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Who guards the guardians?

In July, as part of a freedom of information request from the Guardian, customs – now part of the immigration department with the creation of the Australian Border Force – was forced to make public material outlining the legal processes, policy framework and operational objectives involved in conducting asylum seeker turnback and towback operations.

But the secretary of the immigration department, Michael Pezzullo, is now launching an appeal in the administrative appeals tribunal, at our expense, to fight that ruling on the grounds that, under freedom of information laws, when an agency invokes national security as an exemption, the information commissioner must consult the inspector general of intelligence and security before it can be released.

I have never really understood how asylum seeker policy falls under the banner of “national security”.

In November 2013 Geoffrey Robertson gave the 2013 Human Rights Oration to celebrate the 65th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A lot has happened in the almost two years since he gave his speech but his words are worth revisiting, even more so today.

“Well, who guards the guardians? This … we have Edward Snowden to thank for revealing that we live in the world that Orwell dreamed of, where there is no hiding place for any electronic communication. He revealed the Prism, which picks up your conversation if you use any one of 70,000 key words that it automatically hoovers up for storage and subsequent reading. If you say “Bin Laden” on your telephone conversation with your lover, that will be swept up. If you say “Assange”, it will be swept up. And there are 70,000 other words that Prism is calculated to pick up. Now, not only conversations of that kind. At some point the decision makers – we don’t know quite who they are – in the arrangement, which is basically Britain and America, with Australia, Canada and New Zealand thrown in, decided it would be a good idea to pick up the conversations – the private conversations – on mobile telephones of world leaders, beginning with Angela Merkel.

None of this has anything to do with terrorism. It has to do with picking up gossip and tittle-tattle and feeding that to politicians. That’s what it’s all about. And, of course, it is ironic that the first public victim – I say public because I understand there have been a lot of private victims, who maybe even don’t know that they’re victims of the gossip and tittle-tattle – but the first public victim was none other than General Petraeus. He was the best solider that America had. He was about to be made head of the CIA. And on his metadata, which is the records they could get of everyone who ever calls him or he ever calls, they discovered that he’s been having an affair with his biographer, which disqualified him from the CIA.

Well, now we have DSD, our defence intelligence service, and the revelation of the fact that in 2009 they were boasting – and I’ve seen the document, and it is really a very boastful PowerPoint presentation – of how they, the intelligent Australians, were able to bug the mobile phone of the wife of the Indonesian President. My first instinct – my first advice – was, “No, this is some sort of plant”. I mean on every page they had this moronic, puerile motto stamped heavily, “Steal their secrets. Keep ours”. I said, “These are intelligent Australians. They wouldn’t have a motto as corny as that on every page”. Well, of course they do. And this is interesting because if you think about it, there is nothing to do with terrorism, there is nothing to do with Australia’s national security, that could rationally be gleaned from the mobile phone of the wife of the Indonesian President.

What d*ckhead made this decision? Because look at the consequences.

I looked at the Australian Security Act last night and, bizarrely, there are some protections for Australians, but basically DSD can do what it likes to non-Australians.

There is this James Bond idea that they’re licensed to kill, they can be licensed to do anything, and we give them a carte blanche because we think that they’re spending their time on terrorism. Quite clearly they’re not. In this case they were spending their time on tittle-tattle, and hoovering it up from the Australian Embassy in Indonesia, which was a breach of international law, a breach of the Vienna Convention, and even more interestingly, I think, a breach of the Australian law.

Who issued an authorisation requiring the tapping of the telephone of the Indonesian politicians and the President’s wife? What happened to oversight?

How come the guardians of the intelligence service, set up by the Hope Report, failed so abjectly to identify this improper behaviour and to deal with it? The Inspector General of Security, the Parliamentary Committee, there’s even a Ministerial Security Adviser – all statutory positions, all guardians who have failed in their duty to ensure that Australian intelligence collects intelligence on our enemies, and not the tittle-tattle from our friends.

Or did we just do it because the Americans told us to…

If we shrug our shoulders and say, as the Australian Prime Minister said in Colombo a couple of days ago – I quote – “Sometimes in difficult circumstances, difficult things happen”. Human rights atrocities are not “difficult things”. They are evils, and the Universal Declaration enjoins us to condemn them.

So Sri Lanka claims that the human rights situation has improved markedly. That’s a lie. Two Human Rights Committee resolutions on the country’s human rights and the lack of accountability have been met with silence. This August, the UN Commissioner, Navi Pillay, reported that Sir Lanka curtailed or denied personal freedoms and human rights, that the country’s leaders still acted with impunity in the absence of the rule of law. And she describes an environment of increased militarisation, enforced disappearances, violence against women and religious minorities, silencing of opposition voices, and increasingly fearful press. And in the lead up this year to the Commonwealth Conference, the government destroyed the independence of the judiciary.

Well, Australia donated its gunboats and Mr Abbott defended the government. I quote, “Sometimes in difficult circumstances difficult things happen”. Like killing 70,000 civilians. Anyway, it seemed to be a long-winded paraphrase of Donald Rumsfeld’s “stuff happens”. But genocide is not stuff. It’s not a difficult thing that happens. Nor is torture or mass rape or mass murder. These are breaches of a universal law, which must, when they happen, be universally condemned by every state that takes its international obligations seriously. And I don’t make this as a party-political point: turning a blind eye to Sri Lanka human rights breaches was just as much Bob Carr’s policy as Julie Bishop’s.

But their thinking is … this seems to be the thinking of Australian governments that this will somehow help to stop Tamil asylum seekers. Now I think this is a very foolish, and actually very ignorant, approach, for two reasons. Firstly, because the history of human rights proves that you can’t deal with leaders who are mass murderers. They always lie and cheat and make promises they’ve got no intention of keeping. Of course the patrol boats will be used for the purposes of the Sri Lankan navy, whether it’s shelling civilians or having fireworks displays when the judge is sacked. Human rights violators can’t be trusted not to violate human rights again and again. A second reason is, quite simply, the only way to stop people seeking asylum is to end the persecution that makes them seek asylum and risk their life in doing so.”

But human rights are not important in Abbott’s Australia.

As Father Rod Bowers said, “It is beyond belief that Transfield, a company that has presided over Australian concentration camps amidst allegations of child sexual abuse, rape, torture and murder, could be awarded an extended contract. It is indicative of the delusion that now operates in the Abbott government, and the consequences of unchecked power. This level of disregard for human suffering is reminiscent of the worst days of the church now being exposed by the royal commission.”

Father Rod is a tireless campaigner for social justice. Transfield chairwoman Diane Smith-Gander has asked to meet with Newcastle Anglican Bishop Greg Thompson because they are perturbed about Father Rod’s campaign to stop offshore detention. We should show our public support for his dedication to helping all people on the parish Facebook page.


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  1. gangey1959

    Bring on the Revolution.
    (Let’s start in Canning)

  2. Kaye Lee

    I would really recommend a visit to Father Rod’s facebook page. It is uplifting to know so many people still believe in justice.

    When we see desperate people trying to cross borders, why don’t we ask why they are fleeing their homes? Why are we cutting foreign aid to deliver bombs instead? Why are we locking people up for wanting a better life?

  3. jim

    The last fed election was won on LIES, LIES and more Lies by this right wing government and by the right wing media mainly for the Big Corporations,the RC into the unions and the ALP are more than just about corruption but more about stripping away workers rights and the workers voice to path the way for a cheap workforce like $4 per hour or less so the corporations get more $Billions $.anyway once a LIAR always a liar or LIARS the LNP sicken me to the core.

  4. paul walter

    The whole point of privatising the system a decade ago was to keep Government at arms length so as not to be held accountable for any stuff ups as to duty of care.

    If you don’t run them yourself, how are you to be blamed if things go wrong?

    Howard didn’t do this stuff to improve the system financially or in humanitarian terms, but to eliminate scrutiny and accountability, but it has been refined ever since

  5. mars08

    If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to be worried about…. of something similarly inane…

  6. Jexpat

    Caught a brief bit on radio wherein the Anglican Bishop of Newcastle (I think that’s who it was- could have been Father Bower, himself) said words to the effect that [ahem] “I’m surprised that Transfield would want to bring such attention to itself and its activities.”

    Reactionaries of course are easily baited. Move a bishop out in chess- and they’ll greedily snag it, not thinking two, much less three or more moves ahead.

  7. Bob

    I don’t know if you’d expect any better when the training course for all of our intel agencies comprises watching episodes of Get Smart. At any moment 10% of ASIO operatives are in psychiatric treatment, the other 90% are in denial.

  8. Denis Bright in Brisbane

    Thanks to Kaye Lee for reminding everyone that the Transfield camps still exist and continue to make a profit from this misery. Obviously, the Gosford Anglican parish cares and wants alternatives. More bombing in Syria will bring more business to Transfield and its ilk.

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