Something is happening to Australia’s democracy. It’s happening right before our eyes, in federal Parliament, on national television, on the front of our daily newspapers. And we’re applauding it.
With little debate, and even less contestation, civil liberties and safeguards developed over hundreds of years are being whittled away, constrained, or removed altogether.
In the process, the relatively tolerant and multicultural society that Australia has built since the 1970s is facing its sternest test.
If you don’t believe me, listen to the Prime Minister.
In a speech to Parliament yesterday, Tony Abbott said the following:
Regrettably, for some time to come, Australians will have to endure more security than we are used to and more inconvenience than we would like. Regrettably, for some time to come, the delicate balance between freedom and security may have to shift.
There may be more restrictions on some so that there can be more protection for others. After all, the most basic freedom of all is the freedom to walk the streets unharmed and to sleep safe in our beds at night.
As international observers such as Glenn Greenwald have noted, this is a perfect encapsulation of the twisted internal logic of the War on Terror.
“Most impressively,” Greenwald wrote today, “[Abbott] just came right out and candidly acknowledged his real purpose: to exploit the emotions surrounding the terrorist arrests to erode liberty and increase state power, telling citizens that they will die if they do not meekly acquiesce."
The speed with which Australia’s national conversation has turned from the normal stuff of budget measures and social policy to an overwhelming atmosphere of fear and insecurity has been breathtaking.
It is all the more disturbing because the terrorist threat facing Australia is so negligible.
Official statistics immediately show that terrorism is not a threat to ordinary Australians walking the streets unharmed or sleeping safe in their beds at night. There have been 113 Australians killed by terrorism since 1978. All of them have been killed abroad, not on the streets or in their beds.
Aside from the murder of Australian Ross Langdon in the Westgate shopping centre attack in Nairobi in 2013, the most dangerous place for Australians in terms of terrorism has been Indonesia. Two Australians were killed in the Jakarta bombing in 2009, four in the Bali attack of 2005, and 88 in the notorious Kuta bombings of 12 October 2002. There has been no domestic terrorism incident on our home soil since the Hilton bombing in 1978 (although the murder of a security guard outside a Melbourne abortion clinic in 2001 is sometimes defined in this way).
Compared to the avoidable deaths caused by tobacco smoking, by alcohol abuse, by homicide and domestic violence, or by natural disasters, terrorism barely rates a mention.
As recently as 2009, 119 Victorians died in the Kilmore East bushfire that raged on Black Saturday. That fire was started by a fault in a power line, which has now been legally attributed to electricity company SP Ausnet and its maintenance contractor Utility Asset Management.
And yet we don’t hear speeches in Parliament about the “death cult” of electricity distributors. Indeed, the Victorian government is still refusing to implement the Black Saturday Royal Commission recommendations to reduce the risk of severe bushfires, such as placing electricity lines underground.
Something is wrong in our national debate when our federal government can flip the switch to terror so easily, and apparently with the wholehearted enthusiasm of most of our media.
In the process, few outlets have stopped to question why a raid by no fewer than 800 police could result in only one arrest (one notable exception: The Guardian’s Richard Ackland).
Last night, on the ABC’s Media Watch, Paul Barry described the process via which New South Wales Police publicly announced last week’s terror raids on Twitter, lavishly documented by Police video and still photography, which was then supplied to media organisations.
As the NSW Police’s Strath Gordon told the ABC:
“Images were supplied by our multi-media team which consists of three video and one stills operator… Each was deployed with the officers in the field… The Australian Federal Police also supplied one camera and one still photographer.”
It’s amazing how pliant the national media has been in this scare campaign. When it comes to reporting on Operation Sovereign Borders, the media is barely allowed within cooee of asylum seekers or their detention facilities. The reason? “Operational security.” But when the topic is a terror plot in our suburbs, security agencies are not just writing the script, they’re shooting the footage.
You don’t need to recycle tired clichés about truth as a casualty of war to see what’s going on here. Our media is being overtly fed images of fear and terror for entirely political reasons.
Everybody wins. The media gets dramatic images of suspects (who, at the time of those images being shot, had not even been charged with anything). The Police get to control the message and frame the story – with a none-too-subtle subtext celebrating their valiant foiling of a dastardly plot. And the politicians get an open license to grandstand. And grandstand they have.
The Prime Minister was last week warning that terror could strike anywhere. In an amazingly irresponsible statement, he told Australians last week that all a potential terrorist needs is “a knife, an iPhone and a victim.”
The government has also leapt on the raids as a chance to ram new anti-terror laws through Parliament.
The terror bill to be debated this afternoon will further curtail Australia’s already-truncated civil liberties. It will allow ASIO even wider surveillance powers, despite the clear evidence ASIO has abused those powers in the past. It will criminalise the reporting of intelligence links, potentially setting the stage for journalists and whistleblowers to be jailed for revealing things such as the Australian military’s hacking of the Indonesian president’s phone. It will also allow ASIO agents to use force in interviews – although we’re assured that this won’t mean torture.
Well, that’s a relief.
It’s worth reading the full details of the National Security Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2014, just to taste the flavour of this new authoritarianism.
The bill’s summary, as described by the Parliamentary Library, includes the following:
"to: … establish a framework for the conduct of authorised covert intelligence operations; clarify ASIO’s ability to cooperate with the private sector; and provide for certain breaches to be referred to law enforcement agencies for investigation;
"to: enable the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) to collect intelligence on Australian persons involved in activities in relation to its operational security; enable ASIS to cooperate with ASIO without ministerial authorisation when undertaking certain intelligence collection activities; enable ASIS to train certain individuals in the use of weapons and self-defence techniques and provide for a limited exception of these in a controlled environment; extend immunity for actions taken in relation to overseas activities; …
"to create two new offences and update existing offences, and increase penalties, in relation to the protection of intelligence-related information; and 19 Acts to make consequential and technical amendments."
And yet, so quickly has the ground shifted, we don’t even know the full details of what these terror bills will outlaw.
Astonishingly, the government still hasn’t tabled the final amendments to the bills. Despite the debate being scheduled for this afternoon, The Greens’ Scott Ludlum was telling journalists this morning that he hadn’t seen the amendments.
“We will debate a version of the bill that nobody, outside the government offices, has seen,” he said a media conference today.
But it doesn’t matter. Labor’s caucus voted this morning to side with government’s amendments. That will ensure the bill’s passage.
The ALP has succumbed to the scare tactics too. Cowed by the fear of being wedged on national security, the ALP under Bill Shorten is looking increasingly craven and weak. The courage of Simon Crean to stand up to the fear-mongering and aggression is long gone, replaced by mealy-mouthed platitudes such as “the security of our nation runs deeper than our differences,” as Shorten mumbled yesterday.
It fell to lone Labor dissenter Melissa Parke to finally summon the spirit to oppose the terrorism hysteria. In a speech last night that will reverberate long after the present panic has evaporated, Parke began by revealing that someone on social media had “called for my execution for treason because I had questioned the government's rapid escalation of our new involvement in Iraq.”
Parke went on to point out that “Australia has no strategic stake or status in Iraq and Syria,” and wondered, with excellent logic, why Australia was not using our seat on the UN Security Council to address these issues there.
Finally, she noted that “with the present focus on national security it is extraordinary that the Prime Minister is not attending the global summit on climate change.”
“The core issue here,” Parke concluded, “is whether the steps this government is taking at home and abroad are being properly considered and calibrated to meet the reality rather than the hype, to achieve properly defined outcomes rather than draw us into yet another counterproductive military engagement.
“That judgement cannot be made when there is no meaningful debate in the national parliament.”
Bravo Melissa Parke. If only Bill Shorten could show as much spine.
Correction: This article initially stated there has been no Australian killed by terrorism since the Bali bombings of 2002. The text has been amended to refer to the death of Ross Langdon in the 2013 Westgate shopping centre attack in Kenya, and the terrorist bombings in 2009 in Jakarta and 2005 in Bali.