As the last couple of weeks have been quite busy with university assessments, admittedly the frequency of my posts here has dropped considerably. Equally as regrettable, or perhaps worse, is the lack of time I’ve set aside to read the books I have literally piled around me. So this week I plan on getting back into the swing of things to catch up on the missed days. The big news this week is the AFP raids, but how much does ‘national security’ really play into this?
When politicians throw around terms like national security, in the national interest, etc. they don’t really mean much. It’s a concept, and like many concepts it is incredibly open-ended and can be interpreted in a myriad of ways. Professor Clinton Fernandes, in the introduction of Island Off the Coast of Asia (meaning Australia, not, as a couple of my brothers jokingly suggested at first, Japan), described security as a “useful concept because of its elasticity.” It not only refers to security in terms of military strength and cybersecurity and privacy, but also the economic interests of the State. Fernandes describes these interests as “what a nation or a dominant group within it possesses or thinks it ought to possess.”
The “dominant group” is almost always the capitalist elite, those with vast economic and, subsequently, political influence. In many cases, however, I would argue that this small concentration of wealth is not limited to a particular nation, nor to the interests of it. While it is obvious that the policies of Australia, the US, etc. do indeed further the interests of those people and corporations in their respective nations, the corporate body is a global beast, crossing borders and oceans, often in sanctioned defiance of the State. One need not look further than the endless stories of offshore tax havens and of multibillion/multinational companies paying less tax than their lowest paid workers.
The concept of the State, of countries, borders and nationalism, is a very bizarre, very human idea that has no real purpose other than to impose some perceived division between peoples. We are told from the top echelons of our societies that the sovereignty and pride of a nation is absolute and that there is no alternative (in fact, we are not even told, it is just universally acknowledged, and anyone who suggests otherwise is seen as, at best, eccentric and idealistic or, at worst, traitorous). Is it not strange, then, that those with the most power in society, corporate power, are above and beyond the bounds of the State concept? As with race and sex, geographical division is simply a dreadful aspect of the overarching class division. (An unplanned digression from the original intent of this piece.)
For the purpose of this piece, however, let us stick to national security and interest in the context of Australia. More often than not, when politicians use those words, the context of their use generally has no bearing on the lives of the average person. Recent events highlight this perfectly, showing not only do those terms mean nothing to the average person, but that they are also used to defend those in power against the actual will and interests of the people.
The AFP raids against a News Corp journalist and the ABC, for example, are frightening attacks against press freedom, something that (with the advent of Trump in the US) has become all too common in the “West” (quotations used as, indeed, Fernandes is right – Australia is off the coast of Asia). But these raids were carried out in the name of national security, the result of releasing material that was inconvenient for the government to lose hold of.
This is where the term ‘national interest’ is revealed to be a meaningless term – the national interest may be one thing, but the public interest could be entirely different, as is the case here. It is in the national interest, the interest of those in power, to keep the authoritarian nature of their Orwellian spying laws under wraps. In the public sphere, most of the push is in the other direction – many were devastated and felt betrayed when Labor caved in and helped pass laws last year that allow the government access to hoards of private data from its citizens. It is absolutely in the public’s interest to know why the government wants this information – because it sure isn’t to fight all those terrorist attacks plaguing our nation, right? – and how it will be used.
In the case of the ABC, the raid was in response to reports the ABC carried out after receiving leaked information about our involvement in Afghanistan, what became known as the Afghan Files. The series of documents, mostly classified as AUSTEO (Australian Eyes Only), shed light on the troubling culture and actions of Australian forces, including acts that are unlawful and would be considered war crimes. Afghanistan was a war that John Howard sent us into gleefully in an attempt to curry favour with our deadly regime ally, the US. What “national interest” for Australia laid low in the Middle East? None, unless you count kowtowing to the greatest terrorist nation in the world (somewhat ironically with the pretext of fighting terror).
There is also no national security risk to these leaks, other than what the government decides there is. It is, however, entirely within the public’s interest to know just what our government and armed forces are doing across the globe. Covering up war crimes has nothing to do with security, and it could be argued, I feel, that us committing these war crimes and supporting the US in their “War on Terror” in the first place is a far greater and more legitimate security risk. Australia has, fortunately, experienced very few terror attacks, but our involvement either as US allies, brutal gatekeepers (Nauru and Manus), or soon-to-be weapons exporters to such lovely despots as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, could potentially land us as targets.
For our government to turn around and tell us that covering up war crimes and implementing laws that transcend 1984’s fear of a surveillance state is justified for national security reasons, and that doing these things is in the “national interest”, is absurd. Perhaps the greatest abuse of this national security phrase is our dealings with the Timorese, something that Fernandes is rather close too. It was our economic security and interests that led us to screwing East Timor over regarding maritime borders. Under the Fraser government, Australia (with much reluctance, we are told) was the only nation to formally acknowledge Indonesia’s control over East Timor, and proceeded to negotiate lucrative maritime boundaries with the Indonesian dictatorship.
In the 21st Century, with the young Timor-Leste having gained independence at long last, our government under Howard turned to espionage to spy on Timorese negotiators. This was, of course, in the national interest and unknown to the public. That is, until Witness K revealed it and then it became a national security concern to cover up and quietly deal with a whistleblower. I have written before about how the work of whistleblowers, including Witness K, is entirely within the public’s interest, and that the government is so dedicated to quashing such activities shows nothing more than an admission of guilt, and utter disdain for the public and rule of law.
National security and national interest are elastic phrases, and whenever governments use them it usually means there is more to the story. The will and interest of the public is, in reality, hardly ever aligned with the so called ‘national interest’, and actions undertaken in the name of ‘national security’ are usually, to the general public, repressive or secretive measures. Journalists and critics of the government should not be deterred by recent events – they provide all the more reason to expose them.
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