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Monday, 22 March 2004
Page: 26771

Mr LATHAM (Leader of the Opposition) (3:04 PM) —I seek leave to move the following motion:

The SPEAKER —Is the member for Fraser aware of the fact that I have already warned him? Leave is granted.

Mr LATHAM —I move:

That this House censures the Prime Minister for:

(1) political interference in the work of the Australian Federal Police, in an attempt to compromise the public standing and inde-pendence of its Commissioner;

(2) failing to rule out further political interference with the Australian Federal Police in the future; and

(3) jeopardising Australia's national security by playing politics with the Australian Federal Police, rather than putting Australia's national security first.

This is a desperate government led by a desperate Prime Minister who will say and do anything to get himself out of trouble, even muzzling and trying to humiliate the head of the Australian Federal Police. What happened to Mr Mick Keelty last week was an absolute national disgrace that compromised the role and independence of Australia's chief law enforcement officer. Even worse, it compromised the integrity of those who purport to make Australia's national security policy. It compromised the right of the Australian people to know the truth during these troubled these times and to know the truth about the threat to Australia and the foreign policy failings of the Howard government.

And what was Mick Keelty's sin at the end of the day? His sin was nothing more than honesty. His sin, in the eyes of this Prime Minister, was nothing more than telling the truth. What was it that drove the Prime Minister to reach for the phone and tell his chief of staff to get on the phone and harangue and complain to the Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police? What was it that was so offensive to this Prime Minister that came from the mouth of Mick Keelty on that Sunday morning? This is what the Commissioner had to say on the Sunday program on 14 March. He said:

The reality is, if this turns out to be Islamic extremists responsible for this bombing in Spain, it's more likely to be linked to the position that Spain and other allies took on issues such as Iraq.

That is all: the simple, plain truth—simple, plain honesty in what the commissioner would have thought was in the best interest of the Australian people. And it is a truth that the Australian people themselves understand. If you went to any shopping centre in this country and read those words out, people would say, `That is a statement of the obvious.' If you went to any playgroup around Australia and read those words out, people would say, `Well, that's fair enough. That is a totally unremarkable thing for someone like the Australian Federal Police Commissioner to say.' If you went to any workplace in the country, they would say, in Australian language, `Oh, Mick Keelty's being fair dinkum. He's being fair dinkum. He's calling it as he sees it. He's doing nothing more than that.' Yet this was the thing that was so offensive to the Prime Minister.

The commissioner had not even left the green room—he had barely got his make-up off—before he received the haranguing, complaining call from the Prime Minister's chief of staff. And what was it that was so offensive to this government? Well, Commissioner Keelty said it himself in the same interview a few sentences later. He said:

... I think there's a level of honesty that has to exist here in terms of what the problems are ... not only in Australia but in our region.

That is the thing that this Prime Minister finds so offensive. That is what has driven him to harangue and try to publicly humiliate the Police Commissioner: a level of honesty he has not got himself and has not got in the attitudes and policies of this government. The truth is that Mick Keelty has earned the right to speak publicly on these matters. He, more than any other Australian, has earned the right to speak honestly about these matters. He is a fine police officer respected right around the country. He played a magnificent role in the Bali investigation—a magnificent role in every respect. He is, indeed, one of our national champions, and he did not deserve to be treated this way by a government that did not like the truth, that did not like honesty, that wanted to put its own narrow political interests ahead of Australia's national interest, and that wanted to play politics with Australia's national security.

It is a level of honesty that has offended the Prime Minister, but, quite frankly, it is no great surprise in this place, because this is a Prime Minister who finds it hard to handle the truth. We know that from the kids overboard; we know that from the ethanol scandal; we know that from the ministerial scandals that have led to the junking of the code of conduct; and we know that from weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. It is a pattern of behaviour by this Prime Minister. With this Prime Minister there is always a missing piece to the puzzle; there is always something that he never tells the Australian people. He is always loose with the truth. That is the defining characteristic of his prime ministership—

The SPEAKER —I warn the member for McEwen!

Mr LATHAM —and the way in which his government tries to run national security: always loose with the truth. In this case, it was something that he did not want Commissioner Keelty to say to the Australian people—not something that was surprising to the Australian people, not something that they would have regarded as out of the ordinary, but something that he did not want Commissioner Keelty to tell the Australian people—and that is that, while Australia was a target at the time of September 11, the government's policy on Iraq has made things worse. That is the thing that this Prime Minister did not want the Australian people to be told by the commissioner: that, while Australia was a target at the time of September 11, his government's policy on Iraq has made things worse.

The Prime Minister did not want the truth out there publicly, so he attempted to muzzle and disparage the Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police. Within minutes of the commissioner being on the program, the Prime Minister reacts, his gut instinct: `Let's cover up the truth. Let's try and manipulate the situation, manipulate the information for narrow political advantage.' It is the reflex action of someone who has been in politics too long, playing an old style of manipulating and trying to control the truth and the flow of information at any cost. So he is straight on the blower to his chief of staff and within moments the chief of staff calls, complains and harangues the Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police to try and make him retract, to try and make him toe the government line. He had not even left the green room. And by Tuesday the commissioner had been forced into a so-called clarifying statement about which we are still trying to get answers. Was it urged by and perhaps even written in the Prime Minister's office? These are the questions the Prime Minister would not answer in question time today.

In fact, it is a funny thing: I read in Alan Ramsey's column on Saturday in the Sydney Morning Herald a more revealing account of what happened, straight out of the Prime Minister's press office, than what the Prime Minister gave the parliament today. What has happened to our democracy when there is a higher level of accountability in an Alan Ramsey column on a Saturday than from the Australian Prime Minister in question time in the House of Representatives? This is what Ramsey wrote:

And when this column phoned Howard's senior staff spokesman, Tony O'Leary, later that day, he confirmed Sinodinos had phoned Keelty about the Iraq remark - a “potential media problem”, he called it - and said Sinodinos had made the call only after a “conversation” with Howard.

There is greater accountability from Alan Ramsey in the Sydney Morning Herald on a Saturday morning tossed on your front lawn than from the Australian Prime Minister in question time in the House of Representatives. This is political interference with an independent statutory officer. This is political interference of the worst kind with the top law enforcement officer in the land. I have to say this—and all Australians know it: politics has no place in the management of Australia's national security. Politics has no place in trying to keep the Australian people safe and sound from the threat of terrorism. This should be about the national interest, not the narrow political interests of a Prime Minister who has been around too long and whose reflex action is to try and manipulate and control the information rather than have the truth out there available to the Australian people.

This is a government of control freaks that has gotten well and truly out of control. Their first tactic, of course, was to disparage, to criticise and to try and run down the credibility of the Police Commissioner. On the Monday, the Prime Minister was out there implying that Mr Keelty did not know what he was talking about. This is what the Prime Minister said:

There is a difference between the intelligence judgments that are brought to bear in relation to these organisations and the operational functions of police commissioners and police forces.

He nods his head in agreement. Why then, Prime Minister, has the Attorney-General placed the following answer in the Hansard today? The Attorney-General has said in answer to a question from the member for Barton that Australian Federal Police officers seconded to the National Threat Assessment Centre will be `fully integrated NTAC analysts and, as such, will be directly responsible for the preparation of threat assessments'. That appears in the Hansard today, directly contradicting the Prime Minister's statement last Monday when he said that the Police Commissioner and his organisation are not involved in intelligence judgments. No, they are involved in the preparation of threat assessment on the admission of the Attorney-General in the House Hansard today. And, of course, after Bali and after the outstanding work of the Federal Police in Bali, they received extra intelligence analysis that confirm the point that Mr Keelty was well qualified and well capable of making these comments off his own bat—well qualified and well capable in the eyes of the Australian people in making these comments.

Then the campaign of criticism of and disparaging a good man, Mr Keelty, continued into the Tuesday. If you had to run a lottery, if you had to guess, about who was going to be the lowest of the low, of course you would turn to the Minister for Foreign Affairs. When they need to go in for the low blow, when they need to go in for the lowest of all comments, they can always rely on the member for Mayo. This is what he said on Tuesday before the issue of the so-called clarification statement:

I think he—


is just expressing ... a view which reflects a lot of the propaganda we're getting from al-Qaeda.

What a disgraceful thing to say about a good man. Here is a man, Mick Keelty, dedicating his working life to stopping al-Qaeda, being compared by the foreign minister to their propaganda.

Mr Downer —A complete misrepresentation. That is a disgraceful thing to say.

Mr LATHAM —A man who is dedicating his working life to protecting the Australian people from al-Qaeda—

The SPEAKER —Order! The Minister for Foreign Affairs!

The SPEAKER —I warn the Minister for Foreign Affairs!

Mr LATHAM —and he is being compared by the foreign minister to their propaganda. You disgrace, you rotten lousy disgrace, to say that about a good man—Mick Keelty. It is an absolutely shocking thing to do.

The SPEAKER —The Leader of the Opposition! I will not tolerate remarks being addressed other than through the chair. I would point out to a number of members on both sides of the House the obligations under standing order 55.

Honourable members interjecting

The SPEAKER —The Leader of the Opposition will resume his seat. The Minister for Foreign Affairs will resume his seat. I have already had occasion to warn the members for McEwen, Blaxland, Ballarat, Fowler, Lingiari, Fraser and Swan.

Mr LATHAM —And Mayo.

The SPEAKER —and the Minister for Foreign Affairs. I would point out to the House that whoever has the call is entitled to be heard, as standing order 55 provides. I have applied the standing order fairly and have not prevented members from being supportive of speakers, but I will not have people interrupted by interjection. I intend to continue to apply that fairly.

Mr Downer —Mr Speaker, on a point of order: I think, through previous precedents as well as commonsense, it is perfectly clear that for the Leader of the Opposition to descend to such vile language as calling somebody a `rotten lousy disgrace' definitely demands a withdrawal, is way over the top and is language that demeans this parliament.

Honourable members interjecting

The SPEAKER —The minister will resume his seat. If it is necessary for me to remove one of the people I have warned, including those on the frontbench on both sides, in order to get order I will do so. The Leader of the Opposition will withdraw the reflection on the Minister for Foreign Affairs.

Mr LATHAM —At your insistence, I will withdraw, Mr Speaker, but I do point out that I do regard it as a disgrace that the Minister for Foreign Affairs would compare Mick Keelty to the propaganda we are getting from al-Qaeda. That is a disgrace, and it should be condemned in the strongest possible terms. This is someone who has dedicated his working life to stopping al-Qaeda and he ends up being compared to their propaganda by the Minister for Foreign Affairs. It is indicative of a government of control freaks—muzzling, disparaging, all about a statement of the obvious. The only sin that has been committed by the Police Commissioner is the sin of truth in the eyes of the government. He got outside the Liberal Party line. He got outside the Liberal Party line, and they are still at it.

Not having learnt from the experience of last week, there was the Attorney-General on the Meet the Press program yesterday, and when he was asked about the public having a right to see the Police Commissioner as an independent figure, not just like any other public servant, and to hear from him direct, the Attorney-General said, no, the Australian Federal Police Commissioner has no right, no public role, he is just an adviser to the government with no independent role and he has spoken directly to the Australian people. That is unlike every single Police Commissioner in this country. Independent statutory officers have the right to speak directly to the Australian people on matters of concern when it lies within their judgment. And the great irony in this is that it is all about the government's decision to send Australia to war in Iraq, and they did that in the name of freedom and democracy. Freedom and democracy was the justification this government gave for going to war in Iraq. Yet now the Commissioner, Mr Keelty, has not got the freedom to speak publicly in his own country. They have denied him the basic democratic freedom of speaking his mind directly and honestly to the Australian people. It is an absolute disgrace and it is being condemned by police commissioners and former commissioners around the country.

Why is it that this government has so much trouble facing up to the reality of its Iraq policy? Australia was a target on September 11, but the government's decision making in relation to Iraq has made the situation worse. We know that the situation has worsened. The member for Warringah, the Minister for Health and Ageing, the third-ranking Liberal in the House of Representatives, said prior to the conflict:

I have no doubt that there is a sense in which our actions have put us more clearly on the radar screen of terrorists.

Why is it so hard for the government to acknowledge that truth when it came from the mouth of the minister for health, the third-ranking Liberal in the House of Representatives, prior to the conflict? Then just last Tuesday, Paul Wolfowitz, the US Deputy Secretary of Defense—wouldn't you think he knew something about it?—and one of the architects of the war in Iraq, said:

So Spain has been a real standup country, and I suppose maybe that's one of the reasons why they came under attack.

So this is a truth that is acknowledged around the globe by people on the conservative side of politics, but it is not a truth that this Prime Minister will allow Commissioner Keelty to utter on national TV for the benefit and information of the Australian people. It is a truth that has been repeated in this country by Ken Moroney, the New South Wales Police Commissioner. So why can't the government face up to reality? Why is it that they always need to put politics into our national security? Our national security in fact needs to be based on the truth. It needs to be based on an honest assessment. The truth is that the government did not go to war with Iraq for regime change—the Prime Minister said as much at the National Press Club on 13 March last year; they went to find and destroy weapons of mass destruction that do not appear to exist. It is a failure of intelligence and a failure of policy.

This was the side of politics, the neoconservative side, that said that they had one big thing to offer in the war against terror—the doctrine of pre-emption. It is a policy failure now barely mentioned—hidden away in the attic like a mad uncle. The doctrine of pre-emption is barely mentioned by any of the neoconservatives. All the rhetoric about the axis of evil—

The SPEAKER —The member for Canning is warned!

Mr LATHAM —was their big neoconservative contribution to the war against terror, and now they cannot stomach the truth. They cannot stomach the truth of their policy failings. Having committed Australia for a core purpose that was not realised—a core purpose that was not true in Iraq—they now cannot stomach the truth when it comes from the mouth of the Australian Federal Police Commissioner.

The real truth, Prime Minister, is this: the war against terror is primarily an intelligence war. It is not a war primarily against nation states. We have to target the terrorists. In fact, the conflict in Iraq diverted resources away from that process of targeting the terrorists—al-Qaeda and bin Laden. The capacity of intelligence to track them down and do something about them is the key to winning the war against terror. It is not the folly of Iraq; it is not the errors that this government made in committing Australia to that conflict. Now the government should simply accept the truth of what Commissioner Keelty has been saying—the truth that, sure, Australia was a target at the time of September 11 but the conflict and policy making for Iraq has made the situation even worse.

This is the thing that we need to appreciate. This is the reason why the Prime Minister should be censured by the House. You cannot trust the Howard government with Australia's national security. It is always playing politics, instead of putting the national interest first. The Prime Minister's actions have disgraced the high office that he holds. He should not put narrow political interest ahead of the national interest—never. That is never in the best interests of our great country, and he should be censured by this parliament accordingly.

The SPEAKER —Is the motion seconded?

Mr McClelland —I second the motion and reserve my right to speak.