CANBERRA - Prime Minister John Howard has been forced to distance himself from Liberal supporters who distributed bogus election flyers purporting to be from an Islamic group.
With just two days to go before the election, Mr Howard spent this morning condemning the alleged activities of people connected to outgoing Liberal MP Jackie Kelly - including her husband Gary Clark - who were caught by Labor distributing leaflets in the marginal western Sydney seat of Lindsay.
Ms Kelly said the flyer, that portrays Labor as sympathisers of Islamic terrorists, was just an amusing "Chaser-style prank".
"I don't agree with her," Mr Howard said of Ms Kelly, a former minister and confidante who is retiring at the election.
Mr Howard said those responsible should apologise, but that was a matter for them as he could not direct human behaviour.
"As soon as I heard about it I condemned it and I was appalled about it and I have made that very clear," he told Sky News.
"So let's not try and manufacture some kind of personal responsibility on my part.
"It wasn't authorised by the Liberal Party, by me, it's not part of my campaign," Mr Howard said.
"The party organisation has taken immediate action to deal with the people involved.
"I just want the public to know ... this was the unauthorised, foolish, offensive behaviour of some people who should never have done it."
The pamphlet, which purports to come from the Islamic Australia Federation, which does not exist, says the ALP wants the Bali bombers forgiven and backs construction of a mosque in western Sydney.
Mr Clark and other party supporters were caught out by Labor supporters letter-boxing leaflets in the suburb of St Mary's on Tuesday.
Also implicated are Jeff Egan, a NSW Liberal state executive member, and Troy Craig, the member of a community action group.
Ms Kelly said the pamphlet was intended as a send-up, and accused a Labor "goon squad" of trying to intimidate Liberal supporters distributing the flyers.
"If you read it you would be laughing. Most people who have read it have sort of said that's a Chaser-style of prank," Ms Kelly told ABC radio.
Labor frontbencher Anthony Albanese said the leaflet was consistent with Liberal campaign tactics.
"This is not a joke - forging materials and distributing them are criminal offences," he said.
Labor leader Kevin Rudd demanded Mr Howard explain who in the Liberal Party was aware of the scandal.
Government frontbencher Andrew Robb, a former Liberal national director, said it was a "rogue" action by some individuals.
"This was dumb, absolutely dumb, it was wrong, it was offensive and as soon as the party became aware of it we acted very decisively," he said.
Liberal Party NSW director Graham Jaeschke last night described the material as offensive and false and not an authorised campaign activity. He said some of those responsible had been expelled from the party.
He said the party had referred the matter to the Australian Electoral Commission for investigation.
"We condemn the action and the people involved are no longer members of the party," he said.
But it was unclear today if anyone had yet been expelled.
Asked if any of those involved had been expelled from the party, Ms Kelly said: "Well, my husband hasn't been."
Mr Egan, in a written statement, denied issuing unauthorised material, but did not deny being involved in letterboxing.
"I have been falsely accused of distributing unauthorised material. I categorically deny distributing any unauthorised material. I intend to clear my name."
Australia's peak Islamic body, the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils, described the leaflet as a despicable act and called for a federal police investigation.
"It certainly is a matter for the Australian Electoral Commission, but I think it also might be something that the federal police might like to investigate," council president Ikebal Patel told ABC radio.