Julian Assange was moved eight years ago by similar convictions to take matters into WikiLeaks’ own hands and begin releasing documents on American war crimes in Iraq, U.S. diplomatic machinations worldwide and the internal affairs of the Democratic Party. They were greeted with official outrage because they told the truth. Then, in 2013, American journalist Glenn Greenwaldpublished the revelations of Edward Snowden about mass telecommunications surveillance by the United States. For their pains, both Assange and Snowden are now exiles.
But with that, everything changed, Snowden later recalled:
"The government and corporate sector preyed on our ignorance. But now we know. People are aware now."
Americans may be aware, but John Stapleton is doubtful about how aware Australians are. He and other former journalists are resorting to "faction" to reach the reading public without getting arrested. In his fact-based novel Hideout in the Apocalypse (2018), Stapleton’s alter-ego, Old Alex, despairingly observes governments growing more arrogant, individual politicians becoming increasingly timid, stories in the media thinning in quality and ‘the populace as a whole [growing]increasingly disaffected.’
'The more the authorities claim their secrecy is in the "national interest", the less it’s likely that what they are up to is in the public interest.'
Canberra, where barrister Pam Burton grew up, itself becomes a character in her novel, ‘a shadowy town. Spy city, that’s what it’s become’ (A Foreign Affair, 2016).
Broadcaster Chris Uhlmann is on their wavelength in the latest of his three novels, Secret City(2018). He quotes Malcolm Turnbull cynically harking back to Mark Twain: ‘Only fiction has to be credible.’ This must be the Prime Minister’s take on the "core and non-core" promises of one of his predecessors and the ‘no cuts to education, no cuts to health, no change to pensions, no change to the GST and no cuts to the ABC or SBS’ of another. Uhlmann can be expected to expand on spies and lies in his Manning Clark lecture on 12 July, as well as on the surveillance culture, which, surreptitiously cultivated, has done considerable damage to Canberra and Australia since 2001.
Noam Chomsky on George Orwell, the Suppression of Ideas and the Myth of American Exceptionalism
We used to believe that official lies and propaganda were what Hitler, Stalin, and Mao did, while in democracies like ours people were free to debate and public servants to advise. Ministers took responsibility for their decisions and resigned for misleading us or the Parliament. The trend is now the other way. As the American founding fathers knew, a well-informed public is essential for a functioning democracy. But with unprecedented access to information, we are adrift in a flood of opinion – some of it factual, some false – and we can fish out of it what suits us, or others want us to believe.
Democratic governments foist on us propaganda about an endless "War on Terror" and a succession of enemies – from radical Islam, to Russian assassins, to Chinese spies – frightening citizens into accepting laws that allow unrestricted invigilation of every aspect of their lives. Paradoxically, while our leaders invoke an "international rules-based order", their laws resemble those of tyrannical regimes, preventing citizens from finding out what those in control are doing and making it unlawful even to ask. The more the authorities claim their secrecy is in the "national interest", the less it’s likely that what they are up to is in the public interest.
Such activities can go on for years before we find out about them. Egregious examples have recently emerged in Australia, thanks to two Royal Commissions and what remains of investigative reporting.
The release from 90 sites, including RAAF bases and numerous Fire Brigade stations, of carcinogenic chemicals (poly-fluoroalkyl, PFAS) used as fire retardants continued long after their danger to humans and the environment was known. Australia has not yet joined the 171 countries which have banned them. Class actions for compensation are being contested by the Government.
The abuse of children by clergy in Australian churches and religious institutions was known and concealed for decades, and many allegations remain unresolved by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
The fraudulent and illegal behaviour of Australian banks and insurance companies would not have been publicised without another Royal Commission (Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry), whose establishment conservative politicians sought to prevent. Its final report is still awaited.
Allegations of bribery in Malaysia involving the Reserve Bank’s Securency operation have not been resolved. In June 2015, the Victorian Supreme Court suppressed them. After WikiLeakspublished the Court’s order in full in July, the suppression order was lifted (Ben Butler, ‘Bishop finally acknowledges “serious” Najib corruption scandal’, Australian, 29 July 2016).
Australian ministers have claimed the "Pacific Solution" sets an example to the world for dealing with asylum seekers. After a 26-year-old Iranian refugee apparently committed suicide, the Refugee Action Coalitionreported that he was the 12th person to die in Australian offshore detention and the fifth in Nauru. Australian journalists are not allowed to report on Manus and Nauru and censorship of medical staff was lifted only when they threatened to leave.
Australia in 2013, helped in drafting and negotiating the UN Arms Trade Treaty aimed, as the Government announced, ‘to reduce the impact of armed violence on communities around the world’. Yet Australia now seeks to become a military exporter, with part of the defence industry in every state, subsidised by $200 billion of taxpayers’ money. At least that’s not a secret.
#Nauru, a 26-year-old Iranian asylum seeker has been found dead, believed to have suicided, this morning, found dead in his family’s tent in the RPC 3 compound this morning. The family had desperately sought medical help for his mother, Fazileh:http://www.refugeeaction.org.au/?p=6872
The democratic contract is broken. The freedom of Australians to go about their daily lives without being watched by their government has vanished with barely a whisper of protest.
Professor of Law at UNSW George Williams argues that the war on terror has recast the relationship between governments and individuals.
The rushed nature of more than 60 pieces of anti-terror legislation passed since 9/11 has shown up flaws in our political system, including the lack of legal rights to privacy or freedom of speech.
Williams says: “In key areas the powers gifted to ASIO are disproportionate. There are a long list of things where the operation of ASIO now lies outside normal democratic values.”
Barrister Greg Barns, adviser to Wikileaks, argues that with the gifting of ever more powers to ASIO Australian democracy is dying.
He describes last year’s spectacle of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and the state premiers lining up to declare their support for the arresting of suspects as young as 10 and their detention for 14 days without charge as sickening.
ASIO can act with virtual immunity and could, during the course of this detention, deprive people of sleep and refuse access to family members, a clear breach of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Mr Barns says: “ASIO has the capacity to invade every person’s every communication and movement. The use of taxpayer funds to surveil, harass and spy on NGOs and ethnic groups is now ASIO’s bread and butter.”
The best pointer to the present is the past. Dr Meredith Burgmann’s book Dirty Secrets: Our ASIO Files revealed a long history of excessive surveillance of Australian citizens, and misuse of the information thus obtained.
Under the 30-year secrecy rules ASIO more than 10,000 files, often heavily redacted, have come to light.
The targets speak of the waste of public resources that went into their surveillance, and the often slipshod or inaccurate nature of the results.
The organisation formed to root out subversion took upon itself to monitor everyone from gay activists to early feminists. The anti-intellectuality of a military ethos is evident throughout the files.
Humans are mammals. If the feel they are being watched, they instinctively fear they are about to be eaten.
Surveillance causes the perpetrators to act like predators and the targets like prey.
Harvard’s Bruce Schneier, author of Data and Goliath, says psychologists, sociologists, philosophers, novelists, and technologists have all written about the effects of surveillance. It creates ill health and strips people of their dignity.
“There’s a reason why surveillance states aren’t the ones that flourish; it’s profoundly inhumane,” he says.
The Australian government has ignored the negative consequences, hoping only for a docile population.
Journalist Glenn Greenwald, author of the book on Edward Snowden No Place to Hide, writes this model of surveillance creates the illusion of freedom:
The compulsion to obedience exists in the individual’s mind. Individuals choose on their own to comply, out of fear that they are being watched. With the control internalised, the overt evidence of repression disappears because it is no longer necessary. It is a profound victory.
Of all the target groups, Muslims have been the most impacted by the expansion of the surveillance state. It contributes directly to estrangement and resentment, and to the extremism it is meant to resolve.
To a man, or woman, the Muslim minority regard Australia’s participation in Middle Eastern wars as akin to terror, placing them at direct odds with the government.
Muslim spokesman Keysar Trad says: “The fear relating to surveillance is eroding the level of trust of not only authority figures, but of ordinary people, who is monitoring, who is reporting, who is misreading what they see and hear..”
On the opposite side of the panel, members of Reclaim Australia shrug off their surveillance, saying it’s a stupid waste of public money and they are not doing anything wrong. They have already been interviewed by the intelligence services and obliged to sign contracts keeping the discussions secret.
Co-founder Catherine Brennan says. “We are not radicals. Our views are not that far from a lot of Australians. We speak with counter-terrorist officers regularly. People will tell us things before they tell the police, they feel more comfortable with us.”
The key to the lack of protest over surveillance lies with the nature of public debate.
There have long been rumours that agencies have placed personnel or informants throughout Australia’s media organisations.
For decades the CIA has spent millions manipulating the media, including placing personnel into key positions. There is every reason to assume something similar is occurring here.
Journalist Andrew Fowler’s new book Shooting the Messenger says: “The fear of terrorism is used by governments as a way of persuading populations to hand over billions of dollars to fund mass surveillance systems. These systems suck up vast amounts of material around the globe and use it mainly to further their economic, strategic and diplomatic objectives.”
Tuned out, indifferent to the antics of the political caste, the remarkable thing is how quickly the public has accepted all of this: the data retention laws, the jailing of whistleblowers and journalists, the extensive monitoring of social media by public servants.
Even the detention of 10-year-olds.
The devolution of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation into little more than a government propaganda wing could not have been better illustrated than last year’s story of the Prime Minister’s pledge to introduce legislation to detain without charge people accused of terror related offenses without charge.
For their expert the ABC chose Barrie Cassidy, presenter of Insiders each Sunday, who fulsomely agreed with the government that a loss of civil liberties was necessary in the age of terror.
It was not as if critics were hard to find.
President of the Law Council of Australia, Fiona McLeod SC, said: “It’s the combined shock of having a pre-charge detention of up to 14 days and the revelation they’re going to seek to have this extended to the age of 10. We’re talking about grade four kids. This has crossed the line.”
One of Australia’s most famous sons, whistleblower Julian Assange, has been ignored or reviled by his own government. Exactly the reason why the last word belongs to him:
“The world is not sliding, but galloping into a new transnational dystopia. The internet, our greatest tool of emancipation, has been transformed into the most dangerous facilitator of totalitarianism we have ever seen. Within a few years, global civilisation will be a postmodern surveillance dystopia, from which escape for all but the most skilled individuals will be impossible.”
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.
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 NBN, 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.
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?
Tomorrow: Section Three: The future has arrived.
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.