John Anderson Deputy PM - How to keep him down on the farm?

Alan Ramsey SMH June 5 2005

John Anderson has been in public life 16 years. The way he mostly behaves you'd think he'd been there 16 minutes. Yet he has been a cabinet minister for nine years and Deputy Prime Minister for six. He is both for one reason only: he is leader of the National Party, the junior partner in John Howard's Coalition. Ability has nothing to do with it. Some of the things Anderson does and says at times, you wonder how he ever finds his way out of bed of a morning. Last year, as the Government closed in on its third election in office, Anderson seriously considered quitting and going home to Julia and their four kids on the property outside Gunnedah. He did himself, his family and the nation a disservice by staying.

If you think that harsh, don't bother to collate the list of ministerial misadventures, administrative failures and political gaucheries Anderson has been involved in over the past nine years. Just look at what has been happening this past week about Sydney Airport's security dogs breakfast and the way Anderson handled it. God save us all, for nothing, surely, will go on saving John Anderson.

His week of agony began with the front-page lead in The Australian on Tuesday, headlined: "Airport staff 'smuggling drugs'." It related the detail of an internal customs report completed "last September". Those details included "evidence of alleged criminal conspiracies between groups" of Sydney Airport workers, and "serious security breaches and illegal activity by baggage handlers, air crew, ramp and trolley workers, security screeners and cleaners". Thirty-nine security screeners out of the airport's 500 had records of "serious criminal convictions".

That day, in Parliament, Anderson faced a string of Opposition questions followed by an urgency debate. Anderson admitted he'd known nothing about the Customs report or its contents until he read the paper that morning. They were indeed "serious matters" which "deserve to be taken seriously". But, he insisted, the report was at least 18 months old - "it was researched in late 2003 and completed in early 2004" - and had been put together "at the very time the Government was addressing the very issues the report addressed".

As for "criminality at airports", well, those matters "are rightly the responsibility of the customs service and police". Anderson said: "I can confirm the report was not made available to me or my department." Yet even though nobody in the Government had ever seen the embarrassing Customs report, Anderson repeatedly emphasised the "millions of dollars" the Government had spent since the end of 2003 on what he called its "enhanced Response to Aviation Security package".

What about the security screeners with criminal convictions?

Anderson dodged the specific question.

Instead he said 65,000 airport security passes in circulation across Australia had been reissued in the past two years as part of new screening. All, that is, except for "a significant number" withdrawn following ASIO and police checks. Anderson did not disclose how many or at what airports. He continued to avoid saying anything about Sydney Airport. What he did do was mount a political attack, accusing Labor of "sensationalising" the issue of airport security instead of seeking a confidential security briefing from his office.

In other words, keep it from the public.

Next morning The Australian had another rude front-page headline for John Anderson. "Drug convict on airport frontline," it said. The story said a man who had served eight years in prison for smuggling drugs into Australia "is one of dozens still working at Sydney Airport" despite "serious criminal records". This time John Laws took the cudgels to Anderson on Sydney radio.

Laws, posing the same question which Anderson had studiously ignored in Parliament the previous day: "There are apparently 39 security screeners at Sydney Airport who have had serious criminal convictions?"

Anderson, still evading the specific question: "What we did with those [65,000 airport security cards], we undertook a massive exercise called a reissue.

Everyone had to go through an ASIO, Federal Police, Department of Immigration background check. What we were looking for was any links that might indicate politically motivated violence."


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This page was last updated Sun Jun 5 03:12:09 2005 Pacific time