Since arriving in the Senate on July 1, there are two things I have learned. First, lots of people want a piece of the classical liberal senator. There is this boondoggle (the NBN comes to mind); that infringement of free speech (section 18C, among others); and the other encroachment by the surveillance state (Special Intelligence Operations, among many more). I need to ration my time and that of my staff, or none of us would ever sleep.
But with that realisation came another: I would hate to be a backbencher in either of the major parties, or even the Greens. Many of them, I’ve learnt, often don’t even know what they’re voting on. In a sort of anti-Edmund Burke and his plea to politicians to use their own minds, they’ve been reduced to ciphers.
Sometimes I wonder whether this loss of intellectual independence is catching, because the Australian media took a long time to realise just what was lurking in the various tranches of national security legislation that – thanks to a supine Labor – are currently being waved through parliament. Credit to Anthony Albanese for breaking ranks, too; I wonder how long he’ll last.
First there was the potential for torture, raised by me but dismissed by George Brandis and ignored by most of the media. I won that one, but only now is the media starting to wake up to what else is there. All the initial alarms over section 35P – which provides that a person who knowingly or recklessly discloses information about an SIO faces up to 10 years’ gaol – were sounded by lawyers, the likes of Greg Barns and Shane Prince, both criminal barristers. Then I got involved, along with Scott Ludlam.
Scott has a technical background, so focuses on data and computing issues. I’m merely a competent user, so tend to stick to my classical liberal knitting. This means saying, loud and clear, that you cannot bang people up for 10 years because you’ve decided that a particular activity – without independent scrutiny – is super, super secret.
‘Oh yes, lads, let’s call this an SIO and make all those pesky journos and bloggers shut up.’
An attitude of ‘we’re all good guys and ASIO is bloody marvellous’ comes through in spades whenever George Brandis opens his mouth. Facing off against him in the Senate, where Scott Ludlam and I were trying to achieve a few modest amendments to the truly awful National Security Bill, I got the strong sense that he thinks Australia’s security agencies are not only paragons of virtue but somehow immune to the blandishments of power.
Ludlam was treated with a mixture of contempt and disdain, presumably on the basis that his only role in life is to be seen and not heard and, oh, fix George’s computer when it won’t start up of a morning. Perhaps because I’ve got a law degree (and am therefore aware of both the secret handshake and periodically allowed – on a discretionary basis, of course – into the Members’ Bar), I was merely the object of condescension.
Thing is, while Australians don’t distrust government and political institutions the way Americans do – and that may be because we’ve generally had a more positive experience with public administration than Americans – we shouldn’t think any government official, let alone a glorified copper, is all-capable.
The AFP have already managed to make themselves look like the Keystone Federal Cops in one anti-terror raid, netting themselves a plastic sword and nicking the very people Islamic State are most likely to kill in Iraq and Syria – Shi’ites.
Seriously, Fuzzers, you’re big boys now, learn to work the sectarianism issue. The Brits managed to do it in Northern Ireland with Catholics and Protestants. You can, too, with Sunnis and Shi’ites.
Of course, this is exactly the sort of cock-up for which – if some intrepid journo learned about it and had words – there ought to be a public interest defence, SIO or not. Most of the time, governments want to keep stuff secret not because it’s prejudicial to national security, but because it makes some official look like a clueless plonker.
I worry, though, about just how many intrepid journos there are these days. Recently, Greg Sheridan pointed out that the media is much weaker than it once was (or should be), and I think he’s right. Somehow, media – both old and new – need to smarten up when it comes to the important stuff (like 10 years in the slam for doing one’s job).
At the risk of coming over all rhetorical (I mean, first Burke, now Carlyle), the Fourth Estate has to paddle its own canoe sometimes. Last week, I took a piece out of Media Watch for paying more attention to typos in News Ltd papers than the attacks on press freedom in this obnoxious legislation. In reality, though, pretty much everyone was asleep at the wheel. Journos throughout the land are now bellowing – after passage of 35P and all its friends and relatives into law.
No-one made a strong case for the National Security Bill, and the same people are failing to make a case for the oncoming Foreign Fighters Bill; other than a few windy assertions.
I can’t be the only person in Australia who’s noticed that our home-grown Islamists, deranged as they may be, are pretty short in the brains department. I mean, they bang on about what they want to do on Facebook, for goodness’ sake. ASIO doesn’t require enhanced surveillance powers to monitor their activities. Memo to spooks: Google Is Your Friend.
And everyone else, repeat after me: your government is not perfect. You do not protect liberty by giving it away. And the government is meant to work for you, not the other way around.
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