We’re shallow, here in Australia. There are only 25 million of us, our media is thin, our academia poor due to relentless funding cuts, our lawyers mercenary, we have few potent civil society groups and few rights protections. Here, the powerful can act with a freedom and lack of scrutiny that the influential in other countries could only envy. Threaten that power or lack of scrutiny, however, and they’ll do whatever it takes to shut you down.
That shallowness is also why much — probably most — of the commentary, complaints and advocacy around the AFP’s raids last week missed the point — especially the demands for special protections for the media. The real story about the raids is how power is used in Australia by vested interests — in this case, the security services and their political masters — for their own benefit. Any rational assessment of what happened must start from the basis that that group — security officials, like Home Affairs secretary Mike Pezzullo, Defence Secretary Greg Moriarty, Peter Dutton, the AFP itself — is not some disinterested group pursuing what it sees as the national interest, but a vested interest that is particularly well placed to manipulate the system of power in Australia for its own purposes — those purposes being to protect itself from scrutiny and subject anyone who threatens that to exemplary punishment. If the security establishment was ever about the national interest, it has long since turned into something far more self-serving, like an immune system that eventually starts attacking its host.
In demanding a special set of protections for the media, as the likes of Peter Greste have done, the media simply reinforces this exploitation of the system. One elite — the media — is asking another part of the elite — security officials — to be given power — in this case, the power that comes with being protected from the kinds of displays that the AFP engaged in. But that’s the way power works in Australia, and all the more so in recent decades under neoliberalism: vested interests use money, influence, intimidation, or all three, to manipulate our system of government to get what they want. From that point of view, there’s no difference between the big banks spending billions on donations to the Liberal Party to make laws for them, and treating the regulator as a joke and litigating it to a standstill, and bureaucrats like Pezzullo and Moriarty using their power to call in the coppers because they were embarrassed. It’s the way power is used in Australia.
And if you question that power, or try to disrupt it or expose it to scrutiny, the response can be shocking. Ask Witness K and Bernard Collaery, whom Christian Porter — another security official, albeit a wet-behind-the-ears one — is trying to railroad in a secret trial with secret documents and gag orders to prevent his victims from talking about what he’s doing. Or ATO whistleblower Richard Boyle, facing 160 years in prison, or defence whistleblower David McBride, the target of another of Porter’s gag orders. Or Annika Smethurst, subjected to the deliberate humiliation, designed to intimidate her and others, of having AFP goons spend hours in her house.
There is a malicious aggression on display here, the fuck-you mentality of the powerful who resent any questioning. You can see it every time time Peter Dutton opens his mouth, or whenever Mike Pezzullo fronts a Senate inquiry to be asked about the latest of dozens of screw-ups by his sublimely inept department, a hostility directed toward anyone who might criticise him — journalists (“bottom feeder” was how Pezzullo once described Fairfax’s Noel Towell), NGOs, the ANAO — anyone with the temerity to fail to defer to the security establishment. You could see it on display in the truculence of the AFP’s Neil Gaughan last week, determinedly threatening to use an old law to prosecute journalists. Powerful men, infuriated by scrutiny and embarrassment, out for blood, railing at anyone who might threaten them, eager to make an example of someone.
How apt that the AFP made a point of going through the most private possessions of a young female journalist, to illustrate how much control they can exercise over a woman who had failed to be sufficiently deferential to middle-aged white men. Wait, you think that’s going too far? Look at the aggression and vindictiveness on national display here, and the people wielding this power, and the people who have handed them that power over the last six years and for that matter sixteen years — middle-aged white men — and see if you can declare hand on heart that none of this has anything to do with the licence that Australia still gives to the aggression of influential males.
This is how power works in Australia. You threaten the powerful at your peril. Thinking this is just about freedom of the press is messing about at the margins of something far deeper and darker.