AFP raids add to picture of a Morrison government emboldened


The government was weakened, lagging in the polls, and everyone, including Coalition MPs, believed it was on track to lose the election.

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Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton told us that passing the Medevac bill would ensure the “illegal” boats would start coming again, and that sick asylum seekers would displace Australians from our hospitals.

It didn’t matter that the legislation contained an exemption clause on the grounds of national security – something we have heard a lot about this week.

It was dangerous.

It was passed, of course, and as far as I can tell, no asylum seeker hoards have swamped our hospitals. Nor have any flotillas descended.

Dutton’s claims were bunkum – a fact that has received little scrutiny since.

But during the debate there was, on February 6, an exclusive front page story published in The Australian.

It reported that a briefing from the Department of Home Affairs, ostensibly based on advice from ASIO and the Australian Border Force, warned that the “third pillar” of what was grandly called “the nation’s border-protection architecture” (ie offshore processing) would be “dismantled” if the medevac law was passed.

The advice was classified, the story reported.

Just like the documents relied upon for the two stories which sparked the Australian Federal Police raids this week on News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst’s home and the ABC’s Ultimo headquarters.

“If we strip it down, we’re talking about highly classified documents,” Dutton told Channel Nine on Friday morning, when asked by journalist Deb Knight if he was comfortable with journalists being jailed, which is a possibility as a result of the raids.

AFP officers arrive at the ABC on Wednesday.
Credit:Kate Geraghty

We are supposed to have an awed reverence for this concept of “classified”, even though it is essentially a label the government can put on anything it likes to prevent its publication.

ASIO boss Duncan Lewis was horrified by the Medevac advice leak, and the story based on it, which he said misrepresented the nature of ASIO advice.

Mike Pezzullo, the powerful head of Home Affairs, said the leak had been referred to the Australian Federal Police for criminal investigation, because it might have constituted an offence.

On Friday, the Herald reported the AFP has opted against launching a full investigation.

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Maybe the AFP will get around to it after it has sufficiently intimidated the authors of stories that have a clear and vitally important national interest, as opposed to stories which, however interesting, also happen to serve the government’s political interests.

The idea of the enforcement arm of the state rifling through a reporter’s underwear drawer and combing the emails of the national broadcaster is horrifying.

The holy touchstone of national security is invoked, but no one can tell us how publishing either story (about our spy agencies possibly spying on us, and about possible war crimes committed by Australian soldiers) compromises it.

All this is chilling enough.

But, for mine, the raids also added to the impression of government emboldened, of power exploited.

Consider the news of just this week, and how it compares to the proclamations made during the election campaign.

Australian Federal Police raided the home of journalist Annika Smethurst and went through her underwear drawer in search of a USB drive.

Australian Federal Police raided the home of journalist Annika Smethurst and went through her underwear drawer in search of a USB drive.Credit:ninevms

We would reach our Paris emissions reduction targets “in a canter”, we were told, while the government withheld the latest emissions data from the public. Released this week, the data showed emissions have increased.

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The Coalition campaigned heavily on a strong economy. This week, the national accounts were released and showed, in the words of the Herald and Age’s senior economics correspondent Shane Wright, that “the economy is tanking”.

The Medevac legislation, we were told, would lead to those charged with criminal offences being admitted to Australian shores.

During the campaign it emerged that the government knowingly took in, via the secretive people-swap deal with the US, two Rwandan suspected murderers an American judge described as “dangerous”.

For years the conversation about freedoms in this country has been dominated by the freedom to be a bigot (the debate over changes to 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act) and more recently, freedom of religion.

The infrastructure of rights-protections – the Human Rights Commission, and anti-discrimination legislation – has been co-opted by those who would like to tear it down.

Those who would like to tear down reproductive freedoms redefine them as the concern of elites.

Those who would like to tear down reproductive freedoms redefine them as the concern of elites.Credit:AP

Meanwhile, freedom of the press, reproductive freedom, and even, in the case of asylum seekers, freedom of movement and freedom from detention without trial, are dismissed as the concerns of the elites.

In the weeks since the election it has become fashionable to dismiss all who are concerned with the government’s agenda (or lack of it) as sore losers or as ivory tower dwellers who have no idea how tough “real” people are doing it.

What a marvellous edifice this must be to hide behind – how impervious it makes you to criticism.

Consider the way Prime Minister Scott Morrison rejected outright questions over abortion law as unsuitable for discussion during an election – as though there was something unseemly about wombs, and who gets dominion over them.

As though some rights are more equal than others.

Freedoms and rights will often be in tension with each other, but in an abundant democracy like ours, they should not be forced into competition.

When an emboldened government that rejects transparency, collides with the erosion of public confidence in democracy, freedoms will die.

Jacqueline Maley is a senior journalist, columnist and former Canberra press gallery sketch writer for The Sydney Morning Herald. In 2017 she won the Peter Ruehl Award for Outstanding Columnist at the Kennedy Awards

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