By Leo D’Angelo Fisher
Defence force personnel and veterans must have watched on bemusedly when a Victoria Police officer of 16 years’ service sensationally resigned from the force citing her opposition to having to enforce the directions of the Chief Health Officer.
In these hyper-partisan times when everyone is expected to be seen to be taking sides could such a thing happen in the Australian Defence Force?
The public condemnation of government policy by a member of the ADF seems unthinkable, but then again so was the scenario that unfolded when former Acting Senior Sergeant Krystle Mitchell appeared on an online interview site recently.
“All of my friends that are police officers, that are working [on the] front line, are suffering every day enforcing CHO directions that the vast majority, or certainly a great majority, don’t believe in and don’t want to enforce,” Mitchell claimed.
Appearing in uniform, Mitchell told the interviewer that the deployment of police during the pandemic “troubled me greatly”.
“[T]he reason that I wanted to do this whilst still serving and wearing the uniform today is so that the community can see that it isn’t all police that are against them,” she said.
“The way in which we police now has completely changed and a vast majority of the focus of policing is on CHO directions that you know are infringements on your everyday liberties.”
Mitchell also claimed to represent a group of 200 officers who oppose mandatory vaccinations for Victoria Police members.
The most curious aspect of Mitchell’s resignation, which she announced on air, is the premise that agreeing or disagreeing with government policy should have any bearing on a police officer’s commitment to serve and dedication to duty.
Of course personal conscience has a role to play in how we conduct ourselves in our professional lives, but it would not have occurred to anyone watching Mitchell’s interview that police officers performing their daily duty do so because they believe in each and every law they are enforcing. That’s not how it works.
As Victoria Police stated in response to Mitchell’s comments, “Victoria Police cannot pick and choose what laws it enforces.”
Mitchell’s public disavowal of Victoria Police is a sign of these highly partisan times.
Hyper-partisanship is the new religion
Much of this century has been marked by a tendency to uber-partisanship in which everything is seen through the prism of left and right. It is a climate in which one must be seen and heard to identify with one side or the other and to express one’s affiliation in a way that brooks no tolerance of opposing viewpoints.
Hyper-partisanship is the new religion and social media is its church. The Covid-19 pandemic, and in particular the question of vaccinations, has heightened the ideological divide.
As evidenced by Mitchell’s dramatic act of professional hara-kiri, this new era of partisanship is now encroaching on areas of public service traditionally free of political affiliation.
Many defence veterans will have observed Mitchell’s politically charged turn with more than a little passing interest.
The roles of police and defence personnel in a liberal democracy are not dissimilar. Police safeguard public order while the military is charged with the defence of the state. Membership of these institutions is not predicated on support for a particular government or political party. Indeed, the integrity, dependability and effectiveness of each depends on their institutional neutrality.
Mitchell’s stunt – for ultimately that is what it was – sets an unwelcome precedent, dangerously so in times that appear ripe for such grandstanding.
The last thing the ADF needs is to be dragged into the partisan wars that threaten to tear this country asunder.
Governments are not averse to exploiting the military for political advantage– some more than others and none so blatantly as Liberal governments. The Morrison government and Scott Morrison in particular have been especially overwrought – not to say cynical – in their jingoistic adoration of all things khaki.
That adoration has not translated well in practical terms: the Department of Veterans’ Affairs remains a basket case, the government had to be dragged kicking and screaming to support a royal commission into veteran suicides and the fate of Afghan interpreters and support workers left behind in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan has caused veterans much distress.
Now the federal Minister for Education, Alan Tudge, has decided to use the ADF as an ideological prop in the woke wars.
Not fit to fight
Tudge has warned that the next generation of young Australians will be unwilling to defend Australia in a military conflict because schools are teaching a “negative” view of Australian history.
Tudge objects to students being taught that Anzac Day is a “contested idea” and that the conduct of World War I is open to different interpretations.
Commenting on the draft national curriculum released earlier this year, Tudge lamented that the “priorities and the values embedded in the materials” are not in the national interest.
“We live in one of the most prosperous egalitarian societies in the world and children should develop an understanding of how this came about,” Tudge says.
“If we diminish this understanding, we are less likely to protect and defend it.”
The idea of teaching a contested view of history, allowing for various interpretations, is anathema to conservative politicians.
Tudge believes in a single, laudatory view of Australian history; an unambiguously pro-Australian history.
In an interview with Adelaide radio station 5AA, Tudge explained that the draft national curriculum “presents a quite negative view of Australia and its history, rather than presenting a view which is accurate, which is balanced and reflects the fact that Australia today is…the most wealthy, liberal, egalitarian and tolerant society that's ever existed in all of humankind, anywhere in the world.”
Such emotive rhetoric cannot be dismissed as mere conservative blather. By insisting that only Australians who have a particular view of Australian history can be relied upon to defend the nation Tudge has embroiled the ADF smack bang in the middle of the woke wars.
The idea that a critical view of Australian history – including a less than reverential appraisal of Australian participation in wars of the past, including Afghanistan – makes someone less patriotic and less able or willing to defend Australia is ideological cant.
Tudge is entitled to debate the merits of the proposed national curriculum, but to frame the discussion in terms of fitness to don the Australian uniform reduces the ADF to a bastion of conservative ideological purity. It’s hardly a compelling slogan for recruitment campaigns. Positioning the ADF in such narrow terms, as Tudge has done, risks entrenching a regressive culture of intolerance and resistance to change at a time when the ADF leadership is committed to institutional reform.
By inserting the ADF, even indirectly, in his campaign against a “woke curriculum” Tudge risks compromising the ADF by making it an unwilling participant in the toxic woke wars.
That’s a battlefront the ADF best avoids.
Leo D'Angelo Fisher is a regular columnist and Editor-at-Large at Australian Veteran News. Connect with him on Twitter: @DAngeloFisher.