I have never seen a director-general make such a fundamental and foolish misjudgment about ASIO’s proper role.
Last Sunday in the News Corp Australia papers, Lewis had an interview with Samantha Maiden in which he made comments about the proper way to talk about Islam. Lewis said unnamed irresponsible people were fuelling a backlash against Muslims and that this was “dangerous” to national security.
Lewis went on to say, uncontroversially, that there was a need to work closely with the Islamic community “to secure the outcome we want, which is the security of the country”.
He further said “that the estrangement, should it occur with the Muslim community here, would be very unfortunate for our operations. It impacts negatively on what we are trying to do”.
Lewis added, “I don’t buy the notion the issue of Islamic extremism is in some way fostered or sponsored or supported by the Muslim religion.
“I think it’s blasphemous to the extent that I can comment on someone else’s religion.”
The interview was conducted last Thursday. The day before, on Wednesday, Tony Abbott, the prime minister three months ago, had written an opinion piece in the News Corp Australia tabloids arguing that Islam needed reform. In it Abbott said that “most Muslims utterly reject terrorism” and he warned against “demonising Islam generally”.
However, Abbott also said: “We can’t remain in denial about the massive problem within Islam.” Abbott argued Islam had never experienced either a reformation or the Enlightenment and had consequently not developed acceptance of the separation of church and state and of pluralism.
Abbott also quoted polls that show a large minority of European Muslims supports extremist aims, if not terrorist methods.
He praised international Islamic leaders who also argue their faith needs to modernise. In perhaps the most clumsy part of his piece he called for more cultural robustness and that people should be happy to proclaim the superiority of Western civilisation over that strand of Islamic extremism which justifies killing people in the name of God.
One or two sentences were definitely clumsy, but the comments were within the bounds of reasonable debate.
However, Abbott was not alone. Reading back through interviews and contributions in parliament, you could add Peter Dutton, Josh Frydenberg, Scott Morrison, Andrew Hastie, Michael Sukkar, Alan Tudge, Andrew Nikolic, George Christensen, Angus Taylor, Eric Hutchinson and quite a few others to the list of politicians who supported an open, honest and of course respectful discussion about Islam. and made comments which would offend the Lewis standard of what is acceptable for politicians to say.
All through last week ASIO was briefing journalists, on a notionally not for attribution basis, that it opposed the thrust of what Abbott was saying, though it is not clear Abbott’s name figured in the briefings.
Certainly offending the Duncan Lewis standards of acceptable speech was Peter Costello, the former treasurer and former deputy leader of the Liberal Party. Costello sat on the National Security Committee of cabinet for 12 years and no one ever accused him of religious prejudice or being a threat to national security.
In an article last month, Costello wrote: “After each atrocity, complacent political leaders trot out the same platitudes — it has nothing to do with Islam, etc. It is wearing thin with the public. All these attacks are coming from people who subscribe to one religion, which is not Catholic or Protestant or Jewish or Buddhist or Yazidi. Plainly it has something to do with Islam.”
Lewis has rung a number of Coalition politicians to tell them in effect that if they do not use Turnbull’s softer form of words on Islam, they are in danger of becoming a threat to national security. In the Lewis formulation, Costello is surely a threat to national security.
When we speak of anyone’s religion we should do so carefully and with some sensitivity. But Muslims, like everyone else in a free society, deserve to have their beliefs subject to searching scrutiny.
But for sure it is no part of the role of the director-general of ASIO to get involved on one side or other of a legitimate partisan debate within Australia, even if that partisan debate is within the government rather than between government and opposition.
Lewis’s actions and words have drawn private condemnation from government frontbenchers and backbenchers, from serving and former national security figures, and from very senior former politicians other than Abbott.
All the former very senior national security figures I have consulted consider it at the very least a serious misjudgment by Lewis.
The context is everything. Lewis gave his interview the day after Abbott’s article appeared and in the week of Abbott’s speech in Singapore that made mention of the same subject, and a few days after his interview with Paul Murray on Sky News.
Turnbull could not address the media without being hounded for a response to Abbott. Maiden, a first-rate journalist, naturally juxtaposed Lewis’s comments with those of Abbott.
Lewis’s comments could only be read as slapping down Abbott and all the other Liberals who had made comments critical of the Grand Mufti of Australia, or calling for a discussion about Islam.
There are only two possible interpretations. The first is that Lewis intended to slap down Abbott. If this is true, then Lewis has gravely exceeded his brief and interposed the security agency into a direct political role that is wrong in principle and dangerous in practice.
If Lewis did not intend to slap down Abbott, then it was an astonishingly incompetent strategic communication, because that is how everybody has interpreted the remarks.
Either way, it’s a very poor show from Lewis.
This is not a question of being fair to Abbott. It is not about Abbott at all. It is about the integrity and role of ASIO and the nature of free speech in Australia.
The other question is whether Lewis was prompted to make these remarks.
The Prime Minister’s Office is insistent that it played no role in getting Lewis to give the anti-Abbott interview to Maiden. The Attorney-General’s office was informed that the interview was taking place and was informed, after it took place, of its general contents.
The interview had been requested some time before, but of course directors-general of ASIO have countless newspaper interview requests. Deciding to accept one, and the timing and content, are a proactive strategic choice.
Several Liberals believe Turnbull’s office played a role in priming Lewis to say what he said and to make the phone calls he has made.
Several of the most senior national security figures of the past told me they could not believe the head of ASIO would do such a thing without political guidance.
Lewis is wrong in substance to say extremism bears no relation to Islam. He is wrong in principle to inject ASIO into a legitimate political debate. This is reminiscent of the ASIO of old at its worst.
Turnbull is profoundly wrong to keep quoting ASIO as his authority for the way he talks about Muslims. This is a complete misuse of the moral authority of ASIO, which derives from its apolitical, technical competence. All sides of politics have striven mightily in recent decades to depoliticise ASIO. It is irresponsible to tamper with that.
I have been writing about ASIO for nearly 40 years. It is a magnificent organisation full of dedicated professionals who labour long and hard to keep Australians safe. It deserves our thanks. The last time I wrote a critical column about ASIO was in the early 1980s. But its DG is accountable for what he says, like everybody else. In this hopefully isolated incident, Lewis, a profoundly admirable man in general, has performed very poorly.