tip off

When governments drape a flag over their secrets, we need whistleblowers

The Coalition government is the most secretive of the modern era — except when it’s in its interests to share information. In that environment, we need whistleblowers more than ever.

George Brandis

It pays to remember that, even when it comes to national security   — indeed, particularly when it comes to national security   — governments aren’t so much in the secrecy business as in the information management business.

Secrecy, by itself, is for others. It’s for voters. It’s for any media which seeks to subject the powerful to scrutiny. It’s for whistleblowers, who must be smeared and discredited. It’s for people governments don’t control. But it’s not for government: politicians and officials get to pick and choose what information they release, and they pick and choose based on their interests, not the national interest.

The Abbott government is the most scrutiny-averse Australian government since the Freedom of Information era began. Signally, it began with government departments reversing themselves on providing FOI access to the incoming government’s briefing, which had been handed to the media under Labor but which was withheld after September — with officials unable to explain their logic. The secrecy now extends into parliament, with the astonishingly biased Speaker Bronwyn Bishop routinely ruling out of order Labor questions and yesterday, in one of her most bizarre moments, claiming she had not made a ruling in order to prevent Labor from moving dissent in her ruling, then kicking Tony Burke out for pointing out the absurdity of her position.

Moreover, it has added the twist of draping the flag over itself in order to avoid scrutiny, confecting outrage over the treatment of its military puppet Angus Campbell, which the Coalition itself has placed in the political firing line in order to hide information under the pretence of military operations. Yesterday, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison — on whose watch an asylum seeker has been killed and our navy has repeatedly entered Indonesian waters “inadvertently” in sending asylum seeker boats back — argued that any criticism of the secrecy surrounding the government’s asylum seeker policy is criticism of the military — who apparently can never be questioned:

Every time those opposite have criticised the way information is being handled in terms of maritime operations they are actually criticising the measures put in place by the commander of the JATF [Joint Agency Taskforce], because that is the body and that is the commander who has advised me on those policies.”

As we’ve seen, however, if it’s in the government’s interests to release information it will. That is why Morrison tangled himself up last week in rushing to claim that Reza Barati was killed outside the detention centre and had thereby contributed to his own death, providing a warning to the survivors of last Monday night’s events about behaving themselves. Morrison’s usual aversion to information-sharing was strangely absent last Tuesday, despite knowing the flawed nature of the information he had.

Attorney-General George Brandis has a similar tendency to pick and choose which sensitive information he releases. After authorising an ASIO raid to try to shut down revelations that Australian spies had bugged the cabinet rooms of the East Timorese government to advantage Australia in its resources negotiations, Brandis decided to justify his actions to the Senate, while claiming he was not required to. His statement to the Senate explaining the basis on which he authorised the raids also smeared the Canberra lawyer acting for East Timor, Bernard Collaery, suggesting that Collaery thought he was above Australian law and that he was trying to use legal privilege to hide criminal offences “whether as principal or accessory”.

Brandis produced no evidence of any kind to back up this very serious allegation against Collaery.

But Brandis has a habit of making unsubstantiated personal attacks. He has repeatedly called the whistleblower Edward Snowden a “traitor” and was made to look a mug at Estimates on Monday when Greens senator Scott Ludlam asked him to explain on what basis he was a traitor given the US government had not charged him with treason. “On his own admissions as to his own conduct,” Brandis said, after a pause. When had he admitted he was a traitor, Ludlam asked. “He has made numerous admissions as to his own conduct. It is on that basis that I used that word,” was the response.

This is the first law officer of Australia speaking, folks.

Brandis is happy to discuss national security matters in order to smear people, but not to enable anyone to expose his claims to scrutiny.”

Brandis also insisted he had received briefings that Snowden has placed Australian lives in danger (perhaps from enraged Indonesian clove cigarette producers or prawn exporters?), but refused to provide any detail or evidence; again, Brandis is happy to discuss national security matters in order to smear people, but not to enable anyone to expose his claims to scrutiny.

In this, however, the Coalition is going little further than Labor: Mark Dreyfus as attorney-general insisted Edward Snowden wasn’t a whistleblower, though without calling him a traitor (merely “politically motivated”); Julia Gillard and Robert McClelland smeared Julian Assange and WikiLeaks and even claimed Assange had broken the law — something Brandis was critical of at the time, ironically. And it was under Labor that the Attorney-General’s Department so obfuscated and deceived parliamentary committees on issues such as data retention as to be castigated in the report of an inquiry that was actually established by the then-attorney-general herself. And one vigorously pro-national security politician leaked details of a committee’s deliberations on intelligence matters during the last term in parliament for partisan purposes.

Our intelligence officials demonstrate the same enthusiasm for discussing national security matters when it’s in their interests. Current and former intelligence officials often leak to state-aligned journalists at the national newspapers, often on operational detail, to either defend themselves or promote their own interests, while staying silent on activities that directly harm our national interests such as our role in the NSA’s mass surveillance programs. We now know, incidentally, that those programs go well beyond mere surveillance and into attempts to disrupt and destroy individuals and groups based purely on their political views and not their threat to national security.

Both sides have thus reduced the process of both media and parliamentary scrutiny on national security to one whereby politicians and intelligence officials pick and choose what they offer, unlocking national security information when it’s in their interests but insisting that everyone else observe strict secrecy and accept on trust their assurances that all is well. It was Labor, after all, that first stymied information about the conditions for asylum seekers in offshore processing. However, it is the Coalition that has gone further and invoked patriotism to reinforce secrecy, and not merely via Angus Campbell: the ABC has been attacked as unpatriotic for doing its job of breaking news on national security and asylum seeker issues.

Supporting this approach are state-aligned sections of the media like News Corporation: last week, The Australian remarkably attacked the ABC and Fairfax for reporting details of events on Manus Island, suggesting it reflected anti-Coalition bias rather than journalists doing their job. For News Corporation, it seems, it’s the media’s task not to hold the powerful to account, but to support the powerful against efforts to hold them to account.

Unsurprisingly, The Australian also attacked Manus Island whistleblowers. When we have an environment in which the media and Parliament can’t or won’t do its job of scrutinising the powerful, whistleblowers become crucial to democracy — and attacking them all the more important for governments and their media supporters. It is only through the efforts of whistleblowers, from the humblest public servant anonymously tipping off the media to two of the heroes of modern democracy, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, that government wrongdoing, often wrongdoing on an industrial scale, can be held to account, to be prevented from extending the veil of national security secrecy over more and more areas of public life.

And in a mass surveillance state like the one established by the NSA and supported by our own spies, whistleblowing without recrimination becomes almost impossible.

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  • 1
    MJPC
    Posted Thursday, 27 February 2014 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    BK, excellent summary of this sad excuse for a government. It is a government by offhand comments, as is mentioned about Brandis comments about Snowden at Senate estimates. The problem is their whole basis for government is sound bites and few journo’s pull them up for a larger explanation.

  • 2
    JohnB
    Posted Thursday, 27 February 2014 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    The Federal Government is only too happy to reveal secrets. Other people’s. Such as the previous government’s Cabinet papers.

    That particular stunt takes the prize for short-sighted opportunism.

    I hope that two things come from it:
    1. That future governments will respect the need for secrecy regarding Cabinet papers and do not engage in tit-for-tat payback; and
    2. That, somehow, this results in a review of the length of the period of secrecy, to about 10 years.

  • 3
    klewso
    Posted Thursday, 27 February 2014 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    astonishingly biased Bronwyn Bishop”? But Sabra Lane assured us she’d “rule by the book”?
    Maybe that’s why 7:30 hasn’t done a follow-up story on how that “rule” has been applied?

  • 4
    klewso
    Posted Thursday, 27 February 2014 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    Politicians - with their “regard” for the military - sent us to Gallipoli, and Iraq.

  • 5
    klewso
    Posted Thursday, 27 February 2014 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    You could trust a rabid taipan more than you could this mob.

  • 6
    Observation
    Posted Thursday, 27 February 2014 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    Military and politics do not mix.
    Democracy and secrecy do not mix.
    Patriotic propaganda and sensible policy do not mix.
    Germany, Italy and Japan learnt this lesson sixty years ago…Lest we forget.

  • 7
    klewso
    Posted Thursday, 27 February 2014 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

    Large lumps of our viewsmedia, particularly Murdoch’s Limited News and aspirants to it’s ethos and status, see themselves as members of that “Powerful Club” - they can sell protection by Con-trolling/editing intelligence, in their idea of the “public’s interest”.
    And Rupert is neither elected nor Australian.

  • 8
    zut alors
    Posted Thursday, 27 February 2014 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

    There appears to be no glee in being a whistleblower apart from relieving their conscience.

    They are reviled, targeted & hounded by politicians and the media particularly when no longer of any practical use to the latter.

  • 9
    MarilynJS
    Posted Thursday, 27 February 2014 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

    The Murdoch rags have been sickening for years, especially on refugee issues.

  • 10
    Grumpy Old Sod
    Posted Thursday, 27 February 2014 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

    I see the problem as one of integrity to the ideal of democratic freedom, an ideal that both sides of politics shy from when convenient. Labor had its chances with the revelations of Manning, Assange and Snowden and blew it badly, aligning themselves smartly with the anti-democratic forces within the so-called strategic alliance of the US, Canada, the UK and New Zealand. A pox on both their houses, no one outside of boutique enterprises like Crikey cares so it’s not to a very pretty future we travel.

  • 11
    graybul
    Posted Thursday, 27 February 2014 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

    In the Nation’s interest . . bring back Peter Slipper!!? For all Labour’s inadequacies Parliament under the current Speaker, makes the Opposition contribution/responsibility impossible. Never has the democratic, parliamentary process been so exposed.

  • 12
    Observation
    Posted Thursday, 27 February 2014 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

    The current speaker was disgraceful this week in question time. It really does show she is part of their grand plan and knows the story line.

  • 13
    Danno of Arabia
    Posted Thursday, 27 February 2014 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

    The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”

    Lest they get to us first

  • 14
    AR
    Posted Thursday, 27 February 2014 at 9:45 pm | Permalink

    Not forgetting of course that, after using Kessing as a poster boy in their 2007 Eelction Manifesto, three Labor A/Gs and four 4 Justice/Home Affairs Minsters refused him a Pardon, as covertly promised.
    Even, or despite, the steady stream of arrests of corrupt Customs officers through 2011-13.
    Why is anyone surprised at the mindset that comes with being on that side of the Despatch Box & Treasury Benches?

  • 15
    botswana bob
    Posted Friday, 28 February 2014 at 1:09 am | Permalink

    Excellent. Bookcase Brandis is an absolute disgrace. He may be the only pollie who can strut sitting down. Here’s hoping he falls of the taxpayer funded ladder provided for his taxpayer funded bookcase whilst reaching for a taxpayer funded book.

  • 16
    klewso
    Posted Friday, 28 February 2014 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    Almost completely off track - “Furnival worked for Cadbury’s”?
    They did get a hand-out from Abbott - one of the few to meet “certain criteria” - because they were “different - a tourist venture”?
    Is it possible Furnival had access to “The Credlin - Abbott’s in-‘er-ear”?
    Could this reach further up that greasy pole?

  • 17
    rhwombat
    Posted Friday, 28 February 2014 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    Oh, he doesn’t reach for taxpayer funded books, bob - they’re for decoration.

  • 18
    Ken Goodwin
    Posted Friday, 28 February 2014 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    Why is it to say something in this environment of selfishness and doing nothing is being Unaustralian, makes us like the Germans were before hitler’s media and their heavy handed policies were accepted because no one could speak honestly .Our mainstream media in Australia are also keeping up to not pushing to hardline against this government.As this government will blacklist any reporter or outlet who ask these hard line question,and if embarrassed they will claim they are just communist and get away with this as the other media will not report anything that discredits this government.That is why social media is our only hope.

  • 19
    Brendan Jones
    Posted Friday, 28 February 2014 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    @Ken > “Our mainstream media in Australia are also keeping up to not pushing to hardline against this government. As this government will blacklist any reporter or outlet who ask these hard line question, and if embarrassed they will claim they are just communist and get away with this as the other media will not report anything that discredits this government. That is why social media is our only hope.”

    Right on, Ken. Whistleblowers naively approach the media in the belief reporters will be elbowing each other to get the scoop, but discover no one will touch them with a bargepole. http://victimsofdsto.com/guide/whistleblowers_guide_to_journalists.pdf

    One whistleblower tried very hard to get their story - a major fraud - told by the papers who didn’t respond and wouldn’t even tell them why. That whistleblower was picked up by the police earlier this week (and you won’t read about that anywhere else.)

    This is BTW one of the biggest failings with the Commonwealth’s deeply-flawed whistleblowing laws. They assume going to the media is an escape value, but it doesn’t work. It only fixes a problem 10% of the time, and attacks against the whistleblower continue. http://victimsofdsto.com/psc/#fail_external

    Beat reporters can be particularly bad, suppressing bad stories about advertisers and favoured sources. It’s easy to spot them, because their articles are lack balance. There are only a small number of investigative journalists who cover corruption, and a very big backlog of stories waiting to be told. Most stories never see the light of day.

    A very big problem in Australia is having inherited English Libel laws, our media self-censors. ABC’s Chris Masters (who spent 13 years fighting off a defamation suit after breaking the story on corruption in Joh’s Queensland said, and won, *twice*, at great personal expense) said: ‘Australia is a very secret society and the defamation laws are a big contributor to this culture. Self-censorship is all about self-preservation and it is everywhere.’ … “Journalists and broadcasters are just not going to do stories when defamation proceedings become as arduous and lengthy as this one was”, “The hardest things that I ever did in my career were not to do with gathering the story in the first place but in defending it … The worst thing is the emotional burden waking up every day knowing you’ve got court matters to deal with… it gets to a point where it can be extremely demoralising. You begin to say to yourself, I didn’t get into this to be a professional witness or professional defendant.” “I call it my death by a 1000 courts. The emotional drain tends to be understood only by those who experience it. You watch your morale and assets erode all the while surrounded by lawyers who are having the time of their lives. Horrible.” http://victimsofdsto.com/online/#freespeech

    Under the 1st Amendment, American journalists are protected when covering public interest stories. Australian journalists are not, and any publisher who runs the story risks a long and expensive defamation suit. http://netk.net.au/Whitton/OCLS.pdf p129- “Libel” Newspapers are not charities. The press has been a business since it’s inception. Reporting corruption only annoys the power. Why do it?

    There is a Rights Review currently underway, chaired by Tim Wilson who says he believes in the primacy of free speech. Most Aussies don’t know, we have very limited free speech rights in Australia: http://www.findlaw.com.au/articles/4529/do-we-have-the-right-to-freedom-of-speech-in-austr.aspx + http://victimsofdsto.com/guide/whistleblowers_guide_to_journalists.html#_ednref14

    I hope giving journalists public interest protection is on the agenda; Evan Whitton says the 1964 SCOTUS New York Times public interest ruling transformed the American landscape. (BTW Don’t expect the MEAA to take up the cause; I approached them regarding public interest protection but they refused to comment. (LOLWOT!?) Separately Michaela Banerji - the public servant sacked for anonymously tweeting an opinion critical of the government - said she was a member of the MEAA, but when she approached them to support her free speech rights (which Civil Liberties Australia recommended) the MEAA refused.) http://victimsofdsto.com/psc/#fail_freespeech

  • 20
    fractious
    Posted Friday, 28 February 2014 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

    Thank you Bernard, not just for the summary of the various nefarious acts of ommission and acts of commission of this and the previous government, but for having the spine to say it out loud. Yes, I know, Crikey pays you, but then Failfax and News Corpse pay their journos too and where are *their* trenchant criticisms?

    And if anyone hasn’t seen it, this week’s Dateline had an interview with a Manus Is staffer that’s worth watching.

    (sbs.com.au) /news/article/2014/02/25/i-was-told-lie-manus-island-staffer

  • 21
    Luka
    Posted Sunday, 2 March 2014 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    Dunno seriously what we would do without ya, Bernard. You leave the majority of other Oz journalists floundering in your wake and subject to their own lack of a moral compass.

    Awesome journalism.

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