By Kaye Lee
In some countries they kill people who criticise the ruling regime.In Australia they are sacked, gagged, defunded, disbanded or threatened with incarceration.Within hours of taking office, public servants who had had anything to do with climate change were sacked, the Climate Change Department was disbanded, the Climate Commission was abolished and the Climate Change Authority was under attack.The office of Prime Minister and Cabinet was issued with a manual warning against making comments, whether at work or in a private capacity, that could be perceived as biased or as harsh or extreme criticisms of “the government, government policies, a member of Parliament from another political party, or their respective policies.” They were also instructed to dob in any colleagues who made critical comments on social media even if anonymously.“If you receive or become aware of a social media communication by another PM&C employee that is not consistent with this policy, you should advise that person accordingly and inform your supervisor.”
George Brandis legislated a new offence punishable by five years in jail for “any person” who disclosed information relating to “special intelligence operations”. The person would be liable for a 10-year term if the disclosure would “endanger the health or safety of any person or prejudice the effective conduct of a special intelligence operation”.
Special intelligence operations are a new type of operation in which intelligence officers receive immunity from liability or prosecution where they may need to engage in conduct that would be otherwise unlawful.
The explanatory memorandum to the bill said the offence applied to “disclosures by any person, including participants in an SIO [special intelligence operation], other persons to whom information about an SIO has been communicated in an official capacity, and persons who are the recipients of an unauthorised disclosure of information, should they engage in any subsequent disclosure”.
Brandis was also responsible for raids confiscating the evidence of Australia illegally bugging the cabinet offices in East Timor when Australia and Timor were negotiating a deal to share revenue from oil and gas deposits under the Timor Sea. He also confiscated the passport of the whistleblower so he could not testify in the International Court of Justice.
This is not the only case in which the government has sought to avoid scrutiny.
In 2009, investigative journalists Nick McKenzie and Richard Baker revealed allegations that Securency, a note-printing company half-owned by the Reserve Bank, had for years paid kickbacks to a wide range of officials in Vietnam, Indonesia, Nepal and a number of other countries. In time, the allegations would extend to officials of Note Printing Australia, a company fully owned by the Reserve Bank.
A Victorian Supreme Court superinjunction obtained by DFAT allegedly to protect Australia’s international relations was actually to gag the media from reporting on the case.
Similarly, doctors and service providers who work in immigration detention centres have been gagged.
Dr Richard Kidd said the Australian Border Protection Act presents a threat to whistleblower doctors working in detention centres as they could face two years in prison if they publicly disclose failures in detention health care.
Psychiatrist Dr Peter Young revealed the immigration department had explicitly told International Health and Medical Services to ”withdraw” figures showing children in detention were suffering very high levels of mental illness.
Scott Morrison said that claims by the human rights commission president, Professor Gillian Triggs, of self-harm and sick children were ”sensational” – a view that has been disproven by Morrison’s own Moss Review which confirmed the concerns of the HRC.
The Abbott government is following the course set by the Howard government which made efforts to ensure the non-profit sector was prevented from voicing unwelcome opinions. Contracts with community sector organisations routinely included gag clauses and reserved the right to censor public statements before they were released.
After Howard lost the 2007 election, the incoming Labor government immediately began rewriting thousands of contracts with the non-profit sector, removing the gag. But it was only in its dying months, in May 2013, that the previous government managed to put this independence into legislation, through the non-profit sector freedom to advocate bill.
Nonetheless, the gags are coming back, if in somewhat modified form. While the government cannot – because of that legislation – completely prevent advocacy by community law centres, it can insist that no money it provides is used for the purpose. If these groups want to advocate, they can fund it with money from other sources, or do it, as Brandis suggested in estimates, in their spare time.
Brandis revised the service agreements under which the federal government provides funding to community legal centres around Australia.
Previously clause 5 said “The Commonwealth is committed to ensuring that its agreements do not contain provisions that could be used to stifle legitimate debate or prevent organisations engaging in advocacy activities….no right or obligation arising under this Agreement will be read or understood by the Commonwealth as limiting the Organisation’s right to enter into public debate or criticism of the Commonwealth, its agencies, employees, servants or agents.”
But when the Abbott government’s revised agreements went to the organisations in mid-June 2014, all of that was gone. Instead, the new conditions, which came into force on July 1, specifically state that organisations cannot use Commonwealth money for any activity directed towards law reform or advocacy.
Gag clauses, though, are just one means by which the government can seek to stifle advocacy.
“There is any number of ways, if the activities of a charity are inconvenient to the government of the day, that they can make it difficult for those charities,” says Elizabeth McKinnon, a lawyer for the Australian Conservation Foundation.
Using the tax authorities to go after them, for example.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, in 2012 ordered the Canada Revenue Agency to audit a large number of charities, with the threat of action including the removal of the charitable status of those deemed to be diverting too much of their resources to “political” activity.
Greenpeace was stripped of its charitable status in New Zealand in 2005 but won a Supreme Court challenge in August 2014 when the court clarified the definition of a charity, saying political advocacy should not exclude an organisation from achieving charity status.
But that hasn’t stopped Coalition Senator Matt Canavan, Barnaby Joyce’s former Chief of Staff, from insisting punitive action be taken against Greenpeace over its Reef campaign in which it sought to have the World Heritage area listed by UNESCO as “in danger”.
Senator Canavan has written to Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt, urging him to investigate whether Greenpeace’s registration as a tax-deductible organisation can be withdrawn.
Greenpeace chief executive David Ritter said that donations made to the organisation were tax deductible and Greenpeace received no other money from government or corporations, so it was able to hold these organisations to account.
A UNESCO draft report has recommended the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area not be listed as “in danger” due to over-development and long-term degradation.
“This is the strongest possible endorsement of what Australia and Queensland are doing,” Mr Hunt said. “The decision could not be more categorical. It recognises not just the plan, but the real world improvements that are occurring.”
Senior Reef experts, however, have told how a gag order prevented leading scientists from speaking out about flaws in the nation’s Reef 2050 plan.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature cited the Reef 2050 long-term sustainability report as pivotal in the decision not to red-flag the World Heritage-listed natural wonder. But coral reef researchers broke their silence to disclose top-level concerns the $100 million vision was more “glossy campaign brochure” than credible scientific document.
“Australia’s top experts in the government-run Australian Institute of Marine Science and CSIRO have all been gagged from saying anything about it,” reef water quality scientist Jon Brodie said.
“But it is a weak document, written by technocrats, with inadequate measures, very little senior scientific input, and little credibility.”
In the last few weeks we have also seen George Brandis pressuring the major performing arts companies not to speak out against his new National Programme for Excellence in the Arts, the establishment of which accounts for $105 million of the Australia Council for the Art’s lost funding. The new program will be decided by a hand-picked committee answerable to the minister.
Representatives of Brandis’ office met with Sydney Theatre Company chair David Gonski to warn the company from issuing a statement critical of the Australia Council funding cuts. Brandis’ own office appeared to background Daily Telegraph journalist Taylor Auerbach for a hostile article about arts funding, in a tactical leak against the Australia Council.
There was already undisguised hostility in the arts after the Sydney Biennale controversy of last year, where Brandis attacked artists boycotting the festival because of its sponsorship by the Transfield Foundation.
The Abbott government also introduced a bill to undermine and weaken the Freedom of Information Act by abolishing the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, an independent final place of appeal for those seeking documents under the Act. The government has stripped it of its funding – a mere $10.2 million over four years. Appeals to the office cost nothing but the government wants to charge people to appeal to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal – this will cost $861, plus legal advice and representation charges. This is a blatant attack on the freedom currently enjoyed by Australians.
A whole new language of secrecy has evolved – “Commercial in confidence”, “operational matters”, “national security”, “special operations”, “diplomatic relations”.
Despite Tony Abbott telling the Australian public in his Real Solutions booklet that an Abbott led Coalition government would “restore accountability and improve transparency measures to be more accountable to you,” in reality what we’ve seen from this government is the opposite.
Secrecy, being an instrument of conspiracy, ought never to be the system of a regular government.
– Jeremy Bentham
The best weapon of a dictatorship is secrecy, but the best weapon of a democracy should be the weapon of openness.
– Niels Bohr
Many of the benefits from keeping terrorism fear levels high are obvious. Private corporations suck up massive amounts of Homeland Security cash as long as that fear persists, while government officials in the National Security and Surveillance State can claim unlimited powers and operate with unlimited secrecy and no accountability.
– Glenn Greenwald
Take heed Australia