The Australian Department of Defence promulgated a media release to confirm that on 17th February 2022, a P-8A Poseidon detected a laser illuminating the aircraft while in flight over Australia’s northern approaches.
According to the media release, the laser was emanating from a People’s Liberation Army – Navy (PLA-N) vessel, and that the illumination of the aircraft by the Chinese vessel had the potential to endanger lives.
The Chinese vessel, in company with another PLA-N ship, was sailing east through the Arafura Sea at the time of the incident. Both ships have since transited through the Torres Strait and are in the Coral Sea.
Australians should be concerned about such acts of intimidation against Australian aircraft patrolling our sovereign waters. It’s unfortunate that such a serious issue is being clouded by growing perceptions of the government playing politics ahead of the forthcoming Federal election.
The release of a public statement by Defence on an “operational matter” is an obvious departure from the department’s usual stance in relation to operational security, giving rise to concerns that the Department of Defence is being manipulated into the political contest over national security.
None of this looks right, especially after Morrison and Dutton are caught out playing politics with national security. Morrison’s now infamous Manchurian Candidate slur directed at Deputy Labor Leader Richard Marles, and Peter Dutton’s equally egregious labeling of Labor Leader Anthony Albanese as China’s preferred candidate for Prime Minister had national security chiefs scrambled to set the record straight.
That same evening Australia’s Director General of Security, Mike Burgess, appeared on the ABC’s 7.30 Report and delivered a strident message reminding politicians of the harm that can be done by using national security for political purposes. Burgess went on to reassure Australians by saying “we don’t believe a foriegn government could actually change the outcome of our election, for [a] whole range of reasons… our election process and our system of democracy is robust, so don’t believe that can happen.”
The next morning, Denis Richardson (a former Secretary of Defence, Secretary of Foreigh Affairs and Trade, and the 23rd Ambassador of Australia to the United States) spoke to Patricia Karvelis on RN Breakfast and said that “the government is going out of its way to create the impression of a difference [between Coalition and Labor’s approach to National Security] where none exists… it suits their political purposes and I don’t think that’s particularly impressive when you are playing around with such critical issues as our relationship with China.”
There’s little doubt that the unedifying antics of Morrison and Dutton in recent weeks have diminished public confidence in the Government’s credentials to manage national security with a level head. So much so that Morrison is quickly becoming a caricature of the little boy who cried wolf, and is now being accused of shamelessly using issues of national security for political advantage.
By all means take Labor on for their weakness in Defence policy, but the Coalition must also be prepared to explain its own considerable record of failures.
With the exception of Liberal Senator James Paterson, the Coalition is trying to run a debate devoid of facts. As the Chair of Joint Standing Committee on Intelligence and Security, at least Paterson can make an argument without looking too desperate for political point scoring.
Appearing on ABC’s Insiders program, Paterson provided the most measured and coherent commentary in support of the Coalition strength in national security in recent days. In the interview with David Spears, Paterson prosecuted Labor for weaknesses in its Defence policy record, including cutting Defence spending to 1.56% of GDP when it was last in Government, and its failure to act on the recommendations of its own 2009 Defence White Paper to place urgent orders for 12 conventional submarines.
The problem with Paterson’s argument is that it fails to take into consideration the circumstances of the day, and that there is no evidence to suggest that Labor has any future intentions of stepping away from current treaty obligations or cutting spending on defense and national security.
One thing worth noting is that Australia's relationship with China is also being shaped domestically. So while Morrison is belting out the rhetoric that Labor is soft on national security, he’s unwittingly demonstrating the Coalition's contemptible weakness of the same.