The Australian government paraded its new national security laws through the Senate last week, enthusiastically heralding a new era for the security state.
They did so with help from the Labor opposition, whose dutiful acquiescence turned the normally lively Senate floor into something more closely resembling the kangaroo court of a one party state.
Only a group of independent Senators and the Greens stood against Brandis’ national security bill, which, despite its name, may make Australia more insecure.
It delivers draconian penalties for national security whistleblowers, with defiant denialism for public interest disclosure. Without proper protections – such as anonymous reporting channels and protected external avenues – corruption can flourish anywhere, especially in secret organisations.
The bill will make it easier for Australia’s spy service, Asio, to break into a personal computer, and delete or change data on it, even if there’s no criminal action by the owner to warrant doing so. But when computer security is backdoored or otherwise compromised, there’s a risk that others (such as criminals or other spies) may also discover a way in.
Journalists will also become criminals under the new laws if they report information that relates to intelligence operations classified as “special intelligence operations” (SIOs) in certain circumstances. The potential that this provision could be misused due to inadequate oversight arrangements is real.
As an SIO may be classified as such by a politician, the new law implicitly lets a politician decide if a journalist could face up to 10 years in prison just for doing their job of reporting. As we saw from misuse of libel laws under Queensland’s corrupt Bjelke-Petersen government of the 1970s, when politicians get to decide what is reported, the tendency is toward institutionalised corruption in society.
The bill empowers Asio agents to commit crimes in certain situations in connections with an SIO, potentially also including lying to a court or parliament. If there’s ever a Royal Commission into Asio, agents could potentially given a free pass to lie, while elected representatives have had to step down for doing the same.
Brandis’s reforms create two kinds of citizens: those of us who have to obey the law and those who do not. The attorney general has previously positioned himself as a proponent of free speech. He even inspired some to hope that a few politicians might truly stand by their beliefs.
Yet his bill will allow the criminal prosecution of journalists for doing their job of reporting. If it passes into law with this provision intact, Brandis’s free speech credentials will be in tatters.
He has obstinately refused give way on this issue, despite a willingness to make other clarifications. Brandis conceded to Liberal Democratic senator David Leyonhjelm, explicitly prohibiting Asio from engaging in torture, but would not even answer a reasonable question from Greens Senator Scott Ludlam during what passed for the debate over the bill.
Ludlam’s question, by way of the journalists’ union’s submission, was this: if conducted as an SIO, would it be illegal to report that intel agencies eavesdropped on the private phone conversations of the Indonesian president’s wife? Brandis replied that he would not indulge in hypotheticals, despite this being a real news story.
In the two months before Thursday night’s vote, the “threat” of terrorism has been splashed across the front pages of newspapers in Australia. The media hype about the threat of “foreign fighters” has been deafening. But in reality, we are talking about some dozens of Australians who chose to volunteer in wars in Syria and Iraq and might possibly come home one day.
In the week before the bill went to the Senate vote, there was a pre-dawn police raid against terrorist “threats” in Queensland and NSW. More than 800 police raided 25 premises using 20 or more warrants.
Now the dust has settled, we can now see how big this huge threat really is. Authorities laid exactly one terrorism charge, against Omarjan Azari. A second person was charged with possession of a stun-gun and some rounds of ammunition (and received a good behaviour bond). Two women were handed court attendance notices.
The timing of all this is enough to make one sceptical. Is the sound and fury of the “terrorist raid”, and the media hype over foreign fighters during the past two months, insurance to make sure this bill passes through the Australian parliament? Reports on the “terror threat” have not wanted for background from anonymous police and security sources.
Given how reluctant the Abbott government is to disclose information on security matters, we will perhaps never know. Nonetheless, the last few weeks of security theatre should make us reluctant to broaden the powers of secret agencies even more.
A frightened public won’t object to their freedoms being stolen by this law. The Australian media, like the Labor opposition, are hyping up these stories without understanding what it is about to cost them in their own freedom of expression in the future.
Are there terrorists out there? Of course, and they are a risk. The question is whether we need to give Asio even more invasive digital and state powers to stop them. There are excellent digital and human methods of obtaining intelligence that narrowly target real terrorists, not the other 23m Australians.
The intelligence community already has enormous power to track and invade people’s personal lives. There is no evidence that these draconian new laws will be any more effective than the current laws.
Why are the Coalition and Labor both embracing this overreaching law? Perhaps they are afraid that if there is a terrorist attack at some point in the future, the other side will be able to point the finger, and accuse them of having taken the threat of terrorism lightly.
Terrorist attacks rarely happen in North Korea, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’d want to live there. Australia’s free and open society is one of the things that makes it special; we should not give our freedoms away so lightly.
Now the bill must pass the lower house. Although the Coalition controls it, backbenchers might well listen to the community’s concerns about the broken parts of the bill where the attorney general would not. Those voices will have to be loud and urgent, before our freedoms are restricted for good.