The looming five by-elections are giving the government an opportunity to polish and rehearse one of the centrepieces of its re-election strategy for the next election – the argument that the alternative government – Labor – is fundamentally unsound on national security policy, as on borders and boat people – and cannot be trusted with the responsibilities of government.
It’s a proposition that deserves serious consideration by voters, because it might well be true. If not necessarily for the reasons being advanced by the government. At the core of the government’s argument – best framed by Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton – is the suggestion that Labor only pretends to go along with sound Liberal policies on national security matters so as to try to prevent the Coalition’s wedging it, but that Labor deep down doesn’t believe it, and would either abandon policies it pretended to support while in opposition, or would implement them so half-heartedly that the national security would go to hell in a handbasket.
There are alternative ways of framing just that argument which appear to make Labor’s leadership seem wise, statesmanlike and politically cunning in attempting to be in complete lockstep with government on such issues. Perhaps it is simply refusing to play on a traditionally strong ground for conservative politicians when there is in fact little in the way of difference in approach and policy. Why not stress the issues where there are fundamental differences of philosophy and policy – on issues, particularly education, health and social welfare where conservative governments are less trusted by the electorate?
But there is more to national security, and more to the public interest, than the strategic and tactical interests of alternative parties of government. Labor’s refusal to enter into a national security debate is not in the national interest. The Coalition is playing politics with national security. In doing so, senior government figures are continually skewing the national polity further and further towards an authoritarian mass surveillance state, ever seeking to find the line that Labor will not cross.
While Bill Shorten and the faction chiefs have been generally successful in imposing caucus silence, and even party conference silence, there is within the Labor followership a strong representation of folk with civil libertarian and anti-authoritarian tendencies, not to mention a constituency that wants policies which least interfere with human rights, civil liberties and personal privacy. They are restive about what has already occurred (even under the last Labor governments) and deeply apprehensive about the relentless pressure to further extend government powers.
The government knows well of this restiveness in opposition ranks. That the Greens articulate it when Labor lefties hardly dare to, even when they plainly agree, is used by government attack dogs as a proof that Labor is not really fair dinkum, regardless of the supine positions of Shorten.
Three troublesome things are happening.
First, the case for ever greater and greater powers is not being seriously questioned, whether in parliamentary committees or in parliamentary debate, except by crossbenchers whose arguments do not have to be addressed. Labor politicians hardly dare even ask sceptical questions or demand evidence for a raft of doubtful security propositions (many based on bureaucratic and political empire-building), even in private. It is not only the counter-case, but the middle-case that is going by default. Labor has also allowed itself to be sucked into a secret and essentially unaccountable intelligence committee system which gives only the appearance of briefing about what is happening in return for being compromised by obligations of secrecy and the deliberately generated impression that there is much which they know, but cannot say. The government’s members on such committees are hardly moderates on national security policy – and some do not hesitate to make tough ex cathedra statements advancing the interests of some or other, or all, of the agencies vying for influence, resources and power.
Second, Labor continually allows itself to be stampeded by suddenly advanced, and highly political, claims that the latest legislative proposals are urgent. We saw some of this this week, with the Attorney-General, Christian Porter, suddenly pretending that legislation about Chinese and other foreign influence mongering had to be urgently dealt with and passed before the by-elections. Cynics will remember that the high priority of this legislation was being argued last year while the government was making political hay out of the appalling actions of (then) Senator Sam Dastyari, but that its proposals went off to a leisurely committee process, only to be revived, when politically convenient, by the publication of a report which had watered down some of the original extravagances (lest bystanders get shot) but otherwise tended to adopt the original proposals. It is not my argument that such legislation is not necessary – indeed it is probably overdue, given the ways by which Labor and Liberal figures, and their party organisations have repeatedly allowed themselves to be put on the small hook. But if it is suddenly so urgent – and essential for party-partisan use in an election context, why was the Coalition so opposed to such legislation only relatively recently? And why must such legislation be rushed, almost without debate, through the chambers of parliament given that many of those with strong reservations about the way government has gone about it – people in the media, in universities, and business – continue to have them. Discussions among the initiated behind closed doors cannot substitute for reasoned public debate.
The third ill-effect is that government has created a pathway by which powers given, supposedly with tight controls, to be used only in extremis, are being normalised, then handed over, almost without debate, to other agencies or parts of agencies having only passing association with national security matters. This handover – for example of telephone metadata, wider and increasingly less accountable tapping, bugging and computer surveillance material – has been part of the permanent agenda of police in the criminal justice system, but has hitherto faced a more critical hearing. It is inevitably argued, of course, that the techniques are used only to deal with the most serious crime. The types of cases most cited as proof of the need tend to be ones that excite public horror – paedophilia and drug trafficking for example. Perhaps we do need more sophisticated investigatory resources against such evils, but the cynic will notice that the public has no means whatever of knowing how effective or efficient police are in combating them. We have regular, highly triumphed drug seizures, but never the slightest evidence that any have made even a temporary dent in the supply available to those who use illicit drugs. Nor is it clear what police statistics on successes in catching adults pretending to be children for sex purposes tell us about what is happening with the wider problem. That’s even assuming that anyone can rely on police statistics – witness the mild embarrassment suffered by the Victoria Police recently when it emerged 250,000 breathalyser tests had been faked.
Sometimes, indeed, politicians hardly bother to argue the case for more draconian powers. Malcolm Turnbull explained the further militarisation of Australian airports, and the arming of airport police with yet further powers, unconstrained by any rules about racial profiling, to stop and interrogate anyone they like, by simply saying that these were dangerous times. Perhaps, though it would be nice to see some evidence for the need, beyond bland assertions by police commissioners that their vigilance had prevented hundreds of hijackings, hostage takings and other atrocities. What we have, at massive cost and no small inconvenience, may just possibly have deterred a would-be hijacker, but there is no evidence that greater security will enhance that effect.
Some might remember that in August last year two men were charged with alleged plans to blow up an Etihad aircraft with an improvised explosive device. But the police success in thwarting that owed nothing to the airport security system: the men were fingered, before the act, by an overseas intelligence agency.
While the public is being deprived of the opportunity to hear the argument from both sides, let alone cases for doing nothing at all (or dismantling some of the powers given) bureaucrats have continued to be useful to the government in making the case for more money, more powers, and more toys. From Mike Pezzullo, secretary of Home Affairs, comes an array of speeches stressing the importance of secure borders. If he can be accused of promoting a sense of national insecurity that, as it happens, serves the interests of his minister and the government, he can claim, reasonably, that he is not being partisan, because the policies he argues are bipartisan ones.
Tony Abbott, in his last few months as prime minister, was alleged to have asked his bureaucrats for a national security crisis a week in the lead-up to an election campaign. He was also extremely fond of set-piece announcements made in front of an ever-increasing number of Australian flags, usually with senior police officers, in full braid, and sometimes ASIO director-general Duncan Lewis, nodding sagely alongside him. They must have been highly conscious of being used, and highly conscious of the risks politicians were taking with the reputations, such as they were, of their agencies having complete independence from political meddling.
They might also have wondered how it was that their predecessors had usually managed to avoid being used and abused by politicians in this way.
There are three separate answers to that – each with a continuing importance. First, there was a time when decent politicians mostly did not seek to compromise senior public servants in this way. Second, there was a time in which such senior public servants – especially ones who were de facto as well as de jure independent of ministerial direction simply refused to play in partisan political games, and kept as great a distance from active politics as possible.
Third, there were examples of the long-term evils of supping with too short a spoon. With ASIO for example, its seduction of Vladimir Petrov into defection in 1954 was a highly professional operation, and the allegation, long believed in Labor circles, that it was a part of some plan to secure the re-election of Robert Menzies, is quite false. What is not false is that some Coalition members – particularly fierce anti-communists – used the fact of the defection during the election to argue that Labor could not be trusted to implement the recommendations of the Petrov Royal Commission to deal with Australians spying for the Soviet Union. The Labor leader, Dr Bert Evatt, came to see himself as a victim of an ASIO-Liberal political plot, and seriously embarrassed Labor and himself in the process. But while ASIO was exonerated, the mud stuck, amplified by the split of the ALP in 1956. From the top down, ASIO officers were furious at the imputations against their honesty and their professionalism. A time was reached, according to ASIO’s own official history, when the organisation became somewhat as its bitter critics alleged – almost an adjunct of the Coalition government, spending a good deal of its time monitoring the Labor Party and aiding and abetting its enemies.
The political consequences of this were damaging enough to the organisation’s reputation and capacity to gather security intelligence. What was worse was that an increasingly paranoid and inward-looking organisation ceased to be a place where there was basic argument about its working assumptions, and about its means and ends. A consequence, again according to the organisation’s own official history, was that it seriously misunderstood the 1965-72 protest movement. It took more than a decade, and two royal commissions, a generation for the organisation to rebuild its critical capacity and the respect of its masters.
Even then, there were sceptics, as there always are when agencies are necessarily secretive, and some fear the spectre of George Orwell’s 1984. When Australia believed itself to be under assault by the agents of Islamist Terror in 2001, ASIO was given extensive new resources and powers. It would not have got them had it not been for the high regard held across politics and the commentariat for Dennis Richardson, the director-general of the time. But it was the man, not necessarily the office that he held, that inspired confidence, and, as with senior cops and bureaucrats who come to personify their agencies, reputations do not get transferred with the rank. A very important reason for caution in being helpful to whichever side has the current leasehold on the Lodge.
Still, in a perhaps close race, I would back the bureaucrats, the cops and the spies ahead of Labor as guardians of the security of the state. Labor is looking after only itself. If it does the right thing, it will not be by instinct but by accident or for the sort of political advantage-taking that the Coalition has now authorised by example.
Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times