In March of this year police union leaders warned that the Australian federal police was losing “its independence and integrity and must be separated from Peter Dutton’s home affairs portfolio”.
According to the Australian Federal Police Association’s president, Angela Smith, there was a widely shared feeling across the AFP that the body had “lost autonomy”. “It’s an embarrassing situation,” Smith was quoted as saying. “We look the least independent police force in Australia.”
In the wake of the AFP’s raids on a leading News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst on Tuesday and the ABC on Wednesday, the position of the AFP has gone from embarrassing to deeply disturbing.
Even Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, the cheerleaders of the re-election of the Morrison government, seemed in no doubt as to the political purpose of the raid on Smethurst two weeks after a federal election. It was, News Corp said in an official statement, a “dangerous act of intimidation”.
Implicit in News Corp’s statement is that this is not an act of policing, but an act of politics.
What are we to make of two raids in two days as anything other than a symptom of deeply disturbing developments at the heart of our democracy?
Smethurst’s story was over a year old. It was about a plan to allow the National Signals Directorate, for the first time, to directly spy on Australians by “hacking into critical infrastructure”.
In a statement the AFP attempted to justify its raid on Smethurst by arguing the disclosure of “these specific documents undermines Australia’s national security”. But how can our knowing about a possible major change to our freedoms as citizens in any way threaten our national security? The AFP doesn’t tell us because there is no argument they can make, only an unfounded assertion that they can repeat, mantra-like.
If mass surveillance is brought in, how will we know about it? Is national security best served by the inevitable abuses of such a scheme about which we are never told and which would go unpunished? Would national security be enhanced or weakened were Mr Dutton to use such powers for political advantage or to enable political persecution without our knowledge?
And if we cannot know the truth of such fundamental matters, what security as a democracy do we have?
If one raid was “a dangerous act of intimidation” what are we to make of two raids in two days – the second of our national broadcaster – as anything other than a symptom of deeply disturbing developments at the heart of our democracy?
The story in this case was not one but two years old, a major exposé of how Australian special forces soldiers had killed unarmed men and children in Afghanistan. On what possible grounds is it a good thing to not know atrocities have been committed by our nation?
How is our national security threatened by revealing crimes done in our name? Surely we are best served as a nation by a military that we can be confident acts within certain boundaries that are deemed acceptable in war and does not go beyond them?
In all this we cannot pretend to be surprised. The repression and culture of lying, deceit and evasion of public accountability that cloaked previous Liberal governments’ refugees policy is now coming home to haunt us all.
It was after all under Scott Morrison’s stewardship of the immigration portfolio that the notorious section 42 of the Border Force Act was enacted, allowing for the jailing for two years of any doctors or social workers who bore public witness to children beaten or sexually abused, to acts of rape or cruelty. The new crime was not crime, but the reporting of state-sanctioned violence on the innocent.
National security was invoked then to justify the enforcement of a national silence over what were no more or less than crimes.
And so it is again.
The consecutive timing of these acts represents not just a moment when a government crackdown on journalism began. The method may be to intimidate any whistleblower or journalist who would wish to reveal crimes committed by our government or in the name of our government.
But the aim is to suppress the truth.
And without the light of truth shining on what happens in public life we head into the darkness of oppression.
The Morrison government will soon seek to assume the high moral ground by diverting public discussion to the need for religious freedoms. But until I see Hillsong being raided by Dutton’s stooges, with the feds occupying their offices, accessing all their phone and computer records, I am not buying any of it.
This is a new government uninhibited, and it would now seem, unhinged. It does seem extraordinary that two cases, each of long standing, would immediately after an election, suddenly be activated to this level of public attention without ministerial knowledge. And yet, we have Dutton’s word it is not so. And were a news organisation subsequently to report, based on government documents, that the truth is otherwise, who knows who might come knocking on their door in the interest of national security?
Under his home affairs super ministry, Peter Dutton has more overt and covert power than any minister in our history. And this week officers of his ministry have been willing to use their powers recklessly against those practices that make us a democracy.
After the raids of the last two days, Australians would be justified in feeling fearful about their future. The politicians who might speak for us have long ceased to do so. And the journalists who still can, now risk everything if they publish political secrets that may be in our interests to know but are in our political masters’ to keep hidden.
Tweeting live from the ABC boardroom in which he was sitting with the AFP officers as they were going through the ABC’s files, John Lyons, the ABC’s executive news editor, wrote: “I have to say, sitting here watching police using a media organisation’s computers to track everything to do with a legitimate story I can’t help but think: this is a bad, sad and dangerous day for a country where we have for so long valued – and taken for granted – a free press.”
The Morrison government could not have signalled its turn to the new authoritarianism that is poisoning so many other democracies with any clearer message. Get ready for the future, because it may already be here.