‘We the Government”, the Defence Minister wrote, “have vital information which we cannot disclose”.
“It is upon this knowledge that we make decisions. You, who are merely private citizens, have no access to this information. Any criticism you make of our policy, any controversy about it in which you may indulge, will therefore be uninformed and valueless.”
The Defence Minister in question was Harold Thorby, writing in 1938.
His splendid quote opens a soon to be published book on the growth, not just of Australia’s national security apparatus, but the culture that has seen national security politically weaponised, particularly over the past 20 years.
The book is by veteran journalist Brian Toohey, and reflects his half century of writing about defence and national security issues.
Toohey says that:
“step by step, a succession of new laws and policies have provided the building blocks for Australia to become a country in which secretive officials and ministers wield unprecedented levels of peacetime power”.
No major political party, he argues, is:
“offering to restore the values of an earlier era in which habeas corpus prevailed; the onus of proof was on the prosecution; the accused was allowed to see the evidence relied on by the Crown; and Australian Security Intelligence Organisation officials could not legally kidnap people or raid a lawyer’s offices and seize documents in a commercial case directly involving the Government on the other side.
“No major party seems bothered by the use of new surveillance technology that allows governments to detect contact between journalists and their sources, effectively denying whistleblowers the opportunity to reveal abuses of power and criminal behaviour.”
This (slightly hysterical) culture built around national security is the really important issue at stake in this week’s raids, even more than the raids themselves and the threat they pose to journalism.
ABC chair Ita Buttrose said on Friday that the raid on the corporation was “designed to intimidate”.
But the raids, and any attempt at intimidation, is an outcome of a mindset, and a legal regime, that has snuck up on most Australians, largely under the cover of “keeping us safe” from terrorism.
The important point to note is that this regime doesn’t just pose risks for journalists.
It seeks to stamp out challenges to prevailing policy and authority, and it can be used against all Australians.
Of course there is a legitimate role for government secrecy.
But it is hard not to think the wild wobbles in the explanations of what the raids were about reflect the fact that “national security” has become a phrase bandied around a little too freely in recent years.
At one point in his press conference this week, Acting AFP Commissioner Neil Gaughan said that “the material subject to these investigations and search warrants relate to documents classified as both top secret and secret”.
“The compromise of such material could cause exceptionally grave damage or serious damage to the national interest, organisations, or indeed, individuals.”
The compromise of material that could seriously damage the “national interest, organisations, or indeed individuals” should never be taken lightly.
But no-one has yet made any case for why the two stories — one by Annika Smethurst and one by the ABC — could fall into that category.
Smethurst’s story, which included photographs of government documents, said the Home Affairs and Defence departments were considering giving spy agencies greater surveillance powers.
The story alleged new powers, if adopted, would go to the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) to secretly access bank records, emails and text messages.
(It is worth noting that the story — which is now characterised as a major security breach for its revelations — was denied at the time by both the senior bureaucrats involved and by Government ministers).
The second story involved allegations of serious war crimes in Afghanistan.
At another point in his press conference, Acting Commissioner Gaughan said “it’s important that people realise the reason why we are so strongly in our view of protecting top secret and secret information is that the Australian Government, or particularly the Australian law enforcement intelligence communities, rely on top secret and secret information from our international partners, particularly the Five Eyes partners, to keep the Australian community safe.
“If we can’t be seen to protect our own internal information, we are concerned the information flow to us dries up.”
This would also be a fair point if it could be proved the information that had been reported would in any way impact on the Five Eyes partners.
Australia’s agreement with those partners refers to intercepted messages and data, not to Australian originated information.
And as the New York Times noted this week “even among its peers, Australia stands out. No other developed democracy holds as tight to its secrets, experts say, and the raids are just the latest example of how far the country’s conservative Government will go to scare officials and reporters into submission”.
Tweet from Damien Cave: “I used to get surprised looks when I complained about Australia’s culture of secrecy.”
Even in the age of Donald Trump, it remains the case that Australian journalists can routinely get much better briefings on the relationship with the United States in Washington than they can in Canberra.
The same is true elsewhere.
Things are not just kept in the dark in other countries because they have been said in the circles of government or officialdom.
Just as journalists are right down the food chain in this story, so are the Federal Police, who are obliged to investigate alleged security breaches when they receive complaints.
Government ministers have been at pains to insist the raids had nothing to do with them. Except it has everything to do with them, if they oversee a regime which thinks such behaviour is acceptable.
Here is a tip, ministers: you are supposed to be in charge.
Stamping everything you don’t want to be the subject of discussion “top secret” or “secret” doesn’t make such behaviour acceptable.
It conjures up a less threatening but equally farcical practice which began in the Howard years in federal parliament.
The rules of the Parliament allow MPs to ask a minister to table a document from which they may have been reading.
Just occasionally over the years, a minister would be forced to table something they didn’t want to table.
The exception is if the document is a confidential one.
Some bright spark worked out that you could get around this by literally stamping “confidential” on every piece of paper ministers take into parliament.
It is low farce and everyone thinks it is really hilarious.
But it isn’t really.
It reflects a contempt for accountability that has become utterly pervasive in Canberra.
Public servants aren’t supposed to talk to journalists unless they get specific permission from their minister.
Organisations that receive government funding — they might be advocacy groups or research organisations — have to sign commitments that they will clear any public comments they make about government policy with the portfolio minister.
Supposedly independent boards of agencies of government confer with their ministers before answering media questions.
This is a mindset that is not set by national security interests but by a casual slide into abuse of power.
Secret by Brian Toohey will be published in September by Melbourne University Press. Laura Tingle is 7.30’s chief political correspondent.