authoritarian protest police
(Image:AAP/James Ross)

From the Australian Federal Police (AFP) raiding the homes and offices of journalists, to the widespread strip-searching of children, 2019 saw Australia’s steady slide towards authoritarianism become a lot more visible.

The erosion of civil liberties in this country has been going on for some time. As Crikey reported last year, we’ve passed more laws restricting fundamental rights and freedoms than any other Western nation. But this year felt different.

A war on journalism

On a Tuesday morning in June, over a year after News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst published a story detailing plans by the intelligence services to spy on Australians, her home was raided by the AFP.

Despite widespread condemnation, the AFP was at it again days later, raiding the ABC’s Ultimo headquarters over a series of stories documenting alleged war crimes committed by Australian special forces in Afghanistan. 

Recently, CIVICUS, a global civil society monitor, downgraded Australia’s civic rating. Research officer Josef Benedict told Crikey the AFP raids represented the biggest threat to free speech this year.

“National security must not be used as grounds for violating press freedom, especially against journalists covering issues that are clearly in the public interest.

“These moves are attempts to intimidate journalists and also poses an unacceptable threat to the confidentiality of their sources,” Benedict said.

While Attorney-General Christian Porter has maintained he’s “seriously disinclined” to prosecute journalists, he also failed to provide a firm guarantee. That statement is particularly troubling in light of Australia’s war on whistleblowers, which continued unabated this year. 

David McBride, the whistleblower in the Afghan Files case, has been in and out of court all year. Richard Boyle, the former debt collector who disclosed unethical practices at the ATO could face up to 161 years in prison if found guilty. The prosecution of Witness K, the intelligence officer who exposed Australia’s bugging of the Timor-Leste cabinet, drags on.

Morrison’s indifference

Worryingly, the Morrison government’s attitude towards civil liberties appears to be one of indifference, says Nick Cowdery QC, incoming president of the NSW Council for Civil Liberties and a former director of Public Prosecutions in the state.

“The majority of vocal senior members of the Morrison government appear to be willing to infringe human rights if that serves their political ends, regardless of incidental harm that may be done to people or to Australia’s reputation,” Cowdery said. 

When asked about the AFP raids’ potential chilling effect on journalism, Morrison responded by telling reporters that “no one is above the law”. Months later, when media outlets launched a belated campaign to protect press freedom in Australia, Morrison gave an identical answer.

But the government’s talking points reveal a greater hostility to civil rights. In a speech at the Queensland Resources Council, Morrison threatened to criminalise protesters who tried to boycott fossil fuels industries, action which he argued was necessary to protect Australia’s “quiet shareholders”.

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton went even further, calling for climate protesters to receive mandatory jail sentences and to lose welfare. 

Police states

Some of the most profound assaults on civil liberties came at a state level, through the expansion of police powers. 

In Queensland, Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk passed a set of expanded police search powers, in response to environmental activist group Extinction Rebellion. Unsurprisingly, Palaszczuk’s crackdown drew comparisons to the Joh Bjelke-Petersen era, a time in Queensland’s not-too-distant past when protesters were stalked, harassed and criminalised by a deeply corrupt police force. 

But the sunshine state wasn’t alone when it came to the over-policing of protests in 2019. When demonstrators tried to blockade a mining conference in Melbourne, Victoria Police’s response was shockingly heavy-handed. Even as politicians praised the force’s restraint, footage circulated of protesters (and journalists trying to report) getting beaten and pepper-sprayed

In NSW, police have been conducting strip searches on hundreds of teenagers, including two 12-year-old girls..

Julia Quilter, a criminologist at the University of Wollongong, said that while there had been little recent legislation increasing police powers in NSW, officers are using existing discretionary  powers more expansively on the street.

“I think we’re seeing that discretion being exercised in ways that dramatically increase their use,” she said.

In other instances, police powers are being used in areas outside their initial remit. Cowdery points to consorting laws in NSW, intended to target bikie gangs or terrorists, which have been mobilised by the police to stop OneFour, an up-and-coming rap group from Western Sydney, from ever performing.

Of course, police powers, and expansive national security laws have always existed, thanks to largely bipartisan political support. And as Quilter reminds Crikey, lower-socioeconomic areas like Mt Druitt, the suburb that produced OneFour, have always faced over-policing and constant surveillance from authorities.

But this year, the expansion of the police state, be it into music festivals or newsrooms, has forced more people to pay attention.

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