Kevin Rudd and Robert McClelland issued the predictable cut-and-paste farewell to Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty this morning — ten lines long, four more than Morris Iemma got from Rudd, although Keelty’s came with some paragraphs summarising his career. You’re not left with the impression Labor is shattered by his departure.

More ironic was Philip Ruddock’s glowing praise of Keelty. That contrasted with Ruddock’s assault on Keelty in 2004 when the latter made the bleeding obvious observation that the illegal, immoral attack on Iraq in which the Howard Government had participated increased the likelihood of terrorists targeting us. Ruddock, Keelty’s boss, called the comments “fairly simplistic”, “inappropriate” and unsupported by evidence.

But then, the reaction from Ruddock and John Howard was as much fury that a beloved pet had disgraced itself in public as dismay that the implications of their Iraq venture had been so bluntly stated by someone in authority — particularly someone with Keelty’s reputation after his excellent handling of the Bali bombings.

For Keelty was a signed-up participant in the Howard Government’s national security hysteria, in which the most basic of rights were overridden in the name of wedge politics, Islamophobia and a power-grab by security and law enforcement agencies that has never been reversed.

As head of the Australian Federal Police, Keelty was one of the prime beneficiaries of this significant tilting of Australia’s criminal justice system in favour of the State and against individuals. But there’s no doubt that Keelty brought more than institutional support to the Howard Government’s counter-terrorism framework. He believed in it wholeheartedly and, in fact, felt it hadn’t gone far enough.

In September 2007, Keelty declared that “the courts … are going to need to change the way they view evidence, witnesses and forensics” in order to convict more terrorists. And in January last year, Keelty said he wanted to be able to enforce a media blackout on terrorism cases, replaced with a selective briefing by the AFP of a trusted group of editors.

It was the media, of course, who were responsible for revealing what a complete debacle the prosecution — or, more correctly, the persecution — of Mohammed Haneef by the AFP was — a revelation that proceeded despite the AFP’s own selective leaking of biased and misleading material about the prosecution.

If Keelty had had a skerrick of respect for his office or any sense of responsibility he would have quit over the Haneef business. It was an outrage, perpetrated by the AFP on his watch. His failure to step aside, however, was part and parcel of the abrogation of responsibility that marked the Howard years.

Instead, Keelty blamed everyone else. Not merely the media, but Scotland Yard, for not giving the AFP the right information about the SIM card at the centre of the prosecution; the DPP for proceeding with the prosecution, Haneef’s lawyers for — shockingly — leaking material to the press, Kevin Andrews for locking Haneef up, even Haneef himself for not cooperating fully.

Well into 2008, Keelty persisted with the fiction that somehow Haneef might yet turn out to be a terrorist and that the AFP was continuing to investigate him. Eventually Keelty declared that he thought Haneef should never have been charged, but even when the AFP finally called a halt to its $8m persecution of the man, it insisted “that some long standing overseas inquiries are yet to be fully resolved.”

The announcement was buried on a Friday evening when Fairfax journalists were on strike.

Keelty should have departed in 2007. But that failure wasn’t merely a moral one; his continued presence has prevented the AFP from starting the process of rebuilding community trust in its competence and willingness to accept responsibility for how it uses the extraordinary powers handed to it, with little accountability, by the previous Government and maintained by the current Government.

Take a trip through memory lane with all our past coverage on Mick Keelty.

Peter Fray

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