The view from Billinudgel

Toeing the line
Members of the government have form when it comes to political interference with the federal police

Malcolm Turnbull is all very holy about the independence of the Federal Police following the raid two weeks ago on ALP offices and homes over embarrassing (to him) NBN leaks.

Why, the government had absolutely nothing to do with the cops, the prime minister asserted virtuously. Bill Shorten should be ashamed of even thinking such a thing.

Well, perhaps, in 2016. But there was a time when Turnbull knows very well that a government of which he was a minister leant on the AFP, and leant very hard indeed.

The year was 2004. The second Iraq war was raging, and the then prime minister, John Howard, had unhesitatingly signed Australia up as a member of what was euphemistically called “the coalition of the willing” to take part in George Bush’s reckless crusade to oust Saddam Hussein.

Another, though less enthusiastic, participant was the  Spanish government. On 11 March, ten terrorist bombs were detonated on Madrid commuter trains, killing 192 people and wounding many more. 

The AFP commissioner of the time, the well-regarded Mick Keelty, mentioned in a routine interview about other matters that if al-Qaeda had been involved, then Spain’s role in the war was a probably a contributing factor.

This was hardly controversial; after all, al-Qaeda had vowed vengeance on those who they regard as invaders of Muslim lands. But it was not the script according to Howard. The Howard line, repeated constantly, was that the terrorists hate us not for what we do but for who we are; and he added, against all common sense, that the war had actually made Australia safer from terrorism.

The polls showed that about two thirds of the population believed the opposite, but what they thought did not matter. What Keelty, renowned as a straight-shooter and an honest cop, said did matter. Thus it had to be refuted.

The attorney-general, Phillip Ruddock, said that there was no evidence to support Keelty. Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, as always more toxic, accused Keelty of repeating al-Qaeda’s propaganda. Howard simply implied that Keelty didn’t know what he was talking about.

But just in case people thought he did, Howard sent his chief of staff and principal enforcer, Arthur Sinodinos, to straighten him out. Sinodinos rang the Channel Nine studios before Keelty had even left the building and told him to shut up and sit tight until further notice. This came in the form of a recantation shaped by Howard’s office: Keelty was forced to say that he had been taken out of context, and the rest followed.  

The lesson had been learned; independence and honesty is all very well, but in the end the government is the boss. No doubt the current commissioner, Andrew Colvin, got the message; certainly when there was any criticism of him and his force – let alone Turnbull and his ministers – he stuck strictly his brief: of course he was acting on his own initiative; he was only doing his job.

He forbore to add that he was only obeying orders. That might well have provoked the wrath, if not that of Turnbull himself, perhaps that of his cabinet secretary – the dreaded Arthur Sinodinos. 

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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