By Denis Bright
The publication of George Orwell’s 1984 in 1949 came with foreboding about the emergence of Big Brother States on the extremes of both sides of the political divide from General Franco’s Spain to Enver Hoxha’s Albania.
Older readers might recall the selective targeting of left activists and anti-Vietnam war protesters by our intelligence services during the Cold War era in Australia. More immediate threats to national security from far-right Croatian terrorists were conveniently overlooked (The Guardian Online 29 July 2016).
While the excesses of the White Australia Policy have been sanitized since the 150th Anniversary of Captain Arthur Phillip’s landing at Sydney Cove in 1788, far-right groups retained a strong outreach (The Conversation 13 April 2018):
Far-right political groupings are a constant feature on the fringes of Australian politics. In the 1950s and 1960s, they included the League of Rights and minuscule neo-Nazi parties. In the 1980s, there was National Action, the Australian Nationalist Movement, Australians Against Further Immigration and the Citizens Electoral Council.
In recent years, we have witnessed the emergence of a number of groups that combine online organisation with intimidating street activity: Reclaim Australia, Rise Up Australia, the Australian Defence League, the United Patriots Front, True Blue Crew and Antipodean Resistance.
While hostility between – and within – far-right groups is typical, they are united by their nationalism, racism, opposition to “alien” immigration and disdain for democracy.
Most far-right activists continue to be excluded from polite society. But the endorsement of their ideas by some mainstream political figures has allowed them to make creeping gains into the political culture.
Before his appointment to the High Court in February 1975, the Whitlam Government’s Attorney-General Lionel Murphy (1972-75) noted that ASIO and other Australian intelligence agencies had allowed blind-spots to emerge in their assessment of far-right groups in Australia. The details are covered in Paul Lynch’s article for the Evatt Foundation.
Lionel Murphy sought out his own security file at ASIO headquarters in Melbourne on a controversial raid in the presence of Australian Federal Police on the evening of 6 March 1973 (The Australian Online 15 September 2017):
Murphy believed ASIO was withholding information on Croatian terrorist organisations. The real reason Murphy raided ASIO, they claim, was to get a hold of his own file. Murphy feared ASIO might have incriminating evidence of links with communists.
When he showed up, some say quite intoxicated, he demanded that ASIO produce his file. He was told there was no such file. Not convinced, Murphy apparently thumbed through files looking for anything under “M”. He had also searched index cards at ASIO offices in Canberra and Adelaide.
Intelligence agencies have since been subjected to public inquiries by two reports of the Hope Royal Commission and the more recent Flood Inquiry (2004).
Former High Court Judge Michael Kirby believed that more accountability is still required from our intelligence networks (Cathy Alexander from Crikey Online 27 May 2014).
Former High Court justice (and student politician) Michael Kirby lamented that his file was “disappointingly small”. It started when he was a boy of eight, because his grandmother married a Communist Party member.
The man in question took Kirby to the zoo where the file showed “we were recorded near the lion’s den”, Kirby told the audience gravely.
But jokes aside, he said the book showed ASIO’s surveillance of people “went far beyond what was proportional”.
Yes, Australia needs a security agency, but there should be strong checks on surveillance, Kirby argued. And he said Edward Snowden’s revelations about the use security agencies made of IT to watch people compounded the issue.
“This is the new challenge of security in today’s world,” Kirby said. “We must keep sceptical about security agencies.”
Powers available to intelligence agencies have been widened in the interests of cybersecurity (The Guardian Online 5 December 2018):
In August, the Coalition released the telecommunications access and assistance bill, which gives law enforcement agencies new powers to deal with the rising use of encryption to keep electronic communications secret.
Applications like Signal, Whatsapp and Wickr, are effectively preventing law enforcement agencies from reading communications intercepted under warrant while investigating crimes.
The bill introduces a new form of “computer access warrant” to allow law enforcement agencies to covertly obtain evidence directly from a device, if approved by a judge or member of the administrative appeals tribunal.
Where a warrant has been issued to intercept telecommunications, the director general of security or head of an intercepting agency can then issue a “technical assistance notice” for a company to assist in decryption.
The attorney general would also gain a power to issue a “technical capability notice” requiring a communications provider to build a new capability that would enable it to give assistance to ASIO and interception agencies.
These changes received bipartisan support after Labor amendments. This leaves the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security of the Australian Parliament is one vital custodian of the fair use of the vast resources made available to intelligence networks:
The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security is required under Section 29(1)(a) of the Intelligence Services Act 2001, to conduct an annual review of the administration, expenditure and financial statements of the Australian Geospatial-Intelligence Organisation (AGO), Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS), Australian Signals Directorate (ASD), Defence Intelligence Organisation (DIO), and the Office of National Assessments (ONA)
Sensing the heightened possibility of a change of government in Canberra in a few weeks, one parliamentary insider noted that our intelligence services are becoming more even-handed in accordance with their legislated real national responsibilities. This inclusive relationship with intelligence networks would be a welcome part of consensus-building on cybersecurity and electronic surveillance.
The political persuasions of decision-making by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security is protected by recurrent information blocks like this Gilbert and Sullivan style directive.
A drift towards greater openness might be in the wind as intelligence services prepare for a change of government in Australia.
The text of an address by the Australian Signals Division (ASD) Director-General, Mike Burgess to the Lowy Institute in Sydney on 28 March 2019 was transmitted online on the ASD site.
This address talks up the even-handed professionalism of the ASD in offensive cyber-operations against Daesh in the Middle East. This would, of course, be welcome news to mainstream politics in Australia.
As Minister for Home Affairs, the Hon Peter Dutton relishes in the politicization of media releases about security issues (14 February 2019):
Under this Government, 12 terrorists have lost their Australian citizenship.
During the last Labor period of Government – no one – not one – person lost their citizenship for any reason.
This is another crucial test for the Leader of the Opposition.
Having caved into Labor’s radical Left and agreed to trash the Coalition’s successful border policies, does he support Mr Dreyfus’ constant efforts to thwart legislation that seeks to protect Australia and Australians?
If Mr Shorten and Mr Dreyfus want to run the lawyer line to look for some technicality to allow terrorists to remain or return to our country – that is an issue for them.
The Morrison Coalition Government will seek to keep them as far from our shores as possible.
Importance of Even-handed Media Coverage of Security Issues
If Australians are to become more comfortable with the extent of cybersecurity and electronic surveillance in troubled times, a much more even-handed from our political insiders on both sides of politics. There are real challenges from far-right nationalists, corporate eves-dropping, criminal networks and rampant tax evasion which are overlooked in the currently highly charged security environment.
Australia’s welfare and security are compromised by the extent of the Black Economy which has been covered in the Final Report of the Black Economy Taskforce from the Australian Treasury dated October 2017.
The Taskforce Report notes that this Black Economy has doubled in size as a percentage of GDP since the election of the federal LNP in 2013:
The black economy is not standing still, but rapidly shifting and evolving in step with wider economic, technological and social changes. It is a growing problem which, if not dealt with, can develop a dangerous momentum of its own: a ‘race-to-the-bottom’ which we are already seeing in particular areas.
In 2012, the Australian Bureau of Statistics estimated that the black economy equated to 1.5 per cent of GDP, with the illicit drug industry adding a further 0.4 per cent of GDP. This estimate is now outdated. We consider that the black economy could be as large as 3 per cent of GDP (roughly $50 billion) today, given the trends we identify in this Report.
A sense of urgency is needed from policymakers, leaving behind business-as-usual approaches from the past. A new strategy and commitment are required: one which addresses underlying causes, not symptoms, while keeping regulatory burdens low; one which goes beyond tax; and one which breaks down agency silos and embraces joint action and the intelligent use of data and analytics. This Taskforce was a genuinely whole-of-government undertaking, bringing together 20 Commonwealth agencies.
If Bill Shorten makes it to the Lodge in a few weeks, there is real scope for a more even-handed appraisal of national security and supervision of the corporate databases which are monitoring the Australian population.
In researching this article, I made polite inquiries with the RISQ Group in Sydney which boasts an association with Sterling Talent Solutions.
The capacity of the multinational RISQ Group to challenge the presumption of innocence by assisting in assessments of new recruits and existing staff members challenges our legal traditions and needs a full parliamentary inquiry so that legislative amendments can be drafted to control future abuses of corporate power. It is just the tip of corporate monitoring networks with multinational connections whose legal status needs thorough investigation.
Electronic eves-dropping and systematic data collection are alive and well across the corporate sector from the antics of Facebook and Google to self-proclaimed homespun commercial sites like Ancestry.com with their wide access to government databases.
Good reporting is always needed to expose threats to civil liberties in a digital age which might go unnoticed without the resources of the ABC and progressive news analysis sites like the Guardian and the Saturday Paper.
The excesses of the regional election results in parts of NSW on 23 March 2019 are in the processes of being rectified in a quite unexpected manner. Here is the new action scenario.
Some Positive Outcomes of the NSW State Election
As expected, centre-right minor parties made big advances at the NSW state election with the comparative successes for the Shooters, Farmers and Fishers Party (SFF) with encouragement from One Nation (SMH Online 26 March 2019):
In the NSW Legislative Council, One Nation and the SFF have achieved a combined 2.5 quotas (ABC News Online 26 March 2019). This adds to the influence of the two far-right Legislative Councillors who continue their eight-year term from the 2015 election.
The NSW state election result has enormous implications for the federal election in NSW, Queensland the NT and WA in mid-May 2019. However, the most recent bomb-shell from Al Jazeera has dashed some of the optimism from One Nation.
Senior One Nation figures James Ashby and Steve Dickson claim they had been “on the sauce” drinking scotch for “three or four hours” when discussing seeking a $20m donation from the National Rifle Association to the far-right Australian party.
Ashby and Dickson faced the media on Tuesday after an Al-Jazeera investigation revealed the two men had sought millions in donations from the NRA during a trip to the US last year, in a bid to seize the balance of power and weaken Australia’s gun laws.
Dickson said the party’s leader, Pauline Hanson, was “quite ill” and unable to appear publicly.
Instead, Dickson and Ashby faced questions about their interactions with a journalist, Rodger Muller, who used a hidden camera and posed as a grassroots gun campaigner to expose the party’s extraordinary efforts to secure funding in Washington DC in September.
Political morality has temporarily triumphed over populism and expediency. The criticism of One Nation by Prime Minister Morrison is timely and appropriate. On the wider issues of cybersecurity, electronic surveillance and data collection on just about every aspect of our private and public lives, it’s time to reach out to more even-handed intelligence services for greater protection of Australian sovereignty.
The brightness of Australian landscapes, international peace and social justice must triumph over the need for private arsenals of guns and knives to offer illusionary protection for lifestyles and civil liberties at a confusing time for humanity.
Ironically, in middle age impressionist artists, Tom Roberts (1856-1931) and Arthur Streeton (1867-1943) served Australia’s military commitment to the Great War (1914-18). Arthur Streeton was indeed the official war artist with the Australian Imperial Force during the last months of warfare in France during 1918.
The sombre mood of Streeton’s battle-field paintings should stand as a stark warning to contemporary advocates of shooters rights at home and gun-ho military adventures with the US Global Alliance as advocated by One Nation and other far-right political movements (Art Gallery of NSW showing Mount St. Quentin 1918).
Fortunately, the impressionist school is better remembered by the creative works of youth like Arthur Streeton’s Ariadne which was created in 1895 (National Gallery of Australia).
Like traditional D grade horror movies, the macabre still has its fascination in mainstream politics. Fear is still an important element to rattle the electorate in very emotionally charged debates which define mainstream politics. Hopefully, One Nation may have overplayed its hand in negotiations with the NRA and with Election 2019 restored as a fair debate between pragmatic policy options rather another soap opera.
Denis Bright is a member of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA). Denis has qualifications in journalism, public policy and international relations. He is committed to citizens’ journalism by promoting discussion of topical issues from a critical structuralist perspective. Readers are encouraged to continue the discussions in this current series of Trending Issues for Australians in this election year.
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