NSW Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione speaks to the media outside the memorial on Martin Place

The inquiry into the circumstances that led to Man Monis taking hostages in Martin Place, and the conduct of New South Wales police during the siege, will be very short and led by the most senior bureaucrats of the two relevant jurisdictions. The secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Michael Thawley, and the secretary of the NSW Department of Premier and Cabinet, Blair Comley, will conduct the inquiry, and it will report to the Commonwealth and NSW cabinets by the end of January.

Both Thawley and Comley — whom Abbott sacked from the Commonwealth public service because of his involvement with the previous government’s carbon price — are relatively new in their positions; Comley commenced in September, and Thawley has only recently commenced at PM&C. But their role will still be that of governments investigating themselves.

Moreover, the proposed inquiry is a mash-up of multiple issues. The four key issues of public interest are Monis’ arrival in Australia (back when Philip Ruddock was immigration minister) and subsequent status; how he fell off ASIO and the AFP’s terror watchlist, why he was given bail despite being charged with serious offences; and the way the NSW Police managed the siege. Those are widely diverging matters that require a different approach. An independent judicial figure — perhaps with the powers of a royal commissioner — should be examining the Immigration and security dimensions, including the co-ordination of Commonwealth and NSW agencies — which apparently can’t even agree on whether Monis had a gun licence. There may be a need for some operational matters relating to ASIO and AFP processes to be dealt with in camera. The interaction of Monis with the NSW criminal justice system could be dealt with separately by a judicial figure at the state level. The police handling of the siege needs to be in public and hear from the hostages, to ensure a clear and credible picture of what went on inside the cafe.

These three different tasks all have different timeframes. The urgent issue is what went wrong within the AFP and ASIO, especially given the government is so gung-ho to extend their powers. The review of Immigration processes doesn’t need to be done as quickly, and will take longer because most of the officials involved would no longer be in their positions, and records would have to be retrieved relating to Monis’ case. And the key to the inquiry into the handling of the siege is that it be done right, not quickly. While Prime Minister Tony Abbott wants answers, so to do the hostages and their families. In fact as part of the inquiry process, they need to be heard from, to have the chance to tell publicly what happened

The speed with which Abbott moved to establish the inquiry indicates both genuine concern within government and the intelligence community about what appears to be a serious failure by ASIO and the AFP, and a political realisation that an issue that normally would play to the Coalition’s strengths could prove damaging, especially at a time when the government is trying to give both agencies significantly more draconian powers.

The inquiry Abbott has called can proceed, but it cannot be allowed to be the last word on what seems to be a long history of official mishandling of Monis’ life, both federally and in NSW (and any other state). This government managed to find the money to hold one useless royal commission (the pink batts one) for no real reason other than to smear the ALP and Kevin Rudd. The royal commission into trade unions was extended — despite no request for an extension — by the government after is demonstrably failed to nail one of its intended targets, Julia Gillard. The sexual abuse royal commission is an example of an inquiry being run for the good of the nation, not the government of the day. Any inquiry into Monis and his time in Australia should be conducted on a similar basis. And the fact that for 11 years the Coalition was in charge of immigration matters covering most of the time Monis was in Australia means any inquiry has to be independent of the government.

Peter Fray

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