When the war on terror turns inward

We now have evidence of a campaign conducted in Australia to attack the credibility and the reputation of individuals and organisations seen as being too close to China.

A knock at the door… illustration – Alex Anstey

In a recent article in The Guardian Hamilton Nolan commented on the current employment on the streets of American cities of the par-military forces established for action on the nation’s borders. He believes that the Department of Homeland Security has become a White House controlled paramilitary and surveillance service. Both the laws passed and the institutions established in the days after the September 11 attacks have now been used within the boundaries of the state. He observed that Americans’ are finding out what happens when the war on terror is turned inward upon ourselves.’

Australians should see this as a warning of what could unfold here particularly as we enter into a period of rising tensions brought about by our plunge into the Trump inspired cold war with China.

As I read the article I was immediately reminded of the raid unleashed three weeks ago on the home and office of the New South Wales MLC Shaoquett Moselmane. Not knowing much about New South Wales State politics I had never heard of Mr. Moselmane. But I found the whole proceedings deeply disturbing. I was also surprised that so few people seemed to share my concerns

To begin with the Federal Police showed no respect for Mr Moselmane who has been in public life for many years as a three term Mayor of Rockdale and as a member of the New South Wales Upper House since 2009. The contrast with the treatment of two Federal Ministers accused in recent times of possible illegal behaviour could not be greater. It was so discrete that they were not even questioned.

But there was much more to it than that. The whole exercise was deliberately histrionic—a dawn raid on the family home by a dozen federal agents. An hour later six further officers arrived. Such raids are calculated to terrorize families and embarrass and humiliate the chosen victim. They are also designed to make sure that all the neighbours are aware of what was happening. Both the scale of the raid and its mode of operation signalled to the public that there was strong reason to believe that the targeted individual has been guilty of heinous crimes against both society and the state. How the victim of such a raid can subsequently receive a fair trial has never been explained.

But even more egregious was the fact that the Federal Police had tipped off the media and made sure the television cameras were rolling when the strike force arrived. This is by now standard practice. How do they get away with it? How it can be justified is hard to discern. This is partly because the cosy relationship with the media has seemingly never been questioned.

A more troubling thought is that ASIO and the Federal Police are out of control. It is in part a form of free advertising for the security services. But it is more sinister than that. It ensures that the putative victim is paraded before a mass audience and ritually humiliated. It is the modern day equivalent of placing offenders in the stocks in the market place.

And instantly the censorious audience responded. The state branch of the Labor Party was right there fronting the charge. Party leader Jodi McKay couldn’t wait to tell the media that Moselmane’s party membership was “ being suspended as we speak” and he would no longer sit in the party room.’ Another colleague told the ABC: “ Goodbye and good riddance—he was a menace.” The New South Wales Police Minister David Elliot joined hands with the lynching party demanded that Moselmane be immediately expelled from the party and be forced to resign his seat in the parliament.

There is no doubt the security services were pleased with their handiwork. The ABC had previously been told that they had been” chomping at the bit” to get “a few scalps.” The international editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, the reliably strident Peter Hartcher, was ecstatic. “ Our China spy law bares its teeth” he declared explaining that: “ If there were any doubt about Australia’s resolve to stand its ground in the face of a full-force pressure from China, those doubts evaporated on Friday. The moment that a dozen plain clothed federal agents arrived to raid the home of a NSW member of parliament at 6.30am, Australia’s response to Beijing was unmistakable.”

The most perplexing aspect of the situation for an outside observer was that it was stated on numerous occasions that Moselmane was not being accused of any crime. But the various contemporary news reports contained material that may or may not have been leaked to them about behaviour thought inappropriate or suspicious. They all mentioned that he had been a regular visitor to China.

The most common figure was that in ten years he had been there nine times. He was close to local Chinese communities and was open about his respect for, and admiration of, the PRC. It is hard to see that there was anything untoward, sinister or subversive in his public comments. But for a rampant security establishment, he was an irresistible scalp. The fact he was a Muslim with a distinctly foreign name made him more vulnerable. What infuriated his critics was that he praised the Chinese effort to contain the Covid 19 virus, a position more unexceptional now than it was a month ago.

The whole affair gives us an insight into the otherwise concealed thinking of ASIO. Anyone praising China is clearly suspect. The assumption is that Sinophiles may well be coming under malign influences. Given that China is trying to interfere in Australia the assumption seems to be that the agents of influence are probably functionaries of the Chinese Communist Party. This account may seem like a caricature but anyone who lived through the first Cold War will find disturbing parallels in Moselmane’s fate. He was the carefully chosen target for exemplary punishment.

But of greater moment is that we now have evidence of a wider campaign, both concerted and almost certainly co-ordinated, to attack the credibility and the reputation of individuals and organisations seen as being too close to China. The assault on China Matters on the 14th of June must be placed side by side with the destruction of Moselmane’s career a fortnight later. The decks, it would seem, are being cleared in preparation for apprehended conflict.

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Henry Reynolds is an eminent Australian historian.

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