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Last night, the Abbott Government passed laws removing freedoms, increasing surveillance and which may see the gaoling of journalists and whistleblowers. Managing editor David Donovan comments.

WELL, I DON’T KNOW ABOUT YOU, but I’m not feeling much safer after the Senate passed new “counter-terrorism” legislation last night.

Speaking as a publisher and practicing journalist ‒ and critic of this Government ‒ it is difficult, in fact, to not feel some terror about where these laws are leading. Especially when they are being waved through enthusiastically by the nominal Opposition under so-called Opposition Leader Bill Shorten.

Ben Grubb from the Sydney Morning Herald summarised last night's troubling events this morning (25/9/14):

Australian spies will soon have the power to monitor the entire Australian internet with just one warrant, and journalists and whistleblowers will face up to 10 years' jail for disclosing classified information.

The government's first tranche of tougher anti-terrorism laws, which beef up the domestic spy agency ASIO's powers, passed the Senate 44 votes for and 12 against on Thursday night with bipartisan support from Labor.

The bill, the National Security Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2014, will now be sent to the House of Representatives, where passage is all but guaranteed on Tuesday at the earliest.

Ben Grubb continues:

Anyone — including journalists, whistleblowers and bloggers — who "recklessly" discloses "information ... [that] relates to a special intelligence operation" faces up to 10 years' jail.

Any operation can be declared "special" and doing so gives ASIO criminal and civil immunity. Many, including lawyers and academics, have said they fear the agency will abuse this power.

Those who identify ASIO agents could also face a decade in prison under the new laws, a tenfold increase in the existing maximum penalty.

The new laws also allow ASIO to seek just one warrant to access a limitless number of computers on a computer network when attempting to monitor a target, which lawyers, rights groups, academics and Australian media organisations condemned.

These undeniably repressive laws have been sold as a regrettable, but vital, way to combat the supposed increased threat of domestic terrorism.

Indeed, Prime Minister Abbott even came out in Parliament and said:

“For some time to come, the delicate balance between freedom and security may have to shift.''

But, like so many things our prime minister says, this is simply a convenient lie.

These are not good laws. They are not even laws to make Australia safer. They are, in reality, cynical, opportunistic laws. Laws barrelled through under the artifice of protecting us from a fanatical foreign Islamic beheading cult with apparent links to Muslims in this country.

These are appalling laws, built on lies.

There has never been an act of domestic terror in Australia. And no, a lone teenager committing a seemingly unplanned act of violence is neither a terror attack nor a retrospective justification for foreign military intervention and ramped up “counter-terrorism” powers.

The so-called Islamic State ‒ a ragtag bunch of rebels occupying a chunk of land about the size of Tasmania half a world away – is hardly a threat to anyone — except, perhaps, if you happen to live in Iraq or Syria.

Yes, there may indeed be 50 or 60 Australians fighting with them, but that doesn’t make them a threat here in Australia — particularly after ASIO summarily cancelled their passports.

Any supporters these foreign fighters have in this country ‒ a miniscule number at most ‒ are surely able to be easily monitored using existing laws and, if they commit a criminal act, arrested and prosecuted under those laws.

The real reason for these new powers has nothing to do with Islamic State, or ISIL, or ISIS ‒ or whatever these extremists are called this week ‒ but are to do with closing down scrutiny of Australia’s spies and the Government's undercover activities.

You see, Australia's spooks have been caught with their pants down on two significantly embarrassing occasions since the Abbott Government took power last year.

The first embarrassment occurred when the ABC and Guardian Australia published leaks from former U.S. intelligence operative cum whistleblower Edward Snowden that our spies had tapped then Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's mobile phone for 15 days in 2009. These revelations caused a major rift with Indonesia and are still a lingering source of tension.

It was not long after this event, on January 28, that Abbott first used his famous “team” epithet, while denouncing the ABC in an interview on 2GB with his friend, rightwing Sydney shock jock Ray Hadley [IA emphasis]:

"It dismays Australians when the national broadcaster appears to take everyone's side but our own and I think it is a problem.

“You would like the national broadcaster to have a rigorous commitment to truth and at least some basic affection for the home team, so to speak.''

Abbott went on to call Snowden a “traitor”, saying the ABC “seemed to delight” in publishing his information:

"And of course, the ABC didn't just report what he said, they took the lead in advertising what he said. That was a deep concern.''

Abbott reaffirmed his position in a subsequent doorstop interview, going on to condemn the ABC for working with the Guardian, or as he put it:

“… touting for a leftwing British newspaper.”

There were no surprises when a vindictive Abbott left it for his broken former rival Malcolm Turnbull to announce an efficiency review of the ABC a couple of days later.

This review has now called for the ABC’s budget to be slashed, with important investigative news programs, such as Lateline, right in the firing line.

Turnbull has also flagged cutting a further $200 million from an ABC budget already cut deeply in the May Federal Budget — itself an act that blatantly broke a clear election promise.

These security laws, therefore, can be seen as the next stage in the Abbott programme to hamstring the ABC as an effective source of scrutiny of Government activities.

But, even more importantly, they will make Australian journalism generally reluctant to expose the Government’s undercover activities, as this could lead to them being sent to prison for a decade.

Australia’s spy network was again in the spotlight in December last year after Attorney General George Brandis ordered ASIO to raid the Canberra offices and home of barrister Bernard Colleary, a former ACT deputy chief minister, who was representing East Timor against Australia at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague.

The East Timorese had accused the Australian Government spy agency ASIS of bugging Government offices in Dili during vital Timor Sea oilfield treaty negotiations in 2004. In the raid, ASIO removed any documents helpful to the Timorese case.

The ICJ affirmed the East Timorese claims, in March ordering Australia to stop spying on them and their lawyers. Brandis, however, refused to return the documents to the Timorese, citing unspecified “security concerns”.

This East Timorese had received their information from a whistleblower — a former Australian spy. He had come to them incensed that former Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, responsible for both the $40 billion oilfield negotiations and ASIS operations, went on to work as an “advisor” for the Australian company involved, Woodside Petroleum, after leaving politics.

As these examples show, these terror laws will stop whistleblowers exposing the Government’s undercover operations through the media.

The problem with this is that the Coalition ‒ under Tony Abbott avowedly “open for business” ‒ has shown itself repeatedly in the past to not be above using the offices of Government, including the security services, in an improper way in order to assist friends, associates and benefactors. 

Under the new laws, any whistleblower seeking to expose the security services, for instance, helping an Australian big business on the behest of a cabinet minister looking for a cosy post-parliamentary sinecure, will now be shut down and any journalists assisting locked up for a very long time.

This is not democracy. No wonder they don’t want a Federal ICAC.

The Islamic State is a mirage, as far as we are concerned here in Australia. It is not an existential threat to us.

The grave threat, in truth, is new security laws that stifle freedom of speech, remove privacy protections, gaol journalists and serve, in the end, to limit scrutiny of the Government and its operatives.

Moreover, providing new powers to secret agents, which also provides them with civil and criminal immunity, is an outright danger to us as citizens. It makes these shadowy figures immune to prosecution and, therefore, effectively unaccountable for their actions.

Under these laws, frankly, spies can kill us and fear no recourse or retribution.

Under these laws, there is no-one to watch the watchers. Now that is truly terrifying.

Of course, we probably expect our extreme rightwing Government to implement these sorts of outrageous and unwarranted laws — and certainly we can see why they are doing so.

It is, however, the weak acquiescence by their so-called Opposition that is the most criminal part of this affair.

We know the ALP under Bill Shorten do not want a cigarette paper between themselves and the Government on immigration and security matters. This is the exact small target strategy using so brilliantly and effectively by former Opposition leader Kim Beazley during such events as the Tampa Affair and Children Overboard.

Labor know broad swathes of the Australian public are small-minded and have been built up into a frenzy of Islamophobia by the disgraced and disgraceful Murdoch press. Put simply, they don’t want to get the hordes of fearful, hysterical and bigoted offside.

But politicians who unnecessarily sacrifice the rights of the people in the interests of popularity and power show themselves up as unsuitable for high office.

By supporting these so-called “anti-terror” laws ‒ which have nothing at all to do with preventing terrorism ‒ the ALP, under their current milquetoast leader, have followed the Coalition so far to the right, they are no longer truly a progressive Opposition.

And now more than ever, as the Government shuts down scrutiny and proposes gaoling journalists, Australia needs a progressive alternative.

You can follow David Donovan on Twitter @davrosz.

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