A step toward authoritarianism? Recent actions by the Australian Federal Police (AFP) have drawn condemnation worldwide, and plenty of concerns have been raised about media freedom in the country. But, the problem the Australian public has to grabble with goes much deeper and can only be remedied if quiet Australians stand up for their rights; they must do so now

When Prime Minister Scott Morrisondeclared

victory on election night a few weeks ago, he boasted about the ‘quiet Australians’ and their support, pointing out that ‘quiet Australians’ can be pretty noisy folks sometimes. Since politics never misses ironical twists and turns, it is his newly re-elected government and its questionable credentials on press freedom that may well give rise to ‘quiet Australians’ becoming very noisy again. Still being drunk with victory, the PM initially

endorsed

police actions on News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst and the

ABC. But wall to wall

coverage turned out to be so devastating for the government and the police that even Morrison subsequently had to change his

tune

on the issue, and various options are now firmly on the table. What is pretty clear at this early stage is that parliament will look at these matters in one way or another, with Senators on the cross-benches calling for an urgent, public

inquiry, though it is unclear at this moment if they can garner enough support. Some, like Centre Alliance Senator Rex Patrick want to go even further, calling for

constitutional amendments

to ensure that a free press, serving as the bedrock of democracy, is upheld. As noble as these proposals are, they stand little chance of being realized at present.

The warrants were issued under the

Crimes Act, an antiquated law passed in 1914. Australia’s criminal code was subsequently amended last year, adding a public interest defence for journalists and whistleblowers, even though the effectiveness of these measures are

debatable, a point not lost on Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus. Turning to Labor for help when it comes to national security legislation is a thankless task and a rather disillusioning endeavor. In fact, Australia has passed more than 60 laws relating to national security since 9/11, and they have been passed almost always with Labor support. Therefore, Labor’s current stance can only be described as

hypocritical, and former whistleblower and independent MP

Andrew Wilkie

is spot-on making this observation. Indeed, as the Sydney Morning Harold

revealed

it was Labor demanding an investigation into the leaks which had prompted Smethurst’s story. Sadly, therefore, Labor has hardly any credibility when putting forward a case against the government. However, this doesn’t imply that Ministers are off the hook on this one, since police investigations of leaks seem to be carried out rather

selectively, casting doubt on the independence of the AFP all together. How

emboldened

the Morrison government feels after winning reelection has become apparent in the most recent

spat

involving Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, his unelected but powerful chief Bureaucrat

Mike Pezzullo

and Centre Alliance Senator Rex Patrick. Pezzullo is widely seen to be the key figure in turning Australia more and more into what can only be described as a pre-police state. What is most troubling about this man are his constant attempts to intimidate and potentially silence parliamentarians. Since Dutton and Pezzullo seem to be brothers in arms when it comes to undemocratic legislation in the realm of national security, it is doubtful that the Home Affairs Minister will want to burn any political capital on trying to reign in this particular civil servant. Even if Pezzullo were to become the

Fall guy

further down the track, the impact on forthcoming legislation and its interpretation would be minimal at best. After all, politicians have honed their skills of turning bureaucrats into convenient scapegoats when circumstances require them to do so, and it is unlikely that Pezzullo will be the exception to this particular rule of modern politics. What, then, is the takeaway from all these rather worrying developments? Has Australia embarked on the slippery slope toward authoritarianism, and to what

extent

can the press still do its job holding government to account?

Those of us familiar with all the intricacies surrounding meaningful human rights legislation in Australia have no reason to be overly optimistic at present. The case that has to be made publicly and relentlessly is to point out that the current dispute is not just between the government and the media. The problems besetting the Australian state go much deeper than this; the media is merely a subset of the population at large. The public needs to understand that Australian’s look at an altered contract between the state and the citizenry.

Voices of reason find it very difficult to be heard these days, but they do exist and policymakers would be well-advised to pay much closer attention. Brian Toohey is the author of an upcoming

book

on the making of Australia’s security state. Toohey

blames

a slue of draconian laws and bipartisan support for them that have not just undermined democracy, but, arguably, have not even been bolstering national security in the country. Thus, as important as press freedom may be for accountable government, what Australia needs is a fresh look at all of its laws passed since 9/11; where appropriate, some of them will have to be amended or even repealed.

Australia seems far away for many of us, but these developments are just the beginning of a much more global trend to slowly and gradually hollow out the democratic structures of our countries respectively. Back in Germany, where human rights and press freedom have been codified constitutionally for decades, scary

proposals

to turn Alexa, Siri and Google’s Assistant into tools to covertly spy on citizens are seriously under consideration right now. In recognizing these developments, some of us might well be far ahead of our times, but it should be self-evident by now for any astute observer that our rights are under serious threat. What we need is a global movement to ensure that rights we have all fought for long and hard in Western democracies will still be the central components of our political systems in the future; at present, such an outcome is far from assured. Indeed, when the history books will be written about our times one day, scholars may well reach the conclusion that not Trump, Orban or Duterte represented the biggest threats to our democratic way of life; rather, the greater threat came from democratically elected governments and modern, digital technology. Let’s hope these books will never have to be written. In the end, it will be up to all of us. The time to reassert our rights as citizens is now.

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