Malcolm Turnbull's reluctance to "moderate" the climate change and asylum-seeker policies of his more doctrinaire predecessor, Tony Abbott, has been one of the more noticeable features of his first four months in office. On the issue of Australia's alliance with the United States, however, the Turnbull government has felt less constrained about having to follow closely in Mr Abbott's footsteps. On Wednesday, Defence Minister Marise Payne formally rejected a US request (made last December) for more military help in the campaign against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, declaring that Australia's contribution was already "substantial". That contribution, agreed to by the Abbott government, comprises 780 defence personnel (at least 80 of whom are special forces personnel), six F/A-18 fighter-bombers, an E-7A airborne warning aircraft and a KC-30A air-to-air refuelling tanker aircraft.
Unsurprisingly, several of Mr Abbott's parliamentary colleagues have expressed their unhappiness at the rejection, though without explicitly criticising it. Former Defence Minister Kevin Andrews declared in an interview on Thursday that Australia should be doing more in the US-led fight to degrade and destroy IS – and that the only reliable way to do this was to put more forces on the ground in Syria and Iraq. "This is a threat; we can't be complacent about it," Mr Andrews said. "If we're complacent … there will be more incidents; there will be more terrorist incidents in this country and around the world".
If concern about IS' potential to inspire terrorists attacks around the globe is real and persistent, organising and coordinating an effective military response among the 40 or so nations that have committed to the coalition effort is altogether more problematic. The extent of the American strategy – such that it is – is to bomb IS-held positions from the air, target the movement's senior leaders with drone strikes and deploy limited special forces operations.
It's believed the US request was specifically for more Australian special forces to be sent to the Middle East, and for them to be deployed on missions into IS-held territory rather than remain in cantonments, as seems to be the case presently. Australia's contribution to the US-led mission is the second largest, and this would have made the rebuff potentially less offensive to cabinet. Still, it cannot have been easy.
On the matter of the ANZUS alliance, and American requests for Australian military support, Labor and the Coalition have historically been as one on the need for cooperation at all times. Indeed, so eager have some governments been to please the US that they have offered help when none was requested.
The rejection of this request from a principal ally, though highly unusual, does not rank with John Curtin's refusal to comply with Winston Churchill's demands in 1942 that Australian troops be diverted to defend Singapore. With the threat of invasion looming large, that was the correct decision. While the stakes in 2016 are not quite as high, the complex realities of the Middle East are such that the Turnbull government is also right to resist this call for deeper military involvement.