Tuesday, July 24

It may seem like keystone cops, but the Haneef affair should disturb us all

The following post expands observations I placed on What, Me Grumpy? last Thursday.

This isn't some convicted, proven ruffian. This photo (published on the front page of The Sydney Morning Herald on Thursday, July 19) is believed to be the Indian doctor Mohamed Haneef being driven from the Brisbane watchhouse in a police vehicle. We should all find it deeply disturbing.

Haneef may or may not have given support, or had some prior knowledge, of the attempted terrorist bombings in London and Glasgow. A Brisbane magistrate found the case against him so weak she granted him bail, despite our anti-terrorism laws' removal of the presumption of innocence.

Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews immediately ordered his detention under his powers to lock up and deport undesirables.

Andrews said, and Australian Federal Police commissioner Mick Keelty backed him up, that he'd been shown secret files which justified his action action.

Why weren't they put before the magistrate, even in chambers? Is it because magistrate Jacqui Payne is Aboriginal and has a reputation for requiring even the Queensland police to comply with the law? Perhaps the Feds thought they couldn't trust her – "not one of us."

As I keep saying, I may be a bit to the left, but I try to be fair. Reluctantly, I accept the need for some civil rights to be weakened as we protect ourselves against fanatics with murderous intent.
But when the authorities feel the need to detain or put on control orders those people who worry them, if they haven't been convicted let's accept a limited presumption of innocence. If we have to take them to detention, let's hire a limo to do it. Let's detain them in comfortable accommodation. A four-star hotel might be about right. And let them keep their shoes on.
Read the SMH's report here.

That was my original post, and I was going to leave it there. But then the story blew up, as anyone who's seen, heard or read the news in the past five days must know.

First, someone on the government or federal police side leaked so-called facts to The Australian to justify Kevin Andrews's action.

Then Haneef's barrister Stephen Keim, SC, leaked – and openly admitted it – the material supplied by the Feds to the Haneef legal team, and it didn't take long before a close reading created significant doubts about the Feds' competence or honesty.

As The Australian said in last Friday's editorial: “Mr Keim has removed the ability of investigators or public officials to cherry-pick and distort the evidence to manipulate perceptions to suit their purpose.”

Reading on, one feels The Australian says:

This is not to suggest that the federal Government and its law enforcement agencies have attempted to use Dr Haneef's plight for political gain. It does, however, recognise the fact that the Government has already spent a great deal of public goodwill and trust when it comes to fighting the war on terror.

It is difficult not to conclude that there has been a striking hypocrisy on the part of authorities in criticising Mr Keim for supposedly compromising his client's position when, by the admission of
Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty, Dr Haneef has been the subject of extensive leaks by both the prosecution and defence.

By releasing the transcript of interview, Mr Keim has shown that the principal distortions have been to the disadvantage of his client.

One of life's pleasures would be to see a custard pie hit Kevin Andrews in the face. He projects the smug, self-satisfied visage of a man who knows God votes conservative. My anticipation of his discomfiture rose further with weekend disclosures that even John Howard had been concerned by the relish with which he drew up WorkChoices legislation which would leave workers worse off.

But was Andrews worried? Not at all. He had secret information, too vital to our security to be told even to the judiciary, or, unthinkably, the public.

Saturday's Sydney Morning Herald, under a P1 banner headline “Haneef case turns to farce”, quoted Andrews that none of the revelations would affect his decision to cancel Haneef's visas and keep him in detention.

The same day, The Australian had a perceptive feature (and a good pun) in “Trial by leak in the age of error”, a roundup of the case written by Cameron Stewart (who should know – he appears to have been the recipient of some of the leaks from the Feds).

The Oz introduced the feature with these words: "The Haneef case exposes the underbelly of national security in which spin and counterspin are used to influence public opinion." And these: "The case highlights the bankruptcy of trust in the government."

The whole episode is disturbing, but the most disturbing aspect is the erosion of trust.

It was unfortunate for the Howard government that the affair coincided with the Fairfax newspapers – The Age and the SMH – publishing excerpts from John Winston Howard: The Biography (which goes on sale today, July 24).

Last Thursday, the Haneef photo and story above sat next to the SMH's P1 lead: "PM failed as treasurer, says Costello".

Later disclosures revealed that when the government's top legal minds gave advice it would be unlawful to turn away the Tampa, Howard sent it back until he got the advice he wanted.

And just in case you thought Howard's word might have some value, we read that his wife Janette told his biographers, in relation to his dishonoured 1994 deal with Peter Costello, that "you don't go back and honour every single one of those [promises] unless you have made a firm commitment about it, and John wasn't into making firm commitments". Hah! The birth of the non-core promise!

There's one more issue worth examining, and that's the role and in particular the ethics of newspapers in the Haneef affair. At this point we'll hand the mike to Denis Muller, visiting fellow at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne and a former editorial executive on The Age and The SMH.

On Crikey.com yesterday he said an examination of the ethical issues made an irresistable case for publication of the leaked material, and went on:

In a more general sense the public interest has also been served by demonstrating the dangers of what can happen out of public view when the State is able to act in secrecy and without adequate lines of accountability.

Moreover, subsequent analyses by The Australian have shown major inconsistencies in what was presented to the magistrate, justifying the accusation by one of its writers that the police had "verballed" Dr Haneef.

It is now five days since the leaked transcript was published, and everything that has happened since has vindicated the newspaper’s decision.

As recently as yesterday the Australian Federal Police were allowing a false story to run about Dr Haneef’s alleged plot to attack a building on the Gold Coast, until the commissioner, Mick Keelty, was finally dragged into a denial.

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