Fear and apathy have taken up residence in the collective political consciousness of Australia. Indeed, it may be that they have achieved that most desirable of states for governments seeking to remain in power, or oppositions sensing their imminent ascendency to it: a state of collective unconsciousness that consents to its own increasing subservience and essential irrelevance while believing that it is being kept safe.
In the immediate aftermath of the passage of the Assistance and Access Bill 2018, Bernard Keane, the Political Editor of Crikey, published on that website a justifiably excoriating and angry open letter to Federal Labor Party MPs. In his denunciation he outlined numerous instances in which the party has remained silent in the face of egregious measures and processes taken in the name of national security which result in the: passing of appallingly bad legislation, profound loss of privacy, and concealment of government malfeasance (including corruption).
Over time and taken together, they point to an additional turn towards undemocratic politics and the emergence of a police state in Australia wherein the dataization of human beings proceeds almost unmolested.
It is a radical conclusion; the only argument against it would be a qualifying one – namely to what extent, or level, it exists. Though this latest development – which, after receiving the Royal Assent, compels private corporations to provide interception capabilities that will not only make all communications data completely accessible to the government, but will also without public knowledge – appears as a nascent presence in current everyday politics, it is quite apparent from the historical record that the governmentality which requires it has existed latently in various forms for many decades.
From World War to Cold War to the War on Terror a cascades of exceptional and emergency measures have been rationalised by successive governments and accommodated to by a majority population, including the major political parties, so grown used to the erosion of their rights and freedoms that they have normalised the loss. Those refusing to do so now constitute a small minority which, notably, lacks effective representation in Parliament.
If doubt persists that this sorry state of affairs is real and present then ask just a few questions: How, and by what democratic deliberations and decisions did Australia become a British nuclear weapons test site? How, and by what democratic deliberations and decisions did Australia become a prime nuclear target when it agreed to host the US facilities at Pine Gap, Nurrungar, and North West Cape? How, and by what democratic deliberations and decisions did Australian governments commit Australian forces to the wars in Vietnam and Iraq?
And how, and by what democratic deliberations and decisions was it decided that there would be no inquiry into Australia’s role in a computer-directed campaign within the war in Vietnam, described by one of its senior officers as a “genocide program” and made notorious by its “assassination, torture, and systematic savagery,” which resulted in the deaths of between 20,000 and 60,000 Viet Cong and suspected communist sympathisers?
If all that seems too long ago, then where was the anger and the outrage just over four years (June 2014) ago when it was revealed by the telecommunications company, Vodafone, that government intelligence agencies are connected to its various networks so that they can instantaneously access the conversations and whereabouts of its customers of interest? In Australia’s case, in 2013, the company reports receiving, and presumably executed, over 685,000 requests for national metadata, and nearly 3,400 requests for national content.
It is time for an audit of the current situation. We are told by government and the intelligence agencies of the state that the threats are real and dangerous. On the basis of paying attention to national and global affairs it would be churlish and unreasonable to reject this assessment. There is a “clear and present danger” which must be confronted.
We are then told that additional powers are essential if the threat is to be defeated: here, though, a challenge must be mounted because a quadruple problem undermines the proposal.
The first is the intrusion of two invariable laws of intelligence and crime-fighting – the one holding that already existing information gathering and collecting is insufficient, and the other that new, extraordinary and discretionary powers up to, and including lethal force, are imperative if the nation is to be kept safe.
The second is that the record indicates that, so many failures in the past would not have occurred if already existing resources had been optimally used according to their design and function.
Thirdly, we are asked to accept that the measures already existing and requested must operate under the veil of increased secrecy. Safeguards yet to be specifically defined will be guaranteed by an “oversight” structure also not well defined, and / or necessarily competent. Moreover, if the published accounts of oversight effectiveness in the member countries of the Five Eyes arrangement are any indication, then little confidence can be attached to current assurances.
Furthermore the distinct and logical likelihood that innocent people will effectively be regulated by this legislation – because they will internalise the intrusions into their private life by moderating their otherwise innocent speech – is unmentioned, yet it is a step towards the controls found in a police state.
Finally, there is tendency to write panicked legislation. And this evidently is the case with the Assistance and Access Bill. To begin, it is the product of a government in which the major coalition party is experiencing such unprecedented turmoil that it would rather not face scrutiny in Parliament. The same government, moreover, is proving to be particularly concerned to suppress information it finds to be embarrassing through appeals to “national security” under the sanctions provided by previously little-used provisions in the Auditor General Act.
Unsurprisingly, then, the Bill reflects a disturbing preoccupation with surveilling the private electronic communications of the entire population in the name of safeguarding it from the relatively few. In summary form it:
- was presented with insufficient time for reflection and its ramifications to be fully understood;
- was riven with technological illiteracies, as was the parliamentary debate which preceded its passage;
- lacks a range of checks and balances and intrudes into the privacy of law-abiding citizens;
- passed while so many of those who voted for it acknowledged its failings.
The question is why?
The answer is a an ecology of excessive self-concern for transient political appeal and, most especially, fear. Multifaceted fear – of abandonment by the United States, of strangers we have not tried to understand, and of the uncertainty that is inextricably part of life – is now defeating Australia’s democratic spirit notwithstanding the fact that this is concealed by outburst of nationalistic bombast and shouting.
National noise drowns out the pitiful residue of a national democracy worthy of the name. Major political parties in Australia long ago concluded that the former is easier to please than restoring the latter. The Coalition parties have an obsession with national security which takes the form of modulating the threat spectrum – real and imagined – so as to justify its secrecy across an increasing range of government and its claim to be the only reliable defender of the nation.
The ALP’s obsession is to acquiesce in this nonsense by supporting Coalition governments so wholeheartedly that it cannot be accused of attempting product differentiation even where genuine and substantial differences exist. Essentially, it is an electoral appeal based on frequent hypocrisy and chronic cowardice.
No invader came ashore with its marines, or from the sky with its airborne brigades to effect this. No. Fear simply slid through the national weaknesses – apathy and the exhortations of consumer society, both of which are inimical to courage.
This fear is an occupying force, unobtrusive most of the time because there are distractions aplenty which are welcome for the simple reason that they provide respite from the unrelieved anxiety of everyday life in a precarious economy. Governments and Oppositions exploit this as opportunities present themselves. Indeed, their antics provide much of the former and are the authors of the latter.
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.