Since 2014 the Coalition has insisted that significant — in some cases, dramatic — expansions of security agency powers and curbs on basic freedoms are needed to address the threats of terrorism, organised crime and child abuse.

Data retention. The powers to backdoor communications systems and compulsorily access corporate IT systems. Spying on Australians on behalf of foreign governments. Anti-whistleblower laws. Extensions of secret detention and interrogation powers. Proposals to allow the discredited Australian Signals Directorate to spy on Australians.

That’s been coupled with raids on journalists, the prosecution of whistleblowers, secret trials, the harassment and prosecution of Witness K and Bernard Collaery, all justified under “national security”. All, conveniently, in cases that embarrassed the Coalition.

Each time extensions of powers were proposed and then legislated, the same arguments were made: they were critical to stopping terrorism, smashing organised crime and hunting down child abusers. Each time no evidence was produced to back up the claims.

When invited to produce evidence, security agency officials could not. Evidence that they weren’t necessary, or even counterproductive, was ignored. Those who pointed it out were labelled “soft on terrorism”.

Throughout that time, many major Islamist terrorism incidents perpetrated in Europe and the United States were carried out by people known to security agencies. A 2018 study showed more than half of European and US attacks were conducted by people on a security watch list.

Meanwhile the threat of white supremacist terrorism, and its capacity to carry out mass casualty attacks, was ignored.

Governments and security bureaucrats never addressed the strange contrast between their constant demand for more power and their blatant failure to effectively use the powers they had to stop killings.

A similar pattern is playing out in Australia. Organised crime, child abusers and terrorism supporters have all benefited from hopelessly inadequate enforcement of money-laundering laws by two major banks, the Commonwealth and Westpac, and one of Australia’s most prominent companies, Crown.

In 2018 the Commonwealth admitted to tens of thousands of failures to report transactions and scores of breaches of anti-money-laundering legislation, paying a $700 million fine to Austrac. The CBA had been used by drug cartels to launder tens of millions of dollars by sending cash abroad. It was also used at least six times by people potentially involved in terrorism or terrorism financing.

The CBA fine has since been dwarfed by Westpac’s $1.3 billion fine for 23 million breaches of anti-money-laundering laws, including a number of instances of paedophiles paying for child sex shows.

On Monday we learnt Crown was being investigated by Austrac for potential breaches of money laundering legislation. Crown, of course, was exposed last year as having worked with figures with links to organised crime cartels in Asia.

It’s now clear that two of Australia’s major institutions and systemically critical companies were key conduits for organised crime, potential terrorists and child abusers. Whether Crown will join their ranks as a premier conduit for organised crime remains to be seen.

But the threats were not from terrorists, mobsters or paedophiles connecting on encrypted platforms, or leaving metadata trails, or needing extensive detention for questioning. The activity occurred in plain sight, often in public: the meth syndicate figure depositing sums of $9900 all over the CBA network; the mobster junketeer being ushered through customs on a priority visa to a high-roller room and an assignation with a trafficked sex worker.

Authorities even knew about the abuses. The CBA was alerted by police to potential problems without taking action. Westpac was alerted by AUSTRAC to the potential for abuse by paedophiles without taking action. The breaches continued for years.

It’s not quite the narrative that the government has been running on national security since 2014.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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