JACK WATERFORD. Soon we won’t recognise the face of Australia.

Oct 29, 2019

National government is becoming more authoritarian and much less accountable

Had it not been for the wind assistance provided by the corruption of our Afghani allies, the Great Escape from Sarposa prison in Kandahar on April 22, 2011 would clearly eclipse the escape from Stalag Luft III in 1944. The “Harry’’ tunnel at Stag Luft was 102 metres long –though a couple of metres short of the trees. When 76 had emerged from the tunnel a German guard saw a movement and opened fire. Only three made it to safety. Many were executed.

By contrast, the Sarposa prison tunnel was 320 metres long. It came outside in.  It wound around security checkpoints from a house 200m away. It ran under the Kabul-Kandahar highway. When it was opened  three waiting prisoners began quietly moving around the jail, unlocking cells doors with keys mysteriously in their possession.  Before dawn about 480 prisoners, nearly all Taliban fighters, had escaped without any deaths or incidents.

That was not as many as the earlier escape in July 2008, when two suicide bombers blew a wall, killing about 15 guards and permitting between 900 and 1200 prisoners to just run for it.

Within a few days of the 2011 escape, at least 76 of the 480 had been recaptured, mostly by American soldiers at various gates at the city walls. They had digital cameras – a bit like the Safe-T-Cam cameras on NSW highways – and were screening everyone coming in and out

Only a month before, they had done an “inventory” at Sarposa, collecting face-recognition data on all of the inmates. The  deluded, rebels had to use rather more sophisticated ways of rejoining their families, or their fighting units. The overwhelming majority did, of course. They Taliban is no closer to defeat.

Afghani officials were said to have been fascinated by the technology, brought in, I am told,  as part of a civil aid project. Could they get instruction in how it worked? they asked.

The Americans realised that this technology, in the hands of Afghani officials presently supposed to be on “our side” would almost certainly be mostly used to further the tribal and sectarian feuds that beset central government in Afghanistan.  It would be a miracle if even a tiny proportion of it were to be used in fighting enemies who happened to be Taliban.

But the Afghans got the training and the technology. Why? Because the basic idea of it is freely accessible to anyone on the internet. Don’t ask me how, but any photo of a face can be compared with the  entire internet database of photographs, coming up with likely matches within seconds.

Eight years ago is a long time ago. Now the Chinese government, with help from researchers at Australian universities, has devised a ubiquitous national public camera surveillance system capable of recognising the faces of almost every citizen, including a face in a big crowd. It is using it to imprison and re-educate more than a million Uighars in western China. Demonstrators in Hong Kong are wearing face masks and using umbrellas  because they know they are under such surveillance.

Only a few years ago, when Roman Quaedvleig was persona grata with the government and head of Border Force, his top lieutenant in Melbourne announced that the new Border Force was going to join a Victoria Police dragnet over central Melbourne. The Victoria Police , apparently, intended to stop and check anyone looking suspicious, which probably meant of African, Aboriginal or “foreign” background, for unpaid fines, warrants, and possibly with the aid of sniffer dogs (60 per cent false-positive rate) to strip-search them for drugs.

Border Force thought it could join in to hit the Indian taxi drivers, and anyone else who looked foreign, demanding that they produce evidence of identification and valid visa to be in Australia.

But contrary to what some may think, or planned, we do not operate in Australia with pass laws, as people in Europe do, or as people used to do in South Africa under apartheid. No one – no cop, no official, no Border Force officer–  has the power or the right to stop a perfect stranger (of whatever colour) and to demand evidence of their visa status. Nor in my opinion, and despite what they assert, do they have the right to seize phones at airports, and to demand their PIN codes.

They cannot do it unless and until they have reasonable cause to suspect that some breach of the law – including perhaps immigration law – is occurring. It’s not, for example, enough that they “look foreign”. Peter Dutton does too.

The law does not allow fishing expeditions, even with racial profiling.  Border Force officers may ask polite questions, which a cooperative person can, and perhaps should, answer. But they have no right to demand answers to questions designed to get to what an American might call a “reasonable cause” point. That fact, which many police resent and deplore, is one of the things capable of distinguishing us from being a police state.

The Border Force announcement was widely broadcast, including to the minister and Quaedvleig’s  office, without its radioactivity being obvious. But as calls from the media came in, Border Force suddenly realised that it neither had the power, nor the “social licence” to do what it had planned. Quaedvleig rushed about insisting that it was all a misunderstanding.  The statement, written by someone very junior, had not been cleared. There would be a searching inquiry into the stuff-up. Certainly not his.

The “right” of a member of the public to be free of a duty to answer the questions of uniformed busybodies until a duty to do so is established, applies to white folk, black folk, children and even visitors from abroad.  But it is a right that has been much diminished over the past 20 years. It is increasingly wise to assume the position whenever someone under the Home Affairs umbrella is seen.

The right will have been watered down, usually first in the name of national security, and the war against terrorism. No politician – certainly no Labor one – has the guts to wonder whether the threat is as great as is claimed, or the means to deal with the threat are proportionate to the danger.

If anyone wants to see the full over-reach of such powers, one should look at the prosecution in the ACT courts of Bernard Collaery,  other whistleblowers and, probably soon, journalists. It is no disrespect to the judges who will have to wrestle with the issues to say that the trials, if they occur, are going to be a complete travesty of justice and due process. However hard the judge tries to keep as much of it in the open as possible, much of the trial will be in closed court. Sometimes with evidence that the defendant, and sometimes his lawyer – indeed sometimes the jury – cannot hear.

Collaery is insisting on his constitutional right of trial by jury. If the High Court declares that the “right” is satisfied by such deviations from the normal trial,  I will eat my hat. Even if it does, the outcome will be unjust and unfair, with the court improperly restricted in what it can say or think about the public interest, and whether, in fact, any damage was done to the national security interest at all.

This week has seen the old mainstream media, including the publishers of The Canberra Times,  protest about an increasingly authoritarian state, and the progressive criminalisation of journalism. Using new powers, police have raided newsrooms and homes, and launched an array of prosecutions, not only against journalists but also whistle-blowers. It’s all to protect the national security – which means, that is to cover up bad, unethical and possibly criminal  behaviour by senior ministers and officials, and to keep the public from knowing about it.

There are many matters of which any decent Australian might feel ashamed about the use put to information gathered by bugging the Cabinet room of one of the poorest countries on earth

The bugging was done to get a negotiating advantage in border negotiations. The beneficiary was not Australia but Woodside Petroleum, which, in the years since has given handsome consultancies to the former Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer, and the former secretary of his department, Ashton Calvert.

Considering the record of “Australian” mining companies overseas,  at Ok Tedi, Bougainville, or in Brazil or Africa, It would be better, as Rod Campbell from the Australia Institute said on Thursday, for our spooks to spy on our mining companies abroad, not for them.

Another trial wants to criminalise the telling of the Australian public about serious crimes, including murder, allegedly committed by SAS troops in Afghanistan. And another of alleged misbehaviour by the tax office, vehemently denied by Tax Commissioner Chris Jordan this week.

On what is known, the fair-minded Australian would suspect that national security and similar mantras about secrecy are being used to conceal mismanagement, incompetence,  corruption of the spirit, possibly criminal conduct and, definitely clear breaches of ethics and decency.  It seems likely  that the prosecutions will collapse in ignominy, and international humiliation for Australia.

On the wider principles of public interest, neither ministers nor officials (even those with national security backgrounds) have the credibility to claim to be greater experts of what it is than the ordinary common sense of the silent, or loud, Australian. It will be no disloyalty to see the public barracking for East Timor, for acquittals, and for the defenestration of everyone  involved.

But the problem is bigger than excessive secrecy and inadequate accountability in matters loosely connected with national security. Once we have agreed to restrict our liberties by increasing the powers of those in the national security state, the slippage begins. Then, suddenly, it’s not only about terror. It’s  about paedophila. Or the scourge of drugs.

Soon cops and others will have access to bugging, tapping, intercept and coercive powers –  extending all the way down to parking fines.  With only grudging systems of checks and balances, accountability, or duty to explain, given that everyone understands that the panic mongers – such as Peter Dutton and Mike Pezzullo — are the national epitomes of restraint, respect for human rights, and the fair go.

This week even the joint parliamentary committee on intelligence and security detected the backwash. It was an amazing result given that its members, including successive chairmen, are usually the biggest shills for the further militarisation of security, claims of more threats, and the doleful conclusion that much more must be done. For once, however, it wants more restraint. It wants checks and balances, and external scrutiny when Pezzullo realises his dream of having a photo of every Australian resident accessible to any government official.

The committee is probably too late.

It was hardly brave in doubting the vision, given the record so far, of incompetence, mismanagement and waste which has surrounded the facial recognition project, temporarily  abandoned a year or two ago because of “computer problems.” It is insufficiently sceptical about the basic idea of one computer to rule them all, one computer to find them, one computer to arrest them all, and another computer to bind them.

By now, however, any old Border Force officer could have all the faces of every Australian resident accessible in a mobile phone, or a camera mounted on a car. Connected not only to drivers’ licences, and immigration and citizenship records, but also to all Australian police criminal record databases, to car registration information, to tax , Centrelink and Medicare records, maybe debt judgments.

All in a manner not dissimilar to how some police cars are passively reading number plates and drawing attention to unpaid parking or speeding fines, or the likelihood that the probable driver is wanted for not paying child support.

Home Affairs could probably do it without legislative approval – and given that the Privacy Commissioner is completely starved of resources without any more external scrutiny than is accorded to on-water matters, or management of our concentration camps.

This Border Force would not have to harass random strangers in the hope of finding someone to deport. The hand-held machine would quickly point to those needing instant incarceration.

The notion, incidentally, that journalists are subject to the law, just like anyone be else, is a complete red herring, whether from the mouth of the prime minister or from an AFP deputy police commissioner. Journalists have – should have – no privileges ordinary members of the public do not have. I am firmly against any notion of inside access in exchange for police passes, and, ultimately, licensing. But the law is not equally applied. The AFP is very political in what it seeks to investigate. This year, for example, it decided not to investigate the leaking of a Top Secret document from Peter Dutton’s office, even as it was planning raids on journalists. It lacks guts and independence.

I do not know that Australians are any more safe because of the vast array of largely unaccountable powers handed over to ministers, cops and officials over the past two decades.

I do know that we are considerably less free to go about our ordinary business, or, if we are journalists, to tell the public how power is being exercised by those who have it.

There are some media freedoms I could do without – interest in the personal lives of royalty, stars, starlets and sportspeople, for example.  There is some media – including News.Comwhich, when not revolting about threats to its freedom, is continuing to act as the government’s bulletin board – which could lift its game. No doubt we all could.

But we are not going to do it better with our arms handcuffed behind our backs, forbidden to talk to some of those vested with power, and made to stand a kilometre from the action. Democracy doesn’t work that way. Not for long anyway.

Jack Waterford is a former Editor of The Canberra Times.


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