So that’s it, then. The Lindt cafe siege, which cost two lives plus that of self-obsessed rapist, domestic violence perpetrator and murder conspirator Man Haron Monis, was a learning experience. The NSW government would “take the lessons learned” from the coroner’s report, said Premier Gladys Berejiklian.

“There will always be lessons to be learned from events such as this,” then-Premier Mike Baird said.

“I need to ensure that NSW police learn valuable lessons,” new NSW police commissioner Mick Fuller said.

No one was really responsible except Monis, although NSW police should have stormed the cafe earlier, rather than waiting until Monis began shooting at hostages — and certainly not ten minutes after he began firing. That, and a host of procedural stuff-ups by NSW police at all levels during its handling of the incident. 

All some sort of learning journey for people in power — those who are still around, of course.

It’s a common refrain these days from officials and senior corporate figures when lives have been wrecked, or, in this case, lost. We’ve heard it a lot from banks and banking regulators about the havoc inflicted on customers by renegade financial planners and gouging financial institutions — although thankfully most of those victims are still alive to be compensated. What it really means is that no one will be held responsible — or if someone was responsible, they’ve conveniently moved on. We’re meant to nod sagely, relieved that organisations will be more prepared “next time”. Until the same thing happens again.

In any event, a coronial inquest was never the appropriate mechanism to provide genuine accountability for what went wrong in Martin Place, and for the long chain of failures that left Man Haron Monis free to take a weapon into the cafe on that day, despite being known to be a radical with a serious history of violence. This is the indelible pattern of contemporary terrorism: the perpetrator will be revealed as known to security agencies, but not considered a threat, or having escaped surveillance. All the time we’re told more mass surveillance is the answer, when the glaring failure of targeted surveillance costs lives.

In the wake of the siege, Labor’s deputy chair of intelligence and security committee, Anthony Byrne, called for an independent judicial inquiry, and copped plenty of grief for doing so. Instead, what we’ve got was an embarrassing desktop review of the handling of the siege by NSW and the Commonwealth and a coroner’s report. And we don’t have full access to the latter, given the issue of ASIO’s role, and its interaction with Monis, remains secret. It’s woefully inadequate. The survivors and the families of the victims have every right to be deeply aggrieved at the lack of genuine accountability.

George Brandis is firmly in the “lessons learnt” camp. Yesterday, he was at pains to explain arrangements for handling correspondence had already been changed in the wake of the Attorney-General’s Department’s grievous mishandling of Monis’ red flag 2014 letter to Brandis about Islamic State — which eventually became the subject of a cover-up when ministers assured parliament, wrongly, it had been provided to the government’s inquiry.

Unlike most of the debacles that have occurred on his watch, the Monis letter had nothing to do with Brandis. He can’t be expected to process correspondence — he has staff, and an entire branch of his department, plus line area staff, to deal with correspondence. Even his office shouldn’t necessarily have been expected to pick up on the import of the letter — but departmental officials should have. For once, Brandis is covering for his department, despite the fact that they made both him and Julie Bishop look bad in parliament. It’s entirely possible, given how inexplicably sanguine ASIO was about Monis, that the letter would have made no difference had it been brought to the intelligence organisation’s attention. But we’ll never know.

Brandis only addressed the issue late yesterday afternoon, after being allowed to avoid questions at Estimates on it. He wouldn’t even hand over a copy of his statement after he’d read it out, insisting that a different copy be provided to the committee, which took considerably longer. It’s a funny thing, but his reluctance to speak on the issue is at odds with this government’s normal enthusiasm for talking about terrorism. Usually this government will take any excuse, no matter how meaningless, to talk about national security and terrorism; prime ministerial media conferences have been convened merely for arrests of people, we’ve been assured, who weren’t engaged in planning attacks. But when an actual incident has seen lives lost, and there are serious questions over both the lead-up to the event and its handling, suddenly it’s hard to get a word out of them.

It’s not too late for a proper, judicial inquiry. The victims deserve better than this.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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