Espionage and terrorism give Rudd some insulation
“That’s not insulation, THIS is insulation,” a Canberra insider quipped in mock Paul Hogan at news of Australian involvement in the Dubai assassination plot.
Three weeks of intense scrutiny over the bungled $2.45 billion free home insulation scheme, suddenly gave way to a news of an `actual’ political assassination.
And what a story it was, instantly providing Kevin Rudd and his beleaguered Environment Minister, Peter Garrett with some welcome political insulation. As former Liberal leader, John Hewson, noted, the PM grabbed it with unusual relish, so keen was he to start talking about something else.
In strict terms of course, Australia was not ``involved,’’ but the fact that cloned Australian passports were used by the Mossad team dispatched to the United Arab Emirates to in turn, dispatch a Hamas militant, piqued immediate public interest. Government figures won’t say it directly but few doubt that Israel, a close ally loyally supported by Australia at some cost, has betrayed that bond by stealing Australian identities.
``We will not let the matter rest’’ an angry Mr Rudd fulminated. This would ``not be regarded as the act of a friend,’’ Foreign Affairs Minister, Stephen Smith said. In the soft-shoe world of diplomacy, this was pretty strong language.
The Government had been keen to change the subject from the insulation debacle since the beginning of the week. Perhaps unsurprisingly in these days of professional politics, it attracted some criticism for the ``convenient’’ timing chosen to tumble out its long-withheld Counter-Terrorism White Paper on Tuesday morning.
The surprisingly slim security blueprint, certainly captured some attention by describing the threat from home-grown terrorists as permanent and canvassing the possibility of a ``dirty’’ chemical or even a crude radio-active bomb being set off in Australia. But in national political terms, it was not a game changer. Word was the document had been altered, if only in tone, because the PM’s office wanted an ``announcable’.
Circumstantially, the claim seemed plausible because the $69 million spending measure accompanying the release dealt with establishing a list of ``around ten’’ countries in which special biometric information would be required of applicants for Australian visas. You can see the point. This initiative has nothing to do with addressing the home-grown terror risk. Indeed, the White Paper seemed to offer little in the way of counter-radicalisation measures.
Britain by contrast, is spending around a hundred million pounds specifically on programs to address youth alienation and subsequent radicalisation of young British Muslims. It may be money well spent. Indeed some security experts now regard terror attacks emanating from Britain as among the more significant threats facing the US. Which raises the question, why has Australia gone for the a piecemeal approach requiring biometric finger-printing and face recognition information for visa applicants from some countries, but not others?
From a diplomatic point of view, this could yet bite the Government because a country like India should be on the list simply by virtue of its enormous population and its well known internal security tensions. After all, the Counter-Terrorism White Paper was actually commissioned in the days after the November 2008 Mumbai attacks.
Yet it is obvious that in the current environment, with India already suspicious of Australians thanks to a spate of attacks on Indian students, putting India on the list of potential hostile nations, would not go over well. Ditto for Indonesia and Pakistan who would also be offended. Moreover, from a counter-radicalisation standpoint, the watch list may even be counter-productive because local minorities from those countries singled out, are apt to feel more alienated by their targeting. The Government has not explained why it doesn’t just go to full biometric screening for all visas as the US has done, thus avoiding these problems.
The Opposition believes it has Labor’s measure on border protection especially as boats continue to arrive. Thus, Julie Bishop wasted no time trying to turn the Dubai/Mossad passport story against the Government also. She noted that the assassins deliberately chose stolen identities from a spread of benign countries unlikely to arouse suspicions in the UAE, to wit: Australia, France, Germany, Ireland and Britain. Her point? That terrorists intent on acts of violence here would similarly avoid entering Australia from the small number of countries required to submit to biometric testing.
The Dubai assassination and Australia’s unwitting role in it was no doubt a cracking yarn. It was like an episode of Spooks yet real. But its dominance of the front pages has offered only temporary relief for the Government and its troubles with the home insulation program.
Make no mistake, this is a king-size stuff-up and it probably has a way to run yet. Mr Rudd has now taken full responsibility for the scrapped program. Yet it remains unclear what that responsibility amounts to. It certainly insulated Mr Garrett because the Opposition obliged by training its guns on the PM. Mr Garrett survived but the Government has taken on water. And the Westminster convention (make that, myth) of ministerial responsibility has taken another hit into the bargain.
By Thursday night, Mr Rudd had completely abandoned any defence of the scheme, which Mr Garrett had been lamely attempting, instead turning up the contrition knob by admitting he should have asked more questions. The Government has now sent its MPs out into the `burbs and regions armed with information kits and a new message: we know it went wrong but we are now fixing it.
Politically, the hope is that this approach will steady the ship and restore voter confidence. But considerable damage has been done and nothing will insulate the Government should another house catch fire from dodgy insulation or worse, someone else comes to harm from this bungled program.
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