Surveillance in Australia

Australia has a government run on announceables.

Even without the Budget blizzard, so far in 2018 we have had major announcements on everything from the so-called Gonski 2.0 education reforms, the establishment of an Australian arms industry to compete internationally, and an investigation into the practices of the Public Service.

They cost millions, often enough billions, this government’s endless, almost daily announcements. Malcolm Turnbull began his reign, if anyone remembers, with a one billion dollar Innovation Nation program. An internal review subsequently revealed it had been a colossal waste of money.

Captured by the daily news cycle he struts the political stage launching this and announcing that, but there was one disclosure the Prime Minister was not putting his name to. And that was the deliberately leaked story that the government might expand the operations of the Australian Signals Directorate from its traditional international focus to encompass domestic surveillance.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop promptly dismissed the claims: “The present laws safeguard the privacy of Australians.”

A truly ludicrous statement. There is no right to privacy in Australian law.

In turn Dutton promptly contradicted Bishop, saying there was an obvious need to look at the capacity of the Australian Signals Directorate.

With each contradiction of Liberal Party’s leaders, Dutton, a former policeman, has emerged as a truthsayer up against the glib dishonesty of lawyers turned politicians. For those who are following the jostling for position amongst Turnbull’s heir apparents, these contratempts are campsites on the path to the Prime Minister’s office.

Dutton holds the reins over two of the most controversial issues in Australia today, high rates of immigration and intrusive surveillance. He is already king of Australian Under Surveillance, to reference the title of Frank Moorhouse’s 2014 book.

Like him or not, and many do not, Dutton is increasingly talked of as a future Prime Minister. Australia has never had a leader with a such an extensive knowledge of or intimate relationship with the country’s national security agencies. And with that knowledge comes power.

Don’t believe a word of Dutton’s justifications for expanding ASD surveillance to the Australian public, including his repeated claim that it will help against online paedophiles. As if the 6,000 plus officers and staff at the AFP were doing nothing. As if most of the breaks didn’t come from overseas operations, particularly the establishment of honeypot sites.

Surveillance is an instrument of intimidation and social control. It is widely criticised by experts as ineffective against the bogey of terrorism.

With Australia’s history of surveying its own population to a greater extent than any other Western country, with thousands of personnel, billions of dollars and tranches of legislation already targeting everyone from journalists to dissidents to Muslims, exactly why Dutton would prefer the services of the ASD over the existing ASIO and AFP bureaucracies raises many interesting questions.

The AFP, ASIO and the ASD all got funding increases in the Budget. Yet the public know almost nothing about them and have no reason to assume that the poor quality of governance they have come to expect, just think the National Broadband Network, does not extend to the nation’s security agencies.

Unlike ASIO and the AFP, Signals Directorate has acquired a reputation for efficiency and attracting smart operators.

Dr Mark Rix from the University of Wollongong puts it thus:

“My view is that Dutton isn’t so much working around security bureaucracies over which he is able to exercise little control. He’s more likely working around his colleagues in the Cabinet. The expansion of these powers should be seen rather as an attempt to provide ASD with comparable powers to those enjoyed by ASIO, and perhaps as an attempt by Uber-Minister Dutton to work around or out-manoeuvre the Attorney-General who oversees ASIO by lavishing the same powers on ASD over which he exercises greater control. It’s just the latest instalment in the inexorable expansion of the Australian surveillance state.”

The gifting of too much power into too few hands holds many perils for Australia’s democratic experiment.

The creation of a parallel secret police force holds a clear and present danger. Tyranny expands to fill all available space.

Australian society is sick, an illness caused by years of poor governance and contempt for the views of the general public. The country has never been more divided. The increasing resort to surveillance as an instrument of social control is proof, pure and simple.

Barrister Michael Tubb’s, who represented people whose careers had been damaged by the agency, argues in his book ASIO: The Enemy Within that political leaders have surreptitiously created an atmosphere of fear within our society. The power and reach of ASIO has increased until it has effectively become a huge national network of secret political police that spies on political parties, unions, community organisations and individuals.

He writes:

“ASIO is a right wing political organisation, and part of a still growing fifth column criminal conspiracy against the political freedoms and rights we consider sacrosanct. The conspiracy was started many decades ago by fearful right wing vested interests worried at the influence, directly after World War II, of the political ideas and values of the centre and left with and across the broad political movement. It was a conspiracy against the public and its democratic processes, rights and freedoms.”

No sooner had the Cold War withered away than our government imposed its rhetorical ‘war on terrorism’, and with it, its attack on our freedoms and rights.

As the years roll on, many more laws have been passed which both individually and synergistically lessen the exercise of our individual free will. At first, every conceivable thing in public life was gradually regulated, so that only in our private lives could we generally feel free. Today, even that freedom has been taken away.

Tubbs’ warnings evoke images of the Stasi, the feared East German Secret Police and the most extreme example of a surveillance state to date. As emerged after the fall of the Berlin Wall, this was a society where everybody spied on everybody, father against son, neighbour against neighbour, colleague against colleague.

Bathrooms and confessionals, all were bugged. Nothing was sacred.

Is this the Australia we want to create?

John Stapleton worked for more than 20 years as a staff reporter on The Australian and The Sydney Morning Herald.

A collection of his journalism is being constructed here.