Monday 16 Jul 2018 | 20:41 | SYDNEY
Monday 16 Jul 2018 | 20:41 | SYDNEY

In (partial) defence of Julie Bishop


Sam Roggeveen


26 May 2010 13:32

I've written before that the media is the toughest enforcer of party discipline in Canberra. Whenever politicians make policy comments at odds with their party colleagues, they are slammed in the media for disunity.

Now it seems the Canberra press gallery is enforcing discipline on behalf of the Government and the intelligence bureaucracy as well.

Yesterday, in the course of an interview about the Israeli passport forgeries, Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop speculated that Australia's intelligence agencies might also have forged passports in the past. She later denied this interpretation of her remarks. You can judge for yourself what Bishop said (and meant) by watching the video that accompanies Michelle Grattan's story.

Notice that in Grattan's treatment of the issue there is a strong emphasis on Bishop's competency. Grattan calls Bishop's remarks a 'gaffe', and in her regular commentary slot on ABC Radio National Breakfast this morning, she agreed with host Fran Kelly that it was a blunder which will 'reinforce doubts about Julie Bishop's performance.'

But that interpretation only holds if you believe the Government's line that Bishop had 'broken the convention that neither side of politics speculated or commented on the operation of security agencies.'

The key term here is 'operation', which, it seems to me, needs to be interpreted quite narrowly. We would be alarmed if this convention was invoked to shut down all debate about intelligence issues. But it ought to be applied where public comment by a political leader might compromise or endanger Australian intelligence personnel.

You could argue that Bishop's remarks did breach this narrow interpretation of the convention — by making foreign governments more vigilant about inspecting Australian passports, her comments may have indirectly eroded the security of any personnel using forged passports.

But according to Australia's longest serving foreign minister, the forging of passports by the world's intelligence services is routine and an open secret. If Downer is right (and he ought to know), then passports from all countries already get just the amount of scrutiny that individual governments believe is deserved. So the scale of Bishop's offence against the convention seems pretty small.

What's more, against Bishop's minor offence you have to weigh the fact that her comments have further opened a valuable line of journalistic inquiry. Her remarks would have been indiscreet had she made them as foreign minister, but as a member of the Opposition, she has (perhaps inadvertently) performed a valuable service.

Just a fortnight ago the Fairfax papers reported that a new intelligence review may recommend greater domestic surveillance powers, and that 'officers from the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS), the overseas spy agency, would be given significantly increased freedom to carry weapons and engage in ''paramilitary activities'' abroad.'

So there's a real story here about what kinds of activities the Government wants our intelligence agencies to perform. Hopefully, Bishop's remarks will push that story along, rather than being just another press gallery 'gotcha' moment.

Photo by Flickr user hjl, used under a Creative Commons license.