A storm has broken out over national security after the opposition’s deputy leader Julie Bishop said Australia had forged passports for security operations.
The federal government has thrown out an Israeli diplomat after four forged Australian passports were used in a political assassination in the Middle East.
Ms Bishop’s comments earned the wrath of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who warned the remarks put the country’s national security at risk.
But he did not deny that Australia has forged passports.
The day of drama began when Ms Bishop, a cabinet minister in the former coalition government, spoke to Fairfax media about the Israeli passport issue.
“It would be naive to think that Israel is the only country in the world that has used forged passports, including Australian passports, for security operations,” she said.
National security breach
She was then asked by the interviewer: “What, we do?”
“Yes,” was her reply. “I believe that it has occurred, but I wasn’t the foreign minister at the time.”
Ms Bishop later backed away from her comments, claiming she had been referring to the use of forged Australian passports and had “no knowledge of any Australian authority forging any passports of any nation.”
But the damage was done, and senior government figures accused her of breaching national security – and of being unfit for her senior role.
A grim-faced Mr Rudd savaged her remarks on his way into a foreign policy conference.
“There is a long-standing convention in Australian politics: because of significant national security reasons neither side of politics speculates on, comments on, the operation of our intelligence agencies,” Mr Rudd told reporters.
Rift over Israeli relations
“Today, that convention has been breached, and this is fundamentally contrary to Australia’s national security interests.”
Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said politicians should not comment on the operational practices of intelligence agencies.
“Ms Bishop has shown that she does not respect that principle of longstanding which has served our national security interests well,” he said in a statement.
“What is in issue now is Ms Bishop’s conduct.”
The wider passport issue has exposed a sharp rift between Labor and the Liberals over relations with Israel.
Australian passports forged
Australia has generally had friendly, if remote, links with the Jewish state, which counts the US as its closest ally. Now relations have cooled.
Even before Ms Bishop made her comments to Fairfax, the two parties were at loggerheads over the government’s response to the passports fraud.
The government says Israel is to blame for the fraudulent use of four Australian passports linked with the murder of a Hamas leader in Dubai in January.
But the opposition has defended Israel, saying there was insufficient evidence, and accused Labor of wanting to “curry favour” with Arab states.
A clearly angry Mr Smith, who is usually mild-mannered, lashed out at Ms Bishop in response.
Smith ‘shocked’ at comments
He told question time he was “absolutely shocked” by Ms Bishop’s comments, and she was “not fit to occupy a position of trust in the national security environment”.
Mr Smith was angry because the government’s security agencies briefed Ms Bishop on Monday, setting out the reasons why Israel was believed to have been responsible. These reasons could not be made public, but had been shared with Ms Bishop, he said.
She later said there was not enough evidence and Israel had been blamed for political reasons.
Mr Smith ramped up the rhetoric against Israel on Tuesday, telling Channel 10 news the government would not “turn a blind eye to the shredding of the integrity of our passport system, to trampling of our sovereignty”.
Israel’s ambassador to Australia Yuval Rotem is returning from overseas to deal with the fallout from the issue.