17 March 2004

Howard won't face the music on Iraq

Here in Australia John Howard's Government is eight years old, too. Nice coincidence. But what happened on Sunday morning had nothing to do with coincidence when the head of the Prime Minister's personal staff, Arthur Sinodinos, phoned 'to have a word' with the head of Australia's Federal Police, Commissioner Mick Keelty, at the Nine Network's Sydney headquarters.

Keelty had just told the Sunday program: 'The reality is, if this turns out to be Islamic extremists responsible for this bombing in Spain, it's more likely to be linked to the position Spain and other allies took on issues such as Iraq. And I don't think anyone's been hiding the fact we do believe that, ultimately, one day, whether it be in one month's time, one year's time, or 10 years' time, something will happen.'

Bad move, Commissioner. Honest, but utterly unwanted when your Prime Minister is saying the opposite.

The Australian's Steve Lewis broke the story yesterday of the Sinodinos call. Lewis said Sinodinos had 'rebuked' Keelty. When I asked the Prime Minister's chief spokesman, Tony O'Leary, to comment, he confirmed Sinodinos had phoned Keelty about a 'potential media problem'.

No, not a problem for the Government, insisted O'Leary - for Keelty! What O'Leary called 'a media handling problem' for the commissioner. Wonderful, don't you think? Oh, yes, and one more thing. Sinodinos rang Keelty only 'after a conversation with the Prime Minister'. O'Leary did not have any detail. That is left to our imagination.

Yesterday, according to a Canberra source, Keelty got another call from the Prime Minister's 'office'. This time he was 'asked' not to make any further media appearances for the time being. In other words, please keep his mouth shut, thank you. The pain in Spain is secret Prime Minister's business.

The Man of Steel appeared on 7:30 Report last night:

KERRY O'BRIEN: John Howard, you've said today, quite unequivocally, that there is no link between the Madrid bombings and Australia.

How can you say that, knowing that, like Australia, Spain is a close ally of the United States in Iraq and that Al Qaeda is a strong suspect in the attack?

JOHN HOWARD, PRIME MINISTER: Well, for a couple of reasons, Kerry.

The first and the most obvious one is that because an attack occurs in another country, unless there is evidence of some direct implication for Australia, which there isn't, then I can make that statement.

The second reason why I make the statement is that it's my view that Iraq is really irrelevant to the intent and the purposes of Al Qaeda.

It may be something that is used for propaganda and recruitment purposes, and this is not only my view but it's also the view of the Director General of ASIO Dennis Richardson.

He gave voice to this view in a major speech he gave last year.

I think people have got to remember that Australia was identified as a potential Al Qaeda target before 11 September, and that the first time Al Qaeda mentioned Australia in a negative way was in relation to our involvement in East Timor.

That strikes me as a dramatic shift from, for instance 26 February when the line was:

MITCHELL: We'll talk about superannuation in a moment, there's a lot of detail to go through there. But terrorism first, the CIA Director is predicting more terrorism this year, thinks it is inevitable - do you agree?

PRIME MINISTER: Sadly, yes. I hope it doesn't come here but there will be further terrorist attacks somewhere in the world this year. I suppose, people might say given the past couple of years that's a fairly easy call to make. There has been progress made but we're going to have to live with this issue for a lot of years into the future. I know people are developing a bit of weariness with the subject and wonder why we have to keep talking about it - I wish I didn't have to, but it would not be responsible to pretend that the threat has gone away. I can only hope that it doesn't come to Australia and we'll do all we can to prevent it coming to Australia.

Evidently, 18 days can be a long time in politics. Perhaps Madrid makes campaigning on security politics rather less effective.

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