Leading article Australia

Spies like Abbott

9 November 2019

9:00 AM

9 November 2019

9:00 AM

It is hard to know which proposition is more absurd. Is it the notion that former prime minister Tony Abbott is a nefarious agent of foreign influence? Or that someone in the Australian Public Service actually thinks that might be true? Compounding the risibility of this preposterous plot is that the puppet masters allegedly pulling Abbott’s strings are none other than the elected representatives of the US government.

That is the same US government that happens to be our closest ally. The vehicle used to exercise this supposed influence was a speech at the CPAC conference in Sydney that was publicly advertised and in which Mr Abbott espoused the very views that saw him win a landslide political victory in 2013.

The mere suggestion that Mr Abbott is a ‘foreign agent’ moves way beyond any allegation flung at Donald Trump by his most deranged critics, when he was accused of colluding with the Russian government in order to win in 2016. Leaving aside the fact that Mr Trump had no need to collude with the Russians and there is not a shred of evidence that he did, Russia does, at least, represent a threat to the US in a way that the US does not represent to Australia, and only the most deluded left-wing loon could imagine otherwise.

Impugning Mr Abbott’s patriotism in this way is downright bizarre, yet so is the almost equally extraordinary suggestion that a cabal of bureaucrats in the upper echelons of the department of the federal Attorney-General are running a ‘covert’ operation to silence Mr Abbott by using Australia’s new foreign-influence laws.

Admittedly, the early architecture of Canberra has a Stalinist edge, and the national capital has long been referred to as Moscow on the Molonglo but the idea that there is a 21st century Stasi operating out of the admittedly soulless Robert Garran Building strains credibility. After all, if the intention was to silence Mr Abbott, these thought police in hobnailed boots, masquerading as mild-mannered government lawyers, chose a rather public, clumsy and counterproductive way of achieving their ends. Not since the police in the Pirates of Penzance stomped across the stage, chortling about their ‘cat-like tread,’ has there been such a comical attempt at subterfuge.

However, the comedy comes to a crashing halt when we consider that Andrew Cooper, the Australian organiser of the CPAC conference at which many conservatives spoke, has been threatened with six months imprisonment if he does not hand over all his emails surrounding the event; something he is quite rightly unprepared to do.

Perhaps there is an alternative explanation for this farce. Could it be that there lurks within Canberra’s labyrinthine corridors of power, a genuine servant of the public with the intellect to recognise the dangerous threat that the hastily-drafted Foreign Influence Transparency legislation poses, the wisdom to know that nothing would be done to change it unless alarm bells were rung and the courage to execute a ploy of such daring that even our political masters could not ignore it?

For sure, the idea that such a wise and beneficent civil servant has somehow survived in the Commonwealth public service amid the army of spineless pen pushers, ambitious head kickers and Green Left partisans that infest its ranks, is unlikely. Nonetheless, whether by accident or design, the public servant who had the audacity to call into question Mr Abbott’s devotion to Australia has done us all an enormous favour. He or she has singlehandedly thrown a spotlight on glaring defects of this law.

For a start, it lacks any sort of rigorous definition of who or what is an agent of influence and what actions represent a real threat to the nation. Simply accepting payment from an overseas entity should not immediately cast suspicion over an individual.

Clearly, this law gives far too much discretion and power to faceless bureaucrats. As such it is simply the symptom of a bigger malaise: the rush by politicians to legislate without any regard for unintended consequences.

This embarrassment of a law was seemingly drafted in such a rush that it is to parliament’s great discredit that it was passed in its current form. No doubt, Labor MPs were too embarrassed about the shenanigans of Shanghai Sam Dastyari to flag its manifest failings while Prime Minister Turnbull was too full of hot air and hubris to even imagine that it was anything other than perfect. We are deeply indebted to whoever it was who came up with the brilliant idea of using this law to attack Mr Abbott. Perhaps he or she recognised that Mr Abbott and his supporters were precisely the people to deal with this particularly unsavoury gift from Mr Turnbull to the nation.

Last but not least, this sorry saga serves as a clear warning about how the Attorney-General’s religious freedom laws will also be misused by a incorrigibly left-wing public service.

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