Slippery escape for invisible villains

Sydney Morning Herald
July 16, 2005
By Alan Ramsey

Where are you, Philip Ruddock? The minister in charge of the disgraced Immigration Department for 7 years is the same minister now responsible for the safety of the nation's key infrastructure against terrorist attacks. Makes you think, doesn't it? It was under Ruddock's authority that rank bureaucratic incompetence and political brigandry abused and misused the immigration detention system the Government inherited in March 1996. John Howard's latest slitherings in political crisis management this week ignored Ruddock's primary culpability.

Amanda Vanstone did not.

Ruddock, the Liberals' election hero of the 2001 campaign, is now Attorney-General. Howard moved him there in late September 2003 in an extensive reshuffle for the 2004 election year that included replacing Ruddock with Vanstone in Immigration. Two nights ago, after that day's formal release of Mick Palmer's devastating report, Vanstone fronted ABC television's 7.30 Report, where Maxine McKew asked: "It's not your finest hour as minister, is it?"

Choosing her words with care, Vanstone replied: "No minister likes to be in a position where things haven't gone as they should have. But, in a sense, that's the position of a minister. You get to be there in the good times and the bad times, and you have to take responsibility for fixing [the bad times]." Vanstone's emphasis on "fixing", as distinct from "creating", was not lost on her government colleagues. It would not have been lost on her predecessor, either.

McKew persisted: "Do you take responsibility for what Mick Palmer has said today, that [the Immigration Department] is defensive, self-protective, has poorly trained officers with huge powers and no constraint on those powers?"

Vanstone was just as deliberate."If you mean," she said, "do I feel personally responsible for that situation arising, no. That's been the situation for quite some considerable time, and by that I mean decades."

Vanstone did not mean any such thing.

The period she was pointedly referring to was March 1996 to September 29, 2003, when Ruddock was minister. Those were the years the detention system was politically corrupted and administratively debauched, particularly from August 2001 onwards. Whatever degree of ministerial responsibility now rightfully attaches to Vanstone's 21 months in the job, she simply got the fag end of Ruddock's long, degraded regime.

As for the Westminster principle of ministerial responsibility, that is simply a farce with this Government. Howard and Vanstone on Thursday afternoon engaged in one of the more brazen and arrogant exercises in political effrontery. They stood, side by side, at a Canberra press conference and thumbed the Government's nose at responsibility for the litany of failures in the Palmer report.

Q: "Prime Minister, did you give any consideration, in light of this report, to replacing [Vanstone]?"

Howard: "No."

Q: "Why not?"

Howard: "Because I don't think the circumstances supported such a decision. I indicated last weekend that ministers should go if they are directly responsible for significant failings or mistakes, or if their continued presence is damaging to the Government. I have full confidence in Senator Vanstone. I don't think for a moment, in this case, either of those conditions arose."

Howard's attitude is as obvious as its arrogance. What this Prime Minister cares about is politics, not principle or standards. Any of his ministers can (and do) survive idiocy or incompetence. What a minister cannot survive is Howard's view that he or she is a political burden. It is a standard he has lived by for all but the first year of his prime ministership. You only have to read what used to be (in writing) his ministerial code of conduct to understand how corrupted it has become.

What the community at large has not yet understood is the low threshold of this Government's collective competence and the level of intimidation across the bureaucracy. The Maritime Transport Security Amendment Bill would seem to be a reasonable example of both.

This legislation passed through Parliament last month. Its purpose is to regulate increased security of Australia's offshore oil and gas industry. Part of this process is a national system of port and wharf security identification cards. The bureaucracy believes as many as 130,000 security cards will have to be issued to Australia's waterfront and shipping workforce, in the same way as a security card system operates at Australia's major airports.

But these new security cards will be issued only after a police and ASIO background check on each and every worker. A team of bureaucrats has been consulting employers and unions for nine months.

Eight days ago the head of the "Maritime Security Identity Team, Office of Transport Security, Department of Transport" emailed the individual members of the "working group" the team had been consulting. The message said: "Attached is a copy of the final [identity card] regulations. In order for these regulations to be made at a meeting of the Executive Council on July 21, we will not be able to accept any more amendments. I have also attached for your information a copy of the draft minutes from the working group meeting of June 28. Thank you all for your contributions."

That was Friday of last week.

Recall what day that was?

That's right - the day after four terrorist bombs closed down London's public transport system for 24 hours and killed, maimed or injured 760 people. Suddenly, it seems, here in Australia, there was new urgency within the Government about heightened security at our ports, wharves and offshore oil and gas fields.

Only, what these "final" regulations governing who would get identity cards did was add a section of the Crimes Act not previously negotiated with the working group. And when a Senate committee, directed by vote of the Senate last month to look at the proposed regulations, held a public hearing on Tuesday this week, three exceedingly angry union representatives took a verbal axe to what the bureaucrats had done.

Danni Whyte, Transport Workers Union: "The working group had carefully considered [for months] the list of crimes against which applicants will have their backgrounds checked. [Then] we were presented with an email last Friday which potentially completely changes one of the most fundamental issues There are 30 more crimes against which people's backgrounds will be checked. One of those is 'interfering with political activity'. That throws up all sorts of concerns Any crimes should have a demonstrable link to terrorist activity."

Patrick Johnston, Australian Manufacturing Workers Union: "We have been aware of the need to secure facilities, but it must be done in a way where everybody's rights are protected and nobody is discriminated against. It is the hidden agendas that can cause us concern, and the abuse of the legislation."

Dean Summers, Maritime Union of Australia: "What we saw in the first draft was a reference to part 15HB of the Crimes Act 1914. The second draft - the one we received last Friday afternoon - changed the reference and referred to part 11 of the Crimes Act, which also includes picket lines, industrial disputation and lockouts. That is certainly not a question of terrorism. We think it has overstepped the mark, and without any consultation."

When four federal bureaucrats from Transport Security appeared later the same day, the Liberals' Bill Heffernan, as committee chairman, asked the official who'd sent the controversial email: "Ms Liubesic, were you instructed to send the email?" Three times he asked before the official said yes, she was ordered. She named "the executive I work for".

And why the July 21 Executive Council date, asked Heffernan, given the committee had been directed to report to the Senate on August 9? "You would have been aware of this Senate process. Just answer yes or no, do not talk in code please." Official: "Yes."

Heffernan: "So, in my view, what you are doing is telling us to go to hell. You are not, but someone is. I would like to think Parliament is a valid process. The political process is that we should investigate the regulations, as demanded by Parliament, and report back on August 9."

Official: "We feel keenly the responsibility to deliver government decisions on transport security " Heffernan: "So do we!" Official: " and if there is a charge that has been levelled against us from time to time it is that we have moved too quickly. [In this case] while we are searching for a time frame to meet the Government's requirements, the regulations are not set in stone."

Heffernan: "So you are saying there is room for change?"

Official: "Absolutely."

There were some heated exchanges before the committee adjourned the hearing late in the afternoon on the understanding nothing would happen to the 38 pages of proposed regulations at a meeting of the Executive Council on July 21. At one point, Heffernan told a witness: "You're talking bullshit." This appears in the official transcript as: "That is a load of rubbish." Heffernan apologised as the hearing closed.

He said: "I thank everybody and apologise if you were offended by me yelling at you. You should have been offended, so I apologise. But you would have an understanding of where I am coming from." (See panel.)

Nobody can ever be sure where Heffernan, a Junee cattle and wheat farmer and one of the Parliament's more contentious figures, is coming from. However, unlike John Howard and Philip Ruddock, you can never mistake what he's saying.

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