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Election 2004: Opposition Leader claims Government breach of the caretaker convention in deploying crisis team to Iraq.

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Wednesday 15 September 2004

Opposition Leader claims Government breach of the caretaker convention in deploying crisis team to Iraq


MARK COLVIN: To the row over whether th e Government, now that it's in caretaker mode for the election campaign, should have brought the Opposition in on the decision-making process surrounding the hostage issue in Iraq. 


Labor leader, Mark Latham, has accused the Government of playing politics and breaching the caretaker convention. 


He says the Government should have consulted the Opposition before sending a hostage crisis team to Iraq to deal with the alleged kidnapping of two Australian security guards. 


It's still not known whether any Australians have been kidnapped. 


The Foreign Affairs and Trade Department has accounted for 223 out of 231 Australian personnel believed to be in Iraq.  


That just leaves a question mark over a possible eight people, but no Australian in Iraq is aware of any missing Australians. 


The Prime Minister has dismissed Mr Latham's reaction on the political side as political point scoring.  


Alexandra Kirk reports from Canberra. 


ALEXANDRA KIRK: Yesterday there was agreement between John Howard and Mark Latham that Australia will not negotiate with terrorists. 


But bipartisanship evaporated today, with Mr Latham accusing the Government of flouting the caretaker conventions. He says the Government should have consulted the Opposition ahead of activating the hostage crisis contingency plan and dispatching a team of Federal police, Foreign Affairs, and Defence personnel to the Middle East. 


MARK LATHAM: I'm jack of a government that's always putting political interests ahead of the national interest, playing politics instead of doing the right thing by this country's security. Instead of doing the right thing by this country's security - and I'll always stand up and say that - because the first responsibility that I have as the leader of the alternative government in this country, is to the safety and security of the Australian people. 


I'm not playing politics. I'm putting their security and their interests first, and I just wish the Howard Government started to do the same. 


ALEXANDRA KIRK: The Prime Minister replies there was no need to consult.  


JOHN HOWARD: What happens when you go into caretaker mode is that you don't take any decisions during the caretaker mode that could bind a future government. But this decision was taken in August by the National Security Committee, and it was automatically implemented when the possibility of hostages being taken arose. And this attempt by the Labor Party to elevate the caretaker conventions to the notion of a dual government is, as I say, exactly what happened three years ago. 


I understand why they do it. I guess if I were in Opposition, I'd be running the same sort of line too but it really has no substance.  


ALEXANDRA KIRK: So does Mr Latham have a problem with the force that Government's dispatched? The Labor leader says he can't say whether it's right or wrong because he doesn't know the basic facts. 


MARK LATHAM: I don't know the nature of that force. I don't know the composition of that force. I don't know the reason why they're being sent. I don't know the detailed assessment, if they're being sent to a legitimate scenario or something that's just a hoax.  


I don't know when they're arriving in Iraq, how long they plan to stay, what they plan to do when they get there, whether they'll be backed by a negotiating team, whether the negotiating team will actually negotiate, contrary to the stated policy that they don't negotiate as a government.  


I don't know any of these things. Is that the right way to run the country's national security, when potentially, I could be leading the Government in three-and-a-half weeks time? No, it's not the right way. 


ALEXANDRA KIRK: Labor wants a formal briefing. In the meantime, it says, it's rung the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Australia's Embassy in Baghdad to try to get some information. The Government says it still hasn't received a request from Labor for a briefing.  


MARK LATHAM: I understand that Mr Rudd's office contacted Mr Downer's office seeking briefings at 6:30pm last night and the phone call hasn't been returned some period later. 


We didn't even know the Government was about to make a decision to send a Defence team, so it's hard to seek a briefing about something you didn't even know about. 


JOHN HOWARD: Governments are not obliged in normal circumstances on matters like that, that require a degree of operational confidentiality, to brief the Opposition.  


MARK LATHAM: It's an outrageous breach of the caretaker conventions, and it's part of a pattern of incompetence by this Government - a government that took Australia to war in search of weapons of mass destruction that didn't exist, a government that's neglected key military strategies in our part of the world to make the nation safer, a government that tipped out information following the Jakarta bombing that wasn't true, and now a government that's breaching conventions about national security. 


ALEXANDRA KIRK: Last week the Government did consult Labor before deciding to go ahead with more anti-terrorism advertising. But Mr Howard says that's different. 


JOHN HOWARD: No, no, no, the decision we took before we went into caretaker mode was not to go ahead with the campaign. We decided after being in caretaker mode that it would be a good idea to go ahead with the campaign, so therefore we felt obliged to talk to the Opposition. 


REPORTER: It seems like there's an inconsistency there. 


JOHN HOWARD: No it's not an inconsistency. I think the problem is, with respect, you don't understand what the caretaker guidelines mean. The caretaker guidelines prevent you taking a decision during the caretaker period which binds a future government. The decision in relation to the supplementation force was taken by a meeting of the NSC in August, which is before the caretaker mode commenced, therefore it is not covered by the caretaker convention.  


But I understand the Labor Party's got to say something. 


MARK COLVIN: The Prime Minister ending Alexandra Kirk's report.