a bad aftertaste.

On Monday and Tuesday, the more bigoted elements of the LNP and their conservative cheerleaders in the media were calling for any intake of refugees to target Christians over Muslims.

After the party room meeting on Wednesday, in which the figure of 12,000 was decided, the first member of the government to speak to the media was Senator Cory Bernardi - who on ABC radio made it clear that in his view the majority of the 12,000 would be persecuted Christians rather than any other ethnic groups.

When the Prime Minister officially announced the policy that afternoon he stressed that “our focus ... will be those people most in need of permanent protection – women, children and families from persecuted minorities.”

It was odd that he felt the need to stress this – as though he was concerned people might think we would take refugees who were not in need.

It was hard not to read it as his assurance to the bigoted aspects of the community and media that it meant we would not be taking in Muslim men. 

While he was at pains to argue that “persecuted minorities” did not necessarily mean Christians, the Minister for Social Security, Scott Morrison, echoed Cory Bernardi’s belief, that it is indeed Christians who will be making up the majority of the 12,000.

Mr Morrison told the media that “I think there can be no question about the fact that the persecuted minorities which are predominantly Middle Eastern Christians are those who face the bleakest long term prospects in that region”.

The third aspect of the announcement that symbolised the government was that it came with a link to national security.

Even while announcing that Australia would only be taking in “women, children and families – the most vulnerable of all”, the Prime Minister hastened to add that “everyone who is resettled in Australia will be subject to the usual security, health and character checks”.

He stressed that “these checks are absolutely necessary. We must play our part in this humanitarian crisis but as Prime Minister I must always act in our national interest to promote community safety”.

It was an absurd addition. Did anyone think that normal security procedures would be dropped? Thus the announcement carried with it the sense that our compassion should always be tethered with a sense of mistrust of those seeking asylum.

Some things should be left unsaid.

To underscore the link with national security, the decision was tied with the other major announcement of the week that Australia would begin bombing ISIS in Syria.

No one was in any doubt that we would be doing this – the government has been champing at the bit to do so. Astonishingly a report in the Daily Telegraph suggested Tony Abbott wanted a strike to occur by the end of the week.

It perfectly showed how the decision had bugger all to do with military strategy or national security and more about a Prime Minster desperate to have another national security announcement.

So lacking in any military necessity is this decision that it will not cost anything extra because Australian forces will not actually be flying more missions, just flying them in a different place.

All the decision means is that we will now bomb Syria rather than Iraq, and as a consequence USA forces will most likely fly the missions that we otherwise would have flown in Iraq.

In all likelihood, as is the case with Canada, which expanded its role into Syria in March, it will be very limited. In that time, Canadian forces had conducted just 4 missions over Syria.

But with this decision came the standard question with all military conflicts in the Middle East – when and how will it end?

Again, on this we saw an encapsulation of the government – namely that of incompetence.

Kevin Andrews, the Minister for Defence, and thus someone who you would hope would have some understanding of the task at hand, told Channel 9 that he thought a 2-3 year time frame was about right.

No one else thought that anywhere near probable.

The Prime Minster quickly rebuked him – putting no timeframe on it at all.

And just as well, because Tony Abbott suggested the aim of the bombings was “a Middle East comprised of governments which don’t commit genocide against their own people nor permit terrorism against ours”.

Given that would mean ousting the Assad regime in Syria – a regime which will actually be assisted by our actions in Syria against ISIS – it suggests we have a very long way to go, and a great deal of mission creep ahead.

Greg Jericho is an economics and politics blogger and writes for The Guardian and The Drum.

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