You can't weaken democracy to fight terror

The more Islamic State influences countries such as Australia to curtail civil liberties and the democratic process, the happier they will be.

The latest ghastly video from Iraq, depicting the beheading of a US journalist, is an open invitation to hate the Islamic State movement, respond in anger, and thereby help marshal more recruits and resources to its cause. 

What the IS leadership doesn’t want is for political leaders and journalists around the world to focus not on things they hate, but on the things they love -- democracy, prosperity, and justice at home.

As the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius put it 18 centuries ago: “The best revenge is not to be like your enemy.”

The more IS influences countries such as Australia to curtail civil liberties and the democratic process and to divert public funds from economic and social projects at home and into a war in the desert, the happier they will be. 

That is not to say committing combat forces won’t be necessary -- only that it’s a good time to reflect on the things we want to fight for. Free speech, the rule of law, a tolerant and diverse national culture, and a robust version of the Westminster system of parliamentary democracy. 

I wrote with some passion on this topic when a member of my extended family was killed by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan in early 2011 (see: Vale Sergeant Brett Wood, May 2011). My views have not changed -- such national heroes are not only fighting 'against' something, but 'for' something.

We send soldiers abroad to protect our style of liberal democracy, so it’s only right that we give a good deal of attention to keeping the checks and balances of that system robust. 

Representative democracy will never perfectly mirror the will of the people, but since it gets closer to that ideal than any other system of governance, it should be cherished and cultivated. 

That’s why it is alarming to see some describe the call from the Greens and Andrew Wilkie for a parliamentary debate on involvement on a looming showdown with Islamic State as “dangerous” or even “ludicrous”. 

Recent history shows why the opposite is true. 

In September 2010, when Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott spent 17 days in furious negotiations trying to form a minority government, many promises were made. 

Abbott was embarrassed by crossbencher Andrew Wilkie’s revelation that he promised $1 billion, off the cuff, for a new hospital in Hobart. And Gillard practically sealed the fate of her only term as a popularly elected prime minister by agreeing to a three-year fixed-price period for an ETS -- the carbon ‘tax’. 

But one promise to the Greens was delivered in full, and made Australian democracy stronger. The Greens wanted a parliamentary debate on Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan.

When the date of the first debate rolled around, on October 19, 2010, the opposition said it was all a clever ruse to withdraw forces from the conflict. 

Abbott did not say as much himself, but then-manager of opposition business Christopher Pyne said Gillard would “use weasel words so as not to offend the troops [and] ... support the troops and not the mission”.

Well Pyne had little to fear -- in the debate the next day Gillard gave an emotional address saying “Australia will not abandon Afghanistan ... Australia will remain engaged.”

In 2003 then-opposition leader Simon Crean stood in parliament and protested against prime minister John Howard’s commitment to the Iraq conflict. 

He said: “Two weeks ago, prime minister, you committed Australia's young men and women to a war not yet declared, knowing all along that you couldn't pull them out. You committed them without the mandate of the Australian people, the Australian parliament or the United Nations...

“You have done all of this but you haven't told the Australian people. You haven't had the courage or conviction to tell them what you have done.

“Here we are finally with the chance to debate the troop commitment in parliament, and you still haven't told them. You go to media conferences and tell them you want peace but you have committed the troops to war.”

John Howard showed great political courage many times in his time as prime minister in advancing unpopular reforms. 

But in 2003, Crean challenged the accountability of the leaders elected and paid for by taxpapers, to tell them what was being planned. 

Who knows how Australia’s involvement would have unfolded if earlier, more detailed parliamentary debate was agreed to. 

As noted yesterday (Parliament can protect Abbott from Iraq blunders, September 2), it is almost certain that Australia will take part in combat operations, and they will almost certainly be under the aegis of UN resolution.

The extreme nature of the IS actions make it almost unthinkable that military hawks could be disappointed with the overall tenor of such a debate. 

So why not have it?

Certain elite circles of politicians and journalists may, over time, become too comfortable with the idea that they run the county -- as they did when a small clique of journalists loyal to the return of Kevin Rudd ran, day after day, the leaks and tidbits he fed them, until he was returned. 

And what a disaster that was. 

Democracy, and the role of the fourth estate in keeping political leaders faithful to the wishes of the voters who elected them, should be better than that. 

Moreover, as argued yesterday, whatever the outcome of eventual military operations against the IS forces, it can only be to Prime Minister Abbott’s advantage to look back at history and be able to say that all the arguments were put, all the counter-arguments heard, and action taken with the will of Australians -- not powerful cliques -- front of mind.