The question of why the Abbott government has watered down ministerial guidance to the Australian Federal Police relating to cooperation with security agencies of death-penalty countries has had the unexpected effect of revealing Philip Ruddock’s hypocrisy on the death penalty — and that of others as well.

Ruddock, who as attorney-general under John Howard oversaw an extensive campaign to overturn basic civil rights in the areas of counter-terrorism and internet censorship, has used the Chan and Sukumaran cases to campaign against the death penalty since being ousted as government whip by a vengeful Tony Abbott earlier in the year.

He re-established the Australian Parliamentarians against the Death Penalty group with Labor’s Chris Hayes and led a candle light vigil for the men in March. Ruddock was attorney-general when Vietnamese Australian Van Tuong Nguyen was executed in 2005 by Singapore and investigated legal options to save the man, labelling his hanging “a most unfortunate barbaric act”.

But as News Corp outlets reported today, Ruddock attacked Labor’s amendment of the ministerial directive to the AFP in 2010 that urged the AFP to “take account of the government’s long-standing opposition to the application of the death penalty, in performing its international liaison functions”. A year ago, Justice Minister Michael Keenan dumped Labor’s wording.

The government has been unable to formulate a clear response as to why it was dumped or, more likely, doesn’t want to offer the real reason: the war on terror. Keenan has since insisted he had removed the wording because it was “not necessary”.

Both he and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop confected high dudgeon that Labor would “politicise” Chan and Sukumaran’s death by asking why it was removed.

Bishop has already sought to deflect criticism of the AFP’s central role in sending Chan and Sukumaran to their deaths by insisting now is not the time for recriminations, as though any discussion of the issue should be put off until the media cycle has, helpfully, moved on to other matters.

But Ruddock made clear exactly why Keenan removed the wording. As News Corp’s Paul Maley reported five years ago, Ruddock used O’Connor’s death penalty reference to portray Labor as soft on terrorism, calling it “very problematic”.

“That’s really saying that in relation to potential terrorist events the AFP cannot provide information to the Indonesians,” Ruddock said back then.

Robert Myers, the barrister involved in providing information from Bali nine member Scott Rush’s father to the AFP, has long suggested the AFP in effect handed the Bali nine over to Indonesia to encourage terrorism cooperation from the Indonesians.

Like the government, and for that matter Labor, Ruddock’s concern about the death penalty is inconsistent when it comes to terrorism. The government has still expressed no concern about the killing of Townsville man Chris Havard when he was incinerated in a drone strike in Yemen in late 2013 along with an Australia-New Zealand dual national, Darryl Jones.

Havard and Jones weren’t the target of the strike, and there’s no evidence the intended target of the strike was involved in an imminent terrorist attack, which is one of the alleged thresholds used by the Obama Administration.

Havard and Jones were victims of an extra-judicial killing, without even the benefit of a trial within a corrupt criminal justice system, but the government expressed no concerns about the circumstances in which the two men died or the lack of consultation by our imperial overlord about their deaths.

Havard and Jones can be safely assumed to have been engaged, even if only at a low level, in some type of terrorist operation. However, that’s a standard far short of the one that was applied to Chan and Sukumaran, especially given the strike didn’t even comply with the threshold requirements notionally employed by the United States when deciding on drone attacks.

Plainly, for the moment, Keenan suspects invoking terrorism cooperation as a basis for giving the AFP discretion when it comes to operational liaison with death-penalty countries is not the politically smart thing to do.

To paraphrase Bishop, now is not the time to plead that we need the Indonesians in the War on Terror. But Ruddock belled the cat in 2010 — and not just on Keenan, but on one of the hypocrisies of Australia’s supposedly rigid opposition to the death penalty.

Peter Fray

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