TONY SMITH. Time to abolish the spies?

Planned expansion of the powers of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) should alarm anyone who believes in democratic values and rule of law.

In hindsight it must be obvious to even the most right wing Australians that the late Jack Mundey was an heroic conservationist. Mundey fearlessly defied those powerful interests which wanted to put a wrecking ball through our urban heritage. Yet Mundey and his supporters were subject to surveillance and harassment by agencies claiming to act for the state and we continue to be burdened with secret agents who threaten democratic values.

Anyone who feels conscience bound to write to the authorities in other countries about cases where human rights are threatened senses some frustration when Australia’s own record is called into question. This is partly because we wish to avoid charges of hypocrisy. How can we tell other governments how to behave when we have our own failings?

It is difficult to appeal on behalf of persecuted women for example, when we tolerate the rate of domestic violence which we do. It is difficult also to complain about the removal of ethnic minorities from their traditional lands when Australia acknowledges Aboriginal land rights begrudgingly and incarcerates Indigenous people at such appalling rates. It is difficult to draw attention to the suppression of freedoms when we have had our own print and television journalists raided with no prosecutions following. It is difficult to frame demands about access to justice when our own provision of legal aid is so parsimonious.

The call for expanded powers for secret agencies is based on fear. The federal government’s hope is that people can be made so fearful of external or domestic threats that they are willing to cede certain rights to agencies which supposedly know about such things. The most obvious problem here is that secret police do not know at all. They refuse to have their record scrutinised publicly, citing the need for secrecy. They might know or they might not. We are not allowed to have access to the secrets which they may discover but certainly create for their own purposes.

In their fear, people who accept the call for special powers for secret police do not think that these powers will ever be used against them. They think the powers are for use against the ‘other’ for their own benefit. Decisions made in a state of fear are seldom rational and handing over one’s freedoms to an unaccountable agency is about as irrational as actions can get.

Some years ago, when the USA was giving democracy a bad name by the way it routinely tortured prisoners taken after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, the stupidity of mistreating suspects was laid bare. A tactic in which ends justify means abandons principle so thoroughly that objective observers see that the western way of life is not worth defending at all if it can be defended only by such abuses as occurred at Guantanamo Bay.

The proposed new ASIO powers would permit interrogation of children, detention of witnesses indefinitely and refusal of the rights currently afforded anyone in contact with the authorities. Those detained would not have access to legal or medical advisers. They could be abused, deprived of sleep, starved, or made to disappear. They could become non-persons. Agents carrying out these abuses would be immune from prosecution.

One result of living in a police state is that suspicion grows between the members of society. Neighbours inevitably point the finger when someone is arrested. Who informed? Is the detainee a threat to the community? It becomes a crime to even ask how the spies came by the information they acted upon. This was certainly the experience in East Germany where the Stasi struck terror into people’s hearts. It might be argued that ASIO is not the Stasi, but why then does it need Stasi-like powers?

Despite the millions of Australians willing to download an app which could help to beat the pandemic, there is growing concern about privacy issues around data collection. The government should be looking at ways to make ASIO more accountable and not seeking to expand its powers to reach into our lives. Unfortunately, it seems ignorant of democratic values and human rights. This is a government which shows little understanding of the meaning of accountability and has no idea how to enforce it. Under the current proposals, ASIO would never need to exceed its authority. It would be above the law. Spies do not protect democracy. They are the antithesis of democracy and undermine it.

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Dr Tony Smith is a former political science academic with interests in elections, parliament and political ethics.

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