Tony Abbott is trying very hard to encourage Bill Shorten to renounce bipartisanship in national security policy. He's pushing Labor out, not bringing it in, as the conventions would suggest. If Shorten can think beyond his own survival to his party's, he should be giving serious thought to doing just that.
In recent weeks, Abbott has accused Shorten, and Labor, of "rolling out the red carpet for terrorists". He has been trying to insist that Labor commit itself in advance, without seeing the legislation, to at least the principle of the arbitrary removal of Australian citizenship from any dual citizen, perhaps any citizen at all. He's playing pre-emotion and ambush, not consultation about an effective agreed approach.
"We want to know where Labor stands because none of us should give succour to those who would take up arms against our soldiers or do the Australian people harm," briefing notes from his office suggested as a line to be used at question time. Somehow, potential terrorists would be less able to hurt our soldiers or citizens if they were stripped, presumably after the fact of a terrorist act, of Australian citizenship. The logic is not compelling, but it gets a headline in the Sydney Telegraph, and that's what it's all about.
There has been nothing subtle about the innuendo that Labor is unsound, weak, or all over the shop, on national security questions. Shorten, obviously, is the man Islamic State would prefer to be in charge. Only the coalition can be trusted to deal properly with the challenges. The elaborated argument might concede that the Labor leader might himself have the right sort of reflexes on the subject, but that he is hostage to a pinko snivel-libertarian Labor left.
There is some evidence, not least in surveys by the Lowy Institute, that the public agrees. It sees the coalition, not Labor, as tough and to be relied upon, on national security. And on boat people. That was on view this week when Abbott made no bones about doing "whatever it takes" to prevent boats reaching Australian shores. By contrast, Labor was, at least temporarily, showing equivocation about bribing people smugglers.
Labor should reflect on the fact that it cannot win while it allows the debate to be framed, by the coalition, in this way. No matter what Labor does, or says, it is unlikely to win votes from those for whom the coalition's approach is the right, or the only, option. It cannot win by identical policies, nor persuade people it can be more tough or effective.
At most, Labor can hope to neutralise the issue, in much the same way that Abbott tried to cancel any Labor advantage on health, education and broadcasting policy by swearing that there was not a cigarette paper's worth of difference between major party policies on the issue.
But the affectation of bipartisanship never stops the coalition campaigning hard on showing itself as being more tough, or more sound, or more resolute.
A clever Labor could shape more respectable arguments about what to do about terrorism than the coalition has done. It could, perhaps, even win back votes from former supporters who cannot, as things stand, bear the thought of voting for a party that has been so spineless about boat people, arbitrary anti-terror legislation or silly and doomed military adventures in the Middle East. On each of these issues there are still votes to be won, and not only from the Greens and minor parties. Indeed, if Labor could shape the argument as a "rule of law" one – in a manner that Malcolm Turnbull and Barnaby Joyce did effortlessly in the leaked cabinet debate – there might even be support to be gained from liberals, libertarians and conservatives. It would, after all, be turning back on Abbott that rashness, lack of restraint, and incapacity to know when to stop which worries his supporters as much as his enemies.
Could Shorten be more lucky in an argument about giving arbitrary and unaccountable power to a minister than in having Peter Dutton as the minister in question? Or the combined judgment and common sense of Dutton, Abbott and George Brandis. A voter relatively unworried about a discretion in the hands of, say, Julie Bishop, might still quail at Dutton.
Bipartisan policy implies that both sides see the main issues in essentially the same way, even if they differ on details or matters of emphasis. A former Labor defence minister, Robert Ray, said in 2003 that: "Bipartisanship is often misunderstood. It is not about agreeing on all matters to do with foreign affairs and defence. It is more about agreeing on general principles and ceding to executive government the right to make tough decisions without being subject to opportunist attack."
When Ray was talking, the Howard government was committing Australian troops to Iraq. Public opinion was against it; so was Labor. Simon Crean, then Labor leader, carefully distinguished between his (as it turns out very well justified) doubts about the enterprise and genuine hopes for the welfare of young Australians being sent into harm's way by the government. Labor was not bipartisan on this (though it was with the Afghanistan commitment. It is doubtful that this proved a handicap for Labor. Nor did not lead to suggestions of a complete breach of the broad consensus on national security.
Crean's predecessor, Kim Beazley, dismayed many in Labor ranks when, in 2001, he failed to differentiate from the coalition his approach to terrorism and boat people. John Howard's own position was strengthened, not weakened, by Labor's appeasement. Howard looked strong; Beazley hopelessly weak, and compromised by irresolution in the ranks. He could not out-leader Howard, nor sell an alternative narrative suggesting over-reaction or bad judgment.
Likewise, Labor, under Kevin Rudd was able to capitalise when Howard, Philip Ruddock, Kevin Andrew, the AFP leadership, the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions and the then National Security Adviser made serious misjudgments during the Haneef affair. Holding out for proof and process, and refusing to be stampeded or panicked by suspicion did Labor no harm. It was not wedged, because it did not dive for cover.
Abbott will frequently seek to put on the mantle of Howard. He sometimes talks of Team Australia, as though he had won, or deserved, the trust of all. But there are few people, even in Howard's old party, who think that Abbott has the touch, the soundness or the judgment of Howard. There are even fewer bureaucrats, security or foreign affairs specialists, military personnel or cops. They loyally try to carry out government policy, but do not trust his reflexes.
The past six months show why. Abbott has poor judgment, and poor instincts. He does not listen. He is too partisan. He can attack; he has great trouble leading, and even more in either setting the terms of a debate, or in bringing the debate to a proper conclusion. He is addicted to stunts, short cuts, slogans and abuse of those against him. And this is in an area where, supposedly, he operates within the framework of a largely bipartisan policy. It's no better in the more open-ended "conversations with the Australian people".
Shorten might not be in the ballpark of Beazley, perhaps not even Rudd or Julia Gillard, for character and understanding of national security matters. But he is not as handicapped in selling a national security vision.
Labor ought to have nothing to apologise for on national security issues, unless it is for so often allowing itself to be pre-empted by the coalition, or so eager to anticipate whatever the US wants. When Abbott was in opposition, he was consulted as well as told about national security matters. Shorten is taken for granted. Abbott, in opposition, was not sneered at for his gestures to show that, on national security, the major parties were as one.
In shaping its own policy, Labor need not be bound by the way that the coalition has somehow conflated refugees with terrorism. Nor should it allow a long and shameful history of policy, military, spy and bureaucratic "disruption" operations (involving itself as much as the coalition) to bring the "invasion of refugee boats" into a national security context. Whether sabotaging boat expeditions, stopping boats at sea, or interning asylum seekers in overseas concentration camps is good policy or not, right or wrong, it is not about the nation's security. These refugees do not pose a threat to national security, nor have they ever.
Indeed, a very good reason why Labor ought to consider dropping any idea of bipartisan policy on national security is that the Abbott version is, in fact, seriously harming the national security. And harming our international reputation. Our Pacific policy, and particularly our capacity to do well by Papua New Guinea, is now hostage to our internment policies. Our relations with our neighbour and one-time good friend Indonesia are now seriously strained by our "on water" military and mercantile triumphs. There are few admirers, and many critics, on our refugee policies elsewhere in Asia. Our reputation is also suffering in Europe, and will suffer more as it emerges that Australian agents have been bribing people smugglers. Abbott shows little sign of caring, essentially because he plays such policies, as he plays so many, simply for a short-term domestic audience. Sometimes, being indifferent to international criticism is seen as proof of toughness.
A partisan Labor policy on national security need not involve fundamental reconsideration of the US security alliance or our tendency to join in every US adventure, no matter how daft. It could mean that; but it might mean no more than, for example, taking an approach closer to that of Canada, Germany or Japan, three firm US allies whose automatic genuflection is never assumed by the US. There is not much evidence that the heads of state of any of these nations are regarded as weak, or fools or knaves in Washington.
Some wedded to bipartisanship shrink from loud, heated debate for fear that our long-term interests can be hurt by frankness or the rough and tumble of argument. Or the subjects might be offended. But that's not a consideration which has ever inhibited vigorous economic debate, or debate about health, Aboriginal affairs or the future of the universities. Debate improves outcomes. It often brings fresh facts into account. Sometimes, even, the other side has something to contribute. Sometimes one improves one's case by anticipating the criticisms that will be made.
The fact that players are partisan does not invalidate or disqualify their points. As the late Harry Evans, Clerk of the Senate, once put it, partisan rivalry "is how free states seek to keep governments both efficient and honest, and no other method has ever worked in any other context".
Even Abbott might benefit. His policies might be improved by more reflection, argument and scrutiny, the more so since his panicked backbench is so gung ho. And he might be able to find real, rather than spurious, grounds for attacking Labor ideas and approaches. Now Shorten doctrine gets little examination, other than as Abbott doctrine.
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.