“You can’t shut this debate down…”
Malcolm Turnbull is being warned against trying to shut down the growing debate over the link between Islam and terrorism, as Coalition MPs insist on the need to air conflicting views in order to avoid a more explosive social rift.
The furious dispute is turning into a test of power within the Coalition partyroom as MPs push back at the Prime Minister’s efforts to shape the discussion, amid controversy over the intervention of spy chief Duncan Lewis.
Liberal MPs told The Australian the Prime Minister needed to assure his colleagues he wanted an open debate that lived up to his pledge last week that “nobody” could tell MPs what to say.
Assistant Minister Alan Tudge backed Mr Turnbull yesterday and urged a forthright debate on all sides because of the risk of repeating the mistakes of the 1990s, when Pauline Hanson gave voice to community frustrations over immigration. “We need to discuss this in a mature way, otherwise there is a risk of a Pauline Hanson figure arising and really dividing the community,” Mr Tudge told The Australian.
Fuelling fears that MPs might be discouraged from speaking out, Mr Turnbull confirmed on the weekend that he had given Mr Lewis the mobile phone number of Liberal MP Andrew Hastie, a former soldier who had backed the need for the reform of Islam to confront terrorism.
Mr Lewis, who is the director-general of ASIO and a former SAS commander, called Mr Hastie in a move that was seen by some as an attempt to “heavy” the backbench.
“This is not an issue of Tony Abbott versus Malcolm Turnbull; it’s an issue of bureaucrats dictating to MPs and whether we self-censor on Islam,” said one conservative Liberal, who dismissed claims that the dispute was being fuelled by the former prime minister.
Another MP said the Prime Minister needed to “kill this off” to prevent a rift within the Coalition, while a third said there was no way to prevent the opinions being aired even if they were uncomfortable. “This debate is going to happen and nothing the PM does is going to stop it,” the politician said.
“You can’t shut this debate down, and he should see that.”
West Australian Liberal MP Dennis Jensen expressed concern at the perception that the ASIO director had tried to influence the public remarks of an MP.
“I don’t think it is up to bureaucrats, senior or not, to tell MPs what they can or cannot say,” Mr Jensen said.
“If our democracy is so fragile that we need bureaucrats to tell us what to say then we are in big, big trouble.”
Former employment minister Eric Abetz, a friend of Mr Abbott and a leading conservative within the Coalition, also questioned the ASIO chief’s actions.
“I have no doubt at all that Duncan Lewis was acting in as well-intentioned a way as anybody in making the call or calls, but I thought it was unwise,” Senator Abetz told The Australian.
Mr Turnbull has encouraged Mr Lewis to speak to as many people as possible about the best way to fight terrorism. The ASIO director and Australian Federal Police Commissioner Andrew Colvin have emphasised the need to work with the Muslim community to defeat the threat.
Many MPs welcome the advice from ASIO and the AFP at a time of a growing divide after Resources Minister Josh Frydenberg warned of a “problem within Islam” and Mr Abbott called for a “reformation” of Islam. While some side with Mr Abbott, others believe the former leader’s comments have undermined the government’s work with leading Muslims to prevent terrorism.
Several MPs backed the ASIO chief yesterday for expressing his views in an interview in News Corp Australia’s Sunday newspapers eight days ago, when he warned of the “dangerous” impact of public remarks that fuelled a backlash against Muslims.
“I would welcome the phone call from Duncan Lewis — I wouldn’t be critical of it,” said one Liberal.
Another said Mr Lewis and Mr Colvin had “every right” to speak their minds. “I personally don’t think it’s that big a deal that he called MPs,” said a third.
While the interview with Mr Lewis was arranged weeks ago, the timing of his remarks led to the perception that he was being critical of Mr Abbott and Mr Frydenberg. Mr Turnbull acknowledged last Friday that he had spoken to the ASIO chief about talking to MPs but he said this did not mean silencing debate.
“Nobody tells MPs or senators what to say,” Mr Turnbull said.
“They can say what they like.”
The Prime Minister suggested on Friday that he had not asked Mr Lewis to phone Mr Hastie.
“Look, I haven’t given Duncan Lewis any — I haven’t asked him to do, to make, give any advice to anybody in particular, but I encourage Duncan Lewis to speak to as many people as he can,” Mr Turnbull said.
News Corp Australia’s Sunday newspapers revealed yesterday that Mr Turnbull had texted Mr Lewis to give him Mr Hastie’s phone number, soon after the Prime Minister met the new MP in Perth to talk about his views on Islam. One MP said the Prime Minister’s explanation now looked “disingenuous” while another said “the pieces don’t fit together” and there was a perception Mr Turnbull had encouraged the phone call.
Mr Lewis also phoned Dan Tehan, the Liberal MP who chairs the parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security.
“I speak to Duncan Lewis on a regular basis,” Mr Tehan said. “The conversations that I have with him remain confidential.”
Mr Hastie would not comment. Most MPs would only comment on condition they were not named.
Additional reporting: Sarah Martin