Last week, with all the stealth of the pirates of Penzance, Australia’s Federal Police, raided not one but two major media outlets. On Tuesday, police spent seven hours at the home of journalist Annika Smethurst, rummaging through everything from her pots and pans to her panties. On Wednesday, the election-weary nation awoke to the curious spectacle of half a dozen police officers rifling through the digital scribblings of the national broadcaster, while a similar number of ABC journalists spent the day tweeting their outrage. One couldn’t help hoping somebody would rob a bank just to give both parties some real work.
This peculiarly exhibitionistic blend of nosiness and narcissism led the New York Times to brand Australia ‘the world’s most secretive democracy’ — though what exactly was secretive about the endeavour is perhaps the only aspect of the event that remains undisclosed. It’s a bit embarrassing when the Department of Defence, with all the latest gadgetry, is unable to identify a leaker in its midst. Instead of inviting more attention to its incompetence, it needs to direct Constable Plod to get his nose out of Ms Smethurst’s drawers and start sniffing out the real threats to national security.
If the secretary of the Department of Defence wants a hint about what he might more usefully spend taxpayers’ money investigating, this week we have been reliably informed that China’s Ministry of State Security has hacked into the federal parliament, the Liberal, Labor and National party headquarters and the ANU, for a second time. This sounds like showing off, or perhaps Beijing was so impressed by the Marxist indoctrination seamlessly incorporated into ANU’s curriculum they plan to use it as a template.
No doubt the Chinese spies know who leaked the secretary’s secrets to the media, but it is hard to imagine, after Plod’s panty-mime, that their Australian counterparts — our undie-cover agents —are having the same success in China. Our government’s supine acceptance of Chinese belligerence in the South China Sea is probably all that can be expected of a nation that views defence materiel more as a job creation scheme than preparation for power projection. Rather than engage in freedom of navigation exercises, Australia has opted not to sail too close to any ‘contested features’ — by which our government means three large air bases brazenly built on reclaimed land. If this appeasement is meant to buy the peace, it isn’t working too well. Last week an Australian helicopter was apparently attacked with lasers from a Chinese ‘fishing vessel’, which could have damaged the pilot’s optic nerves with fatal consequences for the flight. ‘Wouldn’t it be a shame,’ China’s Global Times mused in 2015 ‘if one day a plane fell from the sky and it happened to be Australian.’ Indeed.
Defence officials couldn’t bring themselves to acknowledge the incident other than to claim their Chinese counterparts were friendly, professional and this was just their way of saying ‘G’day’. It brought back memories of Monty Python and an era when all one had to fear was a couple of gangsters armed with a thermonuclear device and a hammer, threatening to nail your head to the floor.
Australia’s official response was to welcome the People’s Liberation Army’s battleships into Sydney Harbour just in time for the 30th anniversary of China’s ritual forgetting of the Tiananmen Square massacre. The government did its best ‘not to mention the war’, as it were, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison steering clear of ‘contested features,’ refusing to even answer questions on Tiananmen and referring the media to the Foreign Minister who expressed ‘concern’ about continuing constraints on freedom of expression in China oblivious to the irony that the constraints on the government’s own freedom of expression are so great that the PM couldn’t bring himself to condemn the massacre and mass repression of Chinese civilians for peacefully protesting to demand greater freedom.
In Hong Kong however more than a million people joined a mass demonstration, even bigger than the one at the time of Tiananmen crackdown in 1989, to protest against proposed laws that would allow residents to be extradited to mainland China. One participant said, ‘Hong Kong is now becoming a battlefield between an authoritarian state and the free world. Remember, when one is enslaved, all are not free, so we urge the international society to keep pressuring the Hong Kong government and the Chinese government.’ It’s hard to imagine muscular support from Australia’s PM any time soon.
The Chinese government marked the 30th anniversary by putting even the websites of the Washington Post and the Guardian — which can usually be relied on to hand wring about the West in ways that are useful to despots and dictators — behind the Great Firewall along with 10,000 other web domains. The Global Times was not amused at ‘exaggerated’ reports in Australia that its Navy personnel spent their week in Sydney stocking up on milk powder, but brushed it off asking, ‘what else is there to buy?’. It must be embarrassing for a superpower with hegemonic aspirations that it can’t even be trusted to provide food fit for babies.
Almost overlooked as Big Brother raided Sydney supermarkets was the 70th anniversary of Orwell’s 1984. No novel, other than Huxley’s Brave New World, was more prescient in anticipating the way in which the threat of totalitarianism would be empowered by technology.
While China read Orwell’s masterpiece as an instruction manual, the West has succumbed more to the lure of Huxley’s drug-addicted, sex-addled world of test-tube reproduction and social engineering. Yet the buffoonery of the AFP’s raids cannot be allowed to distract from the threat posed by an over-reaching state even in a society such as ours with such long-established democratic rights.
There is a vital balance that failed to be struck last week between press freedom and official secrets. The police need powers to prevent acts of terror or treachery, but journalists and their sources need a much more robust public interest defence that protects them from unwarranted invasions of privacy. When a publisher recklessly endangers the lives of others, that protection should be forfeited but it should be up to the government and its servants to demonstrate that a leak poses a threat to the security of the nation and its citizens and is not merely an embarrassment to the government.
If the bumbling of our Keystone Cops galvanises our legislators to revisit national security laws and strengthen press freedom, it will send an important message to the Chinese government and to people everywhere who fear an oppressive state, that it is possible to defend national security without sacrificing our most valuable possession — freedom.