the national security smokescreen

The template for Australia’s casual slide toward authoritarianism is now so well-worn that some of the players appear to be performing in their sleep. A sharp dose of targeted wakefulness is due, given the extreme nature of the changes to the Espionage Act that sit poised before parliament right now.

First published at the Guardian

Unless we intervene, collectively and sharply, the national security legislation amendment (espionage and foreign interference) bill 2017 is about to be waved through the parliament with few exemptions despite fierce opposition by a wide array of civil society organisations, the Greens and a handful of crossbenchers. It is part of a package of three bills targeting foreign interference in Australia’s domestic affairs that the government is using as a smokescreen to fundamentally realign the balance of power between itself and everyone else.

Reducing opportunities for foreign interference on domestic politics sounds appealing, particularly in the context of queasy allegations of social media manipulation that preceded the 2016 United States elections and Brexit referendum in the UK. But even a superficial reading of the bills betrays what’s really going on here: the government is quite deliberately turning “national security” into a weapon with which to protect corporate interests and attack its opponents.

On Monday, charities, arts organisations and unions have won a limited exemption from the proposed requirement to register as agents of foreign influence.The original bills sought to dramatically expand the scope of foreign interference to catch the legitimate work of potential critics of government policy. They proposed to criminalise conduct that could cause harm to Australia’s “economic relations or interests,” and introduced extreme criminal penalties for whistleblowers, advocates or journalists who come into contact with certain kinds of information. Peaceful and nonviolent protestors at coal ports, uranium mines or commonwealth detention centres could find themselves classified as “saboteurs” and subjected to 20 year jail terms according to GetUp. The strategy of invisibly aligning Australia’s “national interest” with what are actually corporate interests is now well and truly out in the open.

How did it come to this? The script that brought us to this point runs as follows. The government has introduced laws designed to curtail media freedom, criminalise dissent and public interest whistleblowing, erode democratic safeguards and accrue ever more coercive powers to itself. The most extreme, outrageous elements of the proposals are essential parts of the design: one or two of these features are designed to be softened on the way through the committee process so that the Labor party can claim to have won concessions and improved the bill. This is no more than empty ritual; the simulation of parliamentary scrutiny. It is how the government got away with serial expansions to Asio’s power, how they forced mandatory data retention on all of us, and how anything with the words “national security” gets passed into law, no matter how dangerous.

The government calculates, accurately thus far, that Labor will trade away almost anything under the guise of “bipartisanship”, so as to avoid the accusation that it is weak on national security. The opposition is picking its battles as you’d expect, and it picks the ones it feels it can win. From the point of view of parliamentary strategy it makes perfect sense, but the downside for the rest of the country is that when a seriously unhinged set of proposals such as these are released, Australia quietly collapses into a one-party state. With the opposition in this semi-comatose state, the wheels of democracy can still turn, but they are almost completely disengaged from what is really happening below the surface.

This is a continuing process, well under way in the US and the UK and at an advanced stage in places like Turkey and Hungary, of ever-more power-hungry and authoritarian executive governments gradually seceding from parliamentary checks and balances in the name of “national security”. At the same time as the range of democratic interventions is narrowed and constricted, the definition of national security becomes ever more vague and all encompassing.

There is a name for regimes that sharpen the weapons of repression and turn them against their own populations while dissolving the state’s connective tissue of checks and balances. We call them police states. In their sharply worded advice on how to resist the slide toward authoritarianism in the US, Maria J Stephan and Timothy Snyder point out that even the most repressive governments still depend on the consent of the majority of the people. “The first lesson, then, is not to obey in advance” is their shorthand for putting up a proper fight while it’s still possible to do so.

Labor’s strategy of obeying in advance effectively sidelines the balance-of-power parliamentary levers of resistance, making it all the more essential for a widespread civil society organising. Without raising the political cost of this capitulation, we are condemned to repeat this dismal cycle until there are no civil or political rights left to give away.