Should He Stay or Should He Go?


The bungled Mohamed Haneef case cost Australian taxpayers $7.5 million. That is what AFP Commissioner Mick Keelty revealed in a Senate estimates hearing yesterday. At its peak the investigation involved nearly 475 officers ringing up an overtime bill of $1.6 million.

Yet according to Keelty, the AFP is not planning to change the way it conducts terrorism cases, despite the outcome of this one.

A string of public mishaps has left many wondering how the beleaguered Keelty has remained in the top job. Why hasn’t the Rudd Government sacked the Commissioner who was widely viewed as John Howard’s man?

The answer is: because Rudd doesn’t want any unnecessary disruptions this early after taking office. While it’s clear to both Keelty and the Government that he has to go, a suitable appointment has to be identified that will allow him to resign without embarrassment or fallout. Keelty has his allies in the public service and if he were to be sacked it could have a ripple effect. You never know what some supporters might push off the back of a truck that could tarnish Australia’s international reputation. We’re still trying to live down the AWB oil-for-food scandal.

Rudd also needs to look as though he’s on top of the problem of terrorism so as not to further reduce public trust on this most sensitive of issues. Sacking Keelty could open up cracks in Canberra’s anti-terror/security program – which has brought the AFP into the intelligence realm like never before. The Prime Minister will also be concerned about the need to maintain smooth relations with overseas intelligence and security bodies, to whom a sacking never looks good.

It’s clear that Keelty has lost the confidence of the Australian public. What is less commonly known is that he has also done great damage to his relationship with the broader intelligence community.

One of the key reasons for this goes back to Keelty’s reasonable statement in March 2004, soon after the Madrid train bombings, that having troops in Iraq made Australia a greater terrorist target.

Prime Minister Howard was furious and it was known at the time that he privately rebuked Keelty over what he had said. But Foreign Minister Alexander Downer couldn’t resist the opportunity to go public with a Billy Bunter display of his own. He accused Keelty of being an al Qaeda propagandist. This was not only childish and over the top, but was insulting to Keelty who was then the only uniformed agency chief with hands-on experience in his area of responsibility. Both he and his organisation had won due praise for the key role played by the AFP in tracking down the Bali Bombers.

Not only did Howard not discipline Downer nor force him to apologise to Keelty and the AFP, but he made things worse by obliging then Defence Minister Robert Hill and Defence Force Chief Peter Cosgrove, the latter in full military uniform, to publicly refute what Keelty had said. AFP officers rightfully saw this as an abject betrayal.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

The situation only got worse when Howard demanded Keelty make a clarifying statement publicly endorsing Government policy. Regrettably, Keelty acceded to the PM’s wish in a grovelling act that deeply shocked the AFP, which had expected its Commissioner to stand fast and stare down both Howard and Downer. It was widely believed, both within the AFP and in the broader intelligence community, that Keelty should have threatened to resign and been prepared to carry out the threat unless the integrity of the AFP was restored.

Because Keelty put his own career ahead of his organisation he was immediately labelled a lapdog of Howard, something he has been unable to live down.

The insult entailed in Downer’s undisciplined rant was highlighted when, soon after, the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad were revealed. These involved Iraqi prisoners being "softened up" for interrogation.

Jokes became commonplace within the intelligence community that Downer, let alone Howard and Phillip Ruddock – men who had never been in uniform nor subject to any system of discipline or rigorous training – would have squirmed and instantly folded under such treatment. At a time when the nation is fighting terror – and believe it, we are, even if the threat has been ruthlessly exploited for political purposes – it is unhealthy to have senior ministers ridiculed in this way.

It would be useful for the new Rudd Government, backed as it is by significant public goodwill at this stage, to take this on board.

The intelligence community is currently under great strain, and no agency more so than the AFP, which has grown exponentially – not only in numbers but also in the range of tasks it is called upon to perform. As Bruce Haigh has highlighted, the AFP has made considerable inroads into territory traditionally covered by the Departments of Immigration, Foreign Affairs, Defence, AusAid and the Prime Minister’s own PM&C. Its reach has gone far beyond the capacity of one minister or of parliamentary oversight mechanisms to monitor. This requires urgent attention.

Even the chief executive officer of the Australian Federal Police Association, Jim Torr, warned after Keelty’s recent speech to the Sydney Institute, of dangers ahead. "We are of the view that the counter-terrorism legislation is so wide-ranging as it stands, and so new to policing and concepts of policing, that any further changes to it should proceed with caution," he said. He was specifically referring to an increase in police powers that Keelty had advocated in the contentious speech.

Torr’s warning should be heeded. So should those of many old hands in the intelligence and police community who are saying, "Stop throwing new staff, money, equipment and tasks at us that we can’t digest."

Perhaps this is what Keelty should have addressed in his speech, instead of calling for the media to be muzzled during terror trials. He could have taken us inside his organisation to show us the stresses and strains his people are working under as the load increases. He could have explained why key people are leaving and why many new recruits don’t stay for long.

The intelligence and police agencies must have management they can respect. This is not currently the case. One senior officer has a problem with drink, dropping off to sleep in important meetings. Another at one time worked hand-in-glove with a known pedophile and traitor.

It all comes back to leadership, and the question is: does the AFP still have faith in its leader to protect its reputation and maintain public trust? If the answer is no, then Keelty should step down.

The Rudd Government’s ‘softly, softly’ approach is perhaps wise, but you wouldn’t want to stretch it too far. Some in the agencies are already growing impatient.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.