Bipartisanship in the fog of war

By Scott Hamilton & Stuart Kells

Monday March 16, 2020


In the middle of a major emergency or military conflict, it is hard to know exactly what is going on, and therefore to make good decisions. The Germans have an expression for this: Nebel des Krieges. In English, it is ‘the fog of war’, a phrase adopted as the title of Errol Morris’s bio-pic of Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defence under JFK.

Winner of the Academy Award in 2003 for Best Documentary Feature, the film encompasses World War II, the Vietnam War and the Cuban Missile Crisis. McNamara lived these events, and helped shape them. He was so culpable for America’s Vietnam War strategy that he is now referred to as its architect.

McNamara’s ‘eleven lessons’ of war and conflict ring true today, especially number one: ‘Empathise with your enemy’, and number three: ‘There’s something beyond one’s self’. Apart from these lessons, there is practical guidance for wartime administration and the interface between the armed forces and the government.

McNamara’s lessons can also be found, differently expressed, in Sun Tzu’s Art of War. With their emphasis on empathy, coordination and cooperation, the lessons are relevant to a wide variety of crises — including the current climate emergency and the covid-19 pandemic.

The ‘war cabinet’

In Westminster countries, a war cabinet is a common feature of wartime government. The war cabinet is usually a subset of the full cabinet; it might include senior military personnel and — in the interests of national unity and transcending ordinary partisanship — members of the opposition.

Part of the logic is that during a war, decisions need to be made quickly, and power needs to be even more concentrated than usual. There is no time for lengthy cabinet discussions. Nor is there room to reach a holistic, incremental, Bob Hawke-style consensus. (Australia hasn’t had a war cabinet for many years, but we often hear of ‘kitchen cabinets’. These are a different form of concentrated decision-making, usually involving the PM and three or four inner-sanctum colleagues making the big calls.)

In December 1916, during WWI, Britain’s prime minister Herbert Henry Asquith agreed to delegate decision-making (reserving the right to chair if he wanted) to a three-man [SIC] committee led by the secretary of state for War, David Lloyd George.

The committee was a disaster for Asquith. Rather than being seen as helping Britain’s war effort, it was seen as an abdication of leadership. It soon resulted in his downfall. He was succeeded by the prime minister-in-waiting, David Lloyd George, who then formed a small war cabinet, with himself incontrovertibly as chair.

As the war escalated, the scale of the war effort dawned on Britain. The war would require extensive coordination with the dominions, and Britain would need to dramatically increase its war-fighting capability, especially as it was ill-prepared for land-based, trench warfare.

Formed in early 1917, the Imperial War Cabinet included representatives (prime ministers) from Australia, India, New Zealand, Canada and the Dominion of Newfoundland, as well as the United Kingdom. Although led by the British prime minister on the basis of primus inter pares (‘first among equals’), the other countries felt genuinely and respectfully involved, and the meetings progressed successfully up to the Armistice of 11 November 1918.

War cabinet 2.0

After the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in May 1937, an Imperial conference was held in London. Many commitments were made at the conference, including one by the Australian government: in times of war, it would form its own war cabinet.

On 3 September 1939, Britain was again at war. Prime minister Neville Chamberlin announced a British war cabinet dominated by Chamberlin’s ‘conservatives’, ‘though it also included Winston Churchill, a strong anti-appeaser, and Lord Maurice Hankey, a non-party-political appointment (‘minister without portfolio’).

When Churchill became prime minister during WWII in 1940, he formed a smaller war cabinet of five members to enable more efficient stewardship of the war effort. Churchill included two members from the Labour opposition. (There were also ‘constant attenders’ at the war cabinet meetings, and later he extended the membership.)

Two weeks after the outbreak of WWII — on 15 September 1939 — prime minister Menzies announced the formation of an antipodean war cabinet, which was to become Australia’s main decision-making body on the conduct of the war. The inaugural meeting was held on 27 September 1939 at Victoria Barracks in Melbourne. John Curtin’s Australian Labor Party and Earl Page’s Country Party refused to join in coalition with the PM.

The initial war cabinet therefore included Menzies (prime minister and treasurer), Richard Casey (minister for supply and development), Geoffrey Street (minister for defence), George McLeay (minister for commerce), Henry Gullett (minister for information) and former PM 1915-23 William (‘Little Digger’) Hughes (attorney- general). An Advisory War Council, which included opposition members, was established in October 1940.

Labor’s John Curtin defeated Menzies and became prime minister on 3 October 1941. A new war cabinet was formed, consisting of Curtin (prime minister and minister for defence coordination), Frank Forde (minister for Army), Ben Chifley (treasurer), Doc Evatt (attorney-general and minister for external affairs), Jack Beasley (minister for supply and development), Norman Makin (minister for Navy and minister for munitions), Arthur Drakeford (minister for Air) and John Dedman (minister for interior) (from 11 December 1941).

On 27 December 1941, Curtain published ‘The Task Ahead’ in The Herald (Melbourne). After quoting Bernard O’Dowd on the ‘reddish veil…o’er the face of night-hag East’ — was it a sign of a disaster or a new dawn? — Curtain set out his expectations for the year ahead:

“[The] reshaping, in fact the revolutionising, of the Australian way of life until a war footing is attained quickly, efficiently and without question… Australians must realise that to place the nation on a war footing every citizen must place himself, his private and business affairs, his entire mode of living, on a war footing… I demand that Australians everywhere realise that Australia is now inside the firing lines.” [SIC]

Under Curtin, the decisions of the advisory council, which included members of the opposition, were regarded as decisions of the war cabinet, and only some council decisions were referred to the actual war cabinet for consideration and ratification. The advisory council was therefore important in bringing bipartisanship to the war effort.

A total misunderstanding

Under JFK, the Vietnam War rumbled and flared. Under LBJ it exploded — into disaster. In ‘The Fog of War’, Robert McNamara later reflected on the tragedy he had culpably inflicted on Vietnam. A lack of empathy and understanding was pivotal.

“In the Cuban Missile Crisis, at the end, I think we did put ourselves in the skin of the Soviets. In the case of Vietnam, we didn’t know them well enough to empathise. And there was total misunderstanding as a result. They believed that we had simply replaced the French as a colonial power and we were seeking to subject South and North Vietnam to our colonial interests — which was absolutely absurd. And we, we saw Vietnam as an element of the Cold War. Not what they saw it as: Civil War.”

Australia’s involvement got underway following the visit of Ngo Dinh Diem, prime minister of the State of Vietnam, in 1957 when he received praise and strong support from PM Menzies and the opposition Australian Labor Party.

During the 1960s, anti-war sentiment started to grow and bipartisan support for the war dissipated. Harold Holt became prime minister in 1966 when Menzies resigned. When Holt visited the White House in July of that year, he proclaimed ‘All the way with LBJ’, a kowtowing remark received poorly back in Australia.

Labor’s Arthur Calwell announced that the 1966 federal election would be a referendum on the war — and Labor received one of its biggest defeats in decades. However, by the late 1960s, anti-war sentiment had accelerated (helped by the introduction of conscription) and Labor only lost the 1969 election by a small margin.

Hard upon the Tet Offensive of January 1968, Liberal prime minister John Gorton declared for the first time that Australia would not increase its military involvement in Vietnam. On 8 May 1970, future Labor Deputy PM Jim Cairns led a ‘moratorium march’  of 100,000 people in Melbourne. The political consensus turned against the war. Australia’s withdrawal commenced in November 1970.

A collegiate approach

Since Vietnam, the Australian parliament has sought to adopt a bipartisan approach to war and conflict — including through the parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security (PCJIS).

Andrew Wilkie served in the Australian Army for 20 years, including a posting with Australia’s Office of National Assessments (ONA) as an intelligence analyst. Afterwards he returned to ONA as a civilian and in 2003, in the lead up to the Iraq War, Wilkie famously resigned his position. Later he entered politics, when he ‘fell over the line’ as an independent candidate for the seat of Denison in Tasmania.

Wilkie joined the power-sharing arrangement that delivered minority government to Labor under Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Subsequently, he became a member of the PCJIS. We spoke to him recently and he reflected on that appointment:

“Julia Gillard, proving that she has a sense of humour, put me on the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security. I think that was unprecedented and it hasn’t been repeated since. It was reserved for members of the government and the opposition. No-one else welcome.

Now, that is not in the public interest because we independents, minor and micro parties obviously speak for a lot of people. We bring a lot of additional expertise to the house. For example, Senator Rex Patrick is a former Navy officer and Submariner. I was in the army and civilian intelligence. Zali Steggall, accomplished Sydney lawyer Jacqui Lambie, army background. [Excluding independents] diminishes that committee. It appears to be in the stranglehold of the two major parties. Making it even worse, it is where senior, more conservative members of those parties gravitate. Those are the people who ask to be on that committee.”

For Wilkie, being the only cross-bencher on the committee was an eye-opener. Accepted ‘quite warmly’, he was impressed with how the committee went about its business. ‘It was quite collegiate. [We] had some really interesting and probably sometimes surprising discussions and debates, but it was probably hostage to the convention that it reaches consensus on things. It wasn’t the place for party politics.’

Peacetime disasters, political leadership and political cooperation 

The city of Darwin knows about crises. As well as being bombed in 1942, the city was devastated by Cyclone Tracy. From 24 to 26 December 1974, the cyclone killed 71 people and destroyed more than 70% of Darwin’s buildings. Prime minister Gough Whitlam was touring Syracuse, Sicily, at the time. On hearing the news, he flew to Darwin, but was later criticised for spending more time in the ruins of ancient Greece than in those of modern Darwin.

Major-General Alan Stretton, director-general of the National Disasters Organisation and Commonwealth minister for the Northern Territory, arrived in Darwin on Christmas Day to lead the response. In February 1975, Whitlam established the Darwin Reconstruction Commission and tasked it with rebuilding the city ‘within five years’. Malcom Fraser replaced Whitlam as PM later that year and continued the recovery effort. In 1978, Fraser gave self-government to the Territory.

Sometimes, crises bring out the best in all of us — and our prime ministers. Having learned from Tracy that the natural disaster response can affect confidence in the PM, Fraser was quick to respond to one of Australia’s worst bushfires. The fire raged during the 1983 election campaign in which Fraser was up against the ever-popular Bob Hawke. Both Fraser and Hawke suspended their campaigns. Fraser visited the Victorian and South Australian bushfire zones. Fraser used a military metaphor to express what he saw: the scorched landscape was like the damage from a Panzer division. When asked about funding for fire relief and recovery, he responded: ‘This is no time to quibble about money — people are dying’.

Fraser still lost the election to Hawke — this was, after all, the ‘drover’s dog’ election – but the government’s fire response, and Fraser’s apolitical approach, added to the high respect in which Fraser was increasingly held. The speed and tenor of Fraser’s response would provide a model for future leaders. In 1996, John Howard showed what he had learned.

In the government’s response to the Port Arthur massacre, Howard displayed outstanding leadership — and bipartisanship. Cheryl Kernot was leader of the Australian Democrats at the time:

“I was pleased to be asked by John Howard to accompany him and [Labor leader] Kim Beazley to Port Arthur just a few days after the massacre. I thought it was important to show some kind of political solidarity or joint action in caring about the victims and in preventing future massacres. I knew we would want to do something, in the parliament through legislation, about what had happened. So that was a bipartisanship born of common values for a positive purpose.”

Howard’s messages and conduct in the aftermath of the massacre — and in the subsequent gun buyback — cemented his place as a respected figure who helped shape modern Australia.

Another example of great leadership during a crisis was in the aftermath of the 2009 Black Saturday fires. Though on the same side politics, John Brumby and Kevin Rudd often had major differences. But after the tragedy they stood shoulder to shoulder to lead the response and recovery. Brumby also reached across the political divide to appoint the National Party’s Pat McNamara to the Independent Advisory Panel for the Victorian Bushfire Recovery Fund. (Premier Dan Andrews has recently appointed McNamara to oversee the Victorian Bushfire Appeal Fund to support bushfire survivors).

In 2015, devastating bushfires struck South Australia. Labor’s Jay Weatherill was Premier and Tony Abbott was Liberal Prime Minister. The two men were far from best mates. In fact, they’d been in trench warfare over the 2014 Federal budget. But when it came to responding to the bushfires, there wasn’t daylight between them. Jay Weatherill later reflected on Abbott’s approach during the fires — ‘he turned up and did his duty’ — and in the formulation of a national policy.

In times of emergency, governments of all side must come together for the good of the people. In 2015, COAG was having its regular meeting and in the dinner of First Ministers the night before — a time for more personal exchange and without the advisors and bureaucrats — Tony Abbott came up and said, ‘How about we just get through this COAG, without any major blues?’ To which I replied, ‘You know, some people might mistake us for the nation’s leaders.’

To his credit, Tony Abbott led an historic leaders’ retreat for all COAG members at the Sydney barracks, again without the presence of supporting bureaucrats and advisors. For an entire day the leaders got down to business and came up with what I regarded as an excellent plan. I think [Abbott’s chief of staff] Peta Credlin might have tried to wrestle back control of the communique. Anyway, it was remarkable day of bipartisanship in Australian politics.

A new call to action on today’s wicked problems

We are facing extreme drought and unprecedented bushfires, fuelled by climate change. Major General Peter Dunn recently talked about the devasatting impact of fires in and around his home town of Lake Conjola. Dunn served in the Vietnam War and subsequently as ACT Emergency Services Commissioner. He told 60 Minutes that the current bushfire crisis is much like a military operation — where the enemy is the fires, but the battle is being lost. The Conjola fire ‘was like a nuclear explosion’.

“It was terrifying. I’ve spent 38 years in the military, combat operations in Vietnam and things. It’s just something that is completely different. It’s a monster. There is a feeling of helplessness. There’s also a feeling that we really need to attack what the real enemy is. The fire, the winds and the flooding rains that we’ve got as well — are the weapons. The weapons of a mother nature that is turning very, very nasty. [You] can’t look at the maps of Australia and say that the returning armies have been triumphant. There have been very successful battles all around the country and the heroism has been nothing short of magnificent. But at the end of the day we have to sit back and say we lost this one and we’re still losing it.”

The fires have burnt more than ever before, and have brought out the best and worst of our politics. Prime Minister Scott Morrison was roundly criticised for being on holiday in Hawaii and then posting a political advertisement at the height of the crisis. But Labor opposition leader Anthony Albanese and Labor Premier Daniel Andrews were reluctant to put the ‘political boot’ into the PM during the fire emergency.

There were other instances, too, of bipartisanship in the heat of the moment. Kristina Keneally, former NSW Labor Premier and current Commonwealth Shadow Minister for Home Affairs, tweeted:

“@GladysB and I are on different sides of politics, but I respect that she’s been on the ground every day of these fires. The Premier is also speaking directly. @ScottMorrisonMP clumsy attempt to blame the Berejiklian Govt lack credibility. The people of NSW won’t buy it.”

Having previously called for a ‘war cabinet on drought’, the federal opposition pushed for cross-party collaboration on the fire response and recovery. So far, this has been to no avail, but we are seeing bipartisan cooperation in a different mode on another front.

The covid-19 virus is spreading like fire across the globe. Ground zero for the contagion has moved from China to the US and Europe. On 29 February, Italy saw a 25% increase in covid-19 cases (from 650 to 821) and it reached a total of 21 deaths. Now, just two weeks later, Italy has ordered a complete lock-down of 60 million people. Covid-19 deaths in Italy have reached 463 and infections are at 9,000. Doctors are likening Italy’s hospitals to a war zone. Triage decisions determine who lives and who dies.

In Australia, gatherings of more than 500 people are no longer allowed. The prime minister has announced a ‘national cabinet’ of federal, state and territory leaders to respond to the pandemic. The country has not seen such an emergency decision since WWII. This is the first time a nation-wide cabinet has been formed with non-federal MPs.

The same degree of collaboration we see in times of war is required if we are to confront and beat the covid-19 pandemic. Only with deep, genuine bipartisanship can we take deliberate and decisive action to avoid preventable deaths and an overwhelmed health system. The ‘national cabinet’ is a good start. We also need our political leaders to maintain the spirit of bipartisanship — which means being flexible and non-ideological, and avoiding political point-scoring.

How we respond to the covid-19 pandemic will be a generational test for Australia. Avoiding ‘climate suicide’ is a pan-generational one. The nature of the virus response — and the depth of bipartisan cooperation — will set the scene for how we meet the bigger challenge. The reddish veil of our Black Summer can herald climate disaster for Australia, or it can signal the new dawn of a lasting national consensus and genuine political leadership.

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