View from The Hill

View from The Hill

Abbott has a cause, an audience and no restraints

Former prime minister Tony Abbott has hit out at various countries for not being dedicated enough to the mission against Islamic State. Mick Tsikas/AAP

The task of defeating Islamic State (IS) might take decades, Tony Abbott has said in his third high-profile intervention in two days on terrorism, Islam and the fight against IS.

As Bill Shorten called for Malcolm Turnbull to pull Abbott “into line” over his comments about culture and religion, and Turnbull reaffirmed the vital importance of inclusiveness, the former prime minister has hit out at various countries for not being dedicated enough to the mission against IS. He told an audience in Singapore on Wednesday:

Islamic State aims to overthrow every government, and while all governments say they want to destroy it, nearly all have other priorities.

The Saudis and the Gulf states are more fearful of Iran than of Islamic State. The Turks are more concerned about the Kurds. The Iranians and the Russians are more interested in propping up Assad.

The Americans want to destroy Islamic State but not if it means indirectly helping Assad or US combat casualties. The French want to wage ‘pitiless war’ but not to commit ground troops.

His Singapore speech, while tough, was less controversial than his lines in a Wednesday Daily Telegraph opinion piece and a Tuesday interview on Sky TV.

In the Daily Telegraph Abbott wrote:

Islam never had its own version of the Reformation and the Enlightenment or a consequent acceptance of pluralism and the separation of church and state.

His article concluded:

Cultures are not all equal. We should be ready to proclaim the clear superiority of our culture to one that justifies killing people in the name of God.

He warned in the article against demonising Islam generally or all Muslims but said “we can’t remain in denial about the massive problem within Islam”.

It is obvious Abbott is intent on making the war against terrorism his cause, and will continue to speak out as often as opportunity presents. While some see his interventions as seeking to create a rallying point for himself, they are as much or more driven by his strong personal views – views he held when prime minister but which he can now express without the inhibition of office.

Shorten, once preoccupied with not letting any distance between himself and the Abbott-led government on security issues, is also now able to speak more freely, as well as having a big target.

On Wednesday he suggested Abbott could be a threat to security. He said:

Making assertions about cultural and religious superiority is entirely counter-productive. Inflammatory language undermines efforts to build social cohesion, mutual respect and has the potential to harm the efforts of national security agencies to keep Australia safe.

Shorten now has the political safety of a natural alignment of views with Turnbull.

For his part, Turnbull has less protection, as he tries to navigate a course that has to be both responsible and responsive.

He is deeply convinced, backed by strong advice from the security agencies, that words and tone are critical in keeping the local Muslim community engaged, not alienated – which is vital to security.

Second, he is aware of the hardline views of many in his party and its conservative base.

And third, policy must be attuned to a fluid international environment, in which Barack Obama is strengthening his language and deepening the US military involvement.

When it was put to him on Wednesday that Abbott had a different view from him on national security, Turnbull initially said he wasn’t sure how different they were. After being played a grab of Abbott talking about Islam not having had a reformation, he said the former prime minister was entitled to his views.

Turnbull reiterated that the vast majority of Muslims in Australia and elsewhere were appalled by violent extremism, and highlighted the leadership of Indonesian President Joko Widodo:

The one thing that we need to be very careful not to do, and I’m sure Tony agrees with this by the way … is play into the hands of our enemies and seek to tag all Muslims with responsibility for the crimes of a few.

Turnbull said that:

… our very best allies in the battle against terrorism are the Muslim community and it is absolutely critical that we maintain solidarity and unity within Australia.

He stressed that “every single word” he uttered was “in the knowledge of the very best and latest advice I have from the director-general of ASIO and the commissioner of the Australian Federal Police”.

Abbott continues to urge a greater international effort in the Middle East. In his Singapore speech, he said:

In the wake of Paris, coordinated action is more urgent than ever, and France, also, now has the moral authority to contribute the leadership that’s needed.

It may involve the commitment of western troops to fight alongside local forces. It may involve the creation of safe havens protected by “no-fly” zones. It may ultimately involve a subdivided Syria.

It will be a long, difficult and costly engagement, quite possibly the task of decades not years.

Abbott said the latest US announcement of 200 special operations troops to fight in Iraq and Syria was “a sign that America is finally edging towards the action needed to win this war”.

In the Daily Telegraph he wrote that Obama, now showing the will to win, “needs our support”.

PM Turnbull is talking to our allies about what else we might do. This could include more RAAF support for the air campaign and allowing our soldiers to broaden their mission to help local forces.

We shall see.