The rise and rise of ASIO continues.

Yesterday’s counter-terrorism White Paper was the third security-related announcement in just over a fortnight by the Government.  Today’s new legislation expanding the role of ASIO in relation to organised crime and people smuggling is the fourth.  It doesn’t take an alfoil-wearing conspiracy theorist to see a pattern, that of a Government keen to send a loud signal on security issues.

There were inevitable claims that the paper was intended as a distraction from Peter Garrett, but given the Government has been repeatedly criticised before now for failing to release the paper, they look rather expedient, and miss the broader point.

Instead, this Government is doing what its predecessor did, which is use border security and the threat of terrorism to bolster its credentials with voters.  But whereas John Howard systematically politicised security issues to damage Labor, Kevin Rudd’s objective is to secure Labor from such attacks from the Opposition — although we’ll doubtless continue to hear much from the Government about Simon Birmingham’s clumsy suggestion that the insulation program was a greater threat to Australian lives than terrorism.

This takes the form of an endless ramping up of security infrastructure, spending and legislation.  The Prime Minister yesterday warned of Australians becoming numb to the threat of terrorism.  In fact our numbness is towards the steady erosion of personal liberties, the remorseless rise of surveillance and the cumulative loss of privacy to unaccountable agencies such as ASIO.

As Crikey alone has chronicled, the relentless expansion of ASIO’s budget under the Howard Government has continued — indeed, accelerated — under the Rudd Government.

This is despite ASIO itself acknowledging in its scant accountability documents that it is doing less than in previous years.

Yesterday’s White Paper said a new “Counter Terrorism Control Centre” would be established within ASIO “to increase co-ordination across government agencies” (like its predecessor, this Government believes too much inter-departmental co-ordination is never enough).  The paper didn’t indicate whether even more funding would be provided for ASIO to operate this body.  The May Budget might give us some clues, but ASIO’s operational budget has increased in real terms every year for the past decade.  Don’t count on that trend ceasing this year.

And today legislation will be introduced to expand ASIO’s remit to people smuggling and organised crime.

The Government has worked assiduously to turn people smugglers into the Bond villains of border protection — evil geniuses with sophisticated networks and extensive resources determined to breach our border security, who can conveniently be targeted and demonised instead of their human cargo.   The new Bill includes an array of harsher penalties for people smuggling or supporting it.

And just as the Prime Minister made great play yesterday of the increasingly “home-grown” nature of the jihadist threat, the Government briefed the media along similar lines in relation to people smuggling.  “The changes are partly in response to the increasing involvement of Australians in the people-smuggling trade,” reported a story in The Oz about the changes.

Like terrorists, people smugglers could be in our very midst, see.  Be alert.

The legislative changes for ASIO have been sold as a rectification of the problem of ASIO discovering all sorts of useful intelligence about people smuggling and organised crime but being unable to pass it on to law enforcement bodies because of legislative restrictions.  In fact, it is a major expansion of ASIO’s remit beyond intelligence and into law enforcement, and doubtless a further justification for another budget increase, despite ASIO’s inauspicious entry into law enforcement in the Al-Haque case.

Labor’s history with ASIO is rather mixed.  Until the 1970s, ASIO — despite being established by the Chifley Government — was closely aligned with the Liberal and National parties and was actively hostile the Labor Left, although it cultivated relationships with the Labor Right, especially in NSW.  However, the Hawke Government expanded ASIO’s remit in the wake of the second Hope Royal Commission, but Paul Keating cut the agency’s budget on the basis of the fall of the Soviet Union.

Under Rudd, the agency has reached the zenith of its size, field of operations and budget.  Not to mention the shiny new giant headquarters being built for the agency in Campbell  in Canberra.

In an excellent article in the Fairfax press on the weekend, Chris Berg nailed the deeply-flawed logic of ever-increasing levels of security-based regulation and infrastructure to address a threat that is miniscule.  Part of the problem is indeed the human incapacity to accurately assess comparative risk, and most people’s inability to understand the sometimes counter-intuitive basics of risk management.  But governments understand the concept of political risk very well indeed.  That’s the risk that’s driving this wave of security  propaganda from Labor.