Saturday, January 10, 2009

OPINION: Hit with the culture club ...

(This article was first published in ABC Unleashed on on 22 February 2008.)

Without meaning to sound like Forrest Gump (the character from a famous American movie of the same name who always popped up at important events), I managed to secure a place at the Coalition's campaign launch in early 1996. The event was held in the main auditorium of the Ryde Civic Centre located in a suburb locals call "Top Ryde".

Mr Howard's slogan for that campaign was "For All Of Us". As they walked into the auditorium to a standing ovation, John and Janette Howard were handed a bouquet of flowers by a South Asian woman in a sari.

Eleven years on, a fair few South Asian women attended polling booths across the Bennelong electorate to cast their vote for ALP candidate Maxine McKew. Here's part of what I wrote about this in Crikey soon after the November 2007 poll:

...the treatment of Dr Mohamed Haneef by the Immigration Minister also went down like a lead balloon among shoppers at any one of Bennelong's many Indian spice shops. Middle class Indians aren't exactly huge ALP fans. But they certainly aren't fond of alleged conservatives who play the politics of race.

The misuse (if not abuse) of executive powers by Howard government ministers to play dog whistle politics was now blowing up in the PM's face and in his own backyard.

Howard's campaign slogan "For All Of Us" should also be the policy behind national security and counter-terrorism efforts.

The fact is that the bombs of terrorists do not discriminate on the grounds of race, colour or religion. No one has yet invented a bomb which only kills alleged infidels. One of the victims of the July 2005 London bombings was a young bank clerk whose surname was Islam.

But when the agencies in charge of national security become politicised, the security of all of us is compromised. Politicians who turn national security into an ideological, cultural and/or political football are potentially harming all of us.

Writing in, former ASIS officer Warren Reed mentions the humiliation of AFP Commissioner Mick Keelty after his ...

... reasonable statement ... soon after the Madrid train bombings, that having troops in Iraq made Australia a greater terrorist target.

On that occasion, Howard forced Keelty to effectively retract his statement and support the Iraq war. Meanwhile, Downer suggested Keelty was providing propaganda services for al-Qaeda.

Reed also cites reports that by the end of December 2007, the investigation of Dr Mohammed Haneef cost taxpayers at least $7.5 million. This estimate was provided by Keelty to a hearing of the Senate estimates hearing in Canberra on 18 February 2008.

This is only the figure for investigations. It does not include the time involved for staff of the Department of Immigration & Citizenship (DIAC) in dealing with the various appeals to former Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews' decision to revoke Dr Haneef's visa after a Brisbane Magistrate granted him bail. It also doesn't include court time and legal fees of the Department, all of which we taxpayers pay. In fact, on media monitoring of the case alone, Andrews spent a cool $130,000 of our money.

The Full Federal Court eventually ruled that the then Immigration Minister had exceeded his powers in canceling Dr Haneef's visa. Andrews was found to have cancelled Haneef's visa on the basis of an incorrect application of a legislative test allowing him to cancel someone's visa because of their association with someone who has allegedly engaged in criminal activity.

Returning to the AFP investigation. Notwithstanding the time (including $1.3 million in overtime) spent by AFP officers on the investigation, one can only wonder how much time and money would have been saved had AFP officers and investigators been provided with some basic cross-cultural training. No, I'm not talking about politically correct cultural sensitivity training. I'm talking about something much more basic than that.

Sushi Das, a columnist for The Age, wrote last July about how much investigation time was wasted because ...

... the police did not recognise the cultural and social signposts that would normally be apparent to people from the same culture talking to one another ... Haneef's police interview illustrates the strains imposed when East meets West and both try to understand each other but barriers of accent, language, cultural norms and value systems stand in the way.

After canceling Haneef's visa, Andrews released a selection of some of the evidence he took into account. It included a conversation between Haneef and his brother in the UK that allegedly showed he had advance knowledge of the UK bombings that allegedly involved other relatives.

Those conversations took place in Urdu, a language in which I can claim some fluency. At the very least, I know such a language exists. Compare that to the police interviews, where this prominent North Indian dialect (and an official language of Pakistan) is rendered as "Udo" in the first police interview and "Burdu" in the second interview.

The entire Haneef affair will be the subject of a judicial inquiry which will investigate why Dr Haneef was wrongly charged with terrorism offences. We should all hope that the inquiry also focuses on the highly politicised statements and decisions made by the relevant Ministers of the Howard government, many of which left us too alarmed to be alert and which certainly didn't make us any more secure.