Stand­ing in

Sunday Herald Sun - Stellar - - Joe Hildebrand -

The most suc­cess­ful fed­eral politi­cians de­pend on high pro­files to prove their worth to their elec­torates and the nation. On this count, Michael Keenan is at a bit of a dis­ad­van­tage: much of his work be­longs in the shad­ows, mostly un­seen and largely un­spo­ken.

It may help ease frus­tra­tion that Keenan comes across as an unas­sum­ing bloke who doesn’t seem to be his own favourite topic of con­ver­sa­tion. Yet he, as Min­is­ter for Jus­tice, holds the levers of our most cru­cial na­tional se­cu­rity ap­pa­ra­tus – and is ar­guably the most crit­i­cal fed­eral min­is­ter when it comes to the ev­ery­day safety of Aus­tralians.

Keenan, 44, over­sees the Aus­tralian Fed­eral Po­lice, the Aus­tralian Crim­i­nal In­tel­li­gence Com­mis­sion, the Aus­tralian In­sti­tute of Crim­i­nol­ogy, the Aus­tralian Trans­ac­tion Re­ports and Anal­y­sis Cen­tre, and the Aus­tralian Com­mis­sion for Law En­force­ment In­tegrity, which in­ves­ti­gates cor­rup­tion in the same agen­cies.

Within Keenan’s cor­don are the key agen­cies fight­ing ter­ror and large-scale crim­i­nal­ity – drugs and guns, lone wolves and ma­jor threats, dis­rupt­ing the dark arts of ji­had fi­nanc­ing and money laun­der­ing, as well as head­ing the nation’s emer­gency and dis­as­ter re­sponses.

Keenan’s role was ex­panded last year to be­come Min­is­ter As­sist­ing the Prime Min­is­ter on Counter Ter­ror­ism, an ac­knowl­edg­ment that the se­cu­rity en­vi­ron­ment has changed rad­i­cally since 2013 when Aus­tralians be­gan head­ing to Syria to fight. That mor­phed with the ar­rival of the Is­lamic State in 2014, pro­duc­ing a new gen­er­a­tion of ter­ror­ists.

As a ju­nior min­is­ter, Keenan isn’t even in the cabi­net; nor is he a mem­ber of the Prime Min­is­ter’s ex­clu­sive Na­tional Se­cu­rity Com­mit­tee (NSC), the high-level po­lit­i­cal group that deals with in­tel­li­gence is­sues and crises. It is a cu­ri­ous omission, given Mal­colm Turn­bull’s po­si­tion that safe­guard­ing Aus­tralians is the fore­most pri­or­ity of his gov­ern­ment.

“Those are de­ci­sions for the Prime Min­is­ter,” says Keenan. “I’m not a per­ma­nent mem­ber [of the NSC] but I’m in there for counter-ter­ror is­sues and any­thing in­volv­ing po­lice. I’m called in on a very reg­u­lar ba­sis.”

Ten years ago, he says, it was cells of men plan­ning ter­ror spec­tac­u­lars. “Ca­pa­bil­ity is just a kitchen knife now,” he says. “A young per­son can go from zero to 100 very quickly. Yes, I am wor­ried, be­cause the chal­lenge will be with us for a long time. There’s that say­ing in na­tional se­cu­rity that we need to be lucky all of the time, and the ter­ror­ists only need to be lucky once.”

Were it pos­si­ble to brain-scan Keenan for in­for­ma­tion, a jour­nal­ist would be kept in front-page head­lines for a year: the who’s who of for­eign fight­ers, the drug syn­di­cates, the money shifters and fraud­sters, clan­des­tine po­lice oper­a­tions, re­gional ter­ror chat­ter, and those among us who would hurt us through ji­had. “The job is fas­ci­nat­ing,” he says. “It’s the best job in gov­ern­ment.”

But on any day it could quickly be­come the worst. “There are a cou­ple of hun­dred [in­di­vid­u­als] who are of great con­cern to our se­cu­rity agen­cies,” says Keenan. “I wouldn’t say it’s a joined-up net­work of ter­ror­ists, but we know we are car­ry­ing sig­nif­i­cant risks and there are rad­i­calised Aus­tralians who would seek to do us harm.”

I ac­com­pa­nied Keenan on a re­cent trip to China to look at an in­tel­li­gence­shar­ing task­force be­tween Chi­nese anti-narco cops and the Aus­tralian Fed­eral Po­lice. The deal, over­seen by Keenan, is re­mark­able be­cause China has never be­fore al­lowed an­other nation such ac­cess to its oper­a­tions. They help us; we help them, and by at­tempt­ing to limit metham­phetamine traf­fic, this is a very dif­fer­ent trade ar­range­ment with China de­signed to de­stroy, rather than cre­ate, profit.

On re­turn to Perth, I was sur­prised that a num­ber of po­lit­i­cally en­gaged peo­ple I know had no idea Keenan was a fel­low West Aus­tralian; nor what his role en­tails. Per­haps that’s be­cause his ar­rival in pol­i­tics was ac­ci­den­tal, and it is typ­i­cally the Prime Min­is­ter or At­tor­ney-gen­eral who takes the mi­cro­phone on ter­ror-re­lated mat­ters.

Keenan’s tra­jec­tory from work­ing in a Perth fam­ily real-es­tate business to high-level pol­i­tics came af­ter place­ments in pol­icy roles with se­nior Lib­er­als Alexan­der Downer and Amanda Van­stone. In 2004, aged 32, he was called on to con­test La­bor-held Stir­ling, an in­ner-north Perth seat that is Lib­eral on its beach­side, but shifts sharply to La­bor as it heads east.

Lib­eral can­di­date Paul Afkos had stepped down over al­le­ga­tions he’d bor­rowed hundreds of thou­sands of dol­lars from a con­victed drug dealer; Keenan was re­cruited, last minute, to fill the va­cancy. The party told him he’d lose, but might as well do it for ex­pe­ri­ence. “Lit­er­ally no one thought we would win,” he says. “I re­mem­ber try­ing to get a pho­to­graph with [then Prime Min­is­ter] John Howard, which you think would be a pretty easy thing for a can­di­date, but we weren’t on any­one’s radar.”

Keenan won both Stir­ling, which is now rated safe Lib­eral, and the heart of Ge­orgina Bower, who worked on his cam­paign and is now his wife and the mother of their three chil­dren, aged five, four and one.

AF­TER LEAV­ING TRIN­ITY Col­lege, a Catholic day school for boys (“I’m not par­tic­u­larly re­li­gious,” he in­sists. “The kids have been bap­tised but Ge­orgina’s not Catholic”), Keenan stud­ied his­tory and pol­i­tics at Mur­doch Univer­sity and

the Aus­tralian Na­tional Univer­sity be­fore com­plet­ing a Master of Phi­los­o­phy (In­ter­na­tional Re­la­tions) at the Univer­sity of Cam­bridge in Eng­land. In be­tween, he headed to Poland, Hun­gary, Ro­ma­nia and the for­mer Cze­choslo­vakia, where he saw first­hand the col­lapse of com­mu­nism.

Asked if his East­ern Bloc itinerary be­trayed youth­ful Lefty lean­ings, he says: “I was in­ter­ested in the emer­gence out of so­cial­ism. And any­one with so­cial­ist lean­ings would have had it beaten out of them by hav­ing a look at what so­cial­ism and com­mu­nism meant for the peo­ple in those coun­tries.

“It wasn’t nec­es­sar­ily that they would take you away and shoot you, but the ways they could make your life mis­er­able were ex­tra­or­di­nary. It re­in­forced to me that gov­ern­ment is con­se­quen­tial – if you’ve got a bad sys­tem of gov­ern­ment it af­fects every­one’s life.”

The first word peo­ple use for Keenan is “straight”, mean­ing he doesn’t play games or give false steers. Walk­ing into his elec­torate of­fice, his tele­vi­sion is on. I ask him if he’s watch­ing the Test. “I don’t re­ally like cricket,” he replies. A lot of politi­cians would talk back­wards in cir­cles to avoid mak­ing such an ad­mis­sion.

For ter­ror agen­cies, this forth­right ap­proach makes Keenan a know­able pres­ence who is re­li­able to work with. In pol­i­tics, where in lead­er­ship shootouts he has taken the risky po­si­tion of al­ways sup­port­ing the in­cum­bent prime min­is­ter, it has not ad­versely af­fected him un­der Turn­bull, who has ex­tended his role.

When Keenan fronts Ques­tion Time, he’s not the most in­stinc­tive or com­fort­able brawler. “The game of pol­i­tics is not of great in­ter­est to me and, in fact, it is pretty silly,” he says. “I think that’s where a lot of cyn­i­cism about pol­i­tics comes in. So I wouldn’t think of my­self as a brawler, but in this business you do need to be pre­pared to stand up for your­self.”

Keenan – along with sev­eral of his col­leagues – copped hell for go­ing AWOL from the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives in Septem­ber, which tem­po­rar­ily gave La­bor con­trol of num­bers, em­bar­rass­ing and an­ger­ing his boss, Turn­bull.

He also got a look­ing-over for his com­ments on Dr Anne Aly, the counter-ter­ror ex­pert who stood for La­bor in Cowan, im­me­di­ately north of his elec­torate. Keenan slammed Aly for writ­ing a rec­om­men­da­tion that Is­lamic preacher Ju­naid Thorne, who at the time was be­ing sen­tenced for try­ing to take a do­mes­tic flight un­der a pseu­do­nym, be put in a de­rad­i­cal­i­sa­tion pro­gram.

“The point I made is I thought it was an er­ror to pro­vide a let­ter of sup­port for Ju­naid Thorne, and I would still make that point,” says Keenan.

It was an episode that saw Keenan depart from his usual self-im­posed con­straints as he used the is­sue of na­tional se­cu­rity for po­lit­i­cal ad­van­tage, which failed, be­cause Aly won the seat.

Thorne is ex­actly the kind of guy au­thor­i­ties are wor­ried about. Shortly af­ter be­ing re­leased from prison, he was on the scene in October im­me­di­ately af­ter two school­boys left a mosque in Bankstown, Syd­ney, with plans to al­legedly be­head an in­no­cent vic­tim in the name of ISIS. He asked po­lice: “Where are my broth­ers?”

Keenan won’t name any in­di­vid­ual, but says there are “some peo­ple we’re happy to keep in prison for the long­est pe­riod of time, re­ally.

“Any way we can find to ping peo­ple, we will find it,” he adds.

That is cur­rently be­ing played out with the de­ten­tion of Neil Prakash, the Aus­tralian for­eign fighter who was seized at the Turk­ish bor­der af­ter flee­ing Mo­sul, in north­ern Iraq, where he re­put­edly played a se­nior op­er­a­tional role for ISIS.

As Min­is­ter for Jus­tice, Keenan was in­volved in the brief­ings about Prakash’s move­ments and ex­tra­di­tion ne­go­ti­a­tions; and now, in a coun­try that has no fed­eral pris­ons, he must work with states in manag­ing the an­tic­i­pated ar­rival of high-level ji­hadists from abroad, and hous­ing them in ways that en­sures they do not be­come vir­u­lent jail­house in­doc­tri­na­tors.

UL­TI­MATELY, THE MAIN ter­ror con­cern for Aus­tralia is a place where our laws mean lit­tle: In­done­sia, and par­tic­u­larly, Bali. While the coun­try’s Pres­i­dent, Joko Wi­dodo, may be a hard leader to read, Keenan says he’s “a very good pres­i­dent for Aus­tralia” and that re­la­tions – tested by the phone-tap­ping scan­dal as well as the ex­e­cu­tions of An­drew Chan and Myu­ran Suku­maran – have been re­paired un­der Wi­dodo and Turn­bull to the point where each coun­try’s min­is­te­rial coun­ter­parts can pick up the phone, as needed.

“You can cer­tainly rank the level of risk we carry in cer­tain coun­tries,” he says. “For us, it’s still about In­done­sia in the sense that more Aus­tralians have been killed in ter­ror attacks in In­done­sia than they have in the rest of the world com­bined. We’ve got a very strong in­ter­est in work­ing with the In­done­sians and they have been great part­ners.”

Amid the ex­pec­ta­tion that gov­ern­ment keeps peo­ple safe, Keenan main­tains the classic Lib­eral view that gov­ern­ment is too big. “It re­ally is in ev­ery as­pect of our lives. We need to be care­ful it doesn’t get too big.”

This is also true of his own port­fo­lio, where au­thor­i­ties have been granted nu­mer­ous ad­di­tional pow­ers to probe into Aus­tralian lives. Anti-ter­ror laws have tight­ened, po­lice have added pow­ers to take ac­tion on less in­for­ma­tion; peo­ple – in­clud­ing 14-year-olds – can be held longer with­out charge, co­er­cive pow­ers en­trenched, new counter-ter­ror units cre­ated, and ex­tra money has been made avail­able to make these things hap­pen.

This rubs against Keenan’s per­sonal phi­los­o­phy, but he says: “My sense of it is, it’s a pretty im­por­tant right to feel safe and be safe.”

ON A MIS­SION (from far left) Michael Keenan with PM Mal­colm Turn­bull; in­spect­ing a stash of seized il­licit drugs dur­ing his visit to China.

FAM­ILY MAN Keenan with wife Ge­orgina and chil­dren.

G-star RAW T-shirt (worn un­der­neath), $60, and shoes (worn through­out), $130, g-star.com; Christo­pher Es­ber sheer top, POA, and pants, $690, (02) 9358 0600

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