Australia is moving steadily towards becoming part of widened American air strikes against militants of the Islamic State, as the Abbott government’s policy increasingly takes on a khaki hue.
Defence Minister David Johnston said on Wednesday night the RAAF’s 24 Super Hornets would be “an obvious first port of call” if Australia were to join air strikes – “they’re exactly what flies off US aircraft carriers” – and they were at a high state of readiness at all times.
But he indicated a vital step would be when the new Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, took over on September 10, because the US and other countries would want to see an inclusive government.
“If he’s inclusive, I think that will make things a lot more visible, tangible and concrete,” Johnston told the ABC.
But a “whole host of things”, including receiving an invitation from the Iraqi government and setting rules of engagement, would have to be settled before “we start talking about deploying these sorts of systems into the field”.
The New York Times has quoted American officials saying they expected Britain and Australia would be willing to join the United States in an air campaign.
According to the report, the officials said the US had begun to mobilise a broad coalition of allies behind potential American military action in Syria and was moving toward expanded airstrikes in northern Iraq.
Tony Abbott’s office said in a statement on Wednesday: “Our response to any request from the United States, or other close allies and partners, will be based on whether there is an achievable overall humanitarian purpose and a clear and proportionate role for Australia as well as on a careful assessment of the risks.
"Australia is not considering putting combat forces on the ground - nor, for that matter, is the United States.”
Asked whether Australia could participate in operations in Syria, Johnston at first said no but then left that open. The priority and focus now was humanitarian, the preservation of innocent lives in Iraq, but “we do not have a crystal ball here”.
Pressed on whether Abbott’s statement about no combat troops ruled out sending SAS, he said: “If you define SAS as combat troops that’s the answer.” But when quizzed on whether this would be a permanent decision Johnston said: “I’m talking about the now. And speculation as to what we might do in the future is really quite unproductive when we’re talking about capability.”
He said a number of Australian Defence Force personnel were deployed around the region but he was not prepared to discuss what they were doing.
“Let’s not get into who’s where and what’s happening,” he said. “The public really I don’t think need to know anything other than that we have a very good state of readiness.”
Australia has already participated in a humanitarian air drop. Abbott has been anxious to secure a part in further US action, and has previously been more gung ho than President Barack Obama about what should be done.
Abbott is seeking to become, in the public mind, the prime minister for national security.
The conflicts in Iraq and Syria are linked to a security risk at home through the Australians who have left to become fighters in those countries. A faraway conflict becomes a domestic threat and feeds into domestic politics.
The government, struggling on the budget front, believes the security issue can be made to work for it politically; the opposition fears it can.
The challenge for opposition leader Bill Shorten is to avoid letting national security become a battleground.
A move to join the air strikes would be expected to have bipartisan support. For the opposition, the tipping point would be combat troops. Abbott has ruled that out, although what this precisely means is less clear, as was obvious when Johnston was pressed.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said: “What Australia does will depend very much on what the Iraqi Government asks us to do, or consents to us doing, and likewise with the United States.”
Shorten’s desire will be to stay as bipartisan as possible. This he can do unless Abbott pushes the envelope too hard. Even ALP left sources said they did not believe there would be a problem with the party backing air strikes, although one left-winger, Melissa Parke, spoke out.
Parke said that as a member of the UN Security Council, Australia “ought to be exercising its influence there to try to get an international agreement on urgent humanitarian intervention to protect civilians, rather than be part of some separate non-United Nations-backed coalition of the willing”.
The Greens are the dissident party. Deputy leader Adam Bandt said on Wednesday: “The Greens have been raising concerns about ‘mission creep’ for some time now. This latest [NYT] report is worryingly consistent with the Prime Minister’s confirmation that talks are underway which could see Australian troops sent off to war.”
Apart from preparing to join with US action, Abbott is readying to go to the United Nations late next month when President Obama chairs a special Security Council meeting to discuss the problem of foreign fighters joining the war in Syria and Iraq.
The government has anti-terrorism measures before parliament and is working up more. These present some challenges for Labor on civil liberty grounds, but it will try to deal with them.
National security is featuring in parliamentary questions from government backbenchers this week. Abbott on Wednesday told the House that counter-terrorism units were being set up from last week at Australian international airports, and are operating in Sydney and Melbourne. One man has already been stopped departing from Melbourne airport.
Abbott said an additional 80 border force officers would be stationed at the airports to monitor the movements of people on the national security watch lists.
The head of ASIO, David Irvine, appearing at the National Press Club, was asked whether, if Australia were to take part in a Coalition activity in northern Iraq, that would increase the risk of a local attack and foment some anger and difficulties in the Islamic community in Australia.
“There would certainly be reactions within the Australian community,” Irvine said. But the “very large bulk of the Australian community, Muslim community, is law-abiding, and while there may be reactions and not just from that community but elsewhere, I don’t see any immediate correlation between that and the threat levels”.
He added, however, that “you can expect that is something we would be looking at”.
Politics is starting to move on two tracks: the row over the budget, where Labor has everything going for it, and national security, which Abbott can potentially use to change, at least partially, the political dynamic.