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Keelty: Top Cop, big bucks and geopolitics

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8 May 2009 12:18

Just as Navy reveres the admirals who buy big boats, so the Australian Federal Police (AFP) will long remember the top cop who brought home big bucks. The Age of Terror has been the coming of age of the AFP. In eight years as Commissioner of the AFP, Mick Keelty went close to tripling his empire.

Let the raw numbers stand as a marker of Keelty’s achievement: when he took the top job in 2001, the AFP had a budget of $370 million and 2850 people; as he announces his resignation, the figures stand at $1.3 billion and 6700 people.

Keelty’s decision to move on is a good moment to reflect on the how the AFP growth explosion has created a new and potentially important geopolitical instrument for Australia.

Much of the media commentary has been about the Canberra politics of Keelty's reign. On that, it’s sufficient to refer to an unpublished rule about generals and politicians: a rising general must be ready to go to war at a moment’s notice against peers also jostling for promotion but seek constant peace in dealings with political masters. Keelty got that Canberra balance right most of the time and was rewarded.

On the geopolitics, the first thing to observe is the AFP’s magnificent performance after the 2002 Bali bombing. Without the intense forensic work the AFP performed on the bomb site, the bombers might still be free. And the way the AFP leveraged the personal relationships it had with the Indonesian police was masterful.

In the vital early days of the investigation, the key Indonesian officers each had an Australian partner working beside them. When the Indonesian officer in charge of the investigation flew to Jakarta for a meeting with President Megawati, he took along his Australian colleague (and didn’t tell Mega that the Australian actually spoke Bahasa).

It was that meeting that gave the Australians some hope of the necessary political support to conduct a proper inquiry. The President said the police had her full backing and the Indonesian military would not be allowed to interfere or shut down the lines of inquiry.

Under Suharto, the bombing investigation would have been stymied by the overwhelming need to save face and ensure that nothing embarrassing was discovered. The Australian police experts would not have been allowed to set foot in Indonesia. If the habits of the Suharto era had been followed, the murderers would never have been caught.

The AFP did Australia proud, and helped deliver some measure of justice for the murder of 202 people. Working from that success, Australia has sought to make its police practices the working norm for other police in Southeast Asia. The Australian-funded Jakarta Centre for Law Enforcement Cooperation and the bilateral anti-terrorism agreements signed across the region are means to institutionalise an AFP role in Southeast Asia.

In the South Pacific, the AFP has the potential to become a de facto AF(&P)P. Putting an implicit extra P in the title would acknowledge the work of the Australian Federal (and Pacific) Police. The extended experience in Bougainville and now in Solomon Islands is institutionalising a Pacific dimension into the AFP’s structure. This is not just a matter of helping with peace monitoring, policing, governance and training. The Pacific reach runs through work with Island institutions on intelligence, terrorism, money laundering and the smuggling of people, drugs and weapons.

Having Australian coppers amongst the palm trees is risky. There is a plaque in Honiara in memory of Adam Dunning, the AFP officer shot and killed while on patrol in 2004. The potential for political conflict is also high. The Julian Moti affair virtually shut down Australia’s relations with both PNG and Solomon Islands for 12 months. And Australia declared a diplomatic vendetta against Vanuatu’s Vohor Government in 2004 for expelling AFP officers based in Port Vila.

Using and growing the AFP as an instrument in the South Pacific is never going to be trouble-free or easy. Yet for many of the problems confronting the Islands, Australian police will be more effective (and locally acceptable)  than the Australian military. Properly used, the AF(&P)P can give Australia the chance to help Island states before trouble reaches the level of military attention discussed in the Defence White Paper.

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

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