Building an Empire

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The Commissioner of the AFP, Mick Keelty, revealed much about himself in his anti-press speech to the Sydney Institute last week.

He has also revealed much about his organisation by continuing to criticise the release, by defence lawyers, of the AFP record of interview with Dr Mohamed Haneef and by claiming a need to continue with the investigation. These statements are made without explanation of 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 be advisable for an appropriate Minister or the Prime Minister to make future statements relating to Haneef.

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 and announcing government policy in relation to federal policing issues.

Under the umbrella of the overblown war on terror the AFP increased its powers, budget and numbers. However the increased power and influence has come without concomitant change in the level of ministerial control or 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.

Terrorism has been a feature of global policing from the mid 1960s. It is nothing new despite the current hysteria which feeds into the centralist agenda of conservative governments.

In every posting I had as an Australian diplomat from 1972 until 1994 there were groups of one persuasion or another carrying out acts of terror. All embassies had procedures in place to deal with the aftermath of an attack. Aircraft hijackings were connected to terror activity from the late 1950s.

There are now over 6,000 police in the AFP. The budget has gone from $365 million in 2000/2001 to $1.86 billion in 2005/6.

Under the guise of preventing terrorist cells getting a toehold, the AFP has become active in the region, most notably in the Solomon Islands.

In early 2006, head of the Department of Foreign Affairs, Michael L’Estrange, admitted that the AFP was operating in "a foreign policy space". It was a theme picked up by Keelty when arguing for more resources for the AFP’s International Deployment Group (IDG).

The IDG grew out of AFP involvement in the Solomons and East Timor. In August 2007 the IDG numbered 600 officers. AFP documents claim that by August 2008 the force will number around 1200 or close to two Battalions of Infantry. In recent documents the AFP refers to the IDG as a paramilitary force. In August 2006 Howard announced $480 million for the IDG over the next five years and in the 2006/7 Budget the AFP received $219 million "to boost their paramilitary capability".

Under Keelty – using the justifications of terrorism, the arc of instability and even climate change – the AFP has developed a paramilitary capacity, which devours a quarter of its budget, and is now undertaking military training including in the use of weapons, transport and other logistics. To further the development of this force senior AFP officers attached to the IDG are attending the ADF Staff College in order to "understand military concepts of command and control". The AFP is currently pushing for a greater role in Afghanistan, no doubt to help secure future funding of the IDG.

An AFP paper last year, Policing the Neighbourhood and Keeping Peace in the Pacific stated that part of the organisation’s Futures Strategy "was the establishment of an operation planning cell which will work closely with the ADF and exchange best practice concepts". The paper also states that the AFP plans to have "interoperability with ADF command, control and mission orders" and that "Both organisations have agreed to a number of senior officer out-postings to key areas within the ADF".

The AFP is the only police force in a liberal democracy to have such an organisation. The AFP needs greater accountability. In one of his many headland speeches, which he has traditionally used to carve out and defend AFP territory, Keelty claimed accountability through the process of answering to his Minister and Senate Committees.

There is no Senate Committee that oversees the activities of the AFP. The Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee has given the AFP a glance but this was a one off. The Auditor-General examines the AFP but only from the perspective of administrative procedures not policy.

The AFP has the staff and budget of a major Federal Government Department. It requires a Minister, preferably a strong one, and a dedicated Senate Committee to oversee its activities.

Keelty has encroached into the public service under what, until now has been the unchallengeable mantra of terrorism. When faced with deciding a course of action following the boarding of a Japanese whaling vessel by two activists, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Stephen Smith, said the AFP was providing him with advice on the legalities of their action and the procedures to be followed.

This is not the role of the AFP. The AFP is there to uphold the law, not interpret the law. Foreign Affairs and the Attorney-General’s Department have well qualified lawyers to provide advice on issues involving the Law of the Sea. The trigger for the involvement of the AFP was the incomprehensible claim that the actions of the activists might constitute an act of terror.

It is with this mechanism that the AFP have been able to clear the arena and allowed considerable inroads into the Departments of Immigration, Foreign Affairs, Defence, AusAid and of course Prime Minister and Cabinet.

Terror has been the vehicle for unrestrained empire building by Keelty and the AFP, with minimum accountability.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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