After The Australian’s revelation last week that ASIO Director-General Duncan Lewis had phoned Coalition MPs to urge them to use soothing language when publicly discussing Islam and terrorism, Malcolm Turnbull was unequivocal.
The Prime Minister denied he had directed Mr Lewis to talk to “anybody in particular” but confirmed he had encouraged him to speak to “as many people as possible”. What Mr Turnbull did not mention, however, is what The Sunday Telegraph in Sydney revealed yesterday. That is, Mr Turnbull personally texted Mr Lewis with the mobile phone number of Liberal MP and former SAS soldier Andrew Hastie, the recently elected member for Canning. Mr Hastie, who fought the Taliban in Afghanistan, has argued that Islamic teachings are linked to terrorism and that the religion needed to “cohere with the Australian way of life”. Rightly, he is standing by his views, which are eminently reasonable and reflect the common sense of most Australians.
At a time when Australia, like much of the world, is under pressure from Islamist extremists, Mr Lewis, 62, is well qualified for his job and has given the nation splendid service. During his 33-year military career he commanded the SAS and served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was appointed National Security Adviser in 2008, served as Secretary of the Defence Department and as ambassador to Belgium, Luxembourg, the European Union and NATO.
But he and Mr Turnbull have miscalculated in allowing ASIO to be drawn into the political fray, including internal Coalition politics. As Paul Kelly wrote on Saturday, conservatives in the Coalition expect Mr Turnbull to be resolute on national security — which he is, mostly, — and firm in discussing the problems of Islam. Mr Lewis’s calls to two MPs irritated some in the Coalition. As West Australian Liberal senator Dean Smith said there was a risk the calls could have a “chilling effect’’ on the ability of MPs and others to exercise free speech. Mr Turnbull is now at the centre of the controversy after the revelation he gave Mr Lewis the number for Mr Hastie.