Australia’s heavy-handed security state


Ben Chifley Building, where they keep the spooks

Why do we have some of the most restrictive security laws of any democracy?

That question is of concern to Jack Blight, the National Security Legislation Monitor. On an ABC Breakfast interview – Is Australia “the world's most secretive democracy”? – he outlines his unease that our laws may be too broad and may be excessively repressive on journalism. He focuses on two or three of our 800 or so secrecy provisions.

One provision is the offence of disclosing anything a government official has classified as “secret”, regardless of when it was so classified, and even though only a small part of a document may have sensitive content. Anyone who has worked in or with the public service will be familiar with the tendency to over-classify. I recall a communication from our embassy in Bonn (before the wall came down) classified as “secret”, which turned out to be a direct translation from an article in Der Spiegel. A journalist who used that same content would be committing a serious offence! Ridiculous and dangerous because it devalues the currency of classification.

Another is the offence of receiving a classified document, even if the recipient, usually a journalist, does nothing with it.

These laws have a chilling effect on journalism and even on history-writing, because the classifications stand until they are eventually declassified under archive arrangements, decades down the track.

Towards the end of that 9-minute interview there is mention of the case of David McBride, the former military lawyer who has been found guilty of unlawfully sharing secret military information.

The popular view of McBride is that he’s a whistleblower persecuted for exposing war crimes, but as carefully explained in a Four Corners program – Rules of Engagement – that is an incorrect interpretation. The information he disclosed to the ABC had evidence of war crimes, but McBride’s concern was with the legal constraints imposed on soldiers which were putting them in impossible situations. It was only incidental to possible war crimes, which were not his immediate concern.

Because of the tortuous path taken by the law, and the heavy-handed approach taken by the Commonwealth and the Federal Police, the process has led to four events that have worrying signs about the quality of our democracy:

The full explanation is in the Four Corners program. You can also hear Dan Oakes, the journalist with whom McBride shared the documents, explain the situation from his perspective in a short interview on ABC radio.

Dark donations to the referendum “No” campaign

On Tuesday donations to parties involved in the Voice Referendum were posted to the Australian Electoral Commission Transparency Register website, confirming that the “Yes” campaign received far more financial support than the “No” campaign.

The ABC’s Tom Crowley has done us the favour of presenting a preliminary analysis of these donations: Referendum disclosures: Yes comfortably outspends No, but No expenditure opaque.

The opacity on the “No” side was mainly in relation to donations to Advance Australia and Fair Australia. We can get some insight into the political agendas of these two groups, but not much on their shadowy benefactors, in a 2023 Conversation post by Mark Kenny What are ‘Advance’ and ‘Fair Australia’, and why are they spearheading the ‘no’ campaign on the Voice?.

Typical of other lobbies on the extreme right they characterize Australia as a nation threatened by powerful and well-organized forces on the “left”, a notion that would be laughable if so many people didn’t believe it. They don’t seem to have any specific policy agenda. It’s as if the Voice referendum offered an opportunity to raise the political heat and polarize Australia, and they took it.

In fact the “No” campaign was characterized by a lack of argument. There are sound and rational arguments against a Voice. These arguments may not be very compelling, but the “No” campaigners didn’t make them, because their sole agenda was to embarrass the government. It’s little wonder that the “No” campaign supporters found comfort in the anonymity of the $15 200 disclosure threshold: they didn’t want to be seen as people motivated by a desire to wreck the joint.

The strongest case for full and real-time of disclosure of donations is when the country’s foundation document, the Constitution, is subject to a proposed amendment. When eventually Australia has a referendum on an Australian head of state, such transparency will be essential, given the record of British interests interfering in our politics.

Opinion polls are turning against the government. So why is it bypassing those who could help it retain office?

Two polls reveal worrying signs for the government. The Essential poll of 24 March shows, in two-party outcomes, a 50:44 lead for the Coalition (it does not allocate the undecided), and a YouGov poll, a few days later, shows a 51:49 lead for the Coalition.

The two-party outcomes in Essential and YouGov are significant because they are both based on respondent allocations. That is, people’s response to a question such as “if you would not vote Coalition or Labor, to which of those parties would you direct your preference?” (notably ignoring Greens and independents). Although two-party post-preference predictions have wide degrees of error, respondent-allocated preferences can be a little more honest than allocations based on preferences at previous elections.

It is now clear that the Coalition’s primary support has picked up about 2 percent since the election. Labor’s support has fallen by about 1 percent while the Greens’ support has risen about 1 percent: in terms of preference outcomes that would be about neutral for Labor. Allocating Green preferences to Labor, and One Nation to the Coalition, the outcome before other distributions would be a narrow 1 percent lead for Labor – 45 percent to 44 percent, with the final outcome resting on the final 11 percent.[1]

It is hard to see Labor achieving majority government on these figures. So it is hard to understand why the government is treating the so-called “crossbench” (actually the representatives of one third of the voting population) with contempt, on bills such as religious discrimination and treatment of refugees, and is attempting to achieve “bipartisan” deals.

Perhaps Labor hopes to pick up support in the coming year, but there is evidence that the government’s support is slipping in key policy areas, economic management and defence, revealed in the Resolve political monitor of 24 March.

The Resolve poll asks respondents which of the two parties would perform best in four areas: economic management, national security and defence, healthcare and aged care, and education. On both economic management, and national security and defence, the Coalition has a strong lead over Labor, and that lead has been widening. Labor leads in health care and education, but its lead in these areas has been narrowing.[2]

In view of the economic mess caused by nine years of Coalition government, and the absence of any economic policy by the opposition, this is puzzling. The result is similarly puzzling for national security and defence, where the Coalition stuffed up border protection, and where on other security matters the parties are following a dismally bipartisan line.

On economic management the government should be enjoying support even from conservative media. It is pursuing a textbook IMF-style path, and is doing at least something towards dealing with climate change. But whatever a Labor government does, the Murdoch media will misrepresent it.

The rest of the media must bear some responsibility, because their general message on the economy has been “ain’t it awful”, without addressing why it’s awful for many Australians – namely decades of neglect of economic reform, mainly on the Coalition’s watch, which the present government is working to rectify. Also framing counts: why do journalists talk about a “cost of living crisis”, rather than a problem of “falling real wages”?

1. In round numbers of primary votes: Labor 32% + Green 13% = 45%; Coalition 38% + One Nation 6% = 44%. All figures are calculated from William Bowe’s Poll Bludger.

2. Resolve results on “Which party you think would perform best in each of these areas?”: Economic management – Liberal 37%, Labor 25%; National security and defence – Liberal 38%, Labor 25%; Healthcare and aged care – Liberal 25%, Labor 33%; Education – Liberal 26%, Labor 31%..

On other questions relating to political performance Labor is well ahead on “communicating well”, “has a united team behind the leader”, ties on “is listening and focused on the right issues” and “is offering strong leadership”.