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Grattan on Friday: Plans for local atrocities bring the Middle East conflict close to home

Prime Minister Tony Abbott farewells members of the 2 squadron at Williamtown Airforce Base. OFFICE OF THE PRIME MINSTER

Thursday’s revelation that an Australian who is senior in Islamic State allegedly told supporters in this country to commit atrocities randomly against people on the street has dramatically highlighted the link between what’s happening in the Middle East and the home front.

On the day Tony Abbott and Bill Shorten farewelled Australian forces bound for the conflict in Iraq, 22-year-old Omarjan Azari appeared in court charged with conspiring with Mohammad Ali Baryalei, a former King’s Cross bouncer who’s in the Middle East, to commit an offence that the prosecution said was “clearly designed to shock, horrify and terrify the community”.

This involved “random selection of persons to rather gruesomely execute”. An intercepted phone call led to the charge, which came in the course of sweeping police raids in Sydney and Brisbane.

Before leaving Arnhem Land to fly to Williamtown base Abbott was asked about reports that people were willing to conduct public beheadings. “That’s the intelligence we received,” he said. “The exhortations, quite direct exhortations, were coming from an Australian who is apparently quite senior in ISIL to networks of support back in Australia to conduct demonstration killings here in this country. So, this is not just suspicion, this is intent,” which had prompted authorities to act – a week after last Friday’s raising of the terrorism alert.

The plotting that’s been uncovered will make it easier for the government to secure its legislation strengthening the anti-terrorism laws. The tranche dealing with foreign fighters will be introduced to parliament next week. Also next week, Abbott will attend the special meeting of the United Nations Security Council Barack Obama will chair that will adopt a resolution to have countries crack down on foreign fighters.

It will be a while before the government’s plan for the compulsory retention of metadata (on which talks are underway with the industry) is ready for parliament. But the fact that an intercepted phone call triggered Thursday’s action will, in political terms, strengthen the argument for what the government wants to do (although this was a contemporary call and the metadata measure relates to older material).

Abbott again rejected any suggestion that Australia’s participation in the Middle East conflict increased the risk at home.

It’s hard to think the government and ASIO can be so categoric. But that should not be the main factor in what Australia believes it should do as part of the international effort against ISIL.

Australia’s commitment to be part of the United States coalition was inevitable, given our closeness to the Americans and the number of Australians going abroad to support ISIL.

But neither the government rhetoric nor the shock of Thursday’s revelations should blind us to the reality that the Iraq commitment will take Australia down a road of uncertainty and risks.

The US government doesn’t know where its Middle East operation will end, and certainly the Abbott government doesn’t.

It is expected to be a long costly engagement. The government has said Australia won’t be involved in Syria, but will there later be pressure to change this? Quite possibly. It also insists it won’t send Australian combat troops on the ground, but if the US decided to do so at a later point and wanted Australian support, it would surely get it.

Australian Coalition and Labor politicians are not debating the issues in the way politicians are the US. Differences between the political systems, including in the degree of party discipline, make for a more robust discussion there.

In Australia government members parrot the same talking points, as do (most) Labor MPs (the Greens, against the commitment, are the dissident voices).

Contrast America where the House of Representatives this week gave a tick to the Obama plan to equip and train moderate Syrian rebels.

The vote was 273-156 but the Washington Post reported that the result “also revealed widespread misgivings in both parties about the plan’s chance of success, even among lawmakers who voted in favour of it”.

Abbott has repeatedly made a distinction with the 2003 Iraq war - that was an invasion about regime change, while this is about assisting the Iraq government. But recalling 2003 also reminds us that achievement of lasting positive outcomes in these conflicts is enormously difficult, and there is no reason to think it will be any easier this time.

The New York Times reported that although only relatively few current House members had been there for the vote to invade Iraq, that earlier vote “hung heavily” over this week’s debate.

Abbott seeks to cast the Australian engagement simultaneously in humanitarian terms and as part of combating a threat to Australians.

“You are deploying in preparation for combat operations,” he told the RAAF personnel, “but it is an essentially humanitarian mission to disrupt and degrade the operations of ISIL, and in so doing, to protect the people of Iraq, but more than that, in so doing, to protect the people of the wider world, including Australia.”

In the longer run, if Australia became involved in Syria and especially if there was an eventual commitment of combat troops the current bipartisanship could break.

But if the position on no combat troops holds and Shorten sticks close to Abbott, the Iraq commitment could become like the Afghanistan war did in Australia – a conflict continuing for a long period without disagreement between the government and opposition, which was mostly out of mind in political terms.

On a short timeframe, political observers are noting the high profile of Immigration minister Scott Morrison on the terrorism issue.

The ABC’s Barrie Cassidy wrote on The Drum that Morrison’s “day has come” - it was time for him “to step up and take responsibility for the fight against terrorism”.

Columnist Niki Savva in The Australian reported “speculation within the bureaucracy that any reshuffle by Abbott could see Morrison put in charge of a ramped-up homeland security-type portfolio.”

As men of ambition, Morrison and Treasurer Joe Hockey eye each other off. While Morrison is getting accolades, Hockey continues to wear the odium of the budget. This weekend the Treasurer is hosting finance ministers in Cairns as part of the G20, a meeting set to be overshadowed in the media by the anti-terrorism story.

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