The relationship between John Howard and former AFP Commissioner, Mick Keelty, put the AFP in a bad place from which it has not recovered. The solution is a full blown inquiry followed by reform, a change of culture and better leadership. There is a case for dismantling Border Force.
As the Howard regime progressed through time it perfected the art of smoke and mirrors, reaching the art of the ridiculous under Prime Minister, Scott Morrison. Abbott and Turnbull made notable contributions.
Over this twenty three year period the politicisation of the public service and associated institutions has aided and abetted the show business of the LNP and to a lesser extent the Labor Party. We have seen the trashing of truth for political ends. As an example, sustained pressure from Howard saw the Bureau of Statistics decide that one hour of work a week constituted employment. By what flight of common sense did that become accepted? It is nonsense intended at the time to boost the LNP’s political fortunes.
I deliberately include the Labor Party in the Howard era, because of their supine adoption of Howard’s policies toward refugees, poverty, border ‘protection’, Iraq, Afghanistan, water, energy and the AFP.
And it is the AFP I wish to examine with a hope of reform, better accountability and improved leadership.
The AFP has demonstrated an ideological affiliation with the LNP and their obsession with border protection and terrorism. They bought into Howard’s use of terrorism as a political tool and means of control, much as Menzies did with Communism (Reds under the bed and Vietnam).
Encouraged by Howard the former Commissioner of the AFP, Michael Keelty, ran a strong anti-refugee and terror campaign. The AFP was active off shore in Indonesia disrupting people smugglers with threats and inducements with the aim of preventing the arrival of boats in Australia. They bought into turning back boats as a deterrence when in fact a better policy would have been to process refugees in Indonesia as part of a regional policy.
With his illegal incarceration of refugees and the pursuit of terrorists Howard put little in writing, operating with a wink, a nod and peripheral language.
On 2 July 2007 an Indian doctor, Mohamed Haneef, working at a Gold Coast hospital was arrested as he attempted to depart Australia for India on a one way ticket. He was arrested under the 2005 Terrorism Act which closely resembles the terrorism act in place in Apartheid South Africa.
Haneef told the AFP that he was going home to see his six day old daughter. He was not believed. His SIM card had been found in a vehicle belonging to men accused of bombing Glasgow Airport on 30 June, 2007. He was distantly related to the men. He had given one of them the card on his departure from UK some months earlier. He had bought a one way ticket to india because of insufficient funds.
With excellent lawyers the case against Haneef began to fall apart, as it did so false and misleading information was leaked to the press as an attempt to discredit Haneef. All charges against him were withdrawn on 27 July and he returned to India. He later received a considerable sum of money as compensation. The Indian Government was considerably exercised over the gross miscarriage of justice and made a number of representations.
I wrote on the matter. ‘Why did it come as no surprise to see a document linking Dr Mohamed Haneef to Al Qaeda enter the public domain via the SBS Dateline program on Wednesday 1 August?
…The alleged Indian Police dossier put before us by SBS cannot be identified as such. There is nothing which says it is a police dossier…
The photograph of Haneef which appears on the first page of the dossier is the same photograph which appeared in the Australian and British media immediately following his arrest, it appears to be a passport photo…The time line on the compilation of the dossier indicates that it was prepared after Haneef was in custody.
…the Indian Police interviewed Haneef on his return to Bangalore and said he was not a person of interest. On 3 August the Police Commissioner of Bangalore, Gopal Hosur, dismissed as false the report that Haneef had links to Al Qaeda.’ Keelty continued to claim otherwise.
I said, ‘In view of this statement (by Hosur) Dateline needs to provide more information on the status of the document they used as the basis of their story alleging Haneef had links to Al Qaeda.
We also need to know why the AFP gave credibility to allegations contained in the dossier in light of the statement by Commissioner Hosur…The way this investigation has been conducted and politicised has done harm to the Australia/India bilateral relationship…
The incompetence, spinning and partisanship of the AFP has exposed them as a second rate police force.’
The dossier which was available on line had all the hallmarks of having been manufactured.
In 2008 I wrote, ‘The AFP is very much a product of the Howard government. In the symbiotic relationship that developed between Howard and Keelty, the latter was given his head in developing…policy in relation to federal policing issues.
Under the umbrella of the Australian overblown war on terror the AFP increased its powers, budget and numbers. It now reaches into every major government department… however it increased its power and influence without change in the level of parliamentary scrutiny. The ubiquitous war on terror does not require the degree of secrecy and compliance that Keelty claims necessary for the AFP to carry out its duties.
Keelty has revealed much about himself by continuing to criticise the release, by defence lawyers, of the AFP record of interview with Dr Haneef and by claiming a need to continue with the investigation. These statements are made without explanation why Haneef remains a person of interest.
Is it the AFP or the government who have authorised this course of action?
Given the damage that Keelty and the AFP have already caused to Haneef and Australia’s relationship with India it would seem advisable for an appropriate Minister or the Prime Minister to make future statements relating to Haneef.’
By 2009 Keelty was gone, said by some to have been pushed by Rudd.
But the culture Keelty infused in the organisation remains. The current Commissioner Andrew Colvin appears comfortable with the closeness of the AFP to the LNP. On becoming Prime Minister, Tony Abbott declared that he was going to sleep in AFP barracks in Canberra. Colvin was lucky to have escaped a knighthood.
In 2010 pursuing a case against three Australians of Tamil descent for allegedly supplying funds to the LTTE the AFP relied on information provided by the Sri Lankan government. This emerged at the trial in the Victorian Supreme Court before Justice Paul Coghlan. He described the AFP’s methods as outrageous and a fundamental departure from principals that should govern interrogation and the gathering of evidence. The three were released on bonds.
In 2011 the AFP established a presence in the Australian High Commission to assist the Sri Lankan authorities turn back boats carrying Tamil refugees. All aspects of the turn around process in Sri Lanka were corrupt.
In 2012 the AFP dropped an investigation of war crimes against the Sri Lankan High Commissioner in Australia, Admiral Thisara Samarasinghe. Perhaps the perceived need to keep the Sri Lankan government on side over boat arrivals may have played a part; in any case Samarasinghe had been assessed by the UN as a war criminal.
In 2015 Australians Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran were executed by firing squad in Indonesia as a result of information relating to drugs given to the Indonesian authorities by the AFP.
In October 2017 the AFP raided the Sydney and Melbourne offices of the AWU. The raids were instigated as a result of information provided to the AFP by the Registered Organisations Commission (ROC), an organisation established by the LNP to break the power of the unions. With this in mind the AFP might have shown a little more restraint. As it was the press was at the scene before the AFP. To many it looked like the Minister for Education, Michaelia Cash, the ROC and AFP were in an unholy alliance to embarrass the AWU with early bird photographs and poor publicity from the Murdoch press. Cash has expressed herself as no friend of unions.
The Labor Party called the raids a witch hunt and an attempt to smear, the government’s response was to claim that ‘the AFP is completely independent of government.’ A strange and unnecessary statement if the AFP is independent of the LNP government.
In January 2019 an Australian, Hakeem al-Araibi, was arrested when transiting Thailand for an act of terrorism when he was a national of Bahrain. The AFP was blamed for wrongly informing Interpol who in turn informed the Thai authorities. The AFP ducked for cover blaming Border Force. Hakeem was released and returned to Australia after a local and international outcry. Had he been extradited to Bahrain, who sought his arrest, he may have met the same fate as Chan and Sukumaran.
Most recently the AFP has claimed its powers have been reduced by being placed under the authority of Border Force. There is a strong case to break up Border Force, but as part of that process the AFP needs a thorough investigation, reorganisation and appointment of a leadership cadre with strength of character, intelligence and an understanding of the role of a police force in a democracy.
And now that Border Force has cracked a mention it would be worth pointing out that under Dutton and the public servant who heads that ‘department’, Mike Pezzullo, BF has been shaped as a para military force, much as Keelty wanted to do with the AFP prior to his retirement, when his plans were modified and shelved.
Dutton’s and Pezzullo’s plans would create a force worthy of a police state. BF will have the power of detain and arrest and will be heavily armed. A central operations centre is being constructed at Canberra airport which mirrors Defence’s Joint Operations Command.
Where did the money come from? From money siphoned from border protection, Manus and Nauru? Who knew this was happening? In any case Australia does not need such a force and it should be dismantled. Immigration, Customs, ASIO and the AFP should go their own way but not before there has been a Royal Commission into Immigration and an enquiry into Customs as well as the AFP. There is much for a new government to do.
Bruce Haigh is a former diplomat and political commentator.