Playing for time? Scott Morrison has announced a parliamentary inquiry into press freedom. What looks like a timely and sensible move on the surface may well turn out to be another attempt to preempt further pressure and to kick the issue into the long grass.

Following the AFP raids on News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst’s home and the ABC headquarters in Sydney, the possible lack of protection for journalists as well as whistleblowers was suddenly in the spotlight. Despite initial attempts by the Morrison government to evade the issue, domestic and international coverage assured that the government had to respond.

Calls for a parliamentary inquiry and a revisiting of national security legislation, passed almost always with bipartisan support, grew louder. Now, the government has

Proposed

a parliamentary inquiry to be conducted by the

Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security , and the Prime Minister obviously wants to neutralize the potency of the issue by striving for bipartisan support, having met with Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese to discuss the nature and remit of the probe.

Indeed, in the wake of the AFP raids, Albanese made plenty of

noise

about Labor’s commitment to press freedom, vowing to defend it even if the government does not. Since Labor’s approach to national security has always been in lockstep with the government, such utterances smack of opportunism if nothing else. Not so long ago, it was

revealed

that it was Labor’s Shadow Attorney General Mark Dreyfus who wrote to the Prime Minister demanding an investigation into the leak that had prompted Smethurst’s story. Therefore, Labor’s recent love-affair with the free press lacks credibility, particularly with Mark Dreyfus trying to turn himself into one of the most hardened

critics

of government policy in this area.

As new

anti terror legislation

is put to parliament by the Morrison government, and Labor has signaled its readiness to once again go along with the Coalition on this particular bill too, it seems unlikely that the party will break with the government’s agenda on national security in the foreseeable future; on the contrary, the Australian national security state is likely to thrive and flourish in coming years. This particular law, the Counter Terrorism (Temporary Exclusion Order) Bill 2019 would grant the Home Affairs Minister two significant new powers. Firstly, the Home Affairs Minister could issue a Temporary Exclusion Order (TEO), barring Australians aged over 14 from reentering the country for up to two years. Secondly, the Minister could issue a return permit, making the reentry of Australians into their own country conditional, forcing them to comply with restrictions on their freedom for up to 12 months. Labor’s stated attempts to water down the provisions contained in this bill, currently pending before parliament, can only be described as window-dressing at best. Despite the most recent police excesses, the patterns of fomenting the legal infrastructure of the Australian security state seem to remain unchanged.

Hardly surprisingly, therefore, the battle lines between the Coalition and Labor have been drawn along the question of what sort of inquiry can best reconcile national security considerations and press freedom. So far at least, both parties did not say much about whistleblowers, although Labor has hinted that it wants their protection to be part of any forthcoming inquiry. Labor’s spokesperson on Home Affairs Kristina Keneally

argues

that parliament must set up a new joint committee, involving the cross-bench on these questions, but Labor’s position has been

dismissed

by Communications Minister Paul Fletcher, praising the work of the Joint Committee on Intelligence and National Security, deeming it to be the proper venue for the forthcoming discussions. The true nature of the inquiry, particularly its terms of reference, remain unclear, and, even though it is doubtful, we could end up with two different committees inquiring into the same issues.

News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst whose home was searched by the AFP just one day prior to the raid on the ABC’s headquarters in Sydney

doubts

that an inquiry is necessary or even appropriate in this situation, and she is not alone in this view. Most media executives and journalists

call

for new legislation to strengthen press freedom and whistleblower protection. Their fear, not entirely unjustified, is that an inquiry will be used by both major parties to kick the issue into the long grass; inquiries can be used by governments to delay meaningful changes whilst pretending that the matter in question is being dealt with. Of course, this is hardly unique to Australia. Judging current developments by the available evidence and the history of bipartisan support for draconian national security legislation, any forthcoming inquiry is unlikely to lead to meaningful, new policies in this area. Nonetheless, because of the entire media sector coming together, the issue is not going to disappear and may continue to cause headaches, not just for the Morrison government but the ALP as well.

The Prime Minister may believe in miracles, but he is first and foremost a practical politician. Press freedom and whistleblower protection are of no electoral significance in isolation, true, but add to the mix a

sluggish economy, continuous

fallout

from the leadership change last year and remaining questions about his

character, and his fortunes might turn very quickly. Despite the government riding high at present, the PM knows all this full well, and this explains his pitch toward bipartisanship; more than anything else, he wants to last in office well beyond 2022, and taking a conciliatory but noncommittal position on the freedom of the press and the protection of whistleblowers goes down well publicly and allows him to formulate policies depending on how the political winds are blowing. As a political analyst one can hardly blame him for employing this strategy of opportunism and political survival at all costs, but one thing must be clearly understood: Morrison is playing for time.

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