by Nicholas Economou
Keen watchers of television may have noticed some new political advertisements operating under the #righttoknow hash-tag. The advertisements extol the virtues of an unfettered press as an integral part of a democratic system. The message the advertisements seek to convey is straightforward enough: a free press, it is argued, is critically important to the democratic process by keeping the citizenry informed about what it is that government is doing. The need for the press as watchdog is enhanced where government seeks to hide its decision-making behind legal and/or administrative processes designed to provide secrecy for the deliberations of state. The role of the press, the campaign reminds us, is to hold the government to account.
This latest campaign to influence public opinion to support media organisations in their battle with Australia’s national government over the extent to which the community should be allowed to scrutinise decision-making on national security policy. This has arisen following police raids on some journalists who have published stories based on information being leaked to them by a third party (the government is assuming leaks have come from within the public sector). The stories relate to advice furnished to government about ways in which electronic surveillance of the general public could be enhanced as a means of countering terrorism, and defence documents relating to a controversial military operation in Afghanistan.
In both cases the government (that is, the Liberal-National coalition currently in power) has cited national security as grounds for seeking to find the source of the information that sustained both stories with a view to prosecute. The investigative task falls to the Australian Federal Police who have responsibility for enforcing federal laws. A well publicised raid of both the home of a journalist and on the offices of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation occurred, and this has become the catalyst for media organisations to run a political campaign against the government on the matter of how press ‘freedom’ should be guaranteed.
The Labor opposition has been very quick to align itself with the press freedom campaign. At one level it is to be assumed that an opposition will seek to exploit a government weakness, and so Labor’s rigorous defence of the press and the idea of an informed citizenry was to be expected. The trouble is, there is something of a hint of hypocrisy in the opposition’s sudden enthusiasm for the citizens’ right to know’ about the way governments deal with the perpetually thorny issue of national security.
Back in 2018, the then Liberal-National coalition government under its prime minister at the time, Malcolm Turnbull, introduced new legislation – the National Security Legislation Amendment (Espionage and Foreign Interference) Bill 2018 – designed to reinforce anti-terrorism and anti-foreign political interference laws. As part of this overhaul, the legislation also reinforced the idea that anyone who leaked information deemed to be relevant to national security, and anyone who would be in receipt of such information and publish it, would be in breach of the law and could be subject to significant punishment. As the Revised Explanatory Memorandum puts it, the new legislation “reforms Commonwealth’s secrecy offences, ensuring they appropriately criminalise leaks of harmful information while also protecting freedom of speech”.
That last bit about protecting freedom of speech relates to an amendment to the bill insisted upon by the Greens and Labor that would provide journalists an exemption from prosecution for publishing secret documents provided it passed the test of serving the “public interest’. The government justified these provisions on national security grounds, citing the threat of international terrorism and the need for government to be able to maintain surveillance of those deemed as a potential threat to internal security as reasonable grounds for these enhanced powers.
The point is that, apart from the insistence of the insertion of the reference to “public interest” in the bill, Labor voted with the government in both parliamentary chambers to have these proposed reinforcements of government secrecy pass in to law. The Australian Greens and, to be fair, the independent MHR Andrew Wilke, have been the only parliamentary participants to be consistent in their resistance to the enhancement of governmental power over information deemed to be of important to national security. Labor’s current expressions of outrage about recent events, however, contrasts with previous statements of in-principle support for government initiatives to reinforce restrictions to access to sensitive documents during the legislative process.
The reason for Labor’s inconsistency on this matter is not hard to fathom. Fear of being accused of being soft on national security haunts social democratic political parties even when they are in opposition. This fear derives from the view that the average voter is quite comfortable with the proposition that rights of access to information and the ability to publish are curtailed if enhanced community safety is the trade-off. In other words, Labor fears that swinging voters might be quite sanguine about the fate of journalists and whistle-blowers who run afoul of national security laws, and would seek to reward those in politics who were “strong” on national security at the expense of those worrying about democratic rights are might be cast as “weak” as a consequence.
The press face a similar problem, particularly when sections of the media have done their bit to contribute to the notion that the community is at risk from internal threats. In some ways, some sections of the media seem to want an each-way outcome on these matters as they exhort governments to address alleged terrorist threats on the one hand, and then get sanctimonious about defence of democratic rights on the other when one of their own is investigated by the police for an alleged breach of the law of the land. This approach is almost as inconsistent as that of the Labor party. It is doubtful that any retreat from Mr Turnbull’s legislation will occur any time soon.
Dr Nicholas Economou teaches politics at Monash University’s Clayton Campus in Melbourne, Australia.