At this stage in the election cycle opinion polls cannot tell us which party will win the forthcoming election. But most polls suggest that the gap between Labor and the Coalition is narrowing. This places special responsibility on Tony Abbott because he has earned the title of alternative prime minister. Consequently, there is reason to draw the line between plausible and frivolous criticism.
National security is a case in point. Last Tuesday the Rudd Government released its promised white paper on counter-terrorism titled Securing Australia: Protecting Our Community. This is a timely and sensible document which looks at what Australia should do in response to the terrorist threat.
The facts are clear. Since 2001 numerous terrorist attacks have been thwarted in Australia. According to the white paper, some 38 people have been prosecuted, or are being prosecuted, as a result of counter-terrorism operations and 20 people have been convicted of terrorism offences under the criminal code. Most of those convicted on terrorism charges were born in Australia or have lived here since childhood.
The sensible approach for the opposition to adopt was to welcome the release of the white paper and perhaps make some marginal criticisms. But this is not what occurred. The Liberal shadow parliamentary secretary Simon Birmingham declared that “the greatest threat to the safety of many Australian families over the last 12 months has been the home insulation program and Peter Garrett’s mismanagement of it”.
This was a smart point – but no more than that. No government should be expected to cease normal activities on account of a specific problem. Then Abbott weighed into the attack on behalf of the opposition. On the basis of a media report, he alleged that the Prime Minister and his office “have deliberately sexed-up a national security document” and went on to claim that Rudd had “been caught red-handed playing politics with national security”.
This is an exaggeration. It turned out that the government received different sets of advice. The intelligence and security organisations, which did the inaugural draft, stressed the rise in Australia of home-grown jihadist terrorism. Apparently this wording was watered down by officials in the Prime Minister and Cabinet and Attorney-General departments. The Rudd government preferred the advice of those officials who deal directly with the terrorist threat.
There is nothing improper in such behaviour. Indeed the evidence presented in the recent Melbourne and Sydney terrorism trials, which led juries to come to a decision beyond reasonable doubt on both occasions, validates the position taken by the Rudd government. There is little point in Abbott trying to score points by alleging that Rudd exaggerates the national security threat. After all, the legislation which led to the convictions in Melbourne and Sydney was introduced by John Howard’s government.
The white paper is moderate in tone and anything but a sexed-up document. If a criticism is to be made, it is that the white paper does not deal fully with how the terrorist threat is to be managed. In discussing the matter on The 7.30 Report last Tuesday, presenter Kerry O’Brien referred to “so-called home-grown terrorism”. There is nothing “so-called” about this particular threat.
In handing down sentences in the R v Elomar and Others in the NSW Supreme Court on February 15, Justice Anthony Whealy spoke of the objective seriousness of the offence committed by Mohamed Ali Elomar and the other four men who were found guilty of participation in a conspiracy to do acts in preparation for a terrorist attack. Two of the men were born in Lebanon and two were born in Australia to families which came to Australia from Lebanon when Malcolm Fraser’s Coalition relaxed the refugee intake in 1976 in response to the Lebanese Civil War.
I have written about this decision, which saw large numbers of Muslim Lebanese enter Australia, in my 2007 pamphlet Islam in Australia. Some of this group have settled well in Australia. Others have not. In Malcolm Fraser: The Political Memoirs, Fraser and his co-author Margaret Simons fudge the problems caused by this decision by equating the Muslim Lebanese and Vietnamese refugee intakes at this time. In fact no Vietnamese Australians are into home-grown terrorism. No community is responsible for individuals within it. But it is disturbing that the response from Muslim spokesmen in the Elomar case has been to deny or play down the matter. Taj el-Din al Hilaly, of the Lakemba Mosque, said that the convicted men had “no connection to acts of terrorism whatsoever”. And Keysar Trad, of the Islamic Friendship Association, denied an act of conspiracy to commit a crime.
Meanwhile the civil libertarian lawyer Rob Stary told ABC2’s News Breakfast program last Wednesday that the only way to stop home-grown terrorism was for Australia to drop its essentially bipartisan policy on the US alliance, Israel and the Afghanistan commitment.
There is little point in Abbott even momentarily being associated with left-wing criticism of national security measures. David Cameron tried this tactic in Britain and it has not benefited the Conservative Party.