I have been having FAR TOO MUCH fun recently mocking the journalist class for their new found concern over national security laws. While they were playing silly buggers, whack-a-libertarian, and preaching on high to we lessor mortals the parliament passed a whole bunch of illiberal laws.
Tony Abbott has been asked to register as an agent of foreign influence under controversial national security laws, for addressing the Conservative Political Action Conference in August.
To be clear – this isn’t a case of mistaken identity where the other Tony Abbott was being targeted and the communication went to the wrong person.
No – this is an agency of the Australian government asking a former prime minister of Australia to declare that he is an agent of foreign influence. I suppose it is easy to get confused. A conservative in Canberra must be very foreign for them. Maybe the public service is so out of touch that they haven’t realised the result of the May election and simply rolled out their shake-down-conservatives strategy. (I’m sure that was behind the attempt to deplatform me earlier this year).
The former prime minister refused the request, labelling it “absurd” and saying “senior officials of the commonwealth have better things to do with their time”.
My good friend Andrew Cooper has also been targeted.
In the first action of its kind under the foreign-influence laws, the event’s Australian organiser, Andrew Cooper, whose small not-for-profit organisation LibertyWorks co-hosted CPAC in Sydney with the American Conservative Union (ACU), was ordered to hand over documents and threatened with jail time.
Mr Cooper received an October 21 letter from the Attorney-General’s Department demanding the production of documents under the government’s Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme.
Like Mr Abbott, he has refused to comply and challenged the department about why it was not focused on more pressing “stories of Chinese Communist Party agents influencing university campuses or bankrolling political candidates”.
The first action of its kind. The first thing the public service thinks of doing is to harass the national president of the Liberal Democratic Party, and a former Liberal prime minister?
Now it is one thing to slag off journalists for being asleep while these laws were being passed. But Tony Abbott would have voted for this law. Okay – so what does he say now?
Mr Abbott said it was easy for the bureaucracy to turn “well-intentioned government policy into something which turns out to be radically different to what their ministers and staff intended”.
This is a rubbish law.
This legislation has the effect of striping Australians of their rights of citizenship – if you speak at a conference, say, jointly organised by a foreigner and, say, criticise Australian government policy you have to declare yourself to be a foreigner or explain to a bureaucrat why you are not a foreigner.
To be fair, Tony Abbott did tell them off:
In a sharply worded response, sent on Wednesday and obtained by The Weekend Australian, Mr Abbott said: “Neither speech of mine was given ‘on behalf’ of a foreign principal. I spoke for myself, that’s all.
“Any suggestion that I was speaking on behalf of a foreign entity is absurd … I decline to register and suggest that you rethink the making of such misplaced and impertinent requests in the future.
“Surely senior officials of the commonwealth have better things to do with their time.”
So here we have a problem. Either Tony Abbott is an agent of foreign-influence under the Act or he is not. If he is then the bureaucracy has the duty to enforce the law. Arrest him. Try him. Send him to jail. Or … this is the public service on a frolic of its own. Christian Porter – the responsible minster – is pushing the frolic of its own line.
The department’s handling of the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme angered Mr Porter. “I have made it clear to my department that I expect it to demonstrate a focus on the most serious instances of noncompliance,” the Attorney-General said.
“I’m not persuaded this focus has been perfectly demonstrated to date.”
There is a very simple test of this argument – has Mr Porter sacked the bureaucrats who were party to these decisions and letters? If not, why not?
Update: What wait there is more.
The Weekend Australian understands that Porter was, to put it mildly, incandescent with rage when he learned, after he asked for details, that this was the sole instance of the department issuing the draconian section 45(2) notice. And why wouldn’t he be livid? Going after Cooper, and not a real threat to our democracy, makes a mockery of these laws and the department.
For reasons of probity, the Attorney-General has no power to direct those departmental bureaucrats who administer the FITS. But that independence should not be a licence to use wide-ranging laws that carry serious penalties in highly questionable circumstances.
The government passed laws that allows this sort of thing and has no mechanism in place to control it? This is laugh-out-loud incompetence. What were our parliamentarians thinking?
Remember when Labor senator Kristina Keneally insinuated in a silly swipe in late July that conservative politicians who spoke at CPAC would be condoning the views of everyone there? CPAC was trying to mastermind an alt-right takeover, she said. It was demented logic but that’s politics — well, Keneally’s kind of politics.
Bizarrely, the department sent letters to Abbott and Cooper within days of her comments, making it hard for these boffins inside the Attorney-General’s Department to divorce themselves from the politics of the day.
No. Not bizarre at all. The Liberal government have given the deep state national security powers to harass conservatives and the centre-right and have no mechanism to provide any oversight.
Update II: Outsiders – coverage starts at 7:35 minute mark.