Separating party politics and war

Whether politicians should attend the funerals of our casualties from the Afghanistan War is a complex, sensitive and nuanced issue.

Jeff Sparrow (“Should politicians attend military funerals”, Crikey, 23 July, Item 4) seems to be catching up with arguments advanced by the Australia Defence Association for many years. 

The ADA has long pointed out to both the previous and current governments that they were not explaining our mission in Afghanistan adequately and that public opinion was mainly moving against the war because of this failure.

We have also long pointed out that much of this opinion tended to be not as informed of the situation in Afghanistan as our troops on the ground — and that this growing contrast in knowledge and understanding posed a danger to both national unity, and to the morale and security of the troops so deployed because it irresponsibly encouraged the enemy. 

We have also always strongly criticised the practice of politicians officiating at farewell and welcome home ceremonies for ADF contingents departing for or returning from overseas deployments.

This is because our defence force is necessarily both an apolitical institution and one that defends all Australians equally.

The officiating dignitary must therefore always be an apolitical figure. 

On politicians attending military funerals the dilemmas involved are more nuanced.

Modern Australian practice reflects changes in our society since the Vietnam War and its predecessors.

It also closely matches those undertaken in Canada, New Zealand and virtually all the Western European contributors to the war in Afghanistan. 

If the grieving family have no objection (and their permission is always sought), we believe that the relevant ministers and their shadows should attend or be represented.

As long as they avoid political capital being made from the attendance and the official mourner representing the Australian people is the Governor-General or some other politically neutral figure. 

On balance, our political and bureaucratic classes need to attend such funerals in order to confront the bereaved family personally, and to grasp more fully the real impact of their decision to commit our defence force to combat operations. 

With the funeral of Private Nathan Bewes the ADA respects the decision by both political parties to desist from electoral campaigning that day.

It is worth noting, however, that one of the overarching reasons why Nathan and our other casualties risked their lives, and died, is to preserve our freedom — including the right to argue freely and then vote in national elections.

Monday, 26 July 2010, Item 16