It doesn’t matter what your view of that war. In my view, the decision by US President George W. Bush to invade Iraq was a terrible choice, one Australia should not have followed. But Major General Jim Molan was a serving soldier and was given a job. He carried it out with great competence as chief of coalition operations for a year in 2004. No Australian since at least World War Two has been entrusted with operational control of so many US forces.
And Molan hasn’t only proved effective with big-picture strategy. He has proved himself in the most delicate of military diplomacy. For instance, he was sent to organise the evacuation of 150 UN personnel from East Timor amidst the bloodshed unleashed after that Indonesian province voted for independence in 1999. Marauding militia gangs had murdered in cold blood seven nuns, a priest and a driver the night before in the town of Baucau and the UN decided it needed to get its people out urgently. Molan, in Australian military uniform and armed only with radios, stood alone on an airstrip at Baucau coordinating the evacuation by Australian Air Force Hercules and choppers. The militia were in control of the airport, armed and present.
Molan, an Indonesia specialist who still speaks the language, negotiated with the militia the safe evacuation first of the UN contingent’s children, then the adults. He also managed to negotiate to save the life of Bishop Carlos Belo, an East Timorese Nobel peace laureate who had opposed Indonesia’s colonisation of East Timor. He was a special target of the Indonesian-sponsored militia. Molan got him out safely.
The Abbott government called on Molan to help figure out how to deliver its much-ballyhooed policy to «stop the boats» of asylum seekers. The new government had a promise but no strategy to fulfil it. Molan worked with the then immigration minister, Scott Morrison, to develop the plan that became known as Operation Sovereign Borders. It was so successful that Labor eventually adopted all its main elements, and it is now the bipartisan position of the country to maintain it.
Since then, Molan has taken up the cause of trying to develop a stockpile of liquid fuel for Australia. Believe it or not, Australia has no stockpile — only about 21 days of petrol, diesel and aviation fuel in operations the pipeline. «We haven’t needed it til now while the US was able to maintain sea lines of communication» to keep fuel imports flowing. «The US is no longer able to» in the event of a crisis, says Molan. «We have a vulnerability a mile high.» The government commissioned him to write a report on the problem and possible solutions.
But none of this experience in the real world counted when the factions were doing the counting. The Coalition has listed Molan as No. 4 on its NSW Senate ballot paper for the May 18 federal election. In the usual run of things, that position is unwinnable. In effect, Molan was dumped.
Why was he listed so far down the ticket? Because he is a member of the wrong faction. He’s in the conservative group. In the NSW division of the Liberal party, the moderates are dominant.
Two of the moderates’ factional favourites — neither one of them a sitting MP or a particularly distinguished citizen — have been put into the No. 1 and No. 2 spots. The Nationals get to nominate No. 3 and Molan gets No. 4. Bye bye, Jim!
Except that Molan and his admirers aren’t giving up. Voters don’t have to mindlessly follow the party’s list. If they look down the list of names in the «Liberals and Nationals» column, voters can see his name and write the number one in front of it. He needs at least 150,000 people to do so to have a chance of getting back into the Senate. That’s a big ask. He has a band of supporters promoting his name but they’re working at cross-purposes to the party machine.
But if he misses out on re-election, couldn’t the Coalition find another expert strategist to help them devise policy, either in government or opposition? There is no one even close. If the outgoing Defence Minister, Christopher Pyne, or the current Foreign Affairs Minister and former Defence Minister Marise Payne had any interest in strategy they might have devised one already. They have not. Australia has no current national security strategy.
«People ask me, what’s the most important thing for the Australian Defence Forces — subs or planes or tanks? And I say, it’s none of those things. It’s a national security strategy,» Molan says.
The Liberals do have another former military officer in their ranks, Andrew Hastie, a well-regarded former captain of special forces, in the WA seat of Canning. Molan calls him «a superb young soldier», but he is relatively new to government and to international strategy.
There are no other Molans on hand. He says he’s «putting my faith in democracy». That’s his other cause. He has been leading the campaign inside the Liberal Party for internal democracy, for the members to choose the party’s candidates, not the faction chiefs.
The Liberals in NSW have decided that a senator uniquely valuable to the Coalition’s national security task is of no use. And that a senator committed to party democracy is an outright threat. And then the political class will express surprise that the Australian people are disenchanted with it.
Peter Hartcher is international editor.
Peter Hartcher is Political Editor and International Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald.