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Transparent and accountable? Hardly!

In some countries they kill people who criticise the ruling regime.

In Australia they are sacked, gagged, defunded, disbanded or threatened with incarceration.

Within hours of taking office, public servants who had had anything to do with climate change were sacked, the Climate Change Department was disbanded, the Climate Commission was abolished and the Climate Change Authority was under attack.

The office of Prime Minister and Cabinet was issued with a manual warning against making comments, whether at work or in a private capacity, that could be perceived as biased or as harsh or extreme criticisms of “the government, government policies, a member of Parliament from another political party, or their respective policies.” They were also instructed to dob in any colleagues who made critical comments on social media even if anonymously.

“If you receive or become aware of a social media communication by another PM&C employee that is not consistent with this policy, you should advise that person accordingly and inform your supervisor.”

George Brandis legislated a new offence punishable by five years in jail for “any person” who disclosed information relating to “special intelligence operations”. The person would be liable for a 10-year term if the disclosure would “endanger the health or safety of any person or prejudice the effective conduct of a special intelligence operation”.

Special intelligence operations are a new type of operation in which intelligence officers receive immunity from liability or prosecution where they may need to engage in conduct that would be otherwise unlawful.

The explanatory memorandum to the bill said the offence applied to “disclosures by any person, including participants in an SIO [special intelligence operation], other persons to whom information about an SIO has been communicated in an official capacity, and persons who are the recipients of an unauthorised disclosure of information, should they engage in any subsequent disclosure”.

Brandis was also responsible for raids confiscating the evidence of Australia illegally bugging the cabinet offices in East Timor when Australia and Timor were negotiating a deal to share revenue from oil and gas deposits under the Timor Sea. He also confiscated the passport of the whistleblower so he could not testify in the International Court of Justice.

This is not the only case in which the government has sought to avoid scrutiny.

In 2009, investigative journalists Nick McKenzie and Richard Baker revealed allegations that Securency, a note-printing company half-owned by the Reserve Bank, had for years paid kickbacks to a wide range of officials in Vietnam, Indonesia, Nepal and a number of other countries. In time, the allegations would extend to officials of Note Printing Australia, a company fully owned by the Reserve Bank.

A Victorian Supreme Court superinjunction obtained by DFAT allegedly to protect Australia’s international relations was actually to gag the media from reporting on the case.

Similarly, doctors and service providers who work in immigration detention centres have been gagged.

Dr Richard Kidd said the Australian Border Protection Act presents a threat to whistleblower doctors working in detention centres as they could face two years in prison if they publicly disclose failures in detention health care.

Psychiatrist Dr Peter Young revealed the immigration department had explicitly told International Health and Medical Services to ”withdraw” figures showing children in detention were suffering very high levels of mental illness.

Scott Morrison said that claims by the human rights commission president, Professor Gillian Triggs, of self-harm and sick children were ”sensational” – a view that has been disproven by Morrison’s own Moss Review which confirmed the concerns of the HRC.

The Abbott government is following the course set by the Howard government which made efforts to ensure the non-profit sector was prevented from voicing unwelcome opinions. Contracts with community sector organisations routinely included gag clauses and reserved the right to censor public statements before they were released.

After Howard lost the 2007 election, the incoming Labor government immediately began rewriting thousands of contracts with the non-profit sector, removing the gag. But it was only in its dying months, in May 2013, that the previous government managed to put this independence into legislation, through the non-profit sector freedom to advocate bill.

Nonetheless, the gags are coming back, if in somewhat modified form. While the government cannot – because of that legislation – completely prevent advocacy by community law centres, it can insist that no money it provides is used for the purpose. If these groups want to advocate, they can fund it with money from other sources, or do it, as Brandis suggested in estimates, in their spare time.

Brandis revised the service agreements under which the federal government provides funding to community legal centres around Australia.

Previously clause 5 said “The Commonwealth is committed to ensuring that its agreements do not contain provisions that could be used to stifle legitimate debate or prevent organisations engaging in advocacy activities … no right or obligation arising under this Agreement will be read or understood by the Commonwealth as limiting the Organisation’s right to enter into public debate or criticism of the Commonwealth, its agencies, employees, servants or agents.”

But when the Abbott government’s revised agreements went to the organisations in mid-June 2014, all of that was gone. Instead, the new conditions, which came into force on July 1, specifically state that organisations cannot use Commonwealth money for any activity directed towards law reform or advocacy.

Gag clauses, though, are just one means by which the government can seek to stifle advocacy.

“There is any number of ways, if the activities of a charity are inconvenient to the government of the day, that they can make it difficult for those charities,” says Elizabeth McKinnon, a lawyer for the Australian Conservation Foundation.

Using the tax authorities to go after them, for example.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, in 2012 ordered the Canada Revenue Agency to audit a large number of charities, with the threat of action including the removal of the charitable status of those deemed to be diverting too much of their resources to “political” activity.

Greenpeace was stripped of its charitable status in New Zealand in 2005 but won a Supreme Court challenge in August 2014 when the court clarified the definition of a charity, saying political advocacy should not exclude an organisation from achieving charity status.

But that hasn’t stopped Coalition Senator Matt Canavan, Barnaby Joyce’s former Chief of Staff, from insisting punitive action be taken against Greenpeace over its Reef campaign in which it sought to have the World Heritage area listed by UNESCO as “in danger”.

Senator Canavan has written to Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt, urging him to investigate whether Greenpeace’s registration as a tax-deductible organisation can be withdrawn.

Greenpeace chief executive David Ritter said that donations made to the organisation were tax deductible and Greenpeace received no other money from government or corporations, so it was able to hold these organisations to account.

A UNESCO draft report has recommended the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area not be listed as “in danger” due to over-development and long-term degradation.

“This is the strongest possible endorsement of what Australia and Queensland are doing,” Mr Hunt said. “The decision could not be more categorical. It recognises not just the plan, but the real world improvements that are occurring.”

Senior Reef experts, however, have told how a gag order prevented leading scientists from speaking out about flaws in the nation’s Reef 2050 plan.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature cited the Reef 2050 long-term sustainability report as pivotal in the decision not to red-flag the World Heritage-listed natural wonder. But coral reef researchers broke their silence to disclose top-level concerns the $100 million vision was more “glossy campaign brochure” than credible scientific document.

“Australia’s top experts in the government-run Australian Institute of Marine Science and CSIRO have all been gagged from saying anything about it,” reef water quality scientist Jon Brodie said.

“But it is a weak document, written by technocrats, with inadequate measures, very little senior scientific input, and little credibility.”

In the last few weeks we have also seen George Brandis pressuring the major performing arts companies not to speak out against his new National Programme for Excellence in the Arts, the establishment of which accounts for $105 million of the Australia Council for the Art’s lost funding. The new program will be decided by a hand-picked committee answerable to the minister.

Representatives of Brandis’ office met with Sydney Theatre Company chair David Gonski to warn the company from issuing a statement critical of the Australia Council funding cuts. Brandis’ own office appeared to background Daily Telegraph journalist Taylor Auerbach for a hostile article about arts funding, in a tactical leak against the Australia Council.

There was already undisguised hostility in the arts after the Sydney Biennale controversy of last year, where Brandis attacked artists boycotting the festival because of its sponsorship by the Transfield Foundation.

The Abbott government also introduced a bill to undermine and weaken the Freedom of Information Act by abolishing the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, an independent final place of appeal for those seeking documents under the Act. The government has stripped it of its funding – a mere $10.2 million over four years. Appeals to the office cost nothing but the government wants to charge people to appeal to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal – this will cost $861, plus legal advice and representation charges. This is a blatant attack on the freedom currently enjoyed by Australians.

A whole new language of secrecy has evolved – “Commercial in confidence”, “operational matters”, “national security”, “special operations”, “diplomatic relations”.

Despite Tony Abbott telling the Australian public in his Real Solutions booklet that an Abbott led Coalition government would “restore accountability and improve transparency measures to be more accountable to you,” in reality what we’ve seen from this government is the opposite.

Secrecy, being an instrument of conspiracy, ought never to be the system of a regular government.

  • Jeremy Bentham

The best weapon of a dictatorship is secrecy, but the best weapon of a democracy should be the weapon of openness.

  • Niels Bohr

Many of the benefits from keeping terrorism fear levels high are obvious. Private corporations suck up massive amounts of Homeland Security cash as long as that fear persists, while government officials in the National Security and Surveillance State can claim unlimited powers and operate with unlimited secrecy and no accountability.

  • Glenn Greenwald

Take heed Australia

37 comments

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  1. John Kelly

    Not to mention the gagging of Labor asking questions about Barnaby Joyce’s unusual relationship with Gina Rinehart.

  2. David

    There is obviously a gag on the ABC staff who lost their jobs earlier this year in the big saving money con. (Not one of the big earners were kicked out with the plebs). Not a whisper about behind the scenes deals with the Govt, invitations to lunch with Scott and Uhlmann etc etc. Not a word.
    Incidentally Scott M’s 5 year contract ends this year. No word of a replacement or he will be reappointed for a 3rd term. Whatever and whoever, one sure bet, will not be anyone with left leaning principals as we get close to an election.

  3. Aortic

    Why is Bill Shorten not all over the fact that Joyce was not called to account? I would have had the entire opposition asking the question in various forms until that biased harridan of a speaker was forced to allow it.

  4. stephentardrew

    Great research and excellent article Kaye.

    As an add on just to demonstrate how disastrous things are getting:

    We are getting to the point where we are going to need radical action by the left and progressives free from party political bias. Global warming; the TPP and TPIP including ISDS provisions; secret corporate raids on sovereignty in the name of trade deals; the example of the brutal treatment of Greece by the European Central Bank propelled by Germany; unfettered control of the media by the right; endless calls to war when the world is in crisis post Iraq while the Middle East in tatters; apartheid and straight out racism in Israel supported by so called democracies; the lack of accountability for the GFC (not one banker went to jail) and token fines for economic and financial malfeasance by the banks; the appalling treatment of Aboriginal Communities; the total collapse of moral decency concerning refugees; the fabrication of a totalitarian state built upon a concocted fear of terrorism; the off-shoring of wealth and the depth of tax avoidance; the gift to the wealthy through ridiculous superannuation concessions; destruction of RET and devastation of the alternative energy industry; destruction of manufacturing (unemployment yet to flow through the economy in the vehicle industry) vilification and exploitation of low income earners the poor and disabled; unwinding universal health-care; constant lying about the deb that is not a problem at all; the complete incompetence of the treasurer sending us into near recession through dis-proven austerity; the increase in Australian debt contrary to claims by L-NP; the incompetence of Labor as an opposition; the endless cyclical failure of supply sided noe-con econometric modelling (continual boom and bust with no sign of equilibrium in markets regardless of endless Nobel Prizes to economists: if we failed so continuously and spectacularly we would be sacked).

    I could go on but I am sure you get the point.

    This government and opposition are nothing less than a disaster.

    Democracy is dying while people look on oblivious to the depths of the disaster facing us.

    When oh when will we act?

  5. carlo

    maybe labour are doing nothing as opposition and are there purely for the illusion of choice, i mean how can they not bring up all these points against the LNP? All this information would have them in power in no time yet they do nothing.

  6. mars08

    What’s the point of government transparency… if you don’t have and interested, informed, engaged and open-minded electorate?

  7. Kyran

    So many excellent points, Ms Lee. Whilst you have detailed the ‘formal’ or legislated ‘gags’, there is also the imposition of ‘informal gags’. David stole some of my thunder with the observation on the ABC, which highlights the ‘informal gag’. Many good journalists acquiesce on important issues out of fear (my presumption). If they transgress, well, the SBS has set a precedent. I know many people who work in the NFP sector. Private and public comments are radically different, due to the likely impact on funding. As for the legalese our ‘leaders’ hide behind, I find the most amusing “commercial in confidence”. The assumption being they are ‘party’ to a contract and the exclusivity is there to protect the commercial interests. What they keep forgetting to mention is ‘they’ are the ‘party’ representing ‘us’, an inherent part of the contract. The points brought up by stephentardrew, particularly the TPP, are truly terrifying. How can you be a party to a contract without being allowed to see the contract? One cannot help but note the new ‘special intelligence operations’ category. Indeed, our current parliament is a very, very special intelligence, desperately in need of an operation. Thank you, Ms Lee. Take care

  8. diannaart

    Australian leaders are setting an example of peace to despots everywhere; no need to kill inconvenient dissidents when there is a plethora of means to silence those who dare to question.

    I do hope Brandis was spotted stroking a fluffy white cat while expounding upon the freedom of choice Australia has to offer.

    Happy days…

  9. brickbob

    The irony is that we all have the means at our finger tips in this 21st century to search and probe for information,but because of peoples apathy and a compliant MSM things wont change,it is only when we rectify those 2 problems will we start to see the light.””””

  10. Bronte ALLAN

    Its all ok people, our “Minister for Science” (??), is the one & only tony abscess! And he OBVIOUSLY knows “all” about climate change etc, so we MUST be in good hands! NOT!!

  11. Florence nee Fedup

    Does Mr Brandis realise the money is not his or his government. It is taxpayers money. As such, we have the right to hear any concerns that agencies funded by this government have. Government has no right to cut off legitimate criticism.

    Most agencies have two roles. To provide a service and to advocate on behalf of their clients.

    Secrecy in government is wrong, very wrong. There needs to be transparency in all levels of government.

  12. Florence nee Fedup

    Scott not re applying Finish in July I think. Do not know if pushed. Suspect he has had enough. Many6 senior officials in Immiration for one department are walking. It is said they have had it.

  13. Jane Pullenvale

    Just watch question time sometimes all those of you asking of Labor why they don’t do this, or don’t do that. Bronwyn Bishop shut down questions about Barnaby Rubble before they had even been asked. Tony Burke gave one of the most passionate and brilliant speeches in response I have seen this year. Bill Shorten has also delivered some great stuff in the house, but try getting it reported outside in the MSM. Bishop has turned the Reps into a farcical daily parade of Dorothy Dixers and self-congratulatory bullshit, while ejecting a record number of the opposition in any Parliament.

  14. reality check

    Democracy requires an informed, engaged citizenry. With the systemic apathy of people in the general populace, it is not surprising the rodents have over-run the hen house.

  15. rosemaryJ36

    What is there to add. Time for revolution?

  16. Florence nee Fedup

    This silly mob do not realise, all will come out when they lose government. No one is in power for ever.

    Has anyone else noticed that Abbott is sounding more like Premier Petersen every day,

    Wonder if he took him as a model.

  17. Kaye Lee

    Don’t you worry about that, you people

  18. Florence nee Fedup

    Out feeding the chooks everyday?

    One cannot have a dictatorship without secrecy.

    Hockey now on Radio National. Everyone is dead wrong. Everyone but him are clowns.

    Freedom of speech must include the right to criticise government at every level.

  19. Terry2

    So far Bishop, Turnbull and Cormann have come out and categorically denied the forensic Cabinet leak to Peter Hartcher at the SMH.

    Yesterday in question time Shorten asked Abbott if he would be seeking assurances from other Cabinet Ministers that they had not leaked.

    Strangely, Abbott refused to answer and chose to prevaricate. I say, strangely as he could have merely said that he had utmost confidence in his Executive etc. etc. but he didn’t, he just avoided the question.

    So, who do you think it was and more importantly why did they do it ?

    My money’s on Morrison but not clear who he would be trying to injure.

    ;

  20. Jennifer Meyer-Smith

    I’ve posted this on Twitter coz I want any and everybody hearing Kaye’s well-researched pleas to be heard for community alertness to the national dangers under this feral Abbott LNP Government to our human rights, civil liberties and public institutions.

  21. diannaart

    Jennifer

    I have passed this into the Twitterverse as well – can’t hurt, might reach ears that have influence.

  22. crypt0

    “Time for revolution?”
    I rather doubt it.
    Australia had a little revolution once, at Ballarat, over the price of mining licences.
    I read somewhere that most of the leaders were from Ireland or elsewhere overseas, and that Peter Lalor went on to become Speaker of the Legislative Assembly.
    He used Chinese as strike-breakers at the Clunes mine, of which he was a director amongst other things … you get the picture.
    So no, I don’t think revolution is anywhere near as great a possibility as an ineffectual, if noisy at times, protest at the neo feudalism which appears to be just over the horizon.
    Anyway … more importantly, what’s on TV tonight ?

  23. mars08

    So… can we rely on the ALP to reverse this foolishness when they form government?

  24. Jexpat

    mars08:

    Well, Labor did make some inroads in that regard last time around- though they took their sweet time about it. I’m optimistic that that they’re learned some lessons from the last go around (evidence of that may be seen in Palaszczuk’s wholesale sacking of the racing boards).

    On the other hand, it looks like Bill Shorten may back Abbot’s citizenship revocation bit… so who can say.

  25. David

    What disturbs me is apart from our knowledge of Abbotts record as a serial liar and some of his Cabinet collegues, it is obvious someone is blatantly lying about leaking. That should be immensely worrying to Abbott as it proves there is an enemy within and whoever it is, their intentions are to bring him down.
    One thing is certain, it isn’t one of the deadbeats, which eliminates most of the Cabinet.

  26. crypt0

    jexpat … “evidence of that may be seen in Palaszczuk’s wholesale sacking of the racing boards)”.
    I would take some heart from that if Palaszczuk were the leader of the Federal ALP.
    Sadly shorten is.
    It is just possible that no-one has been lying about the leaking … if they haven’t been asked yet.
    See Terry 2 above.

  27. Kaye Lee

    Doctors and teachers working in immigration detention facilities could face up to two years in prison if they speak out against conditions in the centres or provide information to journalists, under sweeping new laws to gag whistleblowers.

    The Border Force Act, which was passed quietly on May 14 by both major parties, clamps down on “entrusted people” in detention centres recording or disclosing information about conditions in centres such as those on Nauru and Manus Island.

    Under the heading of “secrecy and disclosure provisions”, the act says releasing information is only permitted by the secretary of the department responsible for detention centres.

    “Under the proposed measures, the unauthorised disclosures of information, including personal information will be punishable by imprisonment for two years,” it says. The new law will be enforced in July in conjunction with the official merger of the Immigration and Customs departments.

    http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/doctors-and-teachers-gagged-under-new-immigration-laws-20150603-ghft05

  28. bossa

    Even though I am aware of all of these issues I’ve never seen it all in one place like this and it’s truly terrifying.

    There is definitely a class war under way, of which most people appear to be oblivious, and, unless we make some fundamental changes to our system of government, the two party system will continue to deliver destructive outcomes which will test the mettle of ordinary people to resist and to make things right.

    This is war, make no mistake.

  29. Florence nee Fedup

    More than class war. There is social engineering underway. Society as we have known it, is becoming a thing of the past.

    We are moving from being our brothers keeper, to the law of the jungle. Every man for themselves.

    We know as human beings, when we stand together we are strong. When we stand alone, we have no power at all.

    Not to sure what one calls it, but we are moving from government of the people, by the people, and for the people to be rule by business corporations.

    The people are to serve corporation state and money, not the other way round.

    Yes, if is war. We cannot under estimate the danger our d4emocracy is in.

  30. darrel nay

    reply for Florence nee Fedup,

    It’s Fascism when corporations scheme with governments.
    Thanks for mentioning social engineering – it is real and expanding in influence. Eugenics anyone.

    cheers

  31. Kaye Lee

    or as Ted Mack put it….

    We seem to have achieved “Government of the people by the powerbrokers, for the mates”.

  32. darrel nay

    reply for Kaye,
    I whole-heartedly agree. I would add that the mess we are in could have been prevented by either party. Left/right has become a false choice.

    Cheers

  33. Glenn

    the “cabinet leak” was intentional and agreed by TA. One only needs to take a step back and look at how it has been discussed by the LNP and presented in and by the MSM. Far too specific not to be intentional (ie endorsed by TA). Seek to understand the objectives and the outcomes. Tactically diversionary but also very covert in shaping public perceptions and impressions of leadership.

  34. Florence nee Fedup

    The only answer I see, we keep voting governments out till they get the message. No way must Abbott gain a second term. They will eventually get the message.

    Funny, how most of my life, it was Labor that was accused of social engineering from those on the right.

    One gets the impression that the likes of Abbott judge others, really believe others act as they do. He lies, he is into extreme ideology, dogma, therefor Labor must be too.

    That is why we a are seeing from Abbott, what to most is paranoia and unexplainable behaviour. His accusations that Shorten will oppose everything. That Labor will oppose the depreciation bill, will still do so in the senate. Abbott believes this, as this would be what he would do in Shortens place. Does not trust bipartisan promises, as Abbott would never agree himself.

    It matters were one looks with this mob, they are treating people as, must say it as crooks, out to destroy their world. Welfare must have basic card. Welfare must keep people in poverty.

    People are basically lazy, must used big stick to make them work. Universal health will be abused. Must make them pay, so they appreciate it. Free education is wrong.

    Most of all, the wealthy are entitled to keep all they earn. After all, it is their money and effort that creates wealth. Labour plays no part.

  35. Florence nee Fedup

    Glen, I agree. Abbott is the leaker. Split his cabinet, got in writing back bench support. No one now to challenge what goes in that bill.

  36. Trevor

    Australian Governments have always enacted laws that seek to delegitamise opposition and advocacy. The latest SALVO from the PSYCHOPATHIC ABBOTT AND HIS RABBLE OF LYING NASTY PRICKS in Government is beyond the pale. In Australia we should remember that this same delegitamisation of advocacy is a global phenomenon and the Abbott Rabble and the Labor opposition are bedfellows in this misuse of the State against legitimate advocacy in Australia and are in concert with all the Western Governments in acting in treasonous manner against the peoples best interest as these elected buffoons and psychopathic liars represent a claer and present danger to the Australian people. But if you relied on the TV News or the Main Press you would be none the wiser. How to organise against this state of affairs will earn those who attempt the ire of the state and the full force of its corrupt shitstem.

  37. David

    Abbott and his Ministers now openly flaunt the rules in Question Time. Make no attempt to answer questions, merely use them to attack the Questioner and the Opposition generally with lies, misinformation all under the protection of the hag in the Chair.
    Parliament is no longer the House of the people, it is another branch of Abbotts insanity.
    We are in deep deep trouble and there seems to be no end in sight.

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