The Australian government's bugging of the Timor-Leste government in 2004 is unlikely to have been the first time the fledgling nation's leaders were spied on by Australia.
The bugging was a disgraceful act, made worse because the beneficiary was not even the Commonwealth, but two private-sector resources companies, Australia's Woodside Petroleum and US-based multinational ConocoPhillips.
It was the integrity and courage of a whistleblower, an Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) officer who became known as Witness K, who exposed this deceitful behaviour. Witness K made an internal complaint, which started a protracted legal process that continues to this day, and which led to his prosecution (in 2018) and conviction (in 2021), as well as the ongoing prosecution of his lawyer, former ACT attorney-general Bernard Collaery.
State capture describes a situation where those in power, usually parliamentarians, act in the interests of an industry or private group rather than the public interest. The bugging of Timor-Leste by ASIS for the benefit of the fossil-fuel industry is a prime example of state capture.
A new report, Confronting State Capture, launched last week by the Australian Democracy Network, highlights six ways in which powerful industry players can "capture" the state to do their bidding. The first is financial interference, commonly via donations to political parties that buy access to decision-makers. For example, the fossil-fuel industry gave $708,000 to the Coalition and $585,000 to Labor in 2019 alone. And that's just the donations we know about; millions of dollars find their way into major party coffers from undisclosed sources.
The "revolving door" as well as lobbying and personal influence are two more channels that are significant in this example. Plum industry posts have been given to parliamentarians after they left Parliament, while industry insiders have been appointed to senior public roles.
Australia's foreign minister at the time of the bugging, Alexander Downer, became a lobbyist for Woodside in 2008, months after he retired from politics. In 2013, former federal resources minister Martin Ferguson joined the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association, just six months after leaving Parliament. Ferguson was replaced as minister by Gary Gray, a former Woodside executive. John Kunkel, current chief of staff to Prime Minister Scott Morrison, was formerly the deputy chief executive of the Minerals Council. There are too many more to list.
While there is no suggestion that these people have done anything wrong, appointments such as these leave the door open to at least the appearance of capture due to their former connections.
Other channels through which state capture is facilitated include public influence campaigns, where media articles and prominent commentators, for example, cast doubt on the crisis of global heating; and the "repurposing" of respected institutions such as independent think tanks and research organisations using lucrative sponsorships and other funding to ensure they promote views that favour the sponsoring industry. An example of the latter is the CSIRO's widely criticised 2020 report, Air, Water and Soil Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing in the Surat Basin, Queensland, which favours the gas industry.
Another channel of state capture is the use of research and policy-making to favour industry. In the example of Australia's double-dealing with Timor Leste, the definition of helium was changed by Australia in order to benefit the two resources companies, without the knowledge of Timor-Leste.
There is no basis on which the bugging operation can be viewed as having promoted Australia's national interest. While the definition of national interest includes "economic interests", Australia was not the ultimate economic beneficiary - two private corporations were. Immoral actions against another country cannot be justified on any grounds.
There are a number of outcomes from this case of state capture. Firstly, Australia's relations with Timor-Leste have been seriously harmed. On February 9, the Timor-Leste National Parliament unanimously passed a resolution (with one abstention) in solidarity with Bernard Collaery and Witness K. Discontinuing the prosecution of Bernard Collaery and pardoning Witness K may go some way to repairing Australia's fractured relations with Timor-Leste.
Secondly, the prosecutions of Bernard Collaery and Witness K have also led to a loss of public trust in our protections for whistleblowers. The events have also harmed Australia's broader international reputation.
There are a number of measures which could start to redress this scourge of state capture. Donations reform, a review of election funding, and precluding government ministers and senior public servants from joining industries from the portfolio where they have worked for say, five years after leaving Parliament or the public sector, would be a good start.
But possibly the most urgent measure is the implementation of a strong and independent federal commission against corruption, to investigate this shameful episode and bring appropriate justice to all involved.
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