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The paramilitary wing of the AFP

By Bruce Haigh - posted Monday, 25 February 2008


Terrorism has been a feature of global policing from the mid 1960’s, although listening to the Howard government and the Australian Federal Police you could be forgiven for believing that terrorism began on September 11, 2001.

The AFP has made good use of the so called war on terror and associated hysteria to embark on a program of unprecedented expansion. The AFP of today is a product of the Howard government. In the symbiotic relationship that developed between former Prime Minister John Howard and the Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty, the latter was allowed his head in developing and announcing policy and force structure.

Under the umbrella of the war on terror the AFP increased its powers, budget and numbers. It reaches into major government departments. The AFP has increased its power and influence without change in the level of ministerial control and parliamentary oversight and scrutiny. The ubiquitous war on terror does not require the degree of secrecy and compliance that Keelty claims necessary.

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In every posting I served in as an Australian diplomat from 1972 until 1994 there were groups, of one persuasion or another, carrying out acts of terror. All embassies had procedures in place to deal with the aftermath of an attack.

There are now over 6,000 police in the AFP. The budget has gone from $365 million in 2000-2001 to $1.86 billion in 2005-2006.

Under the guise of preventing terrorists cells getting a toe hold the AFP has become active in the region, most notably in the Solomons. This undertaking was entered into with the ADF who were critical of the manner in which the AFP undertook their peace keeping duties. Writing in the Australian Army Journal Lt. Col. John Hutcheson referred to major failings which he said were an “ ... inability to prioritise tasks to achieve a particular outcome and a tendency to take inadequate force protection measures”.

In early 2006 acknowledging the fact that the AFP was encroaching on Foreign Affairs territory, the head of the department, L’Estrange, admitted that the AFP was operating in “a foreign policy space”. It was a theme picked up by Keelty when arguing for more resources for the AFP International Deployment Group (IDG).

The IDG grew out of AFP involvement in the Solomons and East Timor. In August 2007 IDG numbered 600 officers. AFP documents claim that by August 2008 the force will number about 1,200 or close to two Battalions of Infantry. In recent documents the AFP refers to the IDG as a paramilitary force. In September 2006 Howard announced $500 million for the IDG and in the 2006-2007 Budget the AFP received $219 million “to boost their paramilitary capability”. Whether this was in addition to the earlier allocation is unclear.

What is quite clear is that under Keelty, using terrorism, the arc of instability and climate change, the AFP has developed a paramilitary capacity, devouring a quarter of its budget and undertaking military training including in the use of weapons, transport and other logistics. To further the development of this force senior AFP officers attached to the IDG are attending, the ADF Staff College in order “to understand military concepts of command and control ...”

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An AFP paper last year, “Policing the neighbourhood and keeping peace in the Pacific” stated that part of the Futures Strategy “was the establishment of an operation planning cell which will work closely with the ADF and exchange best practice concepts”. The paper also states that the AFP plans to have “interoperability with ADF command, control and mission orders” and that “Both organisations have agreed to a number of senior officer out postings to key areas within the ADF ...”

The AFP is the only police force in a liberal democracy to have such an organisation. The AFP needs greater accountability. In one of his many headland speeches, used to carve out and defend territory, Keelty claimed accountability through the process of answering to his Minister and Senate Committees.

There is no Senate Committee which oversees the activities of the AFP. The Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee has given the AFP a glance but this was a one off. The Auditor-General examines the AFP but only from the perspective of administrative procedures not policy.

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About the Author

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat who served in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1972-73 and 1986-88, and in South Africa from 1976-1979

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