THIS was a matter of relief neither for me nor a number of people who thought like me. This was something like stumbling out of bed, every morning and not recognising, let alone liking, the face you would see in the bathroom mirror. What goes in Perth and Sydney has always stays there.
Two decades ago, my ‘escapades’ to Australia ended in mellowed, disappointment. I could see that I was living in an ‘over-regulated’ country. Could I adjust myself to the comfort levels or the societal norms offered here and manage to live in any city dotting Australia’s coastline?
But then, I was an explorer, an enquirer, looking for some serious answers in a career I wished to pursue. The West Coast Institute of Perth offered me an MBA course, with a major in education management. On impulse, I grabbed the opportunity.
The institution in Perth was one elitist centre, which like most, embraced change. I wondered if like the sister institution, it would also become a slave to a very narrow conception of merit. In a more equal world, where people went to college, it would matter less and students would pursue different schools for different reasons. Most universities pursue whatever values they hold dear, crafting admission standards that favour community services or academic scholarship, or perhaps a thousand other virtues.
In the living world, our institutions of learning — old, new and modern — all face a stark choice between equality and eliteness. And perhaps the elite ones are the most in need, become less exclusive and are more free.
Fast forward to the world of 2019. In early June, the federal police reportedly raided the Sydney headquarters of the state broadcaster, the ABC. It aired allegations of appalling deeds by Australian special forces in Afghanistan, including the killing of unarmed men and children. You might think that the ABC was doing the country a service by revealing such a gross misconduct.
The Australian Defence Force became concerned about a ‘drift in values’ among elite troops in Afghanistan. Yet the warrant against the ABC read as if it was straight out of an authoritarian rulebook. Among other things, it allowed investigators to ‘add, copy, delete or alter’ material in the broadcaster’s computers.
My eye-rubbing is not just over press freedom but about Australia’s direction as a liberal democracy. The whistleblower over the Afghanistan allegations was formerly a lawyer with the defence department. David McBride followed public-interest disclosure rules by raising his concerns with his department. Only when he had concluded that they were being ignored did he take his material to journalists.
And far from being protected as a whistleblower, he was charged with the disclosure of unauthorised documents and faced a life-term sentence. His allegations, which had to do with events more than six years ago, had no obvious national security implications today.
And this again is not an isolated case. The day before the ABC raid, the police separately raided the home of a journalist at the Sunday Telegraph, one of Australia’s bestselling papers, in connection with a story about secret plans to expand the state’s surveillance powers to include snooping on people’s e-mails, text messages and bank accounts.
In 2018, a former spy known as Witness K and his lawyer Bernard Collaery were charged for exposing (years ago) Australia’s bugging of the government of Timor Leste during sensitive negotiations over rights to offshore oil and gas. Meanwhile, a former employee at Australia’s tax office, Richard Boyle, is facing 66 charges and no fewer than 161 years in jail for exposing its allegedly aggressive debt collection techniques. When Boyle reported such practices internally, he became the subject of an investigation. Only after he had refused to sign a gag order in return for compensation did he make his claims public.
All democracies face tension between civil liberties, on the one hand, and national security and confidentiality within government, on the other. The tension has grown along with the threat of Islamist extremism. In Australia, the establishment feels another profound insecurity, too: the insidious influence of an authoritarian China on commerce, society, academia and even politics.
Even so, the balance that Australia has struck between freedom and security looks skewed. Since 9/11 the government has passed more than 60 pieces of legislation that impinge on civil liberties (including one, i8n 2018, that obliges social media firms to find ways for spooks to access encrypted communications). That is more than either America or Britain.
What is more: America’s first amendment and related laws protect journalists from the police who want them to disclose their sources. Britain acknowledges the guarantees of free speech in the European Convention on Human Rights. Australia is almost alone among established democracies in lacking explicit constitutional protection for civil liberties. Its feeble whistleblower laws pointedly exclude protection for public servants — even in cases that have nothing to do with national security.
For all the opposition Labor party’s attempts to make hay out of the government’s discomfort, it has long been an enthusiastic backer of security legislation. Indeed, few Australians challenge the overweening state. Could their self-image as authority-averse larrikins be wide off the mark? Could it be that Australia’s rugged individualists are happy to defer to nanny?
McBride, whose trial is due to start in a couple of weeks, says that the government is using the security apparatus ‘to fight its own people now’. He feels that he has a duty to point this out: ‘I have never felt better. I’ve never liked myself more. I’ve never had a doubt it was the right thing to do for Australia’. And coming back to where I started, he for one is not afraid to look in the mirror.
Every era is defined by the collective cry of those denied their ‘humanity’, by the shouts of those who have to fight.
Perhaps, the only way things can change for Australia is when the moment in time for their own people arrives and who, at some point, will start feeling ‘uncomfortable’. The humble beginnings of discomfort could then trigger and be the harbinger of change for their society.
Nazarul Islam is a former educator based in Chicago.
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