Push to ‘admonish’ Stephen Conroy over comments results in furious question time debate

No monopoly on patriotism: Opposition Leader Bill Shorten defends Senator Stephen Conroy. Photo: Alex EllinghausenGovernment anger over Labor Senator Stephen Conroy’s attack on the three-star general in charge of Operation Sovereign Borders has erupted in Parliament, resulting in a furious debate and claims from Opposition Leader Bill Shorten that the Coalition is “hiding behind the military”.

Question time on Wednesday was dominated by one government MP after another rising to condemn Senator Conroy for accusing Lieutenant-General Angus Campbell, the military officer in charge of Scott Morrison’s asylum seeker policy, of being part of a “political cover-up”.

The criticism of Senator Conroy’s accusation culminated in a motion for the House to “admonish” the opposition defence spokesman for “calling into question the integrity” of General Campbell. The motion, which was supported by the government, was put forward by former army officer and independent Tasmanian MP Andrew Wilkie.

Senator Conroy’s controversial comments, in Senate estimates on Tuesday afternoon, had derailed Labor plans to accuse the Abbott government of secrecy and misinformation surrounding the death of 23-year-old Iranian asylum seeker, Reza Berati. Contrary to Mr Morrison’s initial public statements, Mr Berati had died inside, not outside, the Australian government-controlled Manus Island detention centre.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said on Wednesday that Senator Conroy had “attacked this commander’s motives and his conduct in a most despicable slur designed to dishonour an honourable man”.

Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull compared Senator Conroy to Colonel Kurtz, from Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness. And Prime Minister Tony Abbott suggested that the “best way to deal with this issue is for the Leader of the Opposition to ask Senator Conroy to apologise”.

No apology has come from Senator Conroy, and Mr Shorten refused to demand one.

He told Parliament that “the fact that Senator Conroy made the comments and then withdrew them speaks for itself”.

The Opposition Leader then went on to attack the government for the secrecy and military patriotism of its Operation Sovereign Borders policy.

“They say that patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels,” Mr Shorten said. “And we have been seeing that truism yet again with the government.

“Australians that put us here deserve a bit better than the kindergarten, flag waving, faux patriotism which you guys want to wrap yourselves around.

“I respect our military and like many here I have had family members serve in the military and I understand the sacrifice,” he said.

“I do not support using the military or hiding behind the military where there are problems with government policy.”

After question time, Greens deputy leader Adam Bandt said Parliament has lost track of its moral compass by ignoring the death of an asylum seeker and focusing instead on a debate about Senator Conroy’s comments.

“Parliament has yet again missed the point,” Mr Bandt said, an hour after question time on Wednesday.

“A man has been killed while in our care. We should be debating why this happened and how we can stop it happening again, not wasting time in another Liberal/Labor tit-for-tat.”

“Where is Parliament’s moral compass?” Mr Bandt added. “Today’s politicised theatre was a waste of everyone’s time.”

with David Wroe

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