Tony Abbott’s crimes against democracy

29 September 2014
Marty Hirst

"We stand for freedom and will be freedom's bulwark against the encroachments of an unworthy and dishonourable government"

– Tony Abbott, 2012.

There is something deeply and disturbingly ironic about Australian prime minister Tony Abbott meeting Egypt’s military dictator Abdel el-Sisi and urging the blood-soaked general to release Al Jazeera journalist Peter Greste from jail. Greste was convicted of spreading “false” news that harmed Egypt’s national interest, in a sham trial that resembled a Monty Python script rather than the heights of judicial intelligence.

The meeting between the two leaders took place at the United Nations general assembly in New York. Leave out the grotesque parody of the encounter and what are we left with? Two leaders who claim that it has become necessary to reduce freedoms in order to keep their citizens free.

In Egypt, el-Sisi is terrorising the population with arbitrary detentions, the arrest of activists and death sentences handed out 600 at a time to alleged members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. Journalists and TV presenters are among those persecuted and gaoled for speaking out against el-Sisi’s coup and the farcical recent elections.

In Australia, Tony Abbott leads a government that is also slowly destroying our freedoms and political democracy so hard won over generations.

In a speech to Federal Parliament, Abbott laid out his anti-democratic agenda, couched in the faux-Churchillian tones of his political hero, John Howard: “Regrettably, for some time to come, the delicate balance between freedom and security may have to shift. There may be more restrictions on some so that there can be more protection for others.”

Who are the “some” and who are the “others” in this Orwellian doublespeak?

Well, that is becoming clearer as the days pass and Abbott’s anti-freedom agenda becomes clearer.

The first category of the “some” and the ones in most danger are members of Australia’s Muslim community. Their freedoms are less precious to this nasty rightwing government than the freedoms of the rich and powerful.

But the net is widening and the “some” is expanding as Abbott takes us ever closer to another war in Iraq.

Under the Big Brother-esque and ominously named National Security Legislation Amendment Bill (no. 1) 2014 (PDF), new categories of offence have been created and the “some” enlarged to cover journalists, whistleblowers and anyone who exposes secret anti-terror operations to public scrutiny.

The penalty for anyone guilty of exposing a shadowy “special intelligence operation” is 10 years in jail – that’s longer than the sentence imposed on Peter Greste by Egypt’s military dictators.

Worse still, the exact nature of a “special” police operation is not specified. It could be anything that the government, ASIO and the federal police want to keep away from the public’s gaze.

Nobody should be surprised by Abbott’s grab for secret powers and the government’s push to hide its war against Australia’s Muslims behind a veil of secrecy. This is the same government that has consistently refused to disclose information about its murderous war against asylum seekers.

This is the same government that lied its way into office and is now cutting funding for social services, health and education while letting the big polluters and the mining industry off the hook.

This is the same government that promised no cuts to the ABC or the SBS, but that is subjecting the public broadcasters to death by a thousand slow cuts.

This is the same government that is attempting to destroy workers’ rights by cutting off the trade union movement at the knees through a thoroughly politicised Royal Commission that allows the crimes of the bosses to go unpunished.

This is the same government that is spending billions on a new “war on terror” at home and abroad while crying “budget emergency”.

It is the same government that has used draconian powers of “preventative” detention for the first time to hold people who haven’t been charged with any crime.

Now this government wants to silence whistleblowers and threaten journalists who dare to challenge its power with 10 years in jail.

The Abbott government is the most serious threat to Australian democracy since Kerr’s coup against Gough Whitlam in 1975.

Yet, at best, the criticism from senior journalists has been mild. Despite the thundering headline on his column (“Our free press is under siege“), all that Laurie Oakes could muster as a challenge to Abbott was the following lame paragraph: “The Government should be pushed to frame anti-terrorism laws in a way that minimises the infringement on press freedom.”

The Guardian’s deputy political editor, Katherine Murphy, also raised her voice in complaint. In the end, however, Murphy’s response was as muted as Oakes’. It’s all about “asking” the government to be more accountable. That’s not going to cut it.

The journalists’ union, the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, has condemned the security measures, arguing that they criminalise the day-to-day work of journalists and restrict the flow of information about vital national security issues.

The union is right about this. We need a serious fightback against the legislation – perhaps starting with journalists imposing a boycott on all government media announcements until the law is repealed.

[Martin Hirst is a 25-year member of the MEAA.]

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