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(Cartoon by Mark David / @mdavidcartoons)

The tale of classified government files handed over covertly to the ABC this last week has raised questions over who did what and why. Amongst long-time journalists and researchers reading the signs, Lee Duffield engaged in some detective-like thinking.

THERE IS CLEARLY a story here for somebody in how the cabinet documents were found in two old cabinets — because of their selectivity.

They have included marketable political material, like the Liberals’ designs on youth job payments and crisis surrounding Labor’s pink batts scheme under Kevin Rudd.

Not all such documents from the decade in question – John Howard through to Tony Abbott – could have been fitted into the two cabinets. With normal filing, you’d expect Howard era documents to be in one place, Rudd documents in another and so on.

These have been picked out, maybe collated, with a view to causing trouble, before the ABC got to them this year; that is a reasonable view.

Does it not look as though some person or persons had already selected promising documents from a sweep of dates and put them all together as a discrete collection?

HOW DID THE CABINETS GET THERE?

If the story is to be believed about the cabinets getting sold by accident to a disposal store; how could that have come about?

The first explanation, as ABC reporters have suggested, might be idiocy in the public service. That would be complicated by them going over to digitisation and maybe no longer handling paper documents properly and compounded by stripping of the public service of regular, permanent, responsible, managed staff. That does not explain the likely selection, redaction or collating from the body of official documents so that they ended up in just two heavy boxes.

The second idea is that the papers were got together by somebody planning to put out a book — a journalist, Wikileaker type, or some species of academic. They’d be copied, digitised and stored, and the originals locked up to delay discovery. Staff around the public service office might assume somebody else had access to the cabinets sitting there locked up. That doesn’t, itself, explain why they would be sent off to be sold, though you can imagine a case where, unclaimed, they were dumped when a department or section was shifting to another building. There are few limits to human stupidity and irresponsibility, after all, especially in places with poor recruitment practice, training and management.

A third possibility, to romanticise a little, is that persons connected with security services, spooks – Australian, United States, Chinese, Russian mafia state, nosey Brits, who knows? – got the papers together; they are known for doing that kind of thing. Just in the last week, ASIO Deputy Director-General Peter Vickery has been complaining about foreign espionage intensifying in Australia, and those foreign operators would definitely like to have original material about the internal concerns and workings of the government.

Yet, what consequence if the great bulk of the information obtained in the filing cabinets comes out some 20 years earlier than the normal scheduled release? How savage a response does it warrant from authorities wanting to deal out punishment for the big leak?

NEW SECRECY LAWS

The haemmorhage of secret or otherwise classified documents through the ABC comes just as the Federal Government is legislating to handcuff and punish anybody who should happen upon and hold such papers — on any plain reading, not just those who take steps to get them or publish them.

It’s called the National Security Legislation Amendment (Espionage and Foreign Interference) Bill 2017.

This development highlights the question of balance that has been coming up whenever governments – as they often try to do – set out to block information and free speech with extra tools beyond existing provisions of law.

There is a public interest imperative in the ABC being able to out the inner thoughts of government on sensitive risk-laden issues. That is set against the security prerogative — secret-government operatives demanding any amount of censoring power to “protect” the nation and its people.

In these fairly dangerous times, what with terrorism, collapse of the Middle East into all-out wars, expansion of China, an unpredictable regime emerging in America, the Turnbull Government has decided to privilege secret-government over open-government.

They may even have conceived a “real good idea” — that if they stop people knowing about things, then there will be more chance of dominating those people, tricking them and making them be obedient, so you can keep on being the government. It is the way of human history, after all, although impeded over the last three centuries by ideas and expectations about rights and democratic government.

Most informed observers do seem to be taking a fairly cynical view like that.

It may be a case of a government going too far, misjudging, over-reaching, pulling out an unnecessarily blunt instrument, where they will wake up, realise their error and under pressure back down on the repressive measures.

However, in the meantime, there is a clearly perceived threat to honest whistleblowers, academics and other researchers, and all journalists.

“JOURNALISM IS NOT A CRIME”

Media interests have studied the legislation and distilled the threat.

The journalists’ association, the MEAA, has declared that the new national security laws will “criminalise journalism”, in a statement that foreshadowed representations by journalists, publishers and broadcasters last Tuesday (30 January 2018) to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security.

It said the National Security Bill would curtail the ability of journalists to continue to report in the public interest on national security issues, continuing:

The union that represents journalists, the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA), says it is just the latest in a series of national security laws that target free speech.

In a joint submission with the other media organisations, the MEAA warns the Bill:

'... criminalises all steps of news reporting, from gathering and researching of information to publication/communication, and applies criminal risk to journalists, other editorial staff and support staff that know of the information that is now an offence to ‘deal’ with, hold and communicate. The result is that fair scrutiny and public interest reporting is increasingly difficult and there is a real risk that journalists could go to jail for doing their jobs.'

The MEAA shares its concerns with other members of a Joint Media Organisations group, which also includes AAP, ABC, Australian Subscription Television and Radio Association, Bauer Media Group, Commercial Radio Australia, Community Broadcasting Association of Australia, Fairfax Media, Free TV Australia, HT&E, News Corp Australia, NewsMediaWorks, SBS and The West Australian.

This group has proposed, “that a general public interest/news reporting defence be available for all of the relevant provisions in both the secrecy and espionage elements of the Bill. This is the only way to ensure public interest reporting can continue and Australians are informed of what is going on in their country.”

Download the full MEAA submission HERE.

NOT ONLY BUT ALSO IN AMERICA

Governments getting more intolerant of dissent and prepared to disregard or constrict legal rights is a global trend. Not to be outdone, U.S. President Donald Trump edged forward on some key points in his much drawn-out State of the Union address last week (31/1/18, Australian time).

There was the anticipated walling off of would-be migrants, taken as groups instead of individuals – for example, blocking options to sponsor family members beyond spouses and minor children – but also in several other ways.

Seeking confirmation of his re-opening the Guantanamo Bay detention centre for terrorism suspects, a dumping ground for “interdicted” detainees outside of legal protections they might find in the United States and other countries – dangerous as has been shown in the case of innocents who might get caught in a dragnet.

A threat to employment rights and possibly freedom of conscience, depending on meanings that might be attached to these words:

“I call on Congress to empower every Cabinet Secretary to reward good workers and to remove federal employees who undermine public trust or fail the American people.”

That evoked memories of black-listings in the so-called McCarthy-era of the early 1950s; witch-hunts for Communists within the U.S. public service, especially the State Department. The chief investigator was the Republican Party Senator Joseph McCarthy. Another political showman and a shambling drunkard, McCarthy was eventually censured by the Senate by 65 to 22 over his berating of witnesses accused of subversion during televised investigations.

Dr Lee Duffield is a former ABC foreign correspondent, political journalist and academic.

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