On the IS debate, Labor is missing in action

The absence of parliamentary debate about Australia's involvement in the IS intervention means that unqualified assertions made by Tony Abbott and the Greens are going unchallenged.

Were it not for the fact that a number of Australians (it is unclear how many) have travelled to Iraq and Syria to fight for the self-named Islamic State, would it be in Australia’s national interest to send a substantial force to help degrade and ultimately defeat IS?

And were it not for the fact that 100 or so people in Australia, according to ASIO, are actively involved in recruiting and raising funds for IS, would the Abbott government have raised the terror alert rating last week from medium to high?

These seem to be important questions not satisfactorily answered by the Abbott government, as Australian young men and women get ready to be involved in military action in a region consumed by sectarian civil wars where, in Tony Abbott’s own words, the fight is often between "baddies and baddies".

Tony Abbott has framed Australia’s involvement in the US-led coalition of nations (mostly European countries) as an essentially humanitarian mission designed to rescue a number of ethnic communities in Iraq that IS has targeted for genocide.

As an afterthought, Abbott has said that unless IS is terminally weakened, this “death cult” will bring its obscene fantasies to the Australian homeland.

While it is not clear how Australia’s involvement in a humanitarian mission to rescue communities under the threat of genocide is in Australia’s national interest -- how exactly is Australia threatened by IS? -- there may be strong moral grounds for Australia being involved in preventing genocide.

Indeed, as the former foreign minister Gareth Evans pointed out when he argued for a US-led intervention against IS, the United Nations has adopted resolutions which render legal and ethical international intervention designed to rescue communities threatened with wholesale slaughter by their governments and other forces.

Surely few would argue that it was a terrible reflection on the international community that nothing was done to stop the Rwandan genocide.

It is therefore strange to say the least that the Greens, a party of the left with supposedly deep international humanitarian concerns, have been so vociferous and so unqualified in their opposition to any Australian involvement in any action against IS in Iraq and Syria.

It is true that the Greens have rather reluctantly supported the delivery by air of food and medical equipment for besieged and threatened communities in northern Iraq. But when it came to dropping arms for the Kurdish Peshmerga, that for the Greens was proof that the US and Australia was about to replay the 2003 march to war in Iraq.

This is the key to understanding the Greens’ opposition to Australia’s (and America’s) involvement in any sort of military action against the Islamic State.

It’s the key to understanding the virulence of much (but not all) the opposition to Abbott’s decision to commit Australian soldiers and airmen to what undoubtedly will be a dangerous mission that may last months and even years.

The Greens and many other opponents of Australia’s involvement in action against IS simply do not believe that Abbott is motivated primarily by humanitarian concerns but rather is simply doing what Howard did before him: march in lock-step with America into yet another war that in reality has nothing to do with Australia and in which we have no stake.

That position requires some explanation from the Greens and other opponents of an Australian role in combatting IS about what should be done to protect those communities in Iraq that are threatened with genocide.

Nothing at all? A resolution in the UN Security Council calling on IS to stop killing people that IS considers less than human? Perhaps the Greens believe that while genocide is a real possibility, nothing can be done (and therefore nothing should be tried) to stop it?

Perhaps the Greens and other opponents of any action against IS by Australia believe that the threat of genocides by IS has been cooked up by intelligence agencies -- like the weapons of mass destruction a decade ago --to justify what is essentially a re-run of the Iraq war in 2003. In the end, the argument goes, Barack Obama is no different than George Bush when it comes to American imperialism.

It is a pity that there has been no debate in the federal parliament about the Abbott Government’s decision to send Australian young men and women into harm’s way. Such a debate would have forced the Greens to spell out their reasons for so strongly and sweepingly opposing any Australian involvement in the fight against IS.

More than that, it would have forced Tony Abbott to explain in some detail exactly why this is a humanitarian mission in which Australia has become involved.

The fact is that Abbott has said little about the communities in Iraq that are under threat and instead has talked a lot about the evil nature of IS and then pointed to the horror of the beheadings of the two American journalists and the British aid worker. But as horrific as these beheadings were -- tragically it seems there may be more to come -- they are surely not the justification for getting involved in a conflict that might cost Australian lives and might last for months or years.

And if there had been a parliamentary debate, perhaps Tony Abbott would have been pushed to explain how IS, if it remained unchallenged, would eventually threaten the Australian homeland.

This seems to me to be of critical importance. It has nothing to do with the humanitarian mission to which Abbott says he has committed Australia and is in some way, not yet fully explained, related to the recent increase in the terror threat level from medium to high.

Is Abbott saying that unless IS is "degraded", it will spread beyond Iraq and Syria to our region? To Indonesia? Or Malaysia? If that’s what he means, is there any evidence to suggest this is happening or might happen? What’s the response in Indonesia to Abbott’s decision to commit Australia to the fight against IS?

If he means that IS, unless it is defeated, will eventually send its Australian fighters back home to commit acts of terrorism here, how does sending Australian forces to fight IS deal with that risk? Or the risk that might be posed by the IS fellow travelers and recruiters?

These questions now will not be debated in parliament. In a real sense, Labor is responsible for this because Labor sided with the government to shut down debate in the Senate on these issues.

This was a bad decision. It meant not only that these issues would not be debated, that Abbott would not be forced to explain and answer questions about Australia’s decision to join the fight against IS, but that Labor would render itself irrelevant on these issues, reduced on these momentous issues to little more than a sort of cheer-squad for Tony Abbott. 

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