How much will it cost the Abbott government to be at war in Iraq? Estimates vary. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott claims that his country’s intervention in Iraq will cost half a billion dollars per year. On ABC television 9 October, the PM volunteered the figure in the context of growing internal debate about where the funds are going to come from. Defence Minister David Johnstone more candidly and credibly has said the government has no idea. Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen has cautioned the government that the Opposition will not provide a blank cheque and pointed to savings in scrapping the PPL scheme. Hockey, unsurprisingly cheaply politicised the issue by proposing that Labor, indeed issue a blank cheque to underwrite the war effort as the price of its bipartisan commitment. Finance Minister Matthias Cormann has not ruled out a war tax. We’ll be told in December or perhaps May.
“We’ll address that going forward without speculation in MYEFO [the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook] in December and then in the budget in May. We don’t need to get ahead of ourselves on this.”
What does Cormann mean? Could it be that by December we will be treated to emotional blackmail? Shown graphic images of military personnel valiantly suffering the deprivations that only war can confer whilst we are told that we need funds to support their efforts on the nation’s behalf? Told: ‘We must let them finish the job they were sent there to do.’ Except no-one can tell us what that job is. Instead the PM serves us the warmed-up US military briefing leftover: the alliterative ‘degrade and destroy’ slogan. We have yet to learn precisely what this means. Perhaps by December, someone clever will have worked out a plan. Or is it that once we go to war, the whole budget morphs into a magic pudding?
Are we likely to be told the true cost? Don’t hold your breath. Today, Abbott appeared evasively up-beat and keen to brush aside the issue of the likely cost as he dampens any speculation that the cost of fighting in Iraq will be a drain on a budget which he has already described as ‘in crisis’ and worse. Surely it would be irresponsibly extravagant to commit further funds when we can’t afford to meet our current expenses. Indeed, in his party’s determined but unconvincing spin on the state of the nation’s finances, he or any other LNP spokesman will fondly trot out the tired old chestnut that the nation faces imminent financial ruin because of ‘the debt and deficit disaster that Labor left us in.’ If there is no money in the kitty what are we doing? Spending what we don’t have? Pledging more than we can honour? Following the US example into financing our efforts by increasing debt until it becomes so massive that it bleeds us dry?
Yet the debt and deficit rhetoric is a handicap on the cost of war issue. It begs the question of the wisdom of incurring further debt when as he would have us believe we are already up to our necks in hock. Consequently most would expect Abbott to play down the true cost of the war or it will look as if he has signed the nation up for another costly item it cannot afford, as, indeed, it seemed with his now shelved PPL scheme. In addition to appearing reckless with spending, it will add to the gathering impression that in an Abbott government the urge to be glad-handed with the nation’s resources comes ahead of any sober reckoning of either support or true cost. Finally, Abbott’s pro-US stance appears to override caution or common-sense. It stretches our credulity and damages his credibility. We are getting into something unforseen, something ill-defined with no precisely specified outcome yet he would have us believe that it is likely to come within budget? Or is that we must jump at the first opportunity or even before to honour our curiously one-sided alliance with our ‘great and powerful friend; to give and not to count the cost.’ Perhaps it is high time we had a serious look at the ANZUS Treaty. Should we be under attack at home the US pledges only to consult us in the matter.
Abbott’s estimate cannot go unchallenged. First it appears to be yet another attempt to fob off a reasonable line of enquiry on behalf of those who have a right to know, the Australian people. Why should we believe Abbott? What makes this any more credible than any other Abbottism? After, all we don’t have it in writing. Yet he should know. It is his responsibility to know. His duty to share. Surely his advisors would have already provided him with an estimate.
Although Abbott is on record for acknowledging that he can seem to be fast and loose with the truth when it suits him; or unreliable with oral or off the cuff commitments, he should be briefed on the real cost and on the likely cost of our foreign adventure. He should also be briefed on his need to level with the nation. Instead, it seems as if we are being told, once again to ‘run along, sonny’. Or, as in the curiously gradual nature of his disclosure of our military involvement in Iraq, we are treated to a dance of the seven veils, a type of strip-tease of a series of partial revelations.. The strategy further erodes our trust and Abbott’s paper-thin credibility.
A straight answer would be welcome. Time and again we see Abbott quickly prevaricate or be dismissive when challenged. ‘Tell them anything to shut them and we will sort it out later’ up appears to be his typical strategy. Yet the remark is not acceptable. It is not a credible estimate. He should not be allowed to get away with it.
First, his comment does not acknowledge any likely expansion of Australia’s military involvement. Expansion is more than likely, however, given expert advice that to defeat ISIS will require BOG (or boots on the ground.) US Defence Chief Martin Dempsey has already warned of a likely need for a deeper involvement including combat troops on the ground. The odds are Australian will be expected to step up its commitment to a war which will become protracted, difficult and debilitating.
Second, the cost of involvement is also the cost of rehabilitation and reconstruction both in Iraq, whatever is left of it and at home for those who have served, whatever is left of them. If the war effort continues even for even five years and it could well go for much longer, its cost in terms of repair and restitution will be high. Just how high is impossible to estimate but the Viet Nam legacy provides some valuable clues for comparison.
The cost of war in Iraq is not something Tony Abbott should treat lightly. He should stop his dance of the seven veils approach to difficult subjects. Withholding information or the staged gradual revelation will never establish the genuine partnership, the equal relationship needed if Australia is to be put on a war footing.
The nation demands more from its PM than a figure plucked out of the air. If you don’t know, Mr Abbott, it is your job to find out. Similarly, Australia also deserves a PM responsible enough to share this information and all other key concerns and considerations openly from the outset. It is alarming to see a shifty evasiveness masquerading as consultation in our nation’s leader when what is required is candour. Not only is the nation entitled to honest communication and open accountability, it is the only way to secure the support required to sustain a war effort, especially Iraq War III, an intervention in a foreign war of attrition between rival local factions whose real interest to the West amounts to their capacity to obstruct the flow of oil from the Middle East and threaten US strategic bases.