Nettled perhaps by media criticisms of the federal government's moves to expand ASIO's powers, Attorney General George Brandis this week penned a rebuttal. In the article published on Tuesday, he described the National Security Legislation Amendment Bill (No 1) as the outcome of a long overdue review process intended to ensure ASIO enjoyed "protections" already available to other intelligence agencies like the Australian Federal Police. They were not, as some in the media had complained, an unreasonable restraint on the freedom of the press. Nor would the "reforms" erode legislative and executive oversight of the intelligence services or lead inadvertently to the concealment of unlawful conduct.
We have only Senator Brandis' assurance that existing laws are retarding ASIO's ability to counter "a dangerous new threat" since every aspect of its work is cloaked in secrecy. It has always been an offence for anyone to reveal the names of agents or to divulge details of operations, for instance, and only where operatives have made mistakes or engaged in improper conduct have such incidents eventually come to light. The new powers vested in ASIO make it likely the public will never hear of botched, bungled or questionable operations since they absolve agents of the necessity of having to act within the law. And were that not enough of a fig leaf, the reforms declare that anyone knowingly or recklessly divulging information about a "special intelligence operation" – even one conducted years or decades in the past – faces up to 10 years in prison.
Senator Brandis asserts that special intelligence operations will require his and the director-general of ASIO's approval, and will be used only in "relatively rare examples". But it's an assurance that sits uneasily with those who believe the desire of politicians' to avoid, deflect or bury embarrassing bungles committed on their watch is exceeded only by their ambition to retain office.
Tony Abbott recently declared that in times of heightened terrorism risk such as these "the delicate balance between freedom and security may have to shift". These reforms, however, dramatically shift the balance away from the public's right to know and towards executive government decree. And perversely, they have the potential to undermine the very cause Senator Brandis seeks to legitimise – an effective national security effort that does not rely on knee-jerk responses to new threats.
Pugnacious PM v Putin
Tony Abbott's political style has always been marked by a pugnacious streak. His promise, then, to "shirt-front" Russian president Vladimir Putin at the G20 meeting in Brisbane next month is plainly in character. But did the Prime Minister really hint at physical confrontation or did he simply misspeak? Mr Abbott's quarrel with Mr Putin over the shooting down of a commercial airliner over Ukraine in July seems personal – more than good diplomacy and international relations would warrant. That Russia supplied Ukrainian separatists with the means to shoot down high-flying civilian airliners is not in dispute. Thus Mr Putin might technically be regarded as being an accessory to murder. But a similar application of logic would put Barack Obama in the frame for the accidental deaths of civilians in Syria and Iraq through the use of US-supplied weapons or missiles.
Nonetheless, Mr Abbott has continued to hold Mr Putin responsible for the murder of the Australians aboard flight MH17, and to go out of his way to condemn him where possible. Being the president of a faraway nation which does little trade with Australia and which is on the outer with the West, Mr Putin represents an invitingly soft target for a prime minster wanting to establish his tough-guy credentials. But to express a desire to shirt-front the leader of a nuclear power with a seat on the UN Security Council sounds ridiculously macho.
An Oxford man he may be, but we suspect Mr Abbott knows little of Australian Rules football and even less of shirt-fronts delivered Leigh Matthews style. What he really meant to say was that he was going to "buttonhole" or confront the Russian president with a view to some plain talking and clear understanding. It should be a captivating interrogation given Mr Putin's equally plain-spoken ways.