Australia has been seduced by creeping authoritarianism – and its citizens need to wake up | Jeff Sparrow | Opinion
For most of its history, Australia managed with no specific federal legislation dealing with terrorism.
That might seem shocking, since, in the past 18 years, politicians have passed more than 60 anti-terror laws, generally on a bipartisan basis.
That “hyper-legislation” brought us, as Rebecca Ananian-Welsh notes, “expansive lists of criminal offences with uniformly severe penalties, and … vast powers [for] police and intelligence agencies to search, seize, surveil and even detain.”
In 2001, when the first anti-terror measures were mooted, the then president of Liberty Victoria, Chris Maxwell, queried why they were required at all.
“All that distinguishes a ‘terrorist’ act from any other criminal act,” he said, “is its scale and its political motivation … We already have offences like murder, like conspiracy to commit murder. We don’t need this whole set of new powers to be conferred.”
Yes, the acts committed by terrorists could be devastating, as 9/11 had shown. But so could plenty of other crimes. Paedophiles were morally worse than terrorists; rapists were harder to prosecute; domestic assailants killed more Australians – and yet we still accorded all of them the customary rights and protections.
The checks and balances of a democratic legal system had, after all, been won through centuries of struggles. They were universalised for a reason. As soon as you allowed an exception, that exception would invariably be normalised and extended.
The raid on the ABC perfectly illustrates how undemocratic practices might spread. The AFP arrived to investigate the so-called “Afghan Files”, documents that included allegations of soldiers killing unarmed men and boys, and mutilating corpses.
Irrespective of the truth of those particular claims, we know that, in Oruzgan province, Australian troops have reportedly worked closely with the late warlord Matiullah Khan, a man notorious for human rights atrocities.
Realising that their mission depended on Khan’s co-operation, the ADF appeared to have turned a blind eye to his reputation. Not surprisingly, they also appeared to have sought to minimise the journalistic scrutiny of their operations: as the academic Kevin Foster argued, the Australian defence force in Afghanistan “regarded the media … as a potential threat to its reputation management strategies”.
The raid on Annika Smethurst related to an article she wrote suggesting that the Australian Signals Directorate wanted further powers to monitor Australians without their knowledge.
A government that wouldn’t countenance spying on its citizens need not fear anything from scrutiny. Equally, the kind of regime that wants to snoop on everyone’s digital communications is precisely the sort that wouldn’t want journalists to report on its snooping.
Something similar might be said about the long-term consequences of refugee policy.
On Monday, an asylum seeker set himself on fire on Manus Island, the most recent in dozen attempts at self-harm in the former detention centre since the federal election.
If these appalling statistics don’t register with the Australian public, it’s no surprise.
In this country, 9/11 coincided with the arrival of the Tampa – and the general atmosphere of emergency facilitated the development of an increasingly draconian system, one that always required careful media management. The director general of defence communication strategies, Brian Humphreys, reportedly testified to a Senate select committee that defence minister Peter Reith instructed his staff to not humanise the refugees.
Offshore detention made the prevention of that humanisation easier, simply by placing asylum seekers a long way from the Australian media.
It also fostered an overtly colonial and authoritarian engagement with the regimes housing the camps.
In Nauru, for instance, the Australian government helped develop the local government’s policy for excluding journalists from the detention centre, even as, according to the Lowy Institute, the island “lurched towards authoritarianism”.
The anti-colonial writer Aimé Césaire noted how the abrogation of democratic principles by westerners in the developing world led inevitably to repression within Europe itself.
“[A] gangrene sets in,” he said, “a centre of infection begins to spread … a poison has been distilled into the veins of Europe and, slowly but surely, the continent proceeds toward savagery.”
We’ve seen, in recent years, the development – with the support of both major parties – of a regional infrastructure designed to keep refugees isolated in appalling conditions seemingly indefinitely.
Now, that hostility to the media, mostly expressed abroad, has started to manifest at home.
Thankfully, the recent intimidation of journalists has generated widespread outrage.
But if we are to push back against the growing authoritarianism, it’s not enough merely to defend these particular reporters (as important as that is).
Last month, for instance, we learned that Julian Assange faced up to 170 years in prison after the American government charged him under the Espionage Act for material published on WikiLeaks. The Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom refused to defend him, insisting that he wasn’t a journalist and couldn’t “hide behind arguments in support of press freedom”.
Yet as former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger argued, the American efforts to punish Assange represented a profoundly disturbing assault on free speech that constituted a wake-up call to all journalists. “You may not like Assange,” he concluded, “but you’re next.”
And so it came to pass.
In the struggle for democratic freedoms, we need to ensure that rights apply to everyone – for, if they don’t, they’ll soon apply to none.
• Jeff Sparrow is a Guardian Australia columnist