On February 24, Mike Burgess, the Director General of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) broke with tradition and had the media over when he gave his annual threat assessment report. There was a fairly long preamble about how wonderful ASIO is, how wonderful its people are, and how they are just normal members of the community. Members of the community who cannot tell you what they do, which is understandable. Another thing he did say was: “I want to be clear that the ASIO I have the privilege to lead is not a secret organisation operating as a law unto itself, conducting shadowy business around the margins of our democracy and our law… We are an organisation that operates in full accordance with Australian law. ASIO has significant powers under law, but our application of these powers is proportionate to the security threat or matter at hand. ASIO is enabled by the law and we are overseen by our Minister [Dutton], the Attorney-General [Porter], the Government, our Parliament and the Inspector General. The law and our oversight are fundamental to our success.”1 That is one item that I will discuss later.
While he did, as you would expect in dealing with terrorism, state that “Violent Islamic extremism of the type embodied by the Islamic State and al’Qaida and their off-shoots will remain our principal concern” he also mentioned that “other actors” are operating in the terrorism arena. He singled out “Right-wing extremism [which] has been in ASIO’s sights for some time… came into sharp, terrible focus last year in New Zealand” with the Christchurch massacre. He continued “In Australia, the extreme right wing threat is real and it is growing. In suburbs around Australia, small cells regularly meet to salute Nazi flags, inspect weapons, train in combat and share their hateful ideology.”1 My parents’ generation fought to the death against bastards who saluted nazi flags. Who would have thought we’d have to do this again and on our own soil?
Some time after Burgess gave his address, in which he did not mention ‘left-wing terrorism’ or any permutation thereof, Home Affairs minister Peter Dutton was interviewed and referred to terrorism of both right-wing and left-wing terrorism from ‘lunatics’, as if they were equivalent. After being hammered for his false equivalence by the Labor Party, and asked by the ABC to clarify who he meant by left-wing extremists, Dutton stated that he meant Islamist groups, but did not explain how Islamic extremists could be construed as left-wing terrorists. On the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s The Drum (Tuesday, 25th February 2020), former Liberal MP Prue Goward seemed completely bemused by Dutton’s reference to Islamists as left-wing, while others on the panel seemed to think that Dutton had gone so far down the rabbit-hole of stupidity that it was a convenient, albeit ludicrous escape from his false equivalence blunder3.
While ASIO has to abide by the laws of the land, and is overseen by the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, Margaret Stone, it is also overseen by Dutton, Porter, the government and the parliament. It is the fact that it is overseen by an ultraconservative, incompetent government bent on damaging our democracy so it remains in power in perpetuity, that concerns me the most. Indeed, over a year ago, the government enacted the TOLA (Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment [Assistance and Access] Act 2018). This act was an extremely unpopular one and is designed to force technology and communications companies to allow ASIO and law enforcement agencies access to encrypted messages. The technology and communications companies stated that this law, which asked for a “back door” to messaging services such as WhatsApp and iMessage, will weaken privacy for all users, not just criminals.4
Now the government is considering using Australia’s foreign cyber-intelligence agency, the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) to spy on Australians, supposedly to catch terrorists, paedophiles and other serious criminals. The ASD is currently prevented by legislation for spying or hacking into online systems based in Australia. It is supposed to hack, disrupt and destroy foreign cyber activity aimed at damaging Australia. Under current legislation ASIO and the Australian Federal Police (AFP) can already call on ASD to assist with investigations. It is because of this that several members of federal cabinet believe such a change to the ASD legislation is unwarranted.5,6
In a recent interview after the Burgess speech, Morrison did not disavow Dutton’s false equivalence but, interestingly, did refer not just to terrorists, but grouped them with extremists7. That all seems very innocuous to most people, until you realise that Morrison groups environmental protesters as extremists. This is part of a trend across the world, in some parts of which, being an environmental protester can get you killed8. Such an extreme reaction has yet to happen in Australia, but the Morrison government will attempt to use the courts to intimidate or punish protesters. This was clearly indicated by Morrison’s assertion that he will make secondary boycotts illegal. Governments use the rule of law and create a legal backing to put people in gaol by equating environmental protesters with terrorists or extremists8. Indeed, animal rights activists have already been labelled as “domestic terrorists” by the Deputy Premier of New South Wales, John Barilaro9. The Tasmanian government has proposed introducing legislation under which protesters who disrupt ‘workplaces’ could be fined up to $10,000 for a first offence and gaoled for up to four years for a second offence10.
When Morrison stated that he wanted to make secondary boycotts illegal, he was referring to the activity whereby businesses are targeted with boycotts, not for what they have done but for their association with the primary target of the boycott. This technique was used against microphone bully Alan Jones when he suggested that New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern should have a sock rammed down her throat. Assorted activist groups e-mailed and tweeted companies asking them if they thought it was wise to support such a person. His advertising took a 50% hit, with more than 100 companies baling out. It is thought that the fall in revenue overall at 2GB (his employer) was over 8%11. Given that Jones is a conservative who often supports the Coalition, this clearly scared the bejesus out of the Morrison government and their corporate backers. If the employer of a prominent bully could be kicked in the hip pocket for suggesting violence be perpetrated on a progressive politician, then any conservative organisation could be targeted. When Morrison spat the dummy regarding these boycotts, I thought to myself ‘How could this be enforced’. How could the government work out what was a boycott when it is characterised mostly by people not doing something. I don’t eat at McDonald’s, not because I boycott them, but because I don’t like the food. How could a government tell whether this was a boycott or not? Then I read about the proposal to call on ASD to spy on Australians. That is how they can find out. They will be able to listen in on conversations or read messages to all your contacts and will be able to determine if you are involved in such protest activity. Some may think that ASD or ASIO would refuse to spy on Australians. However, they cannot. They are public servants and are required to do what the government tells them to do. If they did refuse, their leadership would simply be replaced by someone more compliant.
I have written a couple of times about the decline of democracy in Australia12,13. Grouping all environmental protesters with terrorists is just another step along the road to the end of democracy in Australia. This is symptomatic of a government that realises, as Australia becomes more progressive, it will be unable to win elections without massive pork-barrelling as in 2019, or without shutting down dissent. ‘What of the constitution?’ you may ask. It cannot help us in this situation, as it was written under the misapprehension that politicians would be at least slightly ethical. As mentioned before, this sort of attitude to democracy is true of conservatives across the world. They realise that they will fade away as they are opposed to the direction society is going, where religion is declining, people are becoming less bigoted and more progressive, and they realise that the increasing disparity between rich and poor not something to be desired. US author David Frum predicted this sort of behaviour when he said: “If conservatives become convinced that they cannot win democratically, they will not abandon conservatism. They will reject democracy.” This is what is happening in Australia.
I was under the misapprehension that there may be a few principled moderates remaining in the Liberal Party when I wrote an article by way of a plea to them to make the government fall on its sword14. Given that many of the moderates left the Liberal Party before the last election, this was probably a forlorn hope. Other than that, the only way we can combat this subversion of democracy is through massive protests. Now that the government has lowered the requirements to bring out the defence force, it is likely that, if faced with large protests and mass civil disobedience, they will call out the army and people will die. If mass protests and civil disobedience don’t work, then all we are left with is insurrection, where even more will die. And those deaths will be on the head of all conservatives; those who actively participated, and those who were silently complicit in the demise of democracy in Australia.