I always figured it couldn’t happen here. There was something about Australians and our collective personality that made it impossible. As it turns out, there isn’t anything special about Australians. We were kidding ourselves. Doubtless plenty of Americans are undergoing the same disillusionment about their own compatriots right now, too.
To say that Australia is heading toward a police state sounds absurd, the claim of a bug-eyed conspiracy theorist — to say it not as a rhetorical flourish or partisan abuse, but as a statement of fact, a description of the road we have travelled so far. And yet, here we are. We’re not China. We’re not even Singapore. Yet we are becoming a specific kind of police state, in which the government hands itself ever more power to prevent scrutiny, deter and punish whistleblowers, smear opponents and hide its wrongdoing, using legal framework justified in the name of national security. We’re becoming a nation where embarrassing the government, or revealing its misconduct, has become a dangerous occupation. Perhaps police state is less accurate than an anti-dissent state.
This is an effort to justify that statement and, by itemising the evidence, show the persistent effort to normalise ever greater powers of bureaucrats over citizens. The evidence can be broken into three areas:
- A mass surveillance data retention regime, legislated despite no evidence it would assist law enforcement or counter-terrorism.
- Long jail terms for people, including journalists, who reveal intelligence operations, with a personal power to launch prosecutions in the hands of the attorney-general.
- “Insider threat” laws further reducing the already-limited capacity of intelligence officials to reveal criminality or misconduct.
- Two royal commissions established to pursue political opponents, and a permanent anti-trade union government body designed to inflict damage on Labor figures.
- Currently before parliament — a significant expansion of secrecy laws that allows people to be prosecuted merely for viewing or republishing leaked information.
- Soon to be before Parliament: a “papers please” law under which the AFP would have the power to stop and demand ID of anyone in an area designated as an “airport”.
- Soon to be before parliament: an expansion of the government’s powers to plant malware on phones and computers to undermine encryption.
- Proposed by bureaucrats: giving the Australian Signals Directorate the capacity to surveil and plant malware on devices within Australia, breaking a decades-long restriction.
- The ABC is the target of a barrage of vexatious complaints about its public affairs coverage, with individual journalists such as Emma Alberici taking on “enemy of the state” status and being repeatedly targeted. The ABC also had its funding cut by $250 million in 2014 and a further $80 million in the most recent budget.
- The government’s NBN board ordered Federal Police to hunt down whistleblowers who embarrassed NBN by revealing internal information. In 2016, the AFP, with an NBN official participating, raided the offices and homes of staff of Stephen Conroy and raided parliament to access emails to journalists.
- Immigration repeatedly ordered the AFP to investigate leaks revealing its bungling and negligence in offshore detention centres.
- In 2017, after blogger Andie Fox criticised the Centrelink robo-debt scandal, Alan Tudge and his bureaucrats handed her private information to a Fairfax freelancer to attack her and her family publicly; the government’s “Privacy Commissioner” then declared the actions of the minister and his officials to be appropriate.
- The long-running saga of Witness K and his lawyer, Bernard Collaery, both of whom acted legally and in compliance with advice from the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security in revealing a sordid, illegal act by ASIS in East Timor. Both continue to face harassment by the government.
- Leaks from intelligence agencies aimed at the Chinese connections of Labor figures, while strong links between Beijing-aligned actors and the Liberals are ignored.
Ambit claims that partly failed
- The original secrecy law reform package criminalised the mere receipt and handling of even innocuous information and proposed up to 15 years’ jail for whistleblowers.
- Immigration attempted to sneak through a plan to collect biometric data on everyone passing through an airport in 2014.
- The original data retention laws had no restrictions on police tracking down journalists’ sources.
- The government backed down on its efforts to criminalise reporting of evidence of abuse and sexual assault of asylum seekers by medical personnel.
The theme of nearly all of these actions is that, where the government has capacity to use the law or funding, it attacks those who criticise it, subject it to scrutiny, or embarrass it by revealing misconduct. And it has done so in a systematic way, changing the law to give itself greater powers, making ambit claims in order to push through smaller increments of change, and using other legislation as cover for reforms to unrelated areas.
NEXT: why the push to an anti-dissent state, and why now?