Bourke street attack
(Image: AAP Image/James Ross)

The circumstances in which Bourke Street murderer Hassan Khalif Shire Ali was at liberty despite repeatedly failing to show up to court, and despite his passport having been cancelled, should be a matter of gravest concern. He killed one person, and only luck prevented him from killing more. It is not the first time recently that it has only been luck, not effective intelligence and policing, that has prevented terrorists from claiming more lives.

Unfortunately, the process for determining why Shire Ali was on the loose and who is responsible consists of a partisan political argument between two of Australia’s least inspiring politicians, Daniel Andrews and Matthew Guy, near the end of an election campaign.

Guy is absolutely right to raise concerns about why Shire Ali was on bail, and the pathetic reaction of Andrews — that to do so is an affront to police — shows he knows it. This absurd insistence, which both sides of politics use, that any questioning of the handling of terrorism is some sort of outrage to our brave men and women on the frontline is designed to evade scrutiny of one of the most important responsibilities of government.

That’s especially the case in Victoria: for years there have been legitimate concerns both about Labor’s commitment to keeping Victorians safe from crime and the willingness of Victorian courts to play their role in achieving that. The insouciance with which Shire Ali was able to not bother showing up to court with precisely zero response from the Victorian criminal justice system is remarkable, given ASIO had cancelled his passport.

State Attorney-General Martin Pakula says Victorian authorities were not told of the passport cancellation — the kind of information one would have assumed law enforcement officials would have no difficulty sharing. But Pakula’s assertion has been questioned and subsequent federal government statements appear inconsistent with his claim.

So who is right? Did Pakula lie in the heat of an election campaign, in which case he should resign forthwith? Was he misled by police? Or is our system of intelligence-sharing regarding possible terrorists so poor that Victorian police thought they were simply dealing with another petty criminal?

On form, the Andrews government can’t be trusted when it comes to its law and order record. Nor, for that matter, can Victorian courts, which were lightning-fast to respond when Greg Hunt, Michael Sukkar and Alan Tudge made perfectly correct and justifiable criticisms of Victorian courts’ reluctance to adequately sentence would-be terrorists, but seem unfussed that a man identified as a possible Islamic State fighter had repeatedly not bothered to show up to face court.

Who has the authority to provide answers on this? No one. The oversight of intelligence and counter-terrorism at the federal level is broken; the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security operates in secret and is appointed by the government. The Coalition and Labor have lost interest in improving parliamentary oversight of intelligence operations. And that’s before you add in the complication of federal-state interactions, in which both sides can blame the other — which is perhaps exactly how the politicians like it. It’s an accountability null space, in which people can screw up, and act with self-interest, without having to account to the people who pay their wages, let alone those they are supposed to protect.

One day a terrorist might be lucky, not unlucky. And this rotten system of non-accountability will be partly to blame.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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