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House admonishes Stephen Conroy

The House of Representatives formally 'admonishes' Shadow Defence Minister Stephen Conroy for accusing Sovereign Borders commander General Angus Campbell of engaging in 'a political cover-up'.

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Defence Force chief General David Hurley has hit back at Labor defence spokesman Stephen Conroy over his attack on the integrity of the Abbott government's military border protection chief.

Fronting a Senate estimates hearing on Wednesday morning, General Hurley launched a robust defence of Lieutenant-General Angus Campbell, whom Senator Conroy on Tuesday accused of being part of a ''political cover-up'' about border protection.

Senator Stephen Conroy.

Senator Stephen Conroy: "No Australian wants to see the politicisation of our armed services. This government is continuing to run this operation and hide behind the military.’’ Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

''I was surprised at the accusations made against Lieutenant-General Angus Campbell,'' General Hurley said. ''I am pleased these accusations were withdrawn but unfortunately once said, the shadow will linger.

''Lieutenant-General Campbell has a reputation in Canberra, and more widely in Australia and overseas, of integrity, intellect and studied impartiality. He is widely respected across Australia's political divide.''

In his Tuesday attack, Senator Conroy paraphrased the Hollywood film A Few Good Men, asking General Campbell, ''can't we handle the truth?''

Defence Force chief General David Hurley has weighed in on the comments from Senator Stephen Conroy to border protection chief Angus Campbell.

Defence Force chief General David Hurley has weighed in on the comments from Senator Stephen Conroy to border protection chief Angus Campbell. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

When General Campbell began to reply that he had explained the reasons for the secrecy over border protection - he has often in the past cited operational reasons - Senator Conroy cut in, saying: ''You're engaged in a political cover-up.''

General Campbell replied that he took ''extreme offence'' at the remark.

Senator Conroy withdrew the remark after the committee chairman, Liberal Senator Ian Macdonald halted the hearing for about 10 minutes.

After General Hurley's statement on Wednesday morning, Senator Conroy suggested to the Senate hearing that his attack the previous day had been aimed more at the Abbott government.

''I have no criticism whatsoever of service personnel carrying out government orders,'' he said.

But he added: ''The majority of Australians do not support the secrecy with which this operation is being . . . conducted by the government. No Australian wants to see the politicisation of our armed services. This government is continuing to run this operation and hide behind the military.''

In an apparent reference to the recent accusations that navy and Customs personnel had deliberately burned the hands of asylum seekers, Senator Conroy added that the government was ''allowing a stain to hang over our service personnel by refusing to allow a full accounting and rebuttal of accusations that are being made against service personnel''.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott on Wednesday morning said that Senator Conroy should apologise.

''I think it was unfortunate that Senator Conroy had, what can only be described as, a brain snap before Senate estimates,'' he said.

''Let's face it, Senator Conroy isn't just any senator – he is a very senior leader of the Labor Party in the Senate and he is the shadow minister for Defence. Now, under all the circumstances I think it would be big of Senator Conroy if he were to apologise and if he isn't big enough himself to apologise, I think a word in his ear by his leader would be right.''

Mr Shorten said on Wednesday that Labor supported the work of the military.

''Our beef has always been not with the military but with their political masters, the Abbott government who veil their actions in a cloak of secrecy and are not upfront with the Australian people,'' he told reporters.

''What Senator Conroy has also been doing is demanding that the Australian government don't treat the Australian people like mushrooms and not tell them whats going on with immigration and border security.''

On Tuesday Defence Minister David Johnston blasted Senator Conroy for his comments and comparing General Campbell to a ficticious Hollywood fantasy character.

''General Campbell was subject to an unprovoked and most outrageous attack by the shadow minister for defence,'' Senator Johnston said.

with Sarah Whyte

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