Sunday, 21 September 2014

David Marr's list of how our rights are faring under 'Freedom Abbott'

In this September’s issue of The Monthly David Marr discusses Values Abbott, Politics Abbott and Freedom Abbott and sets out this list of how basic rights are faring under Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott since 18 September 2014:

10 October 2013: The state and territory attorneys-general meet in Sydney without discussing shield laws. The issue was on the agenda. With the change of government it vanished. It hasn’t appeared since. Efforts begun under Gillard to introduce uniform national laws to give effective protection to journalists and their sources have ceased.
25 October: Scott Morrison first utters the phrase “on water operations” to justify the unprecedented secrecy that surrounds the Abbott government’s blockade of refugee boats. Morrison whittles away the few rights and freedoms left to those caught up in Operation Sovereign Borders.
2 December: Brandis authorises an ASIO raid on the Canberra office of Bernard Collaery, the lawyer representing East Timor in its dispute with Australia over the Timor Sea Treaty. In March this year, the International Court of Justice at The Hague orders Australia to seal the material seized and keep it from all officials involved in the dispute. The order is binding.
3 December: Abbott rages against the ABC and the “left-wing” Guardian for together reporting that Australian spy agencies had targeted the phones of Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his wife. “The ABC seemed to delight in broadcasting allegations by a traitor,” he later told Ray Hadley of the Sydney radio station 2GB. “This gentleman Snowden, or this individual Snowden, who has betrayed his country and in the process has badly, badly damaged other countries that are friends of the United States, and of course the ABC didn’t just report what he said, they took the lead in advertising what he said.”

11 December: Brandis announces terms of reference for the Australian Law Reform Commission’s audit of Commonwealth laws that compromise freedom. The terms’ focus is not individual liberty but “commercial and corporate regulation; environmental regulation; and workplace relations”. Free speech barely makes the list. Brandis tells the Australian Financial Review he is most perturbed by the “reversal of the onus of proof, the creation of strict liability offences, the removal of lawyer–client privilege and removal of rights against self-incrimination”. It reads like a list of everything tax evaders loathe about the law.

17 December: Brandis appoints the policy director of the IPA, Tim Wilson, to the Australian Human Rights Commission. Wilson’s mission is to restore balance to a body which the attorney-general believes “has become increasingly narrow and selective in its view of human rights” under Labor. This is code for the culture war complaint that the left is manipulating anti-discrimination laws to impose its moral agenda on a reluctant society. The Bolt case is a particular focus of the fear that protecting blacks, gays, foreigners and cripples from discrimination is stripping the rest of us of our freedom.
29 January 2014: Abbott blasts the ABC for reporting claims that Australian military personnel have punished asylum seekers by burning their hands. “I think it dismays Australians when the national broadcaster appears to take everyone’s side but our own,” says the prime minister. “You shouldn’t leap to be critical of your own country.” News Ltd joins the attack. The ABC falters. Its managing director, Mark Scott, apologises for imprecise wording in the original report, but three days later, Fairfax’s man in Indonesia, Michael Bachelard, finds asylum seeker Yousif Ibrahim Fasher: “He says he has no doubt that what he saw at close quarters on about January 3 was three people’s hands being deliberately held to a hot exhaust pipe by Australian naval personnel to punish them for protesting, and to deter others from doing one simple thing: going to the toilet too often.”
6 March: Abbott threatens to cut the ABC’s budget if it doesn’t cave in to Chris Kenny. The Chaser team had crudely photoshopped the head of the News Ltd pundit onto a man with his pants down mounting a labradoodle. Kenny sued for $90,000. Missing in action is Abbott’s defence of lively debate where “offence will be given, facts will be misrepresented”. He tells 2GB’s Ben Fordham the ABC should settle the case or else: “Government money should be spent sensibly and defending the indefensible is not a very good way to spend government money. Next time the ABC comes to the government looking for more money, this is the kind of thing that we would want to ask questions about.” The ABC buckles. Kenny gets an apology and cash.
13 March: Brandis decrees artists who refuse private sponsorship on political grounds may be stripped of public funding. Troubled by Transfield’s links to offshore detention centres, a handful of artists had pressured the company to withdraw sponsorship from the Sydney Biennale. Brandis asks: “If the Sydney Biennale doesn’t need Transfield’s money, why should they be asking for ours?” He directs the Australia Council to find a formula for deciding when public funding will be withdrawn because private sponsorship has been “unreasonably” rejected. He does not rule out compelling arts organisations to take tobacco money. Months later, the council is still labouring over the words. However it’s done, Brandis wants artists to know they will pay a price for embarrassing the government. This threatens direct political intervention for the first time in the allocation of Australia Council funds.
24 March: Brandis tells Senator Nova Peris: “People do have a right to be bigots, you know.” The next day, he releases draft legislation to gut sections 18C and 18D of the Racial Discrimination Act. Abbott backs him. The proposal – drafted by Brandis himself – would allow almost unrestrained racist abuse in the name of freedom. Ethnic community leaders lobby for the act to be left as it is. Polls swiftly show nine out of ten Australians disapprove of the changes. Three-quarters of the 4100 submissions received by Brandis’ department are hostile. The department blocks their release.

23 May: Morrison strips the Refugee Council of Australia of half a million dollars allocated in the budget only ten days before. The minister explains: “It’s not my view, or the government’s view, that taxpayer funding should be there for what is effectively an advocacy group.” The CEO of the council, Paul Power, calls the cuts petty and vindictive. “This in many ways illustrates the state of the relationship between the non-government sector – particularly organisations working on asylum issues – and the government at the moment.”
1 July: Community legal centres across Australia are also forbidden to use Commonwealth money for advocacy or to campaign for law reform. During the Labor years, funding for NGOs had come with the guarantee that they were free “to enter into public debate or criticism of the Commonwealth, its agencies, employees, servants or agents”. Under Abbott, the guarantee disappears. So do many sources of independent advice. The budgets of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service, the Environmental Defender’s Offices and the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples are slashed. Axed are the Social Inclusion Board, the National Housing Supply Council, the National Policy Commission on Indigenous Housing, the National Children and Family Roundtable, the Advisory Panel on Positive Ageing, and the committee of independent medicos advising the refugee detention network, the Immigration Health Advisory Group.
16 July: Brandis threatens laws to double the sentence for reporting “special intelligence operations” by ASIO. Whistleblowers would not be protected, and journalists would not even need to know the operations were “special” to find themselves in prison for up to a decade. No public interest defence would be available. The shadow attorney-general, Mark Dreyfus, says: “We will not tolerate legislation which exposes journalists to criminal sanction for doing their important work, work that is vital to upholding the public’s right to know.”
4 August: Twenty-two-year-old student Freya Newman, a former part-time librarian at the Whitehouse Institute of Design, is charged with unauthorised access to restricted data following reports of Frances Abbott’s scholarship, after complaints to the police by the institute. The chair of the institute is Liberal Party donor and friend of the prime minister Les Taylor.
5 August: Abbott announces the metadata of all Australians is to be kept by internet service providers for two years and made available to ASIO and police. That trawl will, of course, include the metadata of whistleblowers and journalists. He abandons at the same time his two-year crusade to amend the Racial Discrimination Act. Both moves he justifies in the light of terrorist outrages by Australian nationals in Syria. “When it comes to counter-terrorism, everyone needs to be part of ‘Team Australia’,” he says, “and I have to say that the government’s proposals to change 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act have become a complication in that respect. I don’t want to do anything that puts our national unity at risk at this time, and so those proposals are now off the table.”

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