Politics Opinion

Australia's treatment of whistleblowers will be its damnation

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The treatment of people such as Julian Assange (left) and Bernard Collaery is harming Australia's global reputation (Image by Dan Jensen)

Deception, exploitation and cover-up are messages Australia is sending to our foreign neighbours, writes Dr Kyle Mervin.

IT IS AN UNFORTUNATE truth that it is sometimes necessary for a government to conduct its business in secret. That necessity is born of the complex nature of international relations, but I’m not sure that necessity extends to all international dealings.

Bad things happen behind closed doors and if unconscionable conduct by vested interests hides behind the veil of secrecy mandated by national security, it should and most likely will in the fullness of time be exposed and should be prosecuted.

In recent history, the modus operandi of the major democracies of the world in dealing with whistleblowers, the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia included, has been to shoot the messenger.

A case in point and most notably on the international stage has been the treatment of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who for the last decade or so has been holed up initially under political asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in the UK and, more recently, incarcerated in the UK awaiting extradition to the U.S. to face charges of espionage.

Closer to home, Witness K and his barrister Bernard Collaery have been the subject of legal proceedings by the Abbott/Turnbull/Morrison Coalition Government, over the leaking of information to the East Timorese Government of secret recordings made by the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) and used to prejudice trade negotiations in our favour.

But here is the point. If there is a whistle to be blown, someone is going to blow it.

People like Julian Assange and Witness K are not the problem, they are inevitable. The way they are being treated sends a message to the world that our great democracies intend on continuing to deceive and cover up in trade agreements.

We need to change the way we do business with the world and quickly. The economic ascendency of China coupled with the stagnation of the USA symbolises a paradigm shift in world order and unless we open our eyes to the new reality, we will surrender a seat at the table.   

And a good first step to ensure that the right signal is being sent to the world is to seek a pardon for Witness K, drop the case against Bernard Collaery and if the USA will not do the same for Julian Assange, Australia should offer him political asylum.

For the sake of brevity, I’ll not elaborate on the Assange case as it is well known.

Witness K and East Timor

If Facebook was around in the latter part of the 20th Century, the relationship status between Australia and East Timor would read “it’s complicated”. The road to independence for East Timor was paved with violence and the most turbulent era, between 1975 and 1999, was bookended by Australian government involvement.

In 1975, the soon to be dismissed Government of Gough Whitlam supported the Indonesian occupation and in 1998, the Howard Government send in the troops to help end it.

Save for the gun buyback scheme, it was the best thing John Howard's administration did.

In 2004, the Howard Government entered into negotiations with our poor, war-ravaged and impoverished neighbour over oil and gas royalties in the Timor Sea in bad faith. In so doing, it damaged our international reputation. In having listening devices installed by ASIS to monitor the private conversations in the East Timorese cabinet and prejudice the negotiations in favour of Australian interests, they acted unethically and illegally.

In 2013, East Timor took Australia to the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague in order to have the agreement overturned, based on the information provided to them by an Australian whistleblower known only as Witness K.

Witness K did the morally right thing. He was aware of the illegal tactics employed by the Australian Government in essentially trying to rip off one of the poorest countries on Earth and he put himself at risk to correct that injustice. He engaged a barrister in Bernard Collaery to assist in informing the East Timorese Government and as a result, both Witness K and Collaery have been prosecuted in Australia over breaches in Section 39 of the Intelligence Services Act.

In handing down his decision on 19 June 2021, magistrate Glenn Theakston noted the noble intentions of Witness K in blowing the whistle but found it prudent to convict Witness K and impose a suspended sentence, as a message to other would-be whistleblowers. The case against Bernard Collaery is yet to be heard.

That prosecution and conviction sent a message to the Australian Intelligence community that their obligation to preserve secrets under the Intelligence Services Act is a matter of national security and any departure from those obligations will be prosecuted and punished — irrespective of the seriousness of the whistle.

Unfortunately, that prosecution and conviction also sent a very clear and unintended message to our regional neighbours: Australia can’t be trusted. The Australian Government is prepared to act unethically towards its neighbours in any commercial negotiation and will punish anyone who breaks ranks to conceal it.

Deception, exploitation and cover-up. This is not the way forward.

The rise of China

The ascendency of China as a world economic force that rivals the almighty USA is nothing short of spectacular.  Remarkable not only in magnitude and speed, but touch wood and save for some territorial posturing over Taiwan and the repatriation of Hong Kong, the ascendency of China has been peaceful.

A potential military threat may well be real and I am by no means an expert in the field of foreign policy of a communist dictatorship, but why would you change the rules in a game you are winning?

And make no mistake, they are winning. There are projections that the Chinese economy could overtake the USA by the end of this decade. Why jeopardise that by flexing military muscle?

Any act of military aggression by the Chinese Government would serve to undermine its growing emergence as an economic superpower and crucially, it would run against recent form.

The only conflicts in modern history that China has directly involved itself in were pretty much on their doorstep in Korea and Vietnam, and in both of those conflicts, you could argue that their involvement was out of necessity. The USA was on the other team in both of those conflicts and it’s sad to say that our strongest ally has military form, as do we.

The Korean War, the Vietnam War, two invasions of Iraq and the Afghanistan war, justified or otherwise, indicate the West’s approach to obtaining and maintaining influence. In point of fact, the United States and the Commonwealth of Nations were established on the back of a military imbalance, much to the detriment of the traditional custodians of the various lands.

I live on the lands of the Darkinjung people and I’m pretty sure they weren’t consulted.

The Chinese are winning without war and for the first time in modern history, a non-democratic country is shortly to become the most powerful economy in the world. With that comes opportunity, but only if we play it correctly.

The rise of fake news

Modern democracy has given its beneficiaries a period of relative peace, prosperity and stability to the point it is now taken for granted by the vast majority of living Australians. But the human race emerged from evolution as violent. Conflicts over lands and resources are the rule for our species and not the exception. If we intend on holding our place in the emerging world economy, that instinct must be suppressed.

For all it has given us, the USA has not been kind to its many adversaries over the last century and as a result, is one of the most loathed and distrusted countries on the planet.

Then along came 2016 and the most divisive leader the USA has ever had rose to power.

Domestic politics in the USA had become so toxic that a significant proportion of the voting public thought it a good idea to vote for a vulgar, pussy-grabbing, narcissistic liar and worse still, the Republican Party lacked the fortitude to resist.

That Election signalled to the world that democracy is fallible.

So loathed on one side of the political spectrum that the vote to oust him in 2020 saw the greatest voter turnout in that country’s history.

In 2020, the richest and most influential nation on Earth had a presidential election and the candidates put up by their respective parties, at risk of sounding ageist, were geriatrics. If either ever had the capacity and the energy for the job, those days are long gone. That the country's electoral process could give rise to that outcome is concerning, that it did is further evidence of frailty in the once almighty U.S. of A.

China’s leadership is stronger.

The Solomon Islands

The security pact announced recently between the Chinese Government and the Solomon Islands should serve as a wake-up call to the West. Our neighbours have deemed it in their interest to side with a communist dictatorship over our democracy and on objective assessment, I can’t fault that decision.

Whatever our democracy means about our domestic rights to have a say in the way we are governed is immaterial to our neighbours. The view from the outside is very different and it needs to change.

We offer deception, exploitation and cover-up.

That’s why China is winning.

Dr Kyle Mervin is a married father of three, a dentist with a PhD in Neuroscience from the University of Sydney and has been in a relatively bad mood since 2001.

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