MUNGO MacCALLUM. Our freedom is at risk.

Our Prime Minister assures us that the AFP raids of last week had absolutely nothing to do with him. Well, of course not – he and his government are never responsible for anything.  

As the economy staggers towards recession – tanking growth, moribund wages, rising unemployment and massive under employment, consumer spending falling away, national debt doubled – it has nothing to do with Scott Morrison and his colleagues. They have been in office for six years, but for most of that time all the failures were the fault of the previous Labor opposition, until they became the chilling effects of international headwinds.

The governor of the reserve Bank, Philip Lowe, is becoming desperate – he is running out of interest rates to cut, and in any case that will never be enough to fix things. He is virtually pleading for the government to do something, anything – more stimulus, a serious infrastructure program as opposed to the ad hoc pork barrelling that preceded the last election.

But hey, it’s nothing to do with ScoMo. He has his own agenda. He will stay the course for a few more years until the big tax cuts for the wealthy kick in, and then the rest of us may soak up a few drops when and if they trickle down.

Morrison has always been blameless – remember when the chaotic brawl in August last year delivered him his leadership. He was never involved – it was divine intervention. He merged fully formed and immaculate, like Venus rising from the foam, an innocent bystander.

And so it must have been when the police arrived to execute their warrants to troll through the works of Newscorp’s Annika Smethurst and the staff at the ABC. The plod were just doing their job – no one is above the law. Nothing to see here, so move on – and do it quickly before you too get into trouble.

But as the AFP Assistant Commissioner Neil Gaughan pointed out, the law is made by the government. The laws that enabled him to ring on the raids were pushed through the parliament by Morrison and the previous governments of which he was an integral part, and they were enacted in the full knowledge – and the overt encouragement – of the way they would be used..

Gaughan says, in effect, that he is just obeying orders; Morrison replies that their implementation has nothing to do with the legislators that promulgated them. This is utterly implausible deniability – unadulterated bullshit.

Morrison says he is completely comfortable with the fact that the laws are being enforced – and I’ll bet he is. After all, they are his laws. By definition, all governments are comfortable with their own laws, and that applies to the governments of all regimes. There is nothing illegal, at least domestically, about the repressions in Russia, China, Turkey or North Korea – or, for that matter, Nazi Germany.

Australia is not yet at that stage – the boots on the staircase, the midnight breaking down of the door. But this does not mean, as Morrison tries to claim, that they are entirely compatible with the democratic process.

The backlash against the raids from numerous human rights defenders both locally and overseas shows how fragile freedom of the press can be when governments drift into authoritarianism to maintain their own self interest above that of the public.

Obviously press freedom. or even the wider issue of free speech, cannot be absolute. We accept restrictions on defamation, bans on incitements to violence and terrorism, and suppression orders in the courts to ensure fair trials. The extent of such laws may be argued, but their existence is not seriously challenged.

And, as we are constantly reminded, there has to be a balance between the rights of the press and national security. But the Catch 22 in that balance is that is the government which determines just what constitutes national security.

In last week’s cases Smethurst reported that the Home Affairs minister Peter Dutton and his departmental doppelganger Mike Pezzullo wanted to use the secret spooks of the Australian Signals Directorate to engage in domestic surveillance. The ABC was investigating potential war crimes by Australian troops in Afghanistan.

In a functioning democracy such revelations would surely enhance national security rather than harm it. But the current government regards security as little more than a synonym for secrecy and it follows that as much should be kept secret as possible. When in doubt, classify it, and make a law to make disclosure – which includes even mentioning the existence of the classification – illegal.

This is not just overreach – it is the road to totalitarianism. In my career as a journalist I have seen many classified documents, some marked top secret, and very few of them merited such status. Most had nothing to do with security – they were about protecting the government and its bureaucrats. Stamping them classified was lazy, incompetent, or deliberately deceptive.

But there was, and still is, no appeal against this process. If journalists, whistle blowers, or other defenders of transparency and honesty in public life are hauled before the courts, their trials are often conducted in secret as well – in the name of national security. It is the default option, the political philosopher’s stone – the simple words ”national security” override all other considerations.

It may be different if we had a bill of rights or the equivalent, as all other democracies – not some, but all – have embraced. But not in Australia – a bill of rights would allow unelected judges to rule on the dictates of politicians. It could undermine national security.

Gaughan denied that the raids were an attempt to intimidate, which is disingenuous to the extreme. Obviously people are intimidated when the cops spend hours riffling through their belongings in the hope of finding evidence that would have them charged and possibly jailed. That’s precisely what the laws are for: to remind dissenters that Big Brother is constantly watching.

And that is why our freedom – not just freedom of the press, but freedom more generally – is at risk. The media may be selective in its outrage about confronting the national security mantra, but this time it has stood up for itself – and for the rest of us.

A famous, if disputed, quote: “News is what someone does not want printed. All the rest is advertising.” Given that our current prime minister was brought up on advertising and seems far more at home with it than a truly free press, this is a worry – and, given the events of last week, a threat.


Mungo MacCallum is a veteran political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy.

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9 Responses to MUNGO MacCALLUM. Our freedom is at risk.

  1. Charles Lowe says:

    Mungo – keep going.

    Few others inspire a response such as this (even on FB!):

    “Charles Lowe is feeling curious.
    11 mins
    You know – even our ABC can obfusticate (perhaps particularly when its journalists’ buttons are being severely pressed).

    Have a look:

    So I’ve written:

    “Elise [Worthington – ABC Investigative Journalist] – thanks for this form.

    I have several questions.

    Firstly, if the AFP was seeking to find out sources, how can the ABC MD’s assurance that the ABC will protect its sources be believed?

    Secondly, what chance would the ABC have had to seek an injunction to stop the raid?

    Thirdly, just how accountable (and how would relevant precedents be set) concerning both the disclosure of ‘evidence’ and the terms of the warrants?

    Fourthly, just exactly how can a raid be legally mounted under “search warrants related to secrecy offences contained in the now-repealed parts of the Crimes Act 1914 and [which] affects both Commonwealth public servants and journalists.”

    Fifthly, why hasn’t the nature of these questions inspired a commentary (say on ‘7.30’) as to substantiating how the discretionary use of a legal mechanism by the AFP DOES amount to “send[ing] a clear message to media organisations, journalists and sources that they are at risk if they publish information the Government doesn’t want them to publish.”

    Sixthly, just what might be obtained by “discussions” between the ABC’s lawyers and those of the AFP – and why should the public believe they are just and efficacious?

    Elise – I suspect that the ABC may be deprecating the intellectual capacity of its audience (yet again when it comes to matters of legal process – the ABC never publishes ‘rationes decadendi’ for example).

    In which case give it to Damien Carrick of the Law Report. That might even inspire Waleed Ali – and he might even focus more upon it on “The Project’.

    I bear in mind that the Prime Minister said – in response to Leigh Sales’ question on 17-05-19 on ‘7.30’ – “I will.” when it comes to any question of Government policy or action.

    Thank you for your consideration – and, in anticipation – your reply.”

  2. Rosemary Lynch says:

    It appears that currently valid security legislation (from 1914 forward) infringe any human rights presumed by the Common Law, the UN Declaration of Human Rights, even the OPCAT so recently endorsed. The necessity of whistleblower and Press freedom security have been blown away by lackadaisical legislators, paranoid satsumas, an oligopolic Press, and a generally ignorant public. As Marx pointed out in his Fourth Thesis on Feuerbach, “the point, however is to change it.” Well, Australians all, in the new era of Star Chambers, exactly how are we to do that?

  3. Ben Morris says:

    Anyone who comments on this article is likely to have their names and electoral number taken!

  4. neil hauxwell says:

    Dutton’s right- no orders are given or needed now. When all the key players know that just shutting up the left/liberal/ green/ commie/ idiots who get in the road of stern protective policies and national harmony, it’s just a matter of keeping up appearances until a few more key players come on board. Oh, and keeping lists is important too, for when the time comes for consequences to be demonstrated. I know it’s very unscientific but I think that Mr Dutton and co are are becoming more sinister in their recent photos.

  5. Ken Dyer says:

    This is a very accurate summation. Given today’s reports about the blowbacks about the raids, the weasel words are coming out in volumes.
    After Scomo and Dutto and Pezzo have finished smacking each other on the wrists with wet lettuce and after Butters had a weasel conversation with Scomo, it was back to business as usual, destroying reputations of opposition MPs, and belittling attempts to hold them to account.
    We need a bill of rights, because under the present regime it ain’t going to get any better.

  6. Geoff Andrews says:

    Thank you.

  7. Peter Bennett says:

    Not yet at that stage, Mungo? Raids years after the initial publication of the offending articles, raids coming so soon after an election. And the hamfisted effort of Duttons Home Affairs Czar, Pezzullo, to muzzle a Senator who dared critical opinion. The bells have rung Mungo, and their message is clear. We are headed into very dark territory.

  8. James O'Neill says:

    Better late than never that our media, or at least some elements of it, finally recognise the huge danger posed to this country by it having, inter alia, the absence of an effective Bill of Rights, a genuinely diverse range of mainstream media, a supine adherence to the foreign policy of others, and a political system that is profoundly flawed. One has to seriously question whether the current professed alarm at the dangers we face is too little and too late.

    • Charles Lowe says:

      It’s just a tribute to who Australians turn out to be. Forelock-tugging, resentful xenophobic red-neck ….wits.

      Try telling it differently!

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