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Monday, 22 March 2004
Page: 26776

Mr HOWARD (Prime Minister) (3:25 PM) —This is the first censure motion that has been moved by the Leader of the Opposition in his new capacity, and of course it is a new experience for me and a new experience for him. It is a censure motion from the Leader of the Opposition—

The SPEAKER —The member for Hotham is warned!

Mr HOWARD —which will be best remembered for a red-faced, over-the-top denunciation of my colleague the Minister for Foreign Affairs. This House will remember that the crescendo, the piece de resistance, of the Leader of the Opposition's attack was to go red in the face, lose control, hurl abuse at the Minister for Foreign Affairs, and then, of course, proceed in a very repetitious way and go over and over again, using essentially the same language, the same accusation for 20 minutes.

Let me go to the essence of what the Leader of the Opposition had to say. What the Leader of the Opposition is obsessed with—and what many of those opposite who sit with him are obsessed with—is not the reputation of the Federal Police Commissioner, not the independence of our intelligence agency, not the role of the Australian Federal Police in providing protection to the Australian people but the decision that this government took to commit Australian military forces to the coalition operation in Iraq. The one phrase that the Leader of the Opposition used that really leapt out at me was `the government's policy on Iraq has made things worse'. If you look at the substance of this debate, that is a statement that bears a certain amount of examination, because it really goes to the basis of the obsession that the Leader of the Opposition and the Labor Party have with this issue.

Before I come to that, let me say something of the Australian Federal Police Commissioner. It is predictable, of course, that the Leader of the Opposition should flounce in here and say what a magnificent person the commissioner is. The Leader of the Opposition should go through the motions of saying how magnificent the Australian Federal Police are. Lest there be any doubt about it, I hold the Federal Police Commissioner in very high regard. I have enormous respect for the work that he has done. Over the last 16 or 18 months, in the wake of the tragedy in Bali, nobody has done more in a leadership role in any of the government agencies to prosecute the will and indeed the wishes of the Australian people than the Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police. The operational cooperation that occurred between the Australian Federal Police and the Indonesian police in tracking down those who murdered 88 of our number in Bali deserves the gratitude of this country and parliament and has received that gratitude through me on numerous occasions. Let us put aside any suggestion at the beginning of this debate that I as Prime Minister, or anybody in this government, is anything other than enormously respectful of the role of the Australian Federal Police as an effective operational force.

But let us also understand that, as the Leader of the Opposition well knows, in advising the government there are different roles for different agencies. There can be no argument that the prime adviser to the government on security assessment issues is the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation. In asserting that, I am not in any way denigrating the role of the police.

The SPEAKER —I warn the member for Hasluck!

Mr HOWARD —I am not saying that Mick Keelty is not up to his job; I am simply stating the obvious. Everybody knows the difference between operational police work and intelligence work. The Leader of the Opposition is quite correct when he says that, in fighting terrorism, your most important weapon is intelligence.

The SPEAKER —The member for Denison!

Mr HOWARD —In making judgments as Prime Minister about the threat assessment that might be important to this country—

The SPEAKER —Under standing order 304A, the member for Denison will excuse himself from the House.

The member for Denison then left the chamber.

Mr HOWARD —In making judgments about the threat assessment, the organisation that I will listen to most is the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation. But let me remind the Leader of the Opposition yet again that, when the government took the correct decision, in my view—a decision I will never apologise for and never retreat from—to commit this country to military operations in Iraq, we sought the advice of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation. We asked whether, as a consequence, we had to lift the general threat level in this country. We were told: `No, you do not lift the general threat level in this country. You lift the threat level for certain foreign assets in Australia. You lift the threat level for Australian assets overseas in certain parts of the world. But you do not lift the general threat level in Australia.' That is what I was told by the Director-General of ASIO back in March 2003.

Nobody in the intelligence or security community dissented from that advice. ASIS did not dissent. ONA did not dissent. The Australian Federal Police did not dissent. That advice has remained constant ever since. At no stage have I received contrary advice. I say to this House: the moment I receive contrary advice, the Australian people will know about that contrary advice. I reject completely the suggestion that in some way, to protect my political position, I am holding back from the Australian people information which is vital to their security. Let us be very clear that at no stage has that advice been altered.

It has not been altered since the tragedy in Madrid. We have not received any advice from the Australian Federal Police—I say this again: we have not received any advice from the Australian Federal Police—that, as a result of what happened in Madrid, we are more at risk of a terrorist attack. We have not received that advice. We have not received that advice from ASIO. We have not received it from ONA. In other words, the general threat level has not altered as a result. That does not mean to say that we are not all feeling a little more nervous. Of course we are. Any attack on any of our number anywhere in the world naturally makes us all feel more insecure. That is only natural.

But our responsibility at a government level is to deal with threat assessment. That is the view that was taken by the Leader of the Opposition himself. When he was being interviewed only four days ago on the Neil Mitchell program, he said, `You've got to listen to the intelligence agencies when it comes to threat assessment.' I have listened to them. I have listened to the Federal Police, I have listened to ONA, and I have listened to ASIS. And none of them is saying that the assessment made a year ago—that the threat level should not be raised as a result of the involvement in Iraq—should be altered. None of them has come to me and said, `As a result of what has occurred in Spain, we have credible evidence that there is going to be an attack in Australia.' None of them has said that. It is against that background that this issue has to be assessed.

It is against that background that you see, in everything the Leader of the Opposition has said, this overweening preoccupation of the Australian Labor Party with the military operation in Iraq. I am glad that the Leader of the Opposition said at one stage in his speech that going into Iraq was meant to be about democracy and liberty. In fact, the people of Iraq have more hope of democracy and liberty as a result of what we did in Iraq. They would not have had any democracy or liberty if they had listened to the Australian Labor Party. They would have had no democracy or liberty at all. I have no doubt that the people of Iraq, a year on, have a brighter future. They feel that they have a better hope of a life for their families and for future generations than was the case before that operation.

The Leader of the Opposition has, not surprisingly, given me many character references in his censure motion. He has said that I have heavied the police commissioner. He has traduced members of my staff. I remind the Leader of the Opposition that, in dealing with these issues, I have behaved no differently in terms of communication with the police commissioner from any of my predecessors. The proposition is that every time there is some kind of communication about a sensitive issue between a Prime Minister, a minister and a police commissioner or the Director-General of ASIO or the Chief of the Defence Force—name any number—it has to be documented and it has to be paraded. I do not notice the Leader of the Opposition parading the discussions in shadow cabinet, for example, on parliamentary superannuation, and I do not notice the Leader of the Opposition running around giving us chapter and verse on what he said to Nick Sherry after the superannuation blooper. It is perfectly normal and perfectly proper for there to be communications between them and me, and I do not deny those for a moment.

But the Australian Federal Police Commissioner was not rebuked. The Australian Federal Police Commissioner was not treated improperly. The Australian Federal Police Commissioner made a statement which he subsequently indicated expressed his view of the situation. When you look again at the sequence of events—particularly if I can return to what he said on the Sunday program and what was subsequently said by one of the major news bulletins in Australia—you can see the need for clarification. This is what was said—and I invite the Leader of the Opposition to listen to this carefully:

Well, I think we've said all along this is an uphill battle. This is a marathon, not a sprint. 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 prompted the following, that evening on the Channel 9 news bulletin, which has the largest audience of any news bulletin anywhere in Australia. The newsreader had this to say:

... other allies—that includes Australia—

and he went on to say, crucially—

Put another way, our top cop believes our involvement in the Iraq war has made us a possible al-Qaeda target.

I repeat to the Leader of the Opposition that our top cop had said no such thing. Our top cop had not said that. The Leader of the Opposition knows it is inaccurate—and he himself has said it is inaccurate—to say that our involvement in the war in Iraq made us an al-Qaeda target. On the Neil Mitchell program he acknowledged that we have been a terrorist target since 11 September. The truth is that we were, according to ASIO, a terrorist target before 11 September 2001. It is in that context that the reference to a clarification was both understandable and, I think, desirable.

I said last Friday and I repeat here today that the Australian Federal Police Commissioner will be fully entitled to express his views, within his areas of responsibility, in any way that he thinks appropriate. There has been no muzzling of the Australian Federal Police Commissioner. There has been no interference with his operational independence. There have been no improper exchanges between me and the Australian Federal Police Commissioner or anybody acting on my behalf or with my authority. It is a perfectly normal, natural thing in relation to issues of this kind that there should be discussion and communication with the police commissioner.

The Leader of the Opposition is the last person who can come into this House with any kind of real authority and start lecturing us about standards, honesty and values. We heard the Leader of the Opposition talking last Friday about parliamentary standards. Today he gave a dramatic illustration of what needs to be done to lift parliamentary standards in this place when he went completely over the top with his attack on the Minister for Foreign Affairs. The great challenge that we have in this country is to effectively fight terrorism. The causation of terrorism is important, but the causation of terrorism is less important than the unity of the fight and the effectiveness of the fight against terrorism. In that we need the united support and professional commitment of all our intelligence and security agencies. We have them now, we have had them in the past and we will continue to have them in the future. I reject the censure completely.