The Department of Foreign Affairs’ attempt to gag debate over a bribery scandal has blown up in its face. It should explain its role in the Victorian Supreme Court superinjunction.
The debacle over the Victorian Supreme Court’s attempt to gag the media from reporting a prominent bribery case reached high farce overnight, when news sites in one of the countries related to the case reported details of the injunction, revealed by WikiLeaks yesterday.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade had argued for the injunction in June, claiming that national security and international relations could be affected by revelation of details relating to the case, involving bribery of political figures. The massive attention paid to the injunction after it was revealed by WikiLeaks has ensured that DFAT’s rationale has been completely undermined, particularly with regional publications revealing the names of local figures suppressed by the order, producing the very consequence DFAT had sought to prevent. The case involves bribery claims relating to the production of Australian plastic currency banknotes.
DFAT’s effort to gag the media is another example of the current government’s willingness to use international relations and national security as a means of avoiding scrutiny of officials’ behaviour. The head of the government’s anti-asylum seeker activities, General Angus Campbell, has relied heavily on avoiding “undermining regional relationships” as a justification for withholding a wide range of information about “Operation Sovereign Borders” from parliamentary committees and the media. Attorney-General George Brandis has also invoked national security as a pretext for avoiding scrutiny on ASIO’s raid on a whistleblower who revealed Australia spied on the East Timorese cabinet, even after evidence emerged that directly contradicted the claims of the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security’s claims about the matter.
Bureaucracies attempting to keep the citizenry in the dark are bad enough, but invoking international relations and national security should immediately raise suspicions about what is being kept hidden, given such areas receive far less scrutiny and are subject to far less accountability — either via the media or via Parliament — than is warranted. The lack of transparency around DFAT’s assessment of the public interest — and any of its own interests that may be affected — means that its behaviour can’t be debated by the Australian media, despite the high level of public interest in the issue.
Perhaps an Australian MP can follow the lead of British MPs like John Hemming and Paul Farrelly, who asked questions about the superinjunctions involving Ryan Giggs and Trafigura in the UK, thereby freeing the media to report on them. Then our own media can publicly participate in a debate that is occurring in foreign media and on social media. Perhaps DFAT would like to participate as well, and justify its actions.