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.

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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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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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