US writer and environmentalists Edward Abbey (1927–1989) said, ‘A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government.’
Or put another way, is a key principle of democracy the right of free speech and the ability to inform the public of unscrupulous and illegal government behaviour?
In this context, an ASIS intelligence officer tasked with protecting Australia – and his lawyer – are being persecuted by the federal government after disclosing to the public a surveillance operation of a sovereign nation in 2004.
A trial now underway is to determine whether Witness K and lawyer Bernard Collaery will face jail after being accused of breaching section 39 of the Intelligence Services Act 2001.
While local Labor federal MP Justine Elliot says her party won’t be commenting on whether they would stop the prosecution and scrap relevant laws if elected, the case reveals how governments treat other countries and individuals who are prepared to put their conscience and ethics on the line.
It also indicates a lack of whistleblower protections for the intelligence community.
Under parliamentary privilege, independent MP Andrew Wilkie said, ‘One of the richest countries in the world forced East Timor, the poorest country in Asia, to sign a treaty that stopped them obtaining their fair share of the oil and gas revenue… The spying on East Timor was indeed illegal and unscrupulous. Although it was the Howard government’s initiative, the crime has subsequently been covered up by all governments since.’
Given the significance of the charge, where does Labor stand? Labor’s Mrs Elliot told The Echo, ‘The charges are serious, and it is important to let the judicial process take its course. It would be inappropriate to comment on the specific case while that process is underway.
‘In relation to the relevant provisions in the Intelligence Services Act 2001, clearly it is essential we have effective protections in our laws to guard against employees of our security agencies disclosing sensitive classified information or agency operational techniques that could harm Australia’s national interests.
‘Interpreting whether that has occurred in this case is now quite rightly a matter for the court. Labor will continue to monitor and scrutinise our national security legislation to ensure it is fit for purpose, supports our national interests, and is aligned with community expectations.
‘We will always approach matters related to national security and protection of our democracy in a bipartisan manner to keep Australians safe, while ensuring we uphold the rule of law and the rights and freedoms that define us as a democratic nation.
‘This includes strong support for independent oversight mechanisms that exist to ensure our intelligence agencies always act in accordance with applicable Australian laws and guidelines, such as the critical function of the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security.’