Departing chief cops more flak than he deserves
THE continuing carve-up of Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty has been framed around the events of 2007; or, rather, around one event, the botched handling of the terror investigation into Mohamed Haneef.
It has been used to deride Keelty as incompetent and pig-headed, as a morally questionable plod who cobbled together the flimsiest of cases against a poor subcontinental fellow who was jailed for a fortnight and waited a full year until every charge against him was dropped.
There was another event in 2007 that provides a more telling insight into Keelty’s character. It has enjoyed limited discussion in the days since he announced his resignation, as it undermines the agendas of those who are determined to portray him as set out above. This is because it goes to three things: courage, professionalism and decency.
The event was the Garuda crash, in which two of Keelty’s closest colleagues and friends, federal agents Brice Steele and Mark Scott, were among the dead. Keelty found himself in the shocking position of being directly affected by a tragedy, and at the same time having to assume operational and logistical responsibility for the response.
This involved the grim task of repatriating his mates and the three other Aussies who perished, and the genuine life-or-death battle to get the injured Australian passengers out of Indonesia as quickly as possible and into first-class medical care back here and in Singapore.
That the AFP was able to manage its response so well was due in no small part to the excellence of Keelty’s contacts within the Indonesian police, forged in the aftermath of the 2002 Bali bombings.
I do not know how Keelty kept it together during this period. Most people would find the loss of two friends - and the heartbreaking task of relaying the news to their families, their mates, their co-workers - so arduous that they would probably get through the first 48 hours and then succumb to emotional collapse. Keelty not only maintained his composure, he showed the AFP at its most competent and professional.
In his thoughtful and balanced profile on Keelty in The Australian this week, Cameron Stewart rightly concluded by arguing that it was time for Keelty to go.
The most obvious sign that Keelty had become a bit jaded and detached in the job was his strangely ambivalent response to the bikie violence in Sydney in March, where he deemed as acceptable the 15-minute lag time in the police response to a bashing murder involving a couple of dozen men in broad daylight. It was an odd statement coming from a bloke who has come to be regarded as a people’s copper with a gut understanding of public sentiment.
It also suggested Keelty had acquired a bit too much swagger as the nation’s top cop, as evidenced by his ridiculous assertion during the Haneef shambles that terror cases would be so much easier to manage if the damned media could be banned from reporting them.
That said, the generally narky send-off Keelty has received exposes the chasm between the intelligentsia and the punters in their assessment of his record.
I doubt that the public lost much sleep over Haneef. In the aftermath of New York, Bali, Madrid and London, most people take the hardheaded view that if there are any grounds for suspicion against an individual, it would be derelict of police not to investigate.
And while Haneef’s experience was obviously harrowing, you could argue that in its conclusion it didn’t show a failure of the justice system but that the justice system actually works, as Haneef was ultimately not charged with anything, he will receive compensation, and is a free man.
There are also flaws in the criticisms Keelty has faced over the Bali Nine drug mule case, in that he allegedly “sent them to their death” by not arresting them in Australia but leaving them to the (non) mercy of the Indonesians.
The first is that these drug traffickers might have faced much lighter charges if they had been arrested in Australia planning a delivery, rather than on making the delivery.
The second goes to personal responsibility: if you’re dumb enough to strap smack to yourself and get on a plane in Indonesia, you’re sending yourself to your death. It’s nobody else’s fault. Keelty may have been precious about his own reputation and hyper-sensitive about any criticism of his colleagues, but you tend to find ego and pride in those holding a position of leadership.
The most unusual attack on Keelty this week came from lefties who are still bagging him over his alleged gaffe after the Madrid bombing. It wasn’t really a gaffe at all. It was a beat-up caused largely by the Howard government’s over-the-top reaction at the time. Keelty was led into making a matter-of-fact observation about the Madrid bombing on the Nine Network’s old Sunday show.
“If this turns out to be Islamic extremists responsible for this bombing in Spain, it is more likely to be linked to the position that Spain and other allies took on issues such as Iraq,” Keelty told Laurie Oakes.
It wasn’t an assertion that the West had itself to blame because of its foreign policy. It wasn’t an attempt to dismiss the reality that Islamic terrorists hate Western democracies anyway, regardless of their foreign policy stance. All he was saying was that if you sided with the US in a war it probably increased your chances of becoming a target, which is a bland and logical statement of fact.
The thing that turned it into a story was the subsequent explosion by then foreign minister Alexander Downer and the inappropriate intervention by John Howard’s chief of staff Arthur Sinodinos in cajoling Keelty into releasing a cringeworthy clarification.
The fact that Howard subsequently invited Keelty to Kirribilli for dinner so he could apologise to his face shows that even the former prime minister realised the guy had been given a raw deal.
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