Last night, the Abbott Government passed laws to removing
freedoms, increase surveillance and which may see the gaoling of
journalists and whistleblowers. Managing editor David Donovan comments.
WELL, I DON’T KNOW ABOUT YOU, but I’m not feeling much safer after the Senate passed new “counter-terrorism” legislation last night.
Speaking as a publisher and practicing journalist ‒ and critic of
this Government ‒ it is difficult, in fact, to not feel some terror
about where these laws are leading. Especially when they are being waved
through enthusiastically by the nominal Opposition under so-called
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten.
Ben Grubb from the Sydney Morning Herald summarised last night troubling events:
Australian spies will soon have the power to monitor the entire
Australian internet with just one warrant, and journalists and
whistleblowers will face up to 10 years' jail for disclosing classified
The government's first tranche of tougher anti-terrorism laws,
which beef up the domestic spy agency ASIO's powers, passed the Senate
44 votes for and 12 against on Thursday night with bipartisan support
The bill, the National Security Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2014, will now be sent to the House of Representatives, where passage is all but guaranteed on Tuesday at the earliest.
Ben Grubb continued:
Anyone — including journalists, whistleblowers and bloggers — who
"recklessly" discloses "information ... [that] relates to a special
intelligence operation" faces up to 10 years' jail.
Any operation can be declared "special" and doing so gives ASIO
criminal and civil immunity. Many, including lawyers and academics, have
said they fear the agency will abuse this power.
Those who identify ASIO agents could also face a decade in prison
under the new laws, a tenfold increase in the existing maximum penalty.
The new laws also allow ASIO to seek just one warrant to access a limitless number of computers on a computer network when attempting to monitor a target, which lawyers, rights groups, academics and Australian media organisations condemned.
These undeniably repressive laws have been sold as a regrettable, but
vital, way to combat the increased threat of domestic terrorism.
Indeed, Prime Minister Abbott even came out in Parliament and said:
“For some time to come, the delicate balance between freedom and security may have to shift.''
But this is not the case. Like many things our prime minister says, it is simply a convenient lie.
These are not good laws. They are not even laws to make Australia safer.
These are cynical, opportunistic laws. Laws barrelled through under
the spurious guise of protecting us against a fanatical foreign Islamic
beheading cult with apparent links to Muslims in this country.
They are appalling laws, built on a lie.
There has never been an act of domestic terror in Australia. And no, a lone teenager committing a seemingly unplanned act of violence
is neither a terror attack nor a retrospective justification for
foreign military intervention and ramped up “counter-terrorism” powers.
The so-called Islamic State
‒ a ragtag bunch of rebels occupying a chunk of land about the size of
Tasmania half a world away, is hardly a threat to anyone — except if you
happen to live in Iraq or Syria.
Yes, there may indeed be 50 or 60 Australians fighting with them, but that doesn’t make them a threat here in Australia — particularly after ASIO summarily cancelled
their passports. Any supporters these foreign fighters have in this
country ‒ a miniscule number at most ‒ are surely able to be easily
monitored using existing laws and, if they commit a criminal act,
arrested and prosecuted under the existing criminal law.
The real reason for these new powers has got nothing to do with
Islamic State, or ISIL, or ISIS ‒ or whatever they are called this week ‒
but they are to do with closing down scrutiny of Australia’s spies and
the Government unpublicised activities.
ASIO have been caught with their pants down on two majorly
embarrassing occasions since the Abbott Government took power last year.
The first occurred when the ABC and Guardian Australia published leaks from former U.S. intelligence operative whistleblower Edward Snowden that our spies had tapped then Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's mobile phone for 15 days in 2009. These revelations caused a major rift with Indonesia and is still a lingering source of tension.
It was not long after this event, on January 28, that Abbott first used his famous “team” epithet, while denouncing the ABC in an interview with on 2GB with his friend, rightwing Sydney shock jock Ray Hadley [IA emphasis]:
"It dismays Australians when the national broadcaster appears to take everyone's side but our own and I think it is a problem.
“You would like the national broadcaster to have a rigorous commitment to truth and at least some basic affection for the home team, so to speak.''
Abbott went on to call Snowden a “traitor”, saying the ABC “seemed to delight” in publishing his information:
"And of course, the ABC didn't just report what he said, they
took the lead in advertising what he said. That was a deep concern.''
Abbott reaffirmed his position in a subsequent doorstep, going on to condemn the ABC for working with the Guardian, or as he put it:
“… touting for a leftwing British newspaper.”
There were no surprises when the vindictive Abbott left it for his broken former rival Malcolm Turnbull to announce an efficiency review of the ABC a couple of days later. This review has now called for the ABC’s budget to be slashed with some important investigative news programs, such as Lateline, in the firing line. Turnbull has also flagged cutting $200 million from as ABC budget already cut deeply in the May Budget, blatantly breaking a clear election promise.
These security laws, therefore, can be seen as the next stage in the
Abbott programme to hamstring the ABC as an effective source of scrutiny
of Government activities.
But, even more importantly, they will make Australian journalism
generally reluctant to expose the Government’s undercover activities, as
this could lead to them being sent to prison for a decade.
Australia’s spy network was again in the spotlight in December last year after Attorney General George Brandis ordered ASIO to raid the Canberra offices and home of barrister Bernard Colleary,
a former ACT deputy chief minister, who was representing East Timor
against Australia at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The
The East Timorese had accused the Australian Government spy agency ASIS of bugging Government offices
in Dili during vital Timor Sea oilfield treaty negotiations in 2004. In
the raid, ASIO removed any documents helpful to their case.
The ICJ affirmed the East Timorese claims, in March ordering
Australia to stop spying on them and their lawyers. Brandis, however,
refused to return the documents to the Timorese, citing unspecified
This East Timorese had received their information from a
whistleblower — a former Australian spy. He had come to them incensed
that former Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, responsible for both the $40 billion oilfield negotiations and ASIS operations, went on to work as an “advisor” for the Australian company involved, Woodside Petroleum, soon after leaving politics in 2007.
As these examples show, these terror laws will stop whistleblowers
exposing the Government’s undercover operations through the media.
The problem with this is that the Coalition ‒ under Tony Abbott, avowedly “open for business” ‒ is seemingly not above using the security services in an improper way
to assist private individuals and corporations. Under the new laws, any
whistleblower seeking to expose the security services, for instance,
helping an Australian big business on the behest of a cabinet minister looking for a cosy post-parliamentary sinecure will now be shut down and any journalists assisting locked up for a long time.
This is not democracy. No wonder they don’t want a Federal ICAC.
The Islamic State is a mirage as far as we are concerned here in
Australia. It is not an existential threat to us. The grave threat, in
truth, is new security laws that stifle freedom of speech, remove
privacy protections, gaol journalists and serve, in the end, to limit
scrutiny of the Government and its operatives.
Moreover, providing new powers to secret agents, which also provides
them with civil and criminal immunity is an outright danger and threat
to us as citizens. It makes these shadowy figures immune to prosecution
and therefore, effectively, unaccountable for their actions. Under these
laws, frankly, spies can kill us and fear no recourse.
Under these laws, there is no-one to watch the watchers. Now that is truly terrifying.
In truth, we probably expect our extreme rightwing Government to
implement these sorts of outrageous and unwarranted laws; certainly we
can see why they are doing so. It is, however, the weak acquiescence by
their so-called Opposition that is most criminal part of this affaor.
We know the ALP under Bill Shorten do not want not a cigarette paper
between themselves and the Government on immigration and security
matters. This is the exact small target strategy using so brilliantly
and effectively by former Opposition leader Kim Beazley during such events as the Tampa Affair and Children Overboard.
Labor know broad swatches of the Australian public are small-minded
and have been built up into a frenzy of Islamophobia by the disgraceful
Murdoch press. Now, the ALP don’t want to get the fearful, the
hysterical and the bigoted offside.
However, politicians who unnecessarily sacrifice the rights of the
people in the interests of popularity and power show themselves up as
unsuitable for high office.
By supporting these so-called “anti-terror” laws ‒ which have nothing
to do with preventing terrorism ‒ the ALP, under their current
milquetoast leader, have followed the Coalition so far to the right,
they are no longer truly a progressive Opposition.
And now more than ever, as the Government shuts down scrutiny and
proposes gaoling journalists, Australia needs a progressive Opposition.
You can follow David Donovan on Twitter @davrosz.
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