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Abbott fans the burqa debate he was trying to cool

Prime Minister Tony Abbott says he finds the burqa “fairly confronting”. AAP/Alan Porritt

A friend of mine bought a burqa when we were travelling in Afghanistan in 2002. She’s worn it perhaps once at drinks in Parliament House – before the garment became an issue - though not, as far as I am aware, when entering the building.

I’ve not seen anyone else in or around Parliament House in a burqa. Conservative Liberal senator Cory Bernardi, who wants those in burqas banned from coming into the place, says he saw some women with facial veils three years ago. He took the matter up at Senate estimates and was told people could wear balaclavas too.

Tony Abbott on Wednesday cautioned people not to make “mountains out of molehills”.

“Has anyone ever sought entry to this building so attired? As far as I’m aware, no.” Making a big song and dance about a hypothetical was not particularly helpful, he told his news conference.

Yet the argument about burqas in Parliament House has become a big debate, and Abbott has added unhelpfully to it when he repeated comments he made some time ago that he found the burqa “a fairly confronting form of attire”.

“Frankly, I wish it was not worn but we are a free country, we are a free society and it is not the business of government to tell people what they should or should not wear,” he told reporters. “We can all have an opinion, we can all have a preference, but in the end it is up to the citizens of Australia what they should wear.”

Abbott was desperately anxious not to say that the burqa should be banned in Parliament House. He stressed that it was a secure building and “obviously people need to be identifiable”. But he also seemed more or less satisfied to leave the matter to those in charge of security. “In the end it is a matter for the presiding officers and for the security controller of the building,” he said, while adding “this is a secure building and it’s got to be governed by the rules appropriate to a secure building”.

New police commissioner Andrew Colvin, appearing with Abbott at the news conference, didn’t want to be drawn into the politics. “We need to look at the circumstances. Where it is appropriate for us to make certain identification, we should do that,” he said. “I am not going to buy into whether it should be banned or not [in Parliament House']”.

Abbott drew the distinction between the burqa as an item of clothing in the general community and as clothing in a secure building or (as in a court) where a person’s identity is important.

It’s hard to argue with the proposition security officials should be able to satisfy themselves that someone entering Parliament House is not a security threat. Everyone is familiar with being asked to remove various bits of metal to keep the detector happy. It’s conceivable that an issue of identity could arise with a visitor whose face was covered, although it would be rare enough to be able to be dealt with on the spot, or referred up the chain. No one who is a permanent worker in the building is going to be in a burqa.

The bottom line is: the burqa is not a problem at Parliament House and won’t become one.

More concerning are Abbott’s comments about finding the burqa “fairly confronting”, because they send out just the sort of negative signal he doesn’t want to send.

Presumably he doesn’t feel physically threatened so what is this about? Has he felt this in Middle East countries, with their large numbers of veiled women? Is he just discombobulated in Australia?

In Afghanistan, after the overthrow of the Taliban many women looked forward to being able to discard their burqas, because they saw them as part of the restrictions on them. But Abbott is probably not making a feminist point in saying he feels confronted. Maybe it’s just the unsettling nature of the strange. It’s a two way street. How confronting must some of the women who cover their faces (with niqabs or burqas) find the dress, or undress, of the Prime Minister himself and thousands of other Australian men and women enjoying the surf in the summer?

Abbott wants everyone signed up to Team Australia. That will be easier if people don’t just accept that one dress code doesn’t fit all but are relaxed about the fact.

How far can Palmer’s Newman government inquiry probe?

PUP leader Clive Palmer has a long running feud with the Newman government. AAP/Lukas Coch

The Senate has set up an extraordinarily broad inquiry into the Queensland government, in another demonstration of Clive Palmer’s power and his determination to pursue state premier Campbell Newman.

It is a bad road for the federal parliament to travel but how far it will get down it is yet to be seen. If a more limited precedent is any guide, probably not a great distance.

Palmer has a long-running feud with the Newman government, rooted in his business interests as much as in politics. This was one of the motivations for his foundation of the Palmer United Party.

He also has ambitions for PUP in next year’s Queensland election.

So the inquiry into “Certain Aspects of Queensland Government Administration related to Commonwealth Government Affairs”, to be chaired by PUP Senate leader Glenn Lazarus and reporting by March 27 is all about trying to embarrass Campbell Newman in the run up to the state poll.

PUP was able to establish the inquiry because of a change of position by the Greens.

When the Senate considered the PUP push last week the government, in an effort to head it off, moved that it also cover the previous state Labor administration. The Greens supported the amendment. After that was carried, Labor was no longer interested and the proposal hit the fence.

According to some sources, over the last few days Greens leader Christine Milne came under pressure from the environmental movement to shift on the amendment and so secure the inquiry, because the environmentalists wanted to expose the state government’s practices.

The Greens this week had PUP include a provision for the inquiry to look into the “adequacy of Commonwealth oversight of the approval of coal seam gas projects in Queensland”. The Greens argue this means the inquiry can examine the former Labor government’s coal seam gas approvals, so they could justify the about face on the Coalition’s amendment.

By Tuesday afternoon PUP had Labor and Greens support and the Senate voted 30-27 for the inquiry.

Labor was happy enough to give PUP a win so long as its own Queensland past was not under the microscope (leaving aside the Greens' attempt to delve into history on coal seam gas). The ALP wants PUP support on other issues. Also, it stands to gain from anything that puts the Newman government under scrutiny.

The terms of reference for the inquiry (which, apart from the PUP chair, will include one government senator, two from Labor and a Green) are sweeping.

The committee is to report on Commonwealth funds paid to Queensland with reference to a number of criteria.

These include the purposes for which money was given; performance measures; identified breaches of funding agreements or conditions; the proportion of the Queensland budget derived from the Commonwealth funds; and whether any federal funds have been used by the state government for its advertising or party political purposes.

The inquiry also covers (insofar as they relate to the Commonwealth) the administration of the Queensland judicial system; approval processes for projects for resource or services exports; the extent to which Queensland practices are consistent with Australia’s international environmental obligations; whether it is appropriate for the federal environment minister to delegate his approval powers to the Queensland government under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act; and the extent to which Queensland practices on administering prisons and detaining without trial are consistent with Australian’s international human rights obligations.

A much more limited Senate inquiry in 1996, chaired by Labor, into the tendering process for Victoria’s Crown Casino showed the potential difficulty of such a political exercise.

The Kennett government refused to co-operate, as the Newman government will.

Much of that Senate committee’s report, appropriately titled “Compelling Evidence”, is about the barriers to getting the information from a resistant state.

The Senate clerk of the day, the late Harry Evans (not a man who usually held back in urging Senate assertiveness) advised caution.

He’d told another inquiry in 1994 that it was a parliamentary rule of the Senate that the inquiry powers were not exercised in respect of members of the House of Representatives “and as a matter of first principle the same rule extends to members of state and territory parliaments”.

“My advice to all Senate committees is that they should observe the parliamentary rule and the past practice and not seek to summon members of state or territory parliaments or state or territory officers, or to require them to give evidence or to produce documents.

“Such persons should be invited to appear or submit documents if a committee desires to take evidence from them, and any invitation to state or territory officers should be directed to the relevant state or territory minister. In the event of an invitation being declined, a committee should not take the matter any further,” Evans wrote.

The current inquiry is likely to receive similar advice, if it asks.

The 1996 committee, looking at the possible restrictions on the use of its coercive powers, concluded that current Victorian MPs could not be summoned to appear before it, and that it probably could not compel the answering of questions about the advice that had been given to the Victorian government.

In light of the problems, the committee backed off.

For the PUP inquiry to try to force the issue against an uncooperative state to the point of compulsion would require the sanction of the full Senate and possibly end up in court.

A homeland security super ministry? Perhaps not as good an idea as it sounds

Prime Minister Tony Abbott seems to dwell on the risks of a ministry reshuffle. EPA/Justin Lane

It’s difficult to see how Tony Abbott can avoid a summer reshuffle and easy to believe he’s not relishing the prospect.

Few around the Coalition believe that Arthur Sinodinos will return to his assistant treasurer post after he performed unimpressively at the Independent Commission Against Corruption hearings, although ICAC’s assessment is not out until later in the year.

Abbott would like to retain Sinodinos but to keep him as assistant treasurer would surely not be politically practical, after it has become obvious that he did not have his eye on the financial balls in his company and party roles. Could Abbott have him in some other position? That would probably depend on precisely what ICAC says.

Some PMs look upon reshuffles as opportunities but Abbott does not appear to be one of them. He seems to dwell more on the risks. People who are dumped, excluded or otherwise disappointed can cause trouble. Even dropping as minor a player as Ian Macdonald from his frontbench when he came to power has caused Abbott grief. And whatever he does from now on, there will be muttering in the ranks.

It’s almost impossible to just deal with a single vacancy without having to make consequential changes. But let’s assume Abbott went for minimalism. Ambitious backbenchers, some of them with not just talent but experience, would be annoyed and maybe restless. They would fear that another opportunity could be a political eternity away. They’d be asking: how long does a Christian Porter, former treasurer of Western Australia, or a Kelly O'Dwyer, well-qualified former banker and staffer to then treasurer Peter Costello, have to wait?

And if Abbott did not take advantage of what effectively would be a forced reshuffle to get more women into the team, when – if ever – would he do that?

At the higher levels of the existing team, there is another sort of pressure. Immigration minister Scott Morrison is bursting out of his political skin.

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison is ticking off performance indicators. AAP/Dan Peled

Morrison has stopped the boats. This week he did a deal with Clive Palmer which, assuming he gets the necessary extra Senate votes, will restore temporary protection visas and see the processing of the 30,000 asylum seekers on Australian soil. He finished the week with a trip to Cambodia to sign an agreement for refugees from Nauru to go there.

As Morrison ticks off his KPIs he also dramatically shrinks his job. Anyway, it’s not a post any minister wants for long.

Morrison is doing a side shuffle without waiting for a reshuffle. He has moved himself into the anti-terrorism rhetorical space, doing many media appearances.

There’s widespread speculation that Morrison, a future leadership aspirant, is angling for a broad homeland security portfolio.

Whether it will come about is another matter, though certainly Attorney-General George Brandis, who’d stand to lose some of his territory, is said to be twitchy.

Like Morrison, Brandis had a win this week, when the first tranche of the anti-terrorism legislation cleared the Senate. But the gloss was somewhat rubbed off for the Attorney by TV pictures of Labor shenanigans in the Senate over his joining the rather quaint male-only Savage Club in Melbourne. The club was chaired by Robert Menzies from 1947 to 1962. Brandis' membership nomination was seconded by Tom Harley, a moderate and a federal vice-president of the Liberal party, whom Abbott tried this year to have replaced, enlisting the aid of Christopher Pyne. Brandis backed Harley, who survived against the odds.

There isn’t a compelling case for a homeland security portfolio, despite the superficial logic. It would hardly be worth having it if ASIO were not brought under it. But it wouldn’t be desirable to take ASIO out of the Attorney-General’s portfolio. There are already serious issues of civil rights with the anti-terrorism legislation – that problem would be exacerbated if ASIO were under a more operational portfolio.

It is understood the Prime Minister’s Office believes that ASIO should stay with Attorney-General’s (as does ASIO). The more practical play is potentially around the Australian Federal Police, who currently come under the Justice Minister Michael Keenan. But again, the argument for bringing them into a homeland security ministry isn’t strong. While their counter-terrorism work is high profile, the largest part of their activities is dealing with organised crime.

Anyway, present arrangements in the anti-terrorism area seem to be working effectively. A major restructuring could cause more pain than gain.

If the homeland security ministry isn’t a goer, Abbott would be left with the interesting problem of a minister whose wings had outgrown his cage.

Abbott recently has been having meetings with his ministers to discuss how things are going. These reportedly have been one-on-ones – not even Abbott’s chief of staff Peta Credlin has been in them.

In a political party performance assessment goes both ways – the leader assesses the troops and the troops assess the leader. Assuming the reshuffle comes, how he handles it will be one of the KPIs by which Abbott will be judged.