DAVID MACILWAIN. The Beechworth Principles – setting demands for Integrity in Government

As claims the Federal Government is honestly serving and representing the people look increasingly hollow, Independent MP Helen Haines has presented a historic scheme to hold them to account in “the Beechworth Principles”.

On Tuesday February 18th 2020, two hundred citizens of the INDI electorate gathered in the Old Court House in Beechworth to hear the declaration of the “Beechworth Principles”. These principles are intended to underlie the operation of a Federal “Integrity Commission”, as proposed in a Private Members Bill by the former Independent member for Indi, Cathy McGowan in December 2018. At that time the actions and intentions of the Coalition government displayed a worrying lack of integrity, honesty and transparency around the introduction of new laws to restrict foreign interference and encrypted messaging, purportedly necessary on national security grounds.

Following a series of events which I will outline in a moment, the need for such a body to oversee the operation of government and public institutions has become glaringly apparent, and particularly following the “Sports Rorts” affair. The launch of the “Principles” had been intended for April, but was brought forward as a matter of urgency in the light of this flagrant abuse of public funds and corruption of the democratic process. It is certainly arguable that the outcome of the last election would have been different were it not for the Coalition’s massive and covert pork-barrelling campaign.

Ironically and significantly, Indi was the seat that bucked not just the national trend but the historic one last May, with Independent Helen Haines elected to replace retiring Independent MP Cathy McGowan. The noble qualities and sense of fair play of Indi residents are of course not exceptional, yet there is a strange precedent to this latest show of local character in something that happened 167 years ago. Beechworth was where the power of the state – the English state – intersected with the rights and conditions of the gold miners, and the then New Court House saw a dispute over those rights in 1853 where the miners presented a petition demanding the basic conditions of democracy.

The diggers’ demands were simple – the government should be accountable to the people it presided over, should act solely in their interest, and be condemned when it failed to do so. The stage was set for the Eureka rebellion a year later, and enshrining of these basic principles of democratic government. We might ponder on how it is that so little has changed in a century and a half, except the overlords, that it is again necessary to define these principles and campaign to see them recognised and enacted.

As noted earlier, a number of events have defined the time between Cathy McGowan’s proposals and this relaunching of the push for an Integrity Commission with true independence from government, and real powers to prevent corrupt and unaccountable behaviour. One of the first obstacles encountered was the Coalition government’s own proposed “Ensuring Integrity” bill, announced with a fanfare at the same time as Bill Shorten was virtually blackmailed into passing Dutton’s repressive surveillance laws.

Contrary to its name but true to the spirit of spin and deception which is this government’s hallmark, the bill only ensured that corrupt activities would remain hidden, while the government’s powers to investigate political opponents including investigative journalists would increase.

Following an unexpected “terrorist attack” in Melbourne Bill Shorten consented to pass the Anti-Encryption bill, so long as amendments to its draconian laws demanded by Labor and the Greens were reviewed after the Christmas break. It was not until April that the matter was finally brought before parliament, but only to be countered again, despite ongoing protests from tech companies, civil rights groups and journalists. As explained here, the Opposition objections were muted because the widely predicted imminent election of a Labor government would have seen the bill repealed.

But as the Government found another excuse to maintain its demand for intrusive and anti-democratic surveillance powers, it also had plans to ensure Labor lost the election; the Sports Grants spreadsheets were doing the rounds that very same week. Make of that what you will, but it appears that the provisions of the anti-encryption bill are quite central to the Coalition’s vision of government power and the limitation of “democratic” control. So it seems hardly a coincidence that the sudden and unnecessary AFP raids on the national broadcaster and on NewsCorp journalist Annika Smethurst took place a mere three weeks after the Coalition’s election win.

It is necessary to point out – or be reminded – that in both raids the claims related to previous leaks of information that the Government had been unable to prevent, and information obtained would already have been known to ASIO and the AFP. The inference being that the raids were punitive and intimidatory in their intent, suggesting just the sort of cooperation between security agencies, police and government ministers that an Integrity Commission would be tasked to investigate.

Further suggesting – or confirming – that there has been “abuse of public office” and deception of the electorate is the coincidental – again – news from the Brereton enquiry into the Afghan war crimes claims, which confirms the truth of the Afghan files story and its public interest justification. Even more alarmingly, the claims aired by Annika Smethurst – for which she is still under legal restraint – have just been shown to be true.

Smethurst’s source found plans to enable the Australian Signals Directorate – the foreign cyber-monitoring agency – to expand its powers to spy on Australian citizens at home. This was vigorously denied at the time, with claims any powers were only to monitor cyber-crime, but is now being openly proposed by Peter Dutton. While still claiming that the object of encryption breaking surveillance is to safeguard citizens from terrorism and child abuse, this excuse is looking a little thin. Tech companies have made it abundantly clear that breaking encryption is an all or nothing game, meaning that criminals will be able to access people’s data through the “back door” opened for so-called security agencies, thus enabling the very thing the government claims to be trying to prevent.

For journalists and whistle-blowers on the receiving end of the ASD or NSA’s surveillance, the boundaries of “criminal” activity might look a little blurred, and the latest reassurances from the Attorney General Christian Porter won’t bring them into focus. Interviewed by ABC Radio National’s Fran Kelly, on Biosecurity and the latest revelations in the Sports Rorts affair, Porter demonstrated a worrying misapprehension of the meaning of “Integrity”, in this exchange with Kelly:

Fran Kelly: On the government’s proposal (for the Integrity Commission), some legal experts say it wouldn’t have the power to investigate – the Sports Rorts for example – because the conduct in question doesn’t constitute a criminal offence, is that correct?

Christian Porter: All corruption and crime commissions have to investigate criminal offences, and there hasn’t been any suggestion whatsoever that there’s been a criminal offence committed or reasonably suspected by anyone on the current matters, so the complaint that an Integrity Commission we might design wouldn’t investigate things that weren’t offences is a circular argument.

FK: But.. it’s an Integrity Commission — it’s investigating matters of integrity – that doesn’t necessarily mean criminal offences – ?

CP: my..what.. that’s not correct. – Integrity commissions or corruption commissions or whatever they are called investigate things written into statute as offences, so the model we’ve designed would be able to investigate a very wide range of Commonwealth offences which pertain to issues of integrity… issues of corruption…

FK: but not the sports grants?

CP: well..you.. neither the police nor Integrity Commissions investigate things that aren’t offences. There are offences such as “abuse of public office”- but I don’t think anyone is suggesting such an offence has been committed.

I think that Helen Haines might differ on this point. In her presentation of the intent of the Beechworth Principles on her website she puts it like this:

“When the government releases its legislation to introduce an Integrity Commission, I will judge it against The Beechworth Principles. I will ask:

‘Does this proposal have broad jurisdiction? Does it put everybody under a common set of rules? Does it have appropriate powers to fulfil its purpose? Will it hold fair hearings? And is it accountable to the people?’

If the government’s proposal does not meet the Principles, then I will then draft amendments to ensure that it does. If the government rejects my amendments, I will introduce my own Bill that reflects The Beechworth Principles.”

You can read those principles at the link, along with the wider considerations of others involved in drawing them up, including the former Supreme Court Judge David Harper, who spoke at the launch. A comprehensive review of the encryption debate that is so central to the issue from an international point of view can also be read here.

David Macilwain is an independent observer and writer who is lucky to live in the independent-minded Indi electorate, and attended the historic launch of the Beechworth Principles.

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