First published in Quadrant April 2016 Edition
Apart from building the country’s wealth, the principal task of government is to keep its citizens safe. When the Abbott government came to office, very few people anticipated a resurgence of Islamist terrorism. In 2013, Prime Minister Gillard had declared the “end of the 9/11 decade”. Likewise, few people expected an activist foreign policy from a new government preoccupied with economic growth and creating jobs. Yet reducing obstacles to trade not only strengthens the national and world economy but also helps to build the trust necessary for more effective global security. At home and abroad, the Abbott government strengthened our national security arrangements and reinforced our international reputation as a reliable partner.
Australia is better placed than most of us imagine to make a difference in the wider world. Our history, our temperament and our capacity make us a relatively easy country to engage with. Unlike France or Britain, we lack a colonial past to complicate the present. Australians are generally easy-going towards others but creative and energetic when faced with problems to solve. As the world’s twelfth-largest economy—and with more-than-proportionate educational, scientific and military capacities—we’re big enough to help but not so big as to dominate (except perhaps in the Pacific).
As prime minister, I was determined to advance our interests, protect our citizens and uphold our values around the world. The best way to do this was usually to be as practically helpful as possible in our dealings with other countries. That meant putting aside the moral posturing of the Rudd years to be a country that said what it meant and did what it said.
An early example of this was the search for Flight MH370. As soon as I heard that the aircraft was missing, I called Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak to offer Australian help. Once it became clear that the plane had come down in Australia’s search and rescue zone, we committed four aircraft and five ships and offered to go fifty-fifty with Malaysia on the costs of the subsequent deep-water search. There was no strict obligation to do so but we had a moral duty to help; and it certainly created much good will with Malaysia, and with China, which had lost more than 150 of its citizens.
Personal contact isn’t everything—it won’t change a nation’s fundamental interests—but it can make a big difference where interests might align. Back in 2012, at the US-Australia leadership dialogue in Washington, the senior Australian members had been invited to afternoon tea with Vice-President Joe Biden. After I referred to former US Speaker Tip O’Neill’s famous aphorism that “all politics is local”, Biden went one better with the lapidary observation that “all politics is personal”.
For me, this seminal truth was well illustrated in the aftermath of the MH17 atrocity when I was able to work readily with the Dutch and Malaysian prime ministers and with the Ukrainian president because of previous encounters at international conferences and commemorations.
Dealing with other national leaders, I tried to start with some acknowledgment that they would appreciate. Telling Japan’s prime minister that Japan was Australia’s “best friend in Asia” annoyed the foreign policy pundits—at least until Shinzo Abe deftly re-characterised our friendship as a “special relationship”. Mostly, though, articulating a significant but often unacknowledged truth turned out to be a good diplomatic ice-breaker.
After all, China’s lifting hundreds of millions of people from the Third World to the middle class in scarcely a generation is the biggest advance in human well-being of all time—and should be acknowledged. India is the world’s emerging democratic superpower. Japan has been an exemplary international citizen for the past seventy years because it learned the right lessons from the Second World War. While Indonesia may not be our biggest economic or security partner, by virtue of its size, proximity and potential it is the relationship we most have to work on. And the United States remains the world’s indispensable nation: the one country with the strength and good will to be the guardian of a liberal, rules-based international order.
I suspect that the Malaysian prime minister was pleasantly surprised with my apology for the way his country had become collateral damage in an Australian domestic argument over people-smuggling. Likewise, I’m sure that the Sri Lankan president was pleased that Australia didn’t join the human rights lobby against the tough but probably unavoidable actions taken to end one of the world’s most vicious civil wars. Certainly, both countries became even stronger partners in the Abbott government’s most urgent initial task: to end the people-smuggling trade that had resulted in more than 1200 deaths at sea, more than 50,000 illegal arrivals by boat and more than $10 billion in border protection budget blow-outs.
In just one month, July 2013, there had been more than 4000 illegal arrivals by boat. Although the Rudd government’s belated announcement of the resumption of offshore processing had reduced the flow to 1500 in September, this could easily have been just a pause before a fresh onslaught that would overwhelm the holding capacity of Nauru and Manus Island. At this scale, the people-smuggling trade was not just a humanitarian disaster; it had become a challenge to our national security. A country that can’t control its borders sooner or later loses control of its future.
Even before being sworn in as prime minister, I had begun meeting with the key border protection agencies. It was pretty obvious that the problem had not been the professional commitment of officials but a former government that couldn’t quite work out whether it wanted to protect our borders or to parade its compassion credentials. I was more than happy to let the officials know, in absolutely unambiguous terms, that the most compassionate thing we could do was stop the deaths at sea by ending the people-smuggling trade. That was their duty: to stop the boats by all lawful means notwithstanding fierce controversy at home and possible tension abroad.
Before the election, the Coalition had said that we’d stop the boats by re-introducing temporary protection visas to deny illegal boat arrivals permanent residency; by restoring offshore processing to deny illegal arrivals access to Australia; and by turning boats around where it was safe to do so. Everyone, including the Indonesians, knew what we had in mind.
As a very early sign of good faith to the Indonesians, I had West Papuan activists, who’d arrived in the Torres Strait claiming asylum, quietly returned to Papua New Guinea. A protest boat seeking to sail from Australia to Indonesian West Papua was prevailed upon never to leave. Quite rightly, the Indonesians regarded vessels leaving Australia for Indonesia without lawful purpose as an affront to their sovereignty—and that exactly matched my government’s attitude to vessels bound for Australia in defiance of our law.
Within four months, what was claimed to be impossible had actually come about. Since January 2014, there have been no successful people-smuggling ventures to Australia. There were three essential elements in this success: first, a unified chain of command through Operation Sovereign Borders to cut through the different priorities of different Australian government agencies; second, the refusal to discuss operational matters on the water to deny people-smugglers the oxygen of publicity; and third, and most importantly, the availability of big orange lifeboats to make turn-arounds work when people-smugglers scuttled their boats.
These were all critical improvements to the Howard government policies that had successfully stopped a much smaller influx of boat people twelve years earlier. Under the Howard government, there had been five successful boat turn-arounds from ten attempts. Under the Abbott government, every turn-around succeeded because there was always the option of providing a boat to ensure that would-be illegal immigrants ended up back where they’d started.
At numerous stages, Operation Sovereign Borders could have foundered. Some media claimed that harsh treatment of boat people was being hidden. Some government lawyers claimed that the operation was beyond power. Some senior officials fretted about the consequences for our relationship with Indonesia. But the government simply had to stop the boats—our national interest and our self-respect as a country demanded it—and succeed we did through an indefatigable resolve to get it done. This determination to make a difference, not just to strike a pose or to indulge in gesture, was at the heart of everything the Abbott government did.
On July 17, 2014, I had expected a day of interviews to talk about the Senate’s repeal of the carbon tax the night before. At about 5.30 a.m., while I was in the police college gym, Sky News started to broadcast that Ukrainian rebels had downed a jetliner with Australians on board. Early morning radio and television increasingly focused on the loss of Flight MH17 and a growing number of Australian casualties.
By mid-morning, I told Parliament that the shooting down of a civilian aircraft by Russian-backed rebels was “not an accident but a crime”, concluding: “the bullying of small countries by big ones, the trampling of justice and decency in the pursuit of national aggrandisement, and reckless indifference to human life should have no place in our world”.
Within twenty-four hours, what became Operation Bring Them Home was under way: the Russian ambassador had been called in to explain; Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was dispatched to the Security Council in New York; Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston was on his way to Kiev as my personal envoy; forensic and tactical police were being pre-positioned in Europe; and, of course, Department of Foreign Affairs consular staff were talking intensively to the families and loved ones of the thirty-eight Australians who were among the 298 who’d been lost from twelve countries.
As the initial shock turned to fury against the Russians and their surrogates, I spoke many times to international leaders: Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib (as their nations, along with Australia, had lost the most citizens); Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko; US President Barack Obama; UK Prime Minister David Cameron; European leaders Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande; plus—of course—the Russian President Vladimir Putin. My points were always the same: the site had to be secured, the bodies had to be recovered, and the perpetrators had to be brought to justice.
For some days, as the television coverage demonstrated, the site was scavenged, the bodies (to the extent they’d been recovered) remained in the hands of rebels unwilling to release them, and Russia continued to claim that Ukrainian provocateurs were responsible; even though US satellite imagery revealed that a missile battery had moved from Russia into Ukraine, fired and (once the target had become known) returned to Russia.
To meet this intolerable situation, the government authorised the Chief of the Defence Force, Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin, to begin discussions with his Dutch counterpart on a joint military recovery mission. Placing substantial numbers of Australian troops within twenty-five miles of a hostile Russian army was a scenario that no one had ever before contemplated. I have never been more relieved than when the freezer cars carrying our dead started to move towards the government-controlled city of Kharkov and armed intervention in the midst of a European war became unnecessary.
Even so, Operation Bring Them Home was a massive undertaking. Eventually, nearly 200 of our police were deployed to Europe to search the site during lulls in the fighting. Nearly 200 Special Forces troops were also in Europe in case anything went wrong. Dozens of officials were there to help with various inquiries, including the criminal investigation into who was responsible for giving the orders and launching the missile. The Foreign Minister and her department did great work swiftly securing a strong Security Council resolution and then obtaining the agreement of the Ukrainian parliament for the deployment of uniformed Australian personnel. Nothing, though, could really ease the heartache of the bereaved families; and eighteen months on, Russia remains unrepentant and unco-operative.
At the APEC meeting in Beijing that November I had my “shirtfront” encounter with President Putin. I stated my view that a Russian-supplied missile had brought down the plane. I didn’t accuse him of direct responsibility but did point out that Russia’s role in fomenting the conflict and supplying the rebels demanded co-operation with the criminal investigation and making amends to the families of the victims. Until this is done, “business as usual” between Australia and Russia is impossible.
I was determined not to let our response to Russia dominate the G20 in Brisbane, held immediately afterwards, which turned out to be a diplomatic triumph for Australia. It was quite a breakthrough to obtain from the world’s biggest economies even a rhetorical commitment to boosting economic growth by getting debt and deficit under control.
As international tensions mount and as flashpoints multiply, Australia’s most important geo-political role is supporting and encouraging the United States. As the current situation in Syria demonstrates, US absence from any major trouble spot creates a vacuum that less high-minded countries will eventually fill. Of course, the most effective form of encouragement is an offer to assist.
In June 2014, on route to Washington for my first visit as prime minister, I’d studied President Obama’s earlier West Point speech where he’d said that America could no longer be the world’s policeman on its own. I sought to reassure him that America need never be alone. Australia may not be America’s most powerful or most important ally but we would strive to be its most dependable one.
Subsequently, we were one of the very first countries to help the US in its efforts to fight the Islamic State death cult: first with humanitarian air drops on Mt Sinjar and elsewhere in Iraq; then with airlifting weaponry to the Kurds; and eventually with air-strikes against terrorist targets, an advise-and-assist mission to the Iraqi special forces, and (with New Zealand) a substantial training role with the Iraqi army. Despite the Turnbull government’s recent decision not to commit specialist troops to ground operations in the Middle East, Australia remains the biggest contributor, after the US, to coalition operations against Islamic State.
The Abbott government’s objective in the Middle East was never to create liberal democracy in a region where (Israel aside) it doesn’t exist. It was merely to support or to foster governments that didn’t commit genocide against their own people or permit terrorism against ours. The gravest repercussions will flow from any failure to succeed in this modest yet hard-to-realise aspiration.
Dealing with militant Islam has become the most pressing security issue of our time. The declaration of a caliphate in June 2014 revealed Islamic State’s global ambitions. By finding ever more brutal ways to kill anyone who didn’t share its version of God, Islamic State confirmed its universal message: “submit or die”.
The creation of a terrorist state in eastern Syria and northern Iraq, plus moves towards a would-be terrorist empire with “provinces” in Nigeria, Libya, Afghanistan, the Philippines and elsewhere, marked a new battle in the long war between militant Islam and everyone else. Australians are rightly reluctant to involve themselves in other people’s fights, but this particular conflict is reaching out to us and will do so until the so-called caliphate is destroyed or until Islam rids itself of all notions of “death to the infidel”.
At the Endeavour Hills police station in Melbourne in September 2014, at the Lindt café at Martin Place in Sydney that December, and at the Parramatta police centre in October last year, Australia had its own brushes with Islamist terrorism. After the terror threat was officially raised from “medium” to “high” in September 2014, at least six further terrorist incidents were averted by timely and targeted arrests. So far, more than forty Australians have been killed fighting with Islamist groups overseas, nearly 200 have left Australia to fight with terrorists, and about the same number are supporting them here with financing and recruitment.
In response, the Abbott government moved to tackle extremism at home as well as abroad. In August 2014, there was a specific $600 million boost to police and security agencies on top of our budget commitment to increase defence spending to 2 per cent of GDP within a decade. As well, there was new legislation widening the ability to arrest terror suspects, to strip citizenship from dual nationals involved with terrorist groups, and to compel carriers to retain information about calls and e-mails for up to two years.
Not everyone supported the Abbott government’s metadata legislation or changes to citizenship. There was a notorious cabinet leak on this issue. Even some colleagues thought I was unwise to use the language of “Team Australia” and “death cult”, and to call on Muslim leaders to do more to denounce terrorism.
We can never abandon civilised values while seeking to defend them; but the balance between civil liberties and national security does have to shift while there are people in our midst pledged to do us harm. The problem is not just terrorism but those who would justify or excuse terrorism without actually advocating it. This was why I decided not to proceed with amending section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. Given the evolving terror threat, I concluded that it was impossible to defend unfettered free speech and, at the same time, to seek to restrict hate preaching.
There is a security dimension to the other big challenge of our time: making the most of the rise of China. Everyone—including Australia, Japan and the United States—has benefited from the rise of China. Australian coal, iron ore and gas have powered China’s economic miracle (as they had the earlier transformations of Japan, Korea and Taiwan) and China’s modern factories have given consumers around the world unprecedented access to low-cost, high-quality products. Still, China’s renewed wealth has shifted the geo-political centre of gravity, turned China into the coming superpower, and spurred the militarisation of the South China Sea.
Australia has managed both to keep the United States as our biggest security partner and to gain China as our biggest trade partner. As prime minister, John Howard had famously said that Australia need not choose between its history and its geography. My formulation was that “you don’t gain new friends by losing old ones”.
In all my dealings with China, I stressed that we wanted the closest possible partnership—provided no one expected us to downgrade the US alliance or to abandon our values and principles. Still, for the first time in our history, a dominant country in our region has quite a different view of the world. The Abbott government’s consistent response was to encourage China to embrace the liberal world order that has made its economic success possible.
Within six months of the 2013 election, the Abbott government was faced with an “economic” argument for joining the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank versus a “security” argument against it. Australia’s instinct is to join international organisations which conform to normal standards of governance—so we told the Chinese that we’d be happy to subscribe to the Bank provided no one country could control it and that investment policies would be set by the board. China did revise the Bank’s structure in the light of our concerns (and those of key partners). So far, as the finalisation of the China free-trade agreement shows, being frank with the Chinese about our expectations, and firm when they are not met, seems to have ensured that respect is a two-way street.
As China becomes stronger, its armed forces will become more modern and capable with more capacity to dominate its near seas and beyond. It will be more important than ever to maintain freedom of navigation, to avoid unilateral alterations to the status quo, and to resolve disputes peacefully in accordance with international law. Australia has supported recent US assertions of freedom of passage through disputed waters. We have quietly increased our own air and naval patrols across the region and should maintain them in the face of any further unilateral assertions of sovereignty. Because all the countries of our region now have so much to lose and—acknowledged or not—such a stake in rules-based global order, I’m confident that tension can be managed on the basis of principles that everyone can support and that China subscribed to in the Declaration of Conduct in the South China Sea.
The horrific consequences of conflict between nations are the chief reason why such conflict is currently so rare. Like other major nations, Australia must continue to invest in a strong military capability to meet all reasonably foreseeable contingencies. Largely thanks to the procurement decisions of the Howard government (such as the acquisition of amphibious ships and C17 heavy-lift aircraft which gave us some independent global reach), Australia is one of the few advanced countries that has become more militarily capable over the past decade.
The Abbott government believed that the needs of our armed forces—rather than industry or regional policy considerations—should drive defence procurement decisions. We were determined to boost defence spending and also to get better value for money. After intervening to fix the troubled air warfare destroyer project, the government laid out a plan for a continuous build of surface warships to avoid the stop-start “valley of death” and poor industrial culture that make naval ship-building here 40 per cent more expensive than in the US.
Although we saw much sense in a submarine partnership with Japan (which builds the world’s best large conventional submarine), we always wanted the best possible submarine for the best possible price. That’s why we established a competitive evaluation process between Japan, Germany and France. As this process has unfolded, it’s became apparent that overseas yard capacity restrictions could make a local build the most viable option after all.
In its final week, in response to the developing catastrophe in Syria, the Abbott government made two important decisions: to extend Australian bombing into Syria as Islamic State recognised no borders and was equally merciless everywhere; and to accept an additional 12,000 people from the Middle East war zone, particularly family groups from persecuted minorities with little realistic prospect of returning home. Stopping the boats had made a compassionate policy possible. Clear judgments about Australia’s interests and values had made a compassionate policy acceptable.