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Aug 24, 2017


It’s a well known fact that anywhere on Earth you’ll find a happy-go-lucky Australian traveler with an accent broad enough to make you cringe. What’s less well known is that Aussie’s travel insurance won’t cover anything — delay of trip, medical treatment, damage to possessions — caused by a terrorist incident.  

This was the situation slain child Julian Cadman’s mother, Jom, found herself in after the Barcelona attack. Family friend Scott Bowman set up a crowdfunding site to help with funeral costs for Julian and her (potentially years of) ongoing surgery. The crowdfunding site has currently raised $170,000.

He told The Daily Telegraph on Friday that “their travel insurance might not cover acts of terrorism and Jom is going to have ongoing medical expenses”.

Really? Not covered?

As Bernard Keane wrote in Crikey on Wednesday, we are “just as much at risk of attacks as ever, from as many terrorists as ever, representing a greater variety of terror groups than ever”.

Despite this, funeral costs, changes to hotels and flights, damaged property and medical fees resulting from a serious terror attack are not common or standard inclusions in travel insurance, especially cheaper ones.

“Terrorism is a relatively new issue for insurers to deal with. If insurers don’t understand what level of risk a factor poses, or there’s uncertainty in it, they are reluctant to offer coverage of it,” said a spokesman for the Insurance Council of Australia.

But over the last couple of years, terrorism inclusions have begun to appear.

“As the industry gets more data and that data becomes more granular, more companies will start to include terrorism coverage.”

He added consumer demand for specific terrorism clauses in travel cover is not particularly high.

“Out of hundreds of thousands of phone calls and website hits annually, we’ve had less than a dozen enquiries about terrorism cover for travel insurance.”

The other sticky issue these days is whether an attack is officially considered terrorism? Turns out, if you’re wanting to claim, insurance companies are going by what governments officially declare.


Aug 14, 2017


An extremist with links to radical groups drives a vehicle into a crowd, killing one and injuring others. Terrorism? When Islamist extremists do it, yes. When white males do it, apparently not. At least, according to Australian media.

James Fields, who earlier in the day had rallied with neo-Nazi group Vanguard America, is alleged to have driven the car that killed a woman protesting against the far right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia and has been charged with second degree murder.

Among even Republican politicians, there was no doubt that this was a terrorist attack. Florida Senator Marco Rubio tweeted:

“Very important for the nation to hear @potus describe events in #Charlottesville for what they are, a terror attack by #whitesupremacists”

Texas Senator Ted Cruz tweeted:

“I urge the Department of Justice to immediately investigate and prosecute today’s grotesque act of domestic terrorism.”

With even senior Republicans calling the act terrorism, surely the media wouldn’t be backward in labelling it what was? No such luck. 

In an article yesterday, and this morning, did not use the term “terrorism” except to quote Cruz and Rubio’s tweets. SBS ran AAP copy but didn’t use the word “terror” despite the article confirming Fields’ extremist links. The Australian ran AP copy and wouldn’t use the t-word. copied the ABC and only used “terror” in quoting tweets. Instead, Fields was described as “accused killer”, “alleged driver” and “a 20-year-old man”. Compare and contrast ABC coverage of the London Bridge and Westminster Bridge attacks earlier this year, which were immediately described as terror attacks; ditto coverage.

A 2015 survey by the University of North Carolina and Duke University of US police agencies found that nearly twice as many agencies identified right-wing extremists as the greatest threat to safety as did Islamist terrorists. The great majority of terror attacks carried out on US soil since 9/11 have been by white neo-Nazi or anti-government terrorists.


Aug 7, 2017


The uncovering of an alleged plot involving the Khayat brothers to bring down an airliner or launch some sort of toxic gas attack in Sydney should prompt a serious rethink about how effective we are at protecting ourselves from terrorism and why we’re spending so much money doing so.

If police allegations and leaks from within security agencies are true — and we have previously seen lurid charges of terror plots levelled against individuals either proven to be wrong or wildly overstated before — the poison gas attack appears to have been wildly ambitious, but the plan to bomb an Etihad flight, using another of the brothers as an unwitting mule for a bomb, was only a couple of steps from succeeding. 

Crucially, one of those steps involved successfully getting the bomb through airport baggage screening; according to media reports a number of subsequent efforts to test if the device would had got through screening all succeeded in spotting it. Otherwise, it was plain dumb luck that prevented the deaths of hundreds. The other big question, apart from whether the device would have been caught, is how military-grade explosive was able to be sent by normal air cargo from Turkey to Australia, and then make it through Customs.

What does this tell us about how effective all the money we’re spending on making ourselves safe from terrorism is?

According to the government two years ago, it was “investing $1.2 billion in new funding for national security in the 2015 budget, building on the $1 billion in funding we announced in the 2014-15 MYEFO”. The funding included money for Operations Okra and Accordion, the military operations to bomb Islamic State and train the Iraqi army. In the 2016 budget, the budget papers show the government allowed for an additional $671.6 million in national security spending, most of it on Okra and Accordion. In the 2017 budget, Okra and Accordion received funding of $650 million (plus additional funding in the out-years), and there was another $30-odd million in funding for the AFP and other security agencies.

[The real threat of terrorism to Australians, by the numbers]

The total in extra national security spending since 2014 is thus $3.55 billion or thereabouts, according to the government’s own statements. To give an idea of how much money that is, look at how much money the government says a human life is worth. According to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet’s “guidance on how officers preparing the cost-benefit analysis in Regulation Impact Statements should treat the benefits of regulations designed to reduce the risk of physical harm” (thanks to Michael Pascoe for the tip), the cost of a human life is officially $4.2 million in 2014 dollars, or $4.32 million in current dollars.

To put it in cost-benefit terms, our security agencies, and the bombing of Islamic State, would have to save around 890 lives to have been worthwhile — according to the way the government itself calculates the costs and benefits of policies. Of course, terror attacks come with economic consequences as well, although events have to be of 9/11 scale in order to have noticeable impacts on GDP. But even factoring in a couple of billion dollars in economic costs from thwarted terror attacks still makes that additional $3.55 billion questionable.

Both the head of ASIO, Duncan Lewis, and the Attorney-General, George Brandis, have recently said that security agencies have thwarted a dozen terror attacks since 2014. A media report says police claim to have thwarted not 12 but 15 terror attacks. The alleged attack by the Khayat brothers would have been the 16th, and by far the deadliest — costing hundreds of lives. But as it turned out, that attack wasn’t thwarted by agencies, and only uncovered thanks to foreign intelligence.

Do 15 thwarted attacks — most of them planned to be small-scale attacks using ready-to-hand tools like knives and vehicles — mean the extra funding was worth it? Not necessarily. We already spend more than $35 billion a year on national security, defence and law enforcement, according to the 2015 budget. The extra spending since 2014 has been only a small addition to the money we were already giving to defence and security agencies — the billion-dollar plus annual budget of the AFP, for example, and the half-billion budget annual budget for ASIO. And the Commonwealth is not the only counter-terrorism actor — state and territory police forces are involved as well. Indeed, some of the thwarted plots related entirely to state and territory police. How many of the 15 attacks would have been thwarted if resourcing had stayed exactly the same as it was in 2014? Probably all of them, certainly most of them.

So how much extra security has that $3.55 billion given us?

The answer appears to be: not a lot. When Tony Abbott announced in 2014 that Australia would join the bombing campaign against Islamic State, he explicitly linked it to domestic security as well as foreign policy. “This is about taking prudent and proportionate action to protect our country and to protect the wider world against an unprecedented terrorist threat,” he said. But now — as always appears to be the case with the War on Terror — we’re being told by security experts that the defeat of Islamic State has done nothing to reduce the threat to Australia.

[Keane: why the War on Terror gets a blank cheque but we ignore bigger threats]

In fact, like every other Western military intervention in the Middle East, it has likely made us less safe and more likely to be a target of terrorism — as security and intelligence officials have long stated, and as voters themselves believe.

In fact, there’s no evidence that that $3.55 billion has made us in any way safer, and it has possibly made us less safe. And this isn’t some academic exercise: that $3.55 billion could have been used for other purposes — put into our health system, spent on our roads, used to make dangerous occupations like farming safer, directed to mental health, even spent helping our police forces by getting more guns off the streets. Lives could have been saved with it — perhaps many more lives than were saved through thwarted terror attacks.

And there’s no means to properly investigate this. Parliament’s Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security has no power to inquire into, for example, why it might have been mere luck that saved hundreds of lives. Even under the changes proposed by the recent L’Estrange-Merchant intelligence review, the committee would still be prevented from conducting any “operational” inquiries, even in camera.

To raise the cost of national security spending, and suggest it may not be worthwhile, is to immediately elicit accusations of being indifferent to loss of life, and of seeking to minimise the terror threat, which occupies a special place for both the media and politicians as a barbaric and random death at the hands of an evil Other. Politicians say that their first responsibility is to protect their citizens. Indeed it is. But policymakers, every day of the week, make decisions about how to use taxpayers’ money in ways that save or fail to save lives, and counter-terrorism is no different to other areas of policy that have life-or-death consequences. And the events of the last week suggest we’re spending a lot of money protecting not very many of us, when it could be saving many more lives elsewhere.


Jul 21, 2017


The great possibility is that Malcolm Turnbull is a tactical genius. Well, not genius, but a man of some talent. Tactical, note, not strategic. Strategically, he and the party he leads have been all over the place since he took power — and of course in the Abbott period before. Indeed, the better he is tactically, the worse he and the party become strategically. And forget anything to do with implementing a program. Programmatically, we remain in the Gillard era — a centrist social market politics frames real government action, whether it be Gonski 2.0, the NDIS, co-funded public transport in Victoria, and so on and on. Nothing has come along to replace it; there has been no will within the Coalition to frame a realistic and consistent centre-right social market politics that acknowledges the reality of a fractured Senate.

Thus, only tactics remain. By the very nature, it involves a lot of dashing about. Malcolm jumps up in London to say, utterly incorrectly (factual, not political incorrectness) that the Liberal Party was founded as a wholly liberal party, and that its co-founder, Robert Menzies, was a wholly liberal political animal. A few days later, we’re at a military base, and, among the most sinister bastards you’ve ever seen, up pops Malcolm, to announce a vast centralisation of state power in one department, and a weakening of the barrier between military and police operations in domestic matters.

These tactical moves are deployed against Tony Abbott first of all, of course: challenge his basic vision of the party, and then promote Peter Dutton — Peter Dutton! — as a leader of the conservative forces within the party, in a policy so reactionary and based on Big Fear that it would be impossible for Abbott to get to the right of it without advocating a generals-bishops junta for public safety.

[Abbott-Turnbull: it’s on, but there’s a third player]

But such tactical moves are a twofer, because they’re also directed against Labor, reviving the ancient charge that it is “soft on national security”. The optics of the announcement was intended to be as grotesque as possible — masked robot-like military men, entirely non-citizens, behind suited politicians. The illiberal and anti-democratic spirit of the announcement was obvious. The back-and-forth between the London declaration of liberalism and the entirely unnecessary rupturing of the military-civilian barrier is, too. Turnbull will call this “nimble and agile”. The rest of us will remind ourselves that he’s a hustler from way back — a man who does deals, and then is out of the room and onto the next one before people realise what the deal was.

Yet in carrying on this frenetic drive to political survival, Turnbull is being truer to the Menzian spirit than he intends, or perhaps understands. Menzies, having started the Liberal Party rolling in the dying days of the Second World War, and relying on a number of genuine liberals to do so, had them purged in the late 1940s. This gave the cover of liberalism, but it returned the party to control of the business elites dating back to the days of the Bruce government. Having done that, Menzies launched an attempt to ban the Communist Party — the legislation for which gave the government the power to deem non-party members as Communists, and thus restrict them from public life, especially in the unions. The move had the added benefit — and perhaps the main purpose — of leaning on the cracks within Labor, until the party split entirely.

This gives the clue to the heritage of Australian political liberalism. It has less resemblance to liberalism in European governments than it does to the semi-repressive governments of the Third World at the time. The repressive measures — trying to ban whole political movements, the censorship of thousands of books, manipulation of the Commonwealth Literary Fund (precursor of the Australia Council) to exclude leftist writers, support for apartheid South Africa, etc, etc — were combined with a mild Keynesianism. It was a thoroughly illiberal state, which emphasised the illiberal parts of the wider society, and downplayed liberal currents within it.

[Rundle: ‘They won’t change us,’ we mutter to ourselves as the troops take the streets]

To his great discredit, Malcolm Turnbull is willing to take that route again. A genuine liberal would welcome the fact that we have had very few successful, fully terrorist acts in Australia. Most of those that have been labelled as such appear to have been incidents in which disordered and malign thinking, or suggestibility, has become attached to jihadist themes. The most deadly recent “event” was the Bourke Street mall drive-through, which had no jihadist or political content whatsoever. In fact some events, such as the Lindt Cafe siege, might have been made worse by treating them as political events, rather than crimes. Thus, in order to be “nimble” and “agile” around these events, a “liberal” government is creating a ministry turning civic functions into security ones and creating a vast bureaucracy, which will require additional layers of management, creating reporting contradictions, and quite possibly slow down the responses to actual security events that occur. All in the hands of a minister who is a proven incompetent.

Tactical advantage, possibly, as I say. But one that also courts disaster, both actual and political. For years now, we have been told that the foiling of “a dozen terrorist plots” has been due to our current security set-up. We’re never told the detail of these dozen plots, and it is quite likely that most of them were in the so-called “pre-planning” stage, i.e. bullshit being talked in bugged coffee shops in western Sydney.

But on the supposition that some of them were real, liberal enlightened thinking would suggest that this is positive evidence that our current arrangement works. It is being abolished for a structure for whose superiority there is no evidence whatsoever. It will take at least a year for the internal structure, reporting, communication and command structures of the new mega-department to be worked out. During that time, we will be objectively more vulnerable to an efficient terrorist act than ever before. It will be the least important part of it, but should such occur, Turnbull’s premiership and reputation will be a smoking ruin. In the meantime, for sheer tactical, petty advantage, our illiberal prime minister has given civil society a kick in the guts, and lived up the Australian liberal tradition.


Jul 19, 2017


The “Independent Intelligence Review”, conducted by former senior bureaucrats Michael L’Estrange and Stephen Merchant, and advised by former senior British spy Sir Iain Lobban, has received little coverage since its release yesterday, except to the extent that nowhere does it recommend the establishment of a home affairs portfolio, despite — directly contrary to the Prime Minister’s claim yesterday — the issue of structures being explicitly in the terms of reference for the review.

But what should have been an important root-and-branch review of Australia’s intelligence community is a major, perhaps spectacular, missed opportunity, and skips critical thinking for bureaucratic insularity, empire-building and a bizarre indifference to the key issues of intelligence and national security.

In a way, this is hardly surprising: L’Estrange and Merchant are former foreign affairs and national security bureaucrats. And their recommendations are exactly what you would expect from people within the existing system. Systems always preserve and replicate themselves; people within systems will clone themselves, and this forms the basis for their recommendations. They propose a new senior bureaucratic position, the Director-General of National Intelligence (primarily because the other Five Eyes countries have one). The current Office of National Assessments will be dramatically expanded to become the Office of National Intelligence (ONI), with two band-3 SES positions (this will be within the prime minister’s portfolio; how it interacts with the new Home Affairs minister is anyone’s guess).

There’s also to be a new head of the Australian Cyber Security Centre (that job has already gone to Alastair Macgibbon). There’s to be a new Intelligence Co-ordinator for Cyber Security. The Australian Signals Directorate is to be made an agency unto itself, led by another new director-general. In addition to all these new, senior positions, other new structures are apparently needed: an Intelligence Integration Board, an ONI Assessment Consultation Board, a National Intelligence Community Science and Technology Advisory Board (to support a “National Intelligence Community Innovation Hub”, whatever that is).

For a report focused on the need for greater co-ordination, there will be an awful lot of new structures and new acronyms to navigate.

With greater bureaucracy inevitably comes a need for greater funding: the aforementioned expansion of ONI will be by 50% on existing ONA levels. There’s to be an Intelligence Capability Investment Plan drawing on a Joint Capability Fund (funded by an efficiency dividend on intelligence agencies, which normally would be returned to the budget, not kept within the relevant area).

This is what happens when you ask former bureaucrats to consider how a bureaucracy can work better. Of course, that’s not to say there are any problems with the existing systems. The review speaks glowingly of the intelligence community, which is “highly capable … performed strongly … a strong positive culture of accountability … world-class tradecraft … held in high regard by their international partner agencies.” 

In fact, to read the review is to get the sense that there are no significant problems with Australia’s intelligence agencies at all. That ASIS did not illegally bug East Timor’s cabinet a decade and a half ago and try to cover it up when a former officer, on the recommendation of the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, revealed it in the course of litigation, or that, to this day, an intelligence agency is preventing that individual from leaving Australia. That the Australian Signals Directorate did not cause a major diplomatic rift when its attempts to bug the president of Indonesia and his family were revealed. That we have not learnt from the revelations of Edward Snowden (who is mentioned only in passing in the review) that ASD and other agencies engage in commercial espionage to benefit Australian companies and those of other Five Eyes countries. That the electronic intelligence gathering policies of the Five Eyes do not materially make all of us less safe because of their tendency to maintain and exploit cybersecurity weaknesses. That the same persistent problem that has recurred overseas, of perpetrators of terrorist attacks being known, and often well known, to security agencies, has occurred here more than once. That the growing evidence is that mass surveillance actually makes the job of security agencies more difficult, not easier.

None of that, for the reviewers, is an issue, except the bugging of Indonesia’s president. The reviewers, without mentioning the specific incident, “consider it important for the Minister for Foreign Affairs to have visibility of sensitive activities undertaken overseas … which, if compromised, could damage Australia’s foreign policy or international relations”.

There’s also a disturbing sleight-of-hand around parliamentary oversight. Bureaucrats, in general, don’t like parliamentary oversight, and L’Estrange and Merchant are no exceptions. On the face of it, their recommendations around the role of parliament’s Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security go a long way toward meeting the calls by former Labor veteran John Faulkner and current JCIS deputy chair Anthony Byrne for an expanded remit for that committee. The review recommends that JCIS be given expanded powers that both cement the role it has accrued since Nicola Roxon’s time, of vetting national security bills, and give it increased powers to seek information: in particular, the review recommends that JCIS be given the power to “initiate its own inquiries”. This is good news — except that Merchant and L’Estrange want that power limited only to “the administration and expenditure of the ten intelligence agencies of the NIC as well as proposed or existing provisions in counter-terrorism and national security law, and to review all such expiring legislation.”

That is, the committee would not be able to initiate its own reviews into operational matters — a massive omission. Instead, the committee would only be able to “request the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security (IGIS) conduct an inquiry into the legality and propriety of particular operational activities”.

This is fundamentally anti-democratic; it means the perpetuation of the current blind spot parliament has around operational matters (unless the government decides, as few governments ever would, to ask the committee to conduct an operational review). And given the handling of the Witness K matter by then-IGIS Vivienne Thom, it’s plain that that office can’t always be relied on.

The “independent” nature of the review flagged in its title is a misnomer. This is the existing system reviewing the existing system, and recommending that that very system be deepened, expanded, entrenched. It’s a recipe for the further growth of an unaccountable, exorbitantly funded national security bureaucracy that even the most powerful governments will struggle to control. Just the way bureaucrats like it.


Jul 18, 2017


“Ten-flag Tony”, Prime Minister Abbott was dubbed, as the number of flags behind him at his ever-proliferating number of national security announcements grew and grew; journalists began making bets on how many would be wheeled in ahead of every media conference. The urbane Malcolm Turnbull was better than that, of course — the man who as a minister dismissed claims from his colleagues George Brandis and Julie Bishop that Islamic State was an “existential threat”, the man who seemed too worldly, too self-aware, to rely on crass jingoism to bolster his flailing government.

Yesterday, though, Turnbull out-flagged Abbott, comprehensively. Instead of pole after pole of flags, neatly arrayed behind him, Turnbull announced that the government would be making it easier to call out the military for domestic terrorism incidents at what looked for all the world like a Call of Duty convention, with gas-masked soldiers, an assortment of rifles and other military paraphernalia, including an assault vessel — any terrorist incidents on our waterways, presumably, would be dealt with vigorously.

It was absurdly over the top, childishly so; Abbott’s flags looked subtle in comparison.

But shortly thereafter there was a leak from the government: Turnbull was to hand senior conservative Peter Dutton the prize of a homeland security portfolio, over the objections of Attorney-General George Brandis, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, Defence Minister Marise Payne and Justice Minister Michael Keenan.

And this morning, Turnbull confirmed it: Dutton would lead a department of home affairs, comprising immigration, border protection, the Australian Federal Police and the domestic intelligence organisation ASIO, as well smaller crime-related agencies like the Australian Crime Intelligence Commission and AUSTRAC.

There’s no specific reason for the restructuring: it hadn’t been recommended by the review of the intelligence community just completed by Michael L’Estrange and Stephen Merchant; for years, governments have insisted Australia’s counter-terrorism capacity was the world’s finest; a homeland security department, in fact, was a Labor idea for much of the 2000s, routinely dismissed as unnecessary by the Coalition both in government under John Howard and by Turnbull himself when he led the Coalition in opposition. In announcing the body, Turnbull repeatedly cited the UK Home Office as a mode, despite the failure of that structure to prevent multiple serious terrorist attacks in the UK.

[EXCLUSIVE: leaked cabinet papers detail plan to make Dutton a super-duper minister with lasers]

The primary reasons are twofold. Turnbull is eager to keep the focus on national security — from his war on maths, banging the drum on cybersecurity and the ADF announcement — under the impression it will bolster his political stocks, both internally and with the electorate. Tony Abbott believed the same, ratcheting hysteria over terrorism to ever higher levels and even accusing the opposition of “rolling out a red carpet for terrorists”. Abbott turned out to be wrong; Turnbull so far has turned out to be wrong, as well, but who knows into the future?

The other, more important reason is that Turnbull’s position is desperately weak and he is in no position to deny the most powerful conservative in his cabinet what he wants: a mega-portfolio to rival defence for money, hardware, intelligence and powers and profile.

Dutton’s win is deeply humiliating for Attorney-General George Brandis, who has lost two of the most important security agencies. He’s been given a fig leaf for his humiliation — the shift of the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, the Ombudsman and the Office of the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor. Brandis, who has been a serial bungler as Attorney-General, had already lost oversight of counter-terrorism to Justice Minister Michael Keenan, who’ll be moving to the new portfolio under Dutton. But this is as comprehensive a gutting as possible without sacking him.

This is a crippled Prime Minister, desperately clinging to national security as a prop for his authority, unable to resist the demands of the man who is seen as a likely successor to him, who will now be given an even higher profile role in which to burnish his reputation with the electorate and, more importantly, his own party.


Jul 11, 2017


The government has manoeuvred itself into a problematic position on national security, propelled by ego and the weakness of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s position.

From London, the prime minister has again left the door open to a major shake-up of institutional arrangements for Australia’s security agencies, referring positively to the British “integrated Home Office … in which they have all of their domestic security agencies — MI5, police and border protection, immigration — is all part of that.”

“We’re very always interested in learning about the British experience,” Turnbull said.

The British experience is terrorist attack after attack after attack, with police officers saying the slashing of thousands of police numbers by then-home secretary Theresa May directly affected their ability to protect Britons. Every single perpetrator of the UK attacks has been known to British security agencies or police. What exactly you’d learn from the British experience other than “don’t do that” is a mystery for the ages.

Nonetheless, the merger of anything vaguely security-related into a mega-portfolio with the name “home” shoehorned into the title is the unkillable zombie of reshuffle ideas in Canberra. Not even the serial, and spectacular, incompetence of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection under Peter Dutton and Secretary Mike Pezzullo has been enough to fell the idea; putting the people who oversaw the billion-dollar offshore processing tender debacles, the deaths, rapes and assaults of detainees, the detention of Australian citizens, the failure to properly monitor visa compliance, lack of proper checks on citizenship applications, farces like Operation Fortitude, the inability to protect their IT systems and inability to sort out their own accommodation, in charge of protecting Australia is profoundly worrying.

There is a deeply embedded culture of non-accountability and basic incompetence in the Immigration portfolio that should be a huge red flashing light against incorporation of national security functions.

Nonetheless, Peter Dutton, the most prominent right-winger in the government, wants to expand his power; already he exercises a veto over budget measures, to the chagrin of Treasurer Scott Morrison, but he wants to be homeland/office security tsar as well. And because Turnbull is in such a weak position, what Dutton wants, Dutton may well get. It’s national security policy by ego and political weakness.

That’s the first area in which Turnbull’s weakness may well dictate his approach to national security. In another area, it has already happened. Since becoming prime minister, Turnbull has appointed three hard-right figures to chair the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Intelligence and Security: the unlamented political failure Andrew Nikolic, then Michael Sukkar and, after his promotion, Andrew Hastie.

Hastie is described in some media reports as a “rising star” but his performance as chair of what should be parliament’s most important committee is less than stellar: the committee appears nearly moribund. It currently has just three current inquiries, two of which date from 2016, and for which submissions closed nine months ago; one of those, in any event, is a pro forma inquiry into the budgets of intelligence agencies. The contrast with the committee under Dan Tehan’s chairmanship, in the Abbott years, is remarkable.

The problem with appointing any “rising star” to chair the committee is that they place their ambitions ahead of making the committee what it should be — a rigorous and non-partisan mechanism for scrutinising security agencies, to the discomfort of the latter, ideally. Hastie is a newcomer to parliament as well, having been elected less than two years ago, meaning he lacks the experience and knowledge to stand up for the committee within his party and within government.

Turnbull’s latest security fixation, his proposal to make the internet radically less safe by breaking encryption, would be an ideal subject for a JCIS inquiry — although it would become a forum for cybersecurity experts to explain, in pointed detail, how terrorists, organised crime, enemy states and malicious online actors would benefit from it. And deputy chair Anthony Byrne’s proposal for an investigation of foreign government influence of political parties has been brushed aside.

The government would insist, naturally, that all of this is subject to the conclusions of the current review of the intelligence community by Michael L’Estrange and Stephen Merchant — including “the effectiveness of current oversight and evaluation arrangements”. Australia badly lags both the UK and the United States in parliamentary oversight of our security agencies, which have grown massively in terms of both power and resourcing over the course of the failed War on Terror without effective, independent parliamentary oversight.

Theoretically, moving security and intelligence functions into a homeland security-style body would increase parliamentary accountability given it would function more like a normal department for the purposes of parliamentary committee hearings. But does anyone seriously think a government that devised the furphy of “on-water matters” would allow that?

Middle East

Jul 7, 2017


When the camera panned across the heads of state, the phalanx of potentates and dictators of Muslim nations, to whom Donald Trump paid homage when addressing the Saudi Arabian capital Riyadh in May, there was a face familiar to Australians: that of the President of Indonesia, Joko Widodo. And he was looking, it must be said, more than slightly uncomfortable — and the reasons behind that should be very, very concerning to every Australian.

The first part of Trump’s speech was well put together, as far its motherhood statements went, and was a coded warning to his Sunni Muslim audience against the funding of radicalism and fundamentalists in the Arab world.

But then it all went tits up when he turned to one nation specifically — Iran — as the source of “evil”, of promoting terrorism then, erroneously conflating Iran with the group that calls itself the Islamic State.

For historical reasons under the realpolitik umbrella — including regional security (read: Israel) and oil dependency in the days of OPEC supremacy and energy price-setting — Saudi Arabia was the least worst of the regions larger despots. Although history has shown us that few in the West, at that time, really understood the situation or the inevitable implications that became apparent a few years later with the Iranian revolution: fundamentalism swept the Middle East’s more modern, progressive and vibrant nation — certainly compared to the sexist neanderthals of the al-Saud family and their kleptocratic, authoritarian allies in the Sunni world. Trump still seems to trapped in 1979 and made a huge error in overtly taking sides in a centuries-long, inter-religious power struggle anyone with a quarter of a brain would not touch with several barge poles. Yet there he was, bathing in the glow of lavish attention from a room full of many of the world’s most most appalling people.

Two weeks later, the Saudis and their brothers in arms in Doha, Bahrain and Egypt suddenly put the screws on Shia Qatar, comprehensively isolating the country. It was a warning and still unresolved, but we might quite possibly have seen the prelude scene-setter for a return to a wider version of the Iran/Iraq war Sunni/Shia conflict. 

Now, the sequel is coming, produced and directed by the al-Saud family and their cronies.

The same week as Qatar was isolated, the so-called Islamic State bombed two Tehran landmarks, only weeks after Iranian moderate Hossein Rouhani was re-elected comprehensively as President (elections are like kryptonite to the al-Sauds and most of their client states and mates), effectively making a liar of Donald Trump for accusing Iran of funding IS.

[The next terror attack could be on your Thailand or Bali holiday]

Saudi Arabia — and here is where we circle back to embattled Jokowi — has spent the past five years pouring untold billions into south-east and south Asia’s Muslim nations: Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia — as well as the India, the world’s second biggest Muslim country after Indonesia. Such funds will inevitably have wended their way to the southern Philippine province of Mindanao, whose second city Marawi is now under siege by an IS-linked terror group.

Saudi Arabia’s leader King Salman — the 114th progeny of the nation’s prodigious founder on the throne — has significantly amped up his efforts, visiting Malaysia in February (the first by a Saudi leader for a decade). There, Salman was received by Malaysia leader Najib Razak, who is mired in a $1 billion 1MDB state bribery scandal.

Najib has become far more accommodating of fundamentalists, and he had supported a sharia law bill before it was downgraded to a private member’s bill — but nonetheless is still on the roster to go to Parliament in coming months. He has managed the impossible: to bring former PM Mahathir Mohamad and his one-time deputy and protege Anwar Abrahim, whom he tossed in jail on trumped-up sodomy charges, back together to stand against Najib, Mahatir’s second protege.

Then, in March, Salman went on “holiday” to Bali with 1500 of his nearest and dearest, popped into Jakarta to a rapturous reception fit for an oil king, and dropped a few billion in investments. Of course there are economic reasons behind the Saudi’s Asian shopping spree: they are diversifying investments, shoring up oil clients (especially China). But along with infrastructure and company investments come investments in the famous Muslim pilgrimages to the holy Muslim cities of Mecca and Medina — the Hajj — and most potently investing in schools mosques and hard-line clerics.

The country recently announced it would build 500 mosques in Bangladesh — the world’s third-largest Muslim nation. Bangladesh kept out fundamentalists due to a long-standing agreement with India. But recently the country’s autocratic leader Sheikh Hasina Wazed, also at Trump’s speech, struck a deal with India, looking after its remote north-east corner neighbouring Bangladesh in exchange for freedom to “deal” with the Saudis. Many see Bangladesh as a potential hotbed of recruitment in an impoverished country with 180 million people.

[Rundle: New Romantic snuff films and the nihilism of modern terrorists]

Right now, all we are getting from the Turnbull government is unwavering support for one of its key allies in the mission of Middle East adventurism, joined so enthusiastically by the US deputy sheriff J.W. Howard. No-action Turnbull — or, at the very least, his own Foreign Minister Julie Bishop — is signing up as a paid supporter of the country that effectively funded al-Qaeda and IS. Welcome to the War on Terror.

When asked specifically by Crikey about Australia’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, the increasingly non-transparent, taxpayer-funded Department of Foreign Affairs had this to say, via a spokesperson:

“Australia has a friendly bilateral relationship with Saudi Arabia, underscored by strong trade and education links. Two-way trade with Saudi Arabia was $3 billion in 2015-16 and there are approximately 8,000 Saudi students studying in Australia. Minister Ciobo recently concluded a successful visit to Saudi Arabia, accompanied by a business delegation.”

The key concern I raised about Saudi-funded mosques in south-east Asia was quite simply ignored.

So, for now, lets help the Saudi economy so it can fund even more radical mullahs in Java and spread its own version of soft power across the region (China has no monopoly on that, despite what the ABC and The Age think), which will, quite possibly  accelerate — and this is not a drill — regime change in our “most important relationship”.

But imagine the confected outrage when the first Australian becomes a victim of Saudi-funded radicals kidnapping or bombing south-east Asia — and it cannot be too far away. Imagine the rhetoric about “hunting down terrorists to the ends of the Earth” or some such that will not name check good King Salman and his family. Be alarmed, men and women of Australian, because your government ain’t alert.

What Trump did not say, but the US does know, was that it is Saudi money, and its fundamental Wahhabist ideology, that is behind IS — and its ironically bitter rival al-Qaeda. And that it’s Saudi money that is funding the other side in the fighting in Yemen, the latest proxy war for supremacy in the Middle East between the Sunni and Shia Muslim radicals, between, respectively Saudi Arabia and Iran, which at least has democratic elections in May, where a reformer prevailed in a landslide over a radical.

Tips and rumours

Jun 29, 2017


From the Crikey grapevine, the latest tips and rumours …

WTF is with the ACTU? In just over a month’s time, the inaugural Walkley award for reporting on industrial relations will be named, with reporters from Fairfax and The Australian vying for the title. According to the Walkley Foundation, the Helen O’Flynn and Alan Knight Award for Best Industrial Reporting recognises “outstanding journalism that captures the importance and the complexities of a robust industrial relations ecosystem for Australian workers and businesses”. It’s even got some big-name sponsors, including the University of Technology Sydney and the Australian Council of Trade Unions. When the finalists were announced, a tipster tells us the ACTU found itself in an awkward position: one of the finalists is The Age investigation into how workers covered by the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA) were underpaid through deals negotiated by the union. The SDA is the largest private sector union — and one of the ACTU’s biggest affiliated unions — so we would love to have seen the reaction when the finalists, picked by an independent panel of judges with experience in industrial relations reporting, were announced.

Crikey hears from a tipster that a senior figure at the ACTU has gone so far as to contact a member of the Walkley advisory board about the finalists. Although the panel of judges chooses the finalists and recommends the winner, the Walkley advisory board makes the final decision. Our tipster says the ACTU was told to “back off”, but the approach by a financial sponsor was seen as alarming. The Walkley Foundation told us it hadn’t heard of such an approach, and directed us to its sponsorship policy, which states: “Sponsorship of The Walkley Foundation or of any, project, program or event will not entitle any sponsor to influence any decision of The Walkley Foundation.” The ACTU has not returned our calls.

Return of the leather jacket. Yesterday marked the return of one of the nostalgic faves of Australian politics watchers: Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s leather jacket. While in the past the jacket has been a sign that Turnbull was ready to get eloquent on Q&A, these days it is more of a panic beacon when things aren’t going so well.

So when was the last time we saw the leather jacket? It’s been a while, and it’s a shame the PM doesn’t get more wear out of it. As far as we can tell, the last time it made an appearance was around a year ago — the dying weeks of last week’s election campaign. So, as we said, it’s a panic beacon.

Ruddmentum. Speaking of Turnbull’s troubles with his backbench, we are sure he is praying for a distraction from the infighting besieging the Liberals. Luckily for Turnbull, we have got word that it is coming — but he will have to wait until October for a real shitstorm to hit Labor, giving Turnbull a break from the headlines. Yesterday we reported that he had heard Pan Macmillan would be publishing an autobiography by former prime minister Kevin Rudd, but the company is still ducking our calls on confirming what’s going on. We do hear the book will be published in the last few months before Christmas, with all the promotional speaking events attached. So many opportunities for Ruddy to talk about how Julia Gillard was meant to be a good person and his views on Wayne Swan. Everyone will be in such a tizz they will barely remember Abbott and Turnbull. Well, Turnbull hopes so at least.

What terror? The Daily Telegraph is back on the Clover Moore hunt, this time because of a City of Sydney decision to install concrete bollards in public places as part of a bid to prevent terror attacks that could involve driving vehicles in pedestrian areas. According to the Tele:

“THE NSW Police Minister has lashed Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore for ­deciding to fill Martin Place with large concrete barriers to prevent a terrorist threat which authorities say does not even exist, according to latest intelligence.”

Compare the reaction to Melbourne, where concrete bollards have also been erected in the past few weeks — last week the Herald Sun reported that the bollards had been installed by the City of Melbourne, including a tweet from lord mayor Robert Doyle (a long-time Liberal) that they were necessary and would eventually be updated with a more aesthetically pleasing version. There were also quotes from Labor Police Minister Lisa Neville. Somehow there was no political outrage — not even a line on whether the government really was tough enough on crime (a favourite line from the Herald Sun). Sounds like anti-terror bollards are only a good idea when the person making the decision is a conservative.

*Heard anything that might interest Crikey? Send your tips to or use our guaranteed anonymous form


Jun 28, 2017


Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s exquisite pivot to the centre continues to delight and amaze (the media; the public stopped caring long ago), as he seeks to realign the Coalition with mainstream thought on what he has presumably come to believe are the real issues: tax, education, health and energy prices. In short, the levers of inequality in modern society.

At the same time, Turnbull throws bones to the right of his party, just enough he hopes to keep them from starting the mutiny that would consume them all.

One such harmless trifle, one assumes the Prime Minister has satisfied himself, is a new bunch of changes to Australia’s citizenship laws, designed to harden the path to citizenship. This, he obviously thinks, is easy red meat for the Murdoch press and its readers. Sure, nobody believes him sincere when he says we must all be Australian “patriots” now; the word must feel like cement in his educated mouth. However, it’s a small price, I guess he figures, for some clear air in the party room while he gets on with turning the Liberal ship back to the sensible middle course.

In fact, this offering by Turnbull is no trifle at all, whatever he chooses to believe; it takes us substantial steps further down a monumentally retrograde path initiated by his predecessor.

[From Commies to Nazis: why nations strip citizenship]

It was two years ago that Tony Abbott introduced big changes to the Citizenship Act designed to make it vastly easier to take away the citizenship of people convicted or accused of involvement in terrorism. It all sailed through Parliament with Labor Party support. It was, in my view, devastatingly bad law, but there was one element in particular that the government slipped into the amendments and which I said at the time was going to be a sleeper.

The word is “allegiance”. Before 2015, it had no part in Australian law. Then section 33AA was inserted in the act. It says that dual citizens will automatically renounce their Australian citizenship if they act “inconsistently with their allegiance to Australia” by engaging in certain types of bad conduct.

Now the government has announced, among its planned further changes to the citizenship laws, that it “has decided to strengthen the Australian Values Statement by adding a reference to the fundamental requirement of allegiance to Australia”, and that it will also amend the Pledge of Commitment taken by new citizens to include a pledge of allegiance to Australia.

Australian citizenship was not a thing before 1949. Before then, everyone in Australia was a British subject. In 1949, they all became Australian citizens when we achieved full sovereign independence from the United Kingdom.

Everyone born into citizenship, or who acquired it, between 1949 and 2015 was not asked or required to pledge allegiance to Australia. Allegiance was not an element of citizenship, in law or custom.

My standard disclaimer applies: this is not a fiddly point of legal nicety. Allegiance is a concept with real content; it changes relationships fundamentally.

Allegiance was a mediaeval construct. It meant personal loyalty to the monarch, of a profound kind. It was an incident of the feudal system, in which everyone owed an indivisible and inescapable personal duty of obedience and fealty to the king. Citizenship didn’t exist back then. Everyone born in England was a subject of the king, entitled to his protection and obliged by a permanent allegiance to him.

That, in the law, remained the case for Australians until 1949. Then, as well as becoming Australian citizens, we lost our status as British subjects of the Queen and became Australian subjects of the Queen (she is, separately, the Queen of England and the Queen of Australia). Our personal allegiance to her continued and remains today.

Citizenship is a modern concept, developed to support the creation of the nation state. It does not, inherently, incorporate allegiance. The accident of birth, in mediaeval political philosophy and law, gave rise to allegiance because the person of the monarch was the state and the whole thing depended on everyone buying that. It doesn’t automatically follow today that being born in a particular country and thereby gaining its citizenship imports a reciprocal duty of allegiance.

[Things that happened in Parliament this week other than Gonski]

What’s the big deal? Don’t we obviously have to owe something like allegiance to our country? Yes, we do have to owe something, but it isn’t allegiance. Our essential duties can and should be framed in the negative: not to commit treason or espionage, not to seek to overthrow the government, not to fight for an enemy when we are at war, not to break the law. These are the obvious responsibilities of citizenship, and they fall well short of a requirement of allegiance.

The question is, what is citizenship? It is a recognition of legal status, carrying the right to live here and access all the freedoms of a citizen. It aligns with the implicit assumption of modern post-feudal society that we are all free individuals, entitled to do as we wish, constrained only by laws properly made for valid purposes within the bounds of our constitution. All restrictions on our freedom of thought, expression and action must be justified by a higher purpose, and the courts stand as our protection against over-reach by the legislature or executive.

Allegiance is the exact opposite. It assumes the absence of personal freedom, because its foundation is personal loyalty to another. Historically, to the crown. By the changes to the Citizenship Act, that personal loyalty is to be owed instead to Australia, the nation.

This could not be more profound. The 2015 amendments, and the planned 2017 additions, change our relationship to our country. All of us. We are to be no longer free. We owe allegiance to Australia; the starting point is duty, loyalty, fealty. Our freedoms, such as they are (remember we have no human rights in Australian law), will exist only by exception to our primary allegiance.

When new Australian citizens pledge, instead of loyalty, allegiance to Australia, they will be signing away the essence of what it is to be a free person, and accepting instead a role of subservience which the Enlightenment was supposed to have killed off. By necessary implication, those of us who are citizens already will share that same status.

Of all the seriously screwed up things that have been done to us in the name of national security, this is the very worst. We really need to wake up.