Turnbull, 7.30 Interview and Related Developments

On Tuesday I circulated a strong critique of Turnbull’s National Security statement. This is on my Institute for Private Enterprise web site. By contrast, almost all commentators praised it, although in both Wednesday’s and yesterday’s The Australian political editor Dennis Shanahan expressed some reservations, including in regard to Turnbull’s dismissal of the idea of attacking ISIL by sending troops –or, as it is commonly called, “putting troops on the ground”.  Shanahan also suggested that having “a prime minister use a security address to parliament as an instrument to respond to a backbencher — albeit one who was prime minister only two months ago — devalues his own message and simultaneously emboldens and enrages Abbott” (see “Turnbull v Abbott –Shanahan” and “Interpretation of Turnbull’s Security Statement”).

Yesterday I also sent a letter to The Australian pointing out that a number of supporters of Obama in the US, including presidential candidate Clinton, have made public statements there advocating a more aggressive response by the US to the Paris attacks and that former US defense secretary has pointed out that the US itself could well be attacked by ISIS-inspired Islamists if the US is not more aggressive now. My letter was not published but is attached as “ISIS”. In response to Turnbull’s favourable opinion polls The Australian has shifted its position and is less inclined to accept criticisms of his statements. Yet without indicating that it intends to sending more troops itself now, Australia could indicate support for a more aggressive approach to ISIS.

Last night Turnbull was interviewed by Sales on the 7.30 report on his National Security statement and other matters. Although Sales failed to elicit adequate explanations from Turnbull on issues on which he commented in his NS statement, his limited “explanations” stood so poor on their own that they revealed either a lack of understanding or knowledge. For example, Turnbull’s answered Sales’ query about his NS statement that the Islamic State “is in a fundamentally weak position” by claiming that he was referring to the weakness of ISIS relative to other powers, such as the US. But in his  NS statement Turnbull makes no such reference and Sales failed not only to point this out but to use it as a basis for suggesting that the weakness supports the argument for putting more boots on the ground.

When Sales did subsequently raise that argument Turnbull’s initial answer was that “Iraq is a sovereign state and it determines what Western or other forces are active within its borders”. But would Iraq reject a proposal by the US to send 50,000 troops to destroy ISIS? Turnbull’s asserted in his NS statement that the consensus amongst those attending recent international meetings was that “there is no support for a large US-led Western army to conquer and hold ISIL-controlled areas”. But that would change if Obama changed.

Later in the interview Turnbull acknowledged that Obama “does not believe that a large Western force intervening into that theatre would be productive”. Yet as is clear from the reaction in the US itself (where polling has shown 60 per cent support) the spread of the ISIS threat has increased support there for such action.

Here in Australia no increase has been made since September 2014 in the level of security threat (“high”), although it appears that there is an official acknowledgement that the threat has worsened. The fact that security services here cannot identify any specific planned threat is not comforting in circumstances where the increased activity overseas was not identified by agencies and indications that Islamic terrorists have become smarter at hiding their intentions.

Responses by Turnbull to other important issues raised by Sales also left much to be desired. For example, he simply dodged any response to her question on the budget, implying that the forthcoming statement on innovation is more important. Similarly, his explanation (sic) of how to achieve “fairness” in reforms seemed to be no more than “whether the whole outcome is seen to be equitable and that is our absolute objective”. Note here that this was the only answer to which Sales tried to intervene – but she quickly caved in.

How to assess this interview and what it showed about Turnbull’s foreign policy expertise generally? As readers of my commentaries on Abbott will recall, I was very critical of his handling of a number of issues. I don’t see any improvement with Turnbull –rather the opposite on security issues.

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