Labor frontbencher Mark Dreyfus

A small number of Labor MPs have begun finding their voice about the outrage of the prosecution of Witness K and Bernard Collaery despite efforts by Labor’s leadership to provide cover for the Liberals’ harassment of the pair. Victorian MP Julian Hill and others raised the scandal in yesterday’s caucus meeting and are set to receive a briefing from shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus on it.

Given Labor’s, and Dreyfus’, role in the scandal, MPs should be asking some hard questions of Dreyfus.

Timor-Leste’s then-prime minister Xanana Gusmão wrote to Julia Gillard on December 7, 2012, about the bugging of Timor-Leste’s cabinet and its impact on the Timor Sea Treaty. His goal was to settle the matter confidentially between governments, without it becoming public. Instead, the Gillard government wildly overreacted. It denied that the bugging had taken place despite the evidence Gusmão furnished, and (inexplicably) sent Margaret Twomey, who had been ambassador to Dili when the bugging took place, to see Gusmão.

The attorney-general at that point was Nicola Roxon. Whether she had any role in what was primarily a foreign affairs matter isn’t clear. She resigned in February 2013 and was replaced by Dreyfus. ASIO was later authorised to place Timor-Leste’s Australian lawyer, Bernard Collaery — a veteran national security lawyer highly regarded in the intelligence community — under surveillance, breaching his clients’ legal privilege. As attorney-general, Dreyfus would have authorised the bugging of Collaery.

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Shocked at the unwillingness of Gillard and her foreign minister Bob Carr to resolve the issue, Gusmão took the matter to international arbitration in April 2013. In an extraordinary move, Carr and Dreyfus responded by publicly circulating claims about the bugging of Timor-Leste’s cabinet themselves in a media release of May 2013 rejecting the claims as “not new”. Laughably, Carr and Dreyfus claimed that Australia had negotiated with Timor-Leste in “good faith”.

Two weeks later, Collaery discussed the allegations with The Australian, which thus broke the story of how Australia bugged a fledgling micro-state for the advantage of its own resource companies. Signally, The Australian is not mentioned in the Director of Public Prosecutions’ charges of Collaery — only the ABC, which came to the story later.

Labor’s role in this sordid saga leaves some key questions unresolved — questions Hill and other MPs should put to Dreyfus at their briefing.

  • What does Dreyfus know about the Gillard government’s response to Gusmão’s December 2012 information and what role as AG from February 2013 did he play in it?
  • What efforts did the Gillard government make to ascertain the truth about the bugging, which occurred under the Howard government? Did it make any efforts at all?
  • Why did Dreyfus approve the surveillance of Bernard Collaery? 
  • Why did Dreyfus claim Australia “conducted the CMATS treaty negotiations in good faith” when this was patently false?

But there are a couple of broader questions as well. Why has Labor, rather than vigorously exposing the illegal actions of ASIS under the orders of the Howard government and pursuing those responsible — something that its role as an opposition, Australia’s national interest, and its own political interests, should demand — instead collaborated with the Liberal Party to cover up a crime? Why has it stayed silent as the men who did their job for them, of exposing crimes carried out under the Howard government, are being railroaded in a trial the government wants to keep secret?

Labor used to be the party that was sceptical of Australia’s intelligence agencies, given the long history of those agencies being used against the left in Australia. Labor is notionally a party committed to the rule of law, to justice, to giving the powerless a voice against the powerful. But these commitments ring hollow given its role in trying to hide our shameful treatment of Timor-Leste and persecuting those who tried to expose it.

Labor MPs need to be asking why. And they need to be speaking out a lot louder about ending this cover-up and this appalling prosecution.