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May 5, 2014

Who -- and what country -- is driving Brandis' conservative shift?

The Attorney-General's chief of staff seems to have strong views on complying with US demands. And they may be having an influence on George Brandis.

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One of the most intriguing supporting actor performances of the Abbott government has been that of Attorney-General George Brandis. His first nine months in the job have been marked by two characteristics: a political tin ear responsible for his botching the proposed reforms to the Racial Discrimination Act, and his sudden, enthusiastic support for a crackdown on internet service providers at the behest of the copyright industry.

Today Fairfax reported that the government may be on the brink of forcing ISPs to monitor their customers’ internet usage and warn about filesharing, and perhaps censor access to well-known filesharing sites. Brandis has previously flagged his enthusiasm for forcing ISPs, via either a “voluntary” code or some regulatory system, to police filesharing, which would cost ISPs millions of dollars, raising internet access prices across the board (call it the Brandis Levy).

This is exactly what the copyright industry — movie, media and music transnationals, most of them American — have long sought. Forcing ISPs to police their users is the outsourcing of copyright enforcement from the copyright industry itself — which has failed miserably at the task for over a decade — to another industry, and to government. It is a position the US government has aggressively and persistently pursued through a series of multilateral and bilateral trade deals, including the Trans Pacific Partnership currently being negotiated.

This raises the issue of the role of Brandis’ chief of staff, Paul O’Sullivan. O’Sullivan was a remarkably senior figure to be appointed mere CoS to an Attorney-General. He is a former head of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, ambassador to Germany and high commissioner to New Zealand under the Rudd government, as well as adviser to then-prime minister John Howard. Yet he is now only the senior staffer to a middle-ranking minister, though there is speculation he will be moved into a more senior role in time.

What’s missing from O’Sullivan’s CV is any political experience; he may have been adviser to Howard, but that was on national security, not exactly a domestic political issue. Brandis’ stumbling efforts to sell s.18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which have managed to alienate even  pro-Coalition groups and portrayed the government as eager to support the rights of bigots, suggests poor advice, particularly as Brandis himself — a Queensland lawyer with a hypertrophied ego — is not the most natural politician.

But another aspect of O’Sullivan’s CV might explain Brandis’ enthusiasm for implementing the agenda of the United States copyright industry. Bob Carr’s Diary contains this interlude from June 2012:

“Breakfast this morning with Paul O’Sullivan, former head of ASIO and just retired as High Commissioner in New Zealand. He does not echo the line that we are too close to America. The reverse. He thinks we should aspire to be in a different class of ally, not an ally like Holland or Canada but a country that can be relied on pretty well all the time. This is novel. The first time I’ve encountered this notion on the alliance, at least explicitly expressed.”

A country that the US can rely on pretty well all the time appears to be an accurate description of Brandis’ emerging pro-copyright industry stance, in which Australian ISPs would be required to implement the surveillance and enforcement agenda of US copyright companies.

O’Sullivan’s apparent view that Australia should, in effect, subordinate its sovereignty to the US in order that we can always be relied on might also explain the substantial hardening of Brandis’ rhetoric on issues around mass surveillance and national security. Since becoming Attorney-General, Brandis — who still portrays himself as a Voltaire-style free speech advocate when it comes to climate denialism — has flagged that he is being given access to national security information that makes him more hostile to civil liberties.

“The more intelligence I read, the more conservative I become,” he told a Washington security think tank. Brandis’ phrasing was important — he has long portrayed himself as a genuine, traditional liberal, in contrast to more conservative colleagues.

The Attorney-General’s sharpening of his rhetoric and the increasing clamour from intelligence and law enforcement agencies suggests that data retention — which is mass surveillance under another name — will soon be revisited, although the government refuses to say when it will respond to the Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security’s report on data retention and other security reforms.

Bernard Keane — Politics Editor

Bernard Keane

Politics Editor

Bernard Keane is Crikey’s political editor. Before that he was Crikey’s Canberra press gallery correspondent, covering politics, national security and economics.

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54 thoughts on “Who — and what country — is driving Brandis’ conservative shift?

  1. Tyger Tyger

    “For someone who on one hand criticizes the MSM for lack of detail you sure keep referencing it. Is everything you ever learnt come from the daily broadsheets?”

    I don’t consume much MSM, Belinda. Not really worth the time. Nowhere herein, however, have I even mentioned them, let alone criticised them for “lack of detail”. You just made that up. Another wearisome, meaningless distraction even lamer than the Pulitzer thing.

    You don’t appear to dispute anything I said about Nixon, merely dismiss it in an offhand way as stuff U.S. presidents do. Not surprising given it’s all on the White House tapes and the public record. So what does where one sources it from have to do with anything? The facts are the facts and your tedious slur regarding my education and knowledge base – about which you know nothing – just another distraction. (At least I never wrote, “Is everything you ever learnt come from the daily broadsheets?” Perhaps you meant “the ‘hood”?) But again, to attempt a return to the point, it’s not just the blood on Nixon’s hands that’s at issue here, although that’s considerable even in comparison to other U.S. presidents. It’s the concentration of intelligence gathering, foreign policy and power in the hands of a few people close to the president, the concomitant absence of any rational, objective, disinterested advice from other arms of the government and intelligence community, and the utter disregard for the processes, checks and balances that once mitigated, however imperfectly, against arbitrary, ideologically-driven actions by the president of the day.

    As for your accusing me and my arguments of lacking detail and context, I’m yet to see any of either from you. Just dark hints at conspiracy theories and “string-pulling”. How about you drop the projection and put some meat on them bones?


  2. Tyger Tyger

    Well Belinda, at least you’ve stopped talking about the Pulitzer. So what exactly is “why Bernstein knew so much”? Because he investigated Watergate or because he won that thing we won’t ever speak of again? I’m confused. I’m also fully aware of the CIA’s efforts to infiltrate journalism and academia. They’ve co-opted and commissioned many “respected” academics and journalists to write stuff pushing the party line. That would be the least of their myriad crimes. And Nixon was “derailed” by his own drunken, paranoid lunacy and the fact he wanted it all on tape; the CIA weren’t required. He was “off the rails” long before he was even elected. I still fail to see the relevance of anything you’ve said regards my original post.
    If you think I’m somehow defending the CIA, the U.S. intelligence community or U.S. foreign policy in any way, I’m not. The point my original post makes is that intelligence gathering and foreign policy in the U.S. has, over a long period of time, been politicised and militarised to the point where it’s impossible for the government of the day to get any sort of objective, disinterested analysis of the situation, and is instead conducted along ideological lines to manufacture fear and ensure there’s always an “enemy” to justify the continuing expansion of the military-industrial complex. This is all done under the cover of America’s “exceptionalist” vision of itself as the world’s great moral leader and arbiter and is one of the main theses of the book I referenced and you dismissed out of hand because the authors mentioned something which shall now remain unmentionable. If you want to talk about that, let’s. Otherwise I’ve got better things to do.

  3. Tyger Tyger

    For what it’s worth, I pulled up Tim Weiner’s biog. on Wiki:

    “Tim Weiner (born June 20, 1956) is a New York Times reporter, author of three books and co-author of a fourth, and winner of the Pulitzer Prize[1] and National Book Award.[2] He is a graduate of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University and has worked for the Times since 1993, as a foreign correspondent in Mexico, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sudan and as a national security correspondent in Washington, DC.[3]

    “Weiner won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting as an investigative reporter at The Philadelphia Inquirer, for his articles on the black budget spending at the Pentagon and the CIA.[1] His book Blank Check: The Pentagon’s Black Budget is based on that newspaper series.

    “He won the National Book Award in Nonfiction for his 2007 book Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA.[2]

    “He is featured along with other foreign affairs experts in interviews in Denis Delestrac’s 2010 “Pax Americana and the Weaponization of Space”. Enemies: A History of the FBI, Tim Weiner’s latest book, traces the history of the FBI’s secret intelligence operations—from the bureau’s creation in the early 20th century through its ongoing role in the war on terrorism.[4] Weiner places heavy emphasis on the role of J. Edgar Hoover and COINTELPRO.[5]”

    I’ll have to get a couple of his books. Sounds like he’s done some good work to me and might even know a bit more about the topics on which he writes than you, Belinda, having dedicated much of his working life to them. Or should I simply dismiss his output because he’s won a Pulitzer?

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