OPINION: by Warren ReedNews Weekly
Democracy in disconnect: joining the dots
, June 7, 2008
Australian democracy is diminished when we constantly overlook our government's failure to act openly and accountably, writes Warren Reed.If we are to protect the freedoms we have in Australia, it is essential that we learn from our mistakes. But to do so, we need first to acknowledge that they've been made, then take responsibility for what went wrong.
Regardless of who holds the Treasury benches in Canberra, the art of avoiding cleaning up the mess has become dangerously refined.
The media, to its credit, often draws relevant incidents to the public's attention, though we let each one pass as if it's isolated and not part of a worrying pattern.
An example came in The Australian
on the last Anzac Day — normally a day for reflection — in an article, "Pardon this whistleblower, say the law's big names". Chris Merritt, the newspaper's legal affairs writer, was looking at how some of the nation's most influential lawyers were calling for retrospective legislation to be used to clear the name of convicted whistleblower, Allan Kessing.Airport security
Kessing, a former member of the Customs Air Border Security Unit based at Sydney Airport, had been instrumental in compiling two reports, in 2003 and 2004, highlighting major shortcomings in the security net at the country's main airports. This included surveillance blind spots and criminal activity — and such a short time after the 9/11 tragedies in the United States.
The reports were leaked in 2005 and were front-page news, as a result of which then Prime Minister John Howard urgently hired British international aviation expert, Sir John Wheeler, to look into the claims. Wheeler confirmed the threats and vulnerabilities outlined in the reports, and the Federal Government allocated over $200 million to rectify the problem.
But, as usual, a lethargic Canberra, mugged by reality, demanded a victim on whom to vent its scorn. Despite its own fridge-magnet rhetoric and duty, the Government and the bureaucracy had been neither "alert" nor "alarmed".
Kessing was targeted, charged and duly convicted last year. He was given a nine-month suspended sentence and put on a good behaviour bond for two years. He has consistently denied leaking the reports and is currently in the process of lodging an appeal, following a drawn-out legal process that beggars belief.
In the run-up to last year's federal election, the Labor Party highlighted Kessing's case when it committed itself to bringing in legal protection for public servants who made unauthorised disclosures in the public interest.
What was leaked on airport security — and confirmed by Wheeler — has made all Australians inordinately safer, yet Kessing's life is being systematically trashed. There's no other way of putting it.
The new Rudd Government has been in office for nearly six months and we still haven't seen the whistleblower legislation, or any inclination on the part of Canberra to help Kessing.
In a democracy, especially one in which there are increasing calls for a bill of rights, this is appalling. Equally as shocking is the lack of interest on the part of Parliament and the community as a whole.
Likewise, no one is demanding to know why the two Customs reports were not acted upon by senior bureaucrats and their relevant ministers. Why were they buried? Who shirked responsibility?
A second red light flashed on April 28 this year when the NSW director of public prosecutions ordered police to drop charges against the ABC's 11-man Chaser's War on Everything
comedy team for breaching security in Sydney during last September's APEC conference.
You might recall that 21 world leaders were due in town for that talkfest, with US President George W. Bush and the Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper already there. At the time, the image of Australian comedian Chas Licciardello stepping out of a black official-looking limousine dressed as Osama bin Laden, only metres from the US President's hotel, was flashed around the world.
While it is understandable that the police, who were left looking inept after that stunt, would want to pursue charges against the team, we still haven't been told whether it was really their fault.
We need to know about that, just as they deserve to have their name cleared. After all, the Howard Government made much of APEC security, which cost taxpayers well over $100 million. You would expect the Rudd Government also to be interested in the nation's well-being.
Moreover, the Seven Network, the Sydney's Daily Telegraph
website and the Sydney Morning Herald
all told us on September 13 last year that the Chaser
team was able to reach the "red zone" because security had been relaxed.
This occurred, it was said, after Prime Minister Howard had had a problem the day before with a locked gate. He had to wait for a duplicate key to be found. Later, the head of the APEC task force was stopped and searched when his accreditation was queried. Alan Henderson, the bureaucrat involved, had been appointed to the job from inside the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. A furious Henderson was reported to have lodged a complaint and demanded that the police ease off ministerial cars.
To make matters worse, the Daily Telegraph
followed up with a report that: "Officers were then ordered not to stop motorcades while they were in motion, which allowed the Chaser
crew — complete with an Osama bin Laden lookalike — to pass unchecked, police sources confirmed last night.
This was despite the fact that no official motorcades were scheduled to pass through the checkpoint that day."
The rest is history, and yet the Australian public has been given no explanation of the causes of a breakdown in the system that attracted worldwide media coverage.
It's easier, apparently, to let the police take the rap, even though public respect for them is vital — and for the police as much as for us. Nothing has been heard from the Rudd Government on this count.
Another bungle is the controversial case of Dr Mohammed Haneef. Leading the inquiry into this case is John Clarke QC, the retired NSW Supreme Court judge, but he has no powers to require people to give evidence.Blow-torchings
That means he'll be unable to protect those people who venture forth from the engine-rooms of the agencies involved to reveal the truth. Understandably, some might fear appearing because of the impact on their careers, if not because they're afraid of Canberra's renowned blow-torchings that shut decent people up.
Clarke has been left by the Government to ask for extra powers if he needs them. Why not grant them to start with?
In the minds of thinking Australians, all this begs the question: who's got what on whom in the national capital? Who's really calling the shots?
Whatever the answers might be, our democracy is diminished by constantly overlooking the failure to act openly and accountably.
A Monash University scholar, Dr Hugh Emy, in 1972 summed up a major difference between Australians and the British.
The latter, he said, had learnt over long, hard centuries to keep a sharp eye out for any abuse of state power, whereas Australians — despite their so-called healthy disrespect for authority — were largely indifferent to government as long as it provided most of what they wanted. Very little ever stirred them.
Emy, who died young, would be aghast if he came back today.— Warren Reed is a former intelligence officer with the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS).