Contrary to popular belief, modern democracy does not welcome an active, engaged citizenry especially between election campaigns because its interventions would hinder the operations of the state. The preferred condition is one of citizen passivity in which the authorities go about their business of securing the national interest as defined by themselves through an ever-increasing array of “national security” arrangements contrary to any robust definition of accountable and responsible democracy. In Australia this is justified by fiat and pseudo theory, and practised in plain sight.
Eighty years after its first appearance, we are back in 1938 and the injunction to be obedient when discussing Australian defence and foreign policy and the affairs of the intelligence agencies. Those in charge now, as then, require that the citizenry of Australia accept their essential irrelevance: officialdom advises that voicing concerns only aids adversaries and enemies; and as for asking embarrassing questions – this is beyond mere impertinence, and more akin to deliberate sabotage of the national interest. Being in possession of, and acting upon, information contrary to that officially proclaimed is to be guilty of betrayal.
The country was so advised in 1938 by the Minister for Defence, Harold Thorby, and, sadly, has seldom strayed from the recommended path despite the revolutions in the availability of information which have taken place since. Then, he addressed the public in terms that were condescending but which nevertheless required its fealty, by discernment or good will if possible, or by threats failing that. Indeed, at other times in history Thorby’s directive could have been the exemplary content in a Papal Encyclical: he appealed to “all loyal Australians to refrain from entering into controversy through the press, over the air, or from public platforms, on the present delicate international situation.” He continued:
“It would be fully appreciated by the public that it was unpracticable for the public to be fully informed on these delicate international discussions, which were generally based upon secret information which could not be made available to the public, but which were available for the guidance of Governments.
“We, the Government, have vital information which we cannot disclose. It is upon this knowledge that we make our decisions. You, who are merely private citizens, have not access to this information. Any criticism you make of our policy, any controversy about it in which you may indulge, will therefore be uninformed and valueless. If, in spite of your ignorance, you persist in questioning our policy, we can only conclude that you are disloyal.”
In recent public speeches and an interview with journalist Karen Middleton for The Saturday Paper, the Secretary of the Department of Home Affairs, Michael Pezzullo, in advancing claims that expanded intelligence powers – some involving the increased erosions of privacy – are required, has indicated only that Thorby’s sentiments are alive and thriving. He even ventures the view that, traditionally, the public found its exclusion from matters defined as secret to be not only acceptable but embodied in an unwritten “social contract”.
He concedes, however, that as a result of the various leaks and debacles concerning Western intelligence agencies in general, and Australian agencies in particular, the public consider their trust to have been abused and it needs, therefore, to be redrawn.
The problem is that this ostensibly laudable objective is finessed dishonestly. Thus the need for the public to trust the intelligence agencies to operate under the cover of already existing secrecy is justified through a conflation of confession (yes, the agencies have overreached themselves, or misused what Pezzullo refers to as their “licence” to operate on occasions); defensive prerogative (the language describing this overreaching/misuse is overblown) and threat (huge internet companies and foreign governments are interfering with the democratic way of life). Because they are true in an indefinite way, they are also evasions aided by euphemisms and further misuse – especially of the historical record.
To maintain there was an unwritten social contract in the first place is purely and simply a myth more accurately described as bullshit: if Pezzullo knew anything at all about social contract theory and practice he would have to acknowledge the obvious fact that the citizenry were in no position to be a party to such a transaction. Rather, their role, where intelligence matters were concerned, was supportive rather than active, and even then only as personae muta in the drama of governance.
Evasion then permeates the justification for expanded powers based on the necessity for Australian democracy to maintain “our shared sense of what is true”. The proposition is that this truth is being undermined in the digital age by “algorithms, foreign interference, market research, disinformation and so much more”.
The conclusion is that truth is “mediated,” “undermined” and “reframed under a veneer of freedom but without the apparatus of representation and the mediation of power which allows the latter to be held to account”. Deciphering this, it seems that Australia’s intelligence agencies need more powers and an even more surveillance-permissive environment than those already in their possession to safeguard it.
Overreaching in pursuit of this, we are reassured, will be forestalled on the assumption that our democratically elected representatives, “who are in touch with community attitudes”, would not grant such powers if there was “vehement opposition” to them.
This is an interesting fable in which the Secretary of Home Affairs relies on a sufficient quantum of the public finding it both uplifting and consoling. No doubt they will sleep soundly in their beds – but only for so long as they avoid all knowledge of the histories of parliamentary/congressional oversight of intelligence agencies and their political imagination remains stilled in order to maintain the sublime state of Original Ignorance. For those paying attention, on the other hand, it’s a difficult disposition, and for three reasons.
First, absent are the real reasons that the attentive public withdrew its trust. “Damaging leaks” and US Government “whistleblowers” are held to be responsible but this is radically incomplete, even deceitful, because it was and remains the nature and extent of the revelations that provided the sufficient causes for the lost trust. Pezzullo does not bother to call them by their proper names which in most cases constitute high crimes and misdemeanors – offenses for which the highest officials in the US can be impeached and removed from office. Instead of acknowledging this, he is more concerned to describe the actions of a leading whistleblower, Edward Snowden, who made them public, as treasonous – a crime punishable by death under the US Code (as it was in Australia until 1973). Is this not a curious in a project attempting to reclaim the public’s trust?
Second, the schedule of objections to expanded powers must include at least the submissions by the Law Council of Australia to the Parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on Intelligence and Security, and the most recent annual report on Australia’s ten intelligence agencies by the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, both of which provide grounds for a rigorous and undiscriminating scepticism concerning compliance with their already existing “licences”.
And finally, the extraordinary claim that expanded powers will serve the objective of preserving Australia’s “shared sense of what is true” is the stuff of fantasy, even allowing for the looseness provided by the appeal to “shared sense”. Surely somebody, somewhere in the bowels of the ten agencies has been educated to a minimum standard to know and understand that reality and thereby truth is socially, politically and in so many other ways constructed, and has always been so constructed long before the digital age.
The only way that the national “shared sense of what is true” can be maintained (always providing you can discern it) is with the establishment of Thorby’s ideal public – which is to say a population of accepting, childlike, passive citizens.
From 1982 to 1988, Michael McKinley taught diplomacy, international relations and strategy in the Department of Politics at UWA. From 1988 to 2014 he taught diplomacy, international relations and strategy at the ANU. He is currently a member of the Emeritus Faculty at the ANU.