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Friday, 31 August 2012

Pollies grimly seek popularity from soldiers' deaths

Australian prime minister, Julia Gillard, grimly
conducts a press conference Thursday.
Patriotism is a handy thing. The deaths of Australian soldiers is guaranteed to give politicians a bit of a lift. Just think of all those young, flag-draped bogans heading down to the Lone Pine to pay their respects to the soldiers who died in WWI. They vote. So do their mates, and their parents. So when five Australian soldiers died in Afghanistan yesterday, the prime minister, Julia Gillard, was quick to convene a press conference, taking her leave from proceedings at the Pacific Islands Forum on the Cook Islands and returning to Canberra. She looked grim. So did the Opposition leader when he fronted the camera. And the headlines told the same story: 'We'll stay the course: PM'. The message even got out to the UK's Guardian ('Five Australian Deaths in Afghanistan') and the New York Times ('In Afghanistan, Australia Suffers Worst Toll Yet').

But it's hardly WWII, or even Vietnam. All the soldiers who died yesterday were volunteers, in other words professional soldiers. Soldiers are employed to fight and kill, and to put themselves in danger, aware of all the risks. Especially the two SAS soldiers who died in a helicopter crash yesterday. All the grim faces and sententious words to note the deaths of professional fighters. In any case, it's good PR. Makes you look tough, committed, serious, responsible. Rusted-on conservatives and the relatives of Australian soldiers might violently disagree with this take on what goes on whenever a Digger is killed on deployment, but if truth be told there are other, more important things to think about with respect to the conflict in Afghanistan.

I wonder how many Afghanis die for every Australian soldier, for example. But this kind of information is rarely made public mainly because of the extremely tight-lipped Department of Defense, a past-master at shielding the general public from access to real information. Photographs used in news bulletins yesterday, for example, what do they show? Actual casualties? The actual helicopter that was downed? There's no way to know. File footage, probably. Defense has the content under wraps, and releases information only when it suits Defense. It's all about message manipulation.

The message is that the war in Afghanistan is going to end in 2014 - not before time, and no later - and Defense and the PM are on-message. So on-message that the Opposition leader is reading from the same script. In a news story this morning, from AAP:
"We are on track," Mr Abbott said.
"Having spoken to lots of soldiers, they think they are making a difference."
Making a difference? To whom? Why? Well, it's best to leave out the reasons why Australia is involved in Afghanistan, it just makes things complicated. And so we get this kind of thing from Julia Gillard:
''We cannot allow even the most grievous of losses to change our strategy,'' Ms Gillard said in Rarotonga.
''In my view that wouldn't be appropriately honouring the men we have lost. In my view that would be letting our nation down. We went there for a purpose and we will see that purpose through."
The purpose, we've been told (although not this time, alas) is to make the world safe from terrorists. The reasoning is pretty flimsy. The war has been going on for so long. It started in 2001 under the leadership of George W. Bush in retaliation for the September 2001 Twin Towers attacks in New York. Apparently the instigator of those attacks was living in Afghanistan, a country that harboured such people. So the US went in accompanied by satellite supporters such as Australia. The war has been going on for 11 years. That's a long war. But the terrorists are no longer in Afghanistan, they're in Somalia. They're moved on. We haven't.

I think most Australians would be more concerned about the truly evil shape that government would probably take under the Taliban, if they were allowed to resume control of the country. This isn't the original reason for Australia's involvement (which anyway nobody seems to want to talk about). But it's a much better reason, in my view. A bit of regime change to protect Afghani women and girls, allow them to go to school and listen to Michael Jackson. But the only people who talk about such things are commentators. Administrations are too busy controlling the message and eking out an advantage from occasional deaths to complicate things by talking about the real Afghani people. Anyway it's bad practice; a muddy message reduces the strength of the popularity boost you can get from looking grim on-camera.

Real Afghanis would also be in the news a lot more if the media had better access to asylum seekers who arrive by boat from Indonesia, but here again the government tightly controls the message. A lot of such people try to get to Australia in boats, although the flag-draped bogans who frequent Lone Pine every year probably, more than likely, resent such intrusions on our borders. It's the Greens and their inner-city latte sippers who want to allow desperate Afghanis to come to Australia to live a new life in peace and freedom. Julia Gillard, for her part, has just resuscitated the Pacific Solution, whereby asylum seekers will the "processed" overseas before being able to settle in Australia's safe haven. There are so many stories not being told to protect our government from criticism. Maximise the benefit, is the mantra in Canberra.

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