Australia, 2018: Lies, cover-ups and suppression of free speech

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Propaganda about an endless "war on terror" and a succession of enemies has led to the slow creep of suppression of inquiry, writes former diplomat Dr Alison Broinowski.

GEORGE ORWELL could have been describing today, not the 1930s when he wrote: 

‘In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.' 

In the years since then, the deceitful behaviour of Australia’s allies has got worse — and so has ours.

In 1978, Richard Hall complained about the obsession with "subversion" that had been cultivated for two generations by reactionary leaders in Australia, at the expense of truth.

He wrote in The Secret State:

‘A free society can and should suppress violence but when it suppresses free inquiry it is no longer a free society.’

He could not have imagined the suppression of inquiry in Australia – and particularly Canberra – 40 years later.

Julian Assange was moved eight years ago by similar convictions to take matters into WikiLeaks’ own hands and begin releasing documents on American war crimes in Iraq, U.S. diplomatic machinations worldwide and the internal affairs of the Democratic Party. They were greeted with official outrage because they told the truth. Then, in 2013, American journalist Glenn Greenwald published the revelations of Edward Snowden about mass telecommunications surveillance by the United States. For their pains, both Assange and Snowden are now exiles.

But with that, everything changed, Snowden later recalled:

"The government and corporate sector preyed on our ignorance. But now we know. People are aware now."

Americans may be aware, but John Stapleton is doubtful about how aware Australians are. He and other former journalists are resorting to "faction" to reach the reading public without getting arrested. In his fact-based novel Hideout in the Apocalypse (2018), Stapleton’s alter-ego, Old Alex, despairingly observes governments growing more arrogant, individual politicians becoming increasingly timid, stories in the media thinning in quality and ‘the populace as a whole [growing] increasingly disaffected.’

'The more the authorities claim their secrecy is in the "national interest", the less it’s likely that what they are up to is in the public interest.'

Canberra, where barrister Pam Burton grew up, itself becomes a character in her novel, ‘a shadowy town. Spy city, that’s what it’s become’ (A Foreign Affair, 2016).

Broadcaster Chris Uhlmann is on their wavelength in the latest of his three novels, Secret City (2018). He quotes Malcolm Turnbull cynically harking back to Mark Twain: ‘Only fiction has to be credible.’ This must be the Prime Minister’s take on the "core and non-core" promises of one of his predecessors and the ‘no cuts to education, no cuts to health, no change to pensions, no change to the GST and no cuts to the ABC or SBS’ of another. Uhlmann can be expected to expand on spies and lies in his Manning Clark lecture on 12 July, as well as on the surveillance culture, which, surreptitiously cultivated, has done considerable damage to Canberra and Australia since 2001.

We used to believe that official lies and propaganda were what Hitler, Stalin, and Mao did, while in democracies like ours people were free to debate and public servants to advise. Ministers took responsibility for their decisions and resigned for misleading us or the Parliament. The trend is now the other way. As the American founding fathers knew, a well-informed public is essential for a functioning democracy. But with unprecedented access to information, we are adrift in a flood of opinion – some of it factual, some false – and we can fish out of it what suits us, or others want us to believe.

Democratic governments foist on us propaganda about an endless "War on Terror" and a succession of enemies – from radical Islam, to Russian assassins, to Chinese spies – frightening citizens into accepting laws that allow unrestricted invigilation of every aspect of their lives. Paradoxically, while our leaders invoke an "international rules-based order", their laws resemble those of tyrannical regimes, preventing citizens from finding out what those in control are doing and making it unlawful even to ask. The more the authorities claim their secrecy is in the "national interest", the less it’s likely that what they are up to is in the public interest.

Such activities can go on for years before we find out about them. Egregious examples have recently emerged in Australia, thanks to two Royal Commissions and what remains of investigative reporting.

Here are some:

  • The release from 90 sites, including RAAF bases and numerous Fire Brigade stations, of carcinogenic chemicals (poly-fluoroalkyl, PFAS) used as fire retardants continued long after their danger to humans and the environment was known. Australia has not yet joined the 171 countries which have banned them. Class actions for compensation are being contested by the Government.
  • The SAS and senior military officers allegedly covered up serious misbehaviour, possibly including war crimes, that occurred in Afghanistan on at least four occasions between 2007 and 2012. Some of them were revealed by Chris Masters in No Front Line; some are still to be revealed after internal inquiries.
  • The abuse of children by clergy in Australian churches and religious institutions was known and concealed for decades, and many allegations remain unresolved by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
  • The fraudulent and illegal behaviour of Australian banks and insurance companies would not have been publicised without another Royal Commission (Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry), whose establishment conservative politicians sought to prevent. Its final report is still awaited.
  • Allegations of bribery in Malaysia involving the Reserve Bank’s Securency operation have not been resolved. In June 2015, the Victorian Supreme Court suppressed them. After WikiLeaks published the Court’s order in full in July, the suppression order was lifted (Ben Butler, ‘Bishop finally acknowledges “serious” Najib corruption scandal’, Australian, 29 July 2016).
  • Australian ministers have claimed the "Pacific Solution" sets an example to the world for dealing with asylum seekers. After a 26-year-old Iranian refugee apparently committed suicide, the Refugee Action Coalition reported that he was the 12th person to die in Australian offshore detention and the fifth in Nauru. Australian journalists are not allowed to report on Manus and Nauru and censorship of medical staff was lifted only when they threatened to leave.
  • Australia in 2013, helped in drafting and negotiating the UN Arms Trade Treaty aimed, as the Government announced, ‘to reduce the impact of armed violence on communities around the world’. Yet Australia now seeks to become a military exporter, with part of the defence industry in every state, subsidised by $200 billion of taxpayers’ money. At least that’s not a secret.

Dr Alison Broinowski is a former Australian diplomat, vice-president of Australians for War Powers Reform and vice-president of Honest History.

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