The wide brown land for ASIO

It’s election year, so our politicians are all getting really patriotic. They love their sunburnt country, the sweeping plains, the ragged mountain ranges.

The droughts and flooding rains aren’t bad either, providing multiple photo opportunities and the chance to look compassionate while handing out the bribe money. The far horizons, the jewel seas – yes, the environment’s a political must.

And of course there’s the beauty; but then there’s the terror. Ah, yes, the terror. There’s something we can really get patriotic about.

Kevin Rudd did so last week with a statement which was dismissed by some in the opposition as merely a distraction from pink batts, themselves no more than a sideshow, albeit one to which we shall return. But in fact the opposition had been demanding it for quite a while, and would have complained loudly if it had been delayed.

The white paper had been commissioned back in 2008, after the Mumbai attacks, so it could have been expected to be rather more substantial than it was; its essential message was that there was a fair bit of terrorism about, and that the government was against it. And so was the opposition, insisted Tony Abbott in a rare moment of bipartisanship. But he was more against it than the government, so there.

Terrorism, we were warned portentously, had emerged as a permanent feature of Australia’s security environment.

Well, in an election year it would, wouldn’t it? But here is the switcheroo: it’s not just suicide bombers, and it’s not just from overseas.

Now the danger is far wider, and the perpetrators are likely to be amongst us – not just maddened jihadists, but the absolute scum of the earth, the vilest form of people on the planet, traders in human misery who should rot in hell – yes, people smugglers. In a spectacular piece of political sleight of hand, Rudd has conflated the threat to national security posed by organisations such as Al Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah with the challenge to border security posed by asylum seekers in boats.

Yes, really; our top counter-intelligence agency, ASIO, is now to be unleashed against the wretched of the earth. ASIO, it will be recalled, was originally set up to investigate the espionage activities of foreign interests in Australia. Over the years it was expanded to deal with what was loosely described as internal subversion, which generally meant lefties. In intellectual circles in the 60s and 70s, not to have an ASIO file was to be seriously socially disadvantaged.

But the essential criterion remained: ASIO dealt with perceived threats to the nation’s security. It was expressly forbidden from investigating criminal activities, or if it ran across any by accident, from passing the information on to the police forces. Now Rudd has broadened its powers dramatically; ASIO and the other spy agencies will target the people smugglers and their accomplices, both in Australia and overseas, with the aim of securing criminal convictions under new and draconian laws.

This will be time consuming and expensive, so yet again the ASIO budget will be increased, as it has been every year since the organisation’s formation in 1945. The political aim is to show, yet again, that Labor can be just as tough on border security as the coalition, and to take the heat off the accusation that the government has lost control of the influx of boat people. And who knows, it might even reduce the numbers a bit – although that would be an unexpected bonus. As long as the policy generates the right headlines it will be seen as a success. And so far it has; even The Australian’s Greg Sheridan gave it an A plus, thus proving it can satisfy even the most devout paranoiac in the industry.

It did not, however, satisfy the Liberal senator Simon Birmingham, who called it a diversion: “The greatest threat to the safety of many Australian families over the last 12 months has been the home insulation program and Peter Garrett’s mismanagement of it and tragically that’s an ongoing threat to safety,” he proclaimed and was promptly slapped down by his leader.

This was a bit unfair; after all, it was Abbott who had talked of Garrett being charged with manslaughter, and who had hammered away at him for three parliamentary weeks to the exclusion of any other topic. Clearly he was not against a touch of hyperbole if there was political mileage in it. But that particular juggernaut had obviously ground to a halt.

Garrett’s defence had held up surprisingly well. The opposition had thought it had finally found a smoking gun in the Minter-Ellison risk assessment report, which had been stuck in the bureaucracy for none months; the fact that Garrett had not even been shown it smacked of serious maladministration.

But it turned out that the report was a pretty Mickey Mouse affair, just one of a number of sources the department had received and its serious recommendations had already been acted on. And most importantly, in spite of what the opposition and the media had claimed, it had not warned of deaths, fires and other disasters at all.

Ironically the main warnings had been about the political problems associated with the scheme, and these had proved all too correct. As Rudd finally admitted, the program had been implemented ineffectively and a fair bit had gone wrong. He took personal responsibility and would go about setting things right. By the end of the week Garrett was off the hook and was even being applauded in the party room. He had lost some of his old portfolio, but he remained a cabinet minister. By any normal measure he’s still a winner. Rudd’s position is more equivocal: if Garrett was worth supporting and preserving, why was he demoted?

It proved a point Abbott, as a veteran of the Howard years, should have known: ministers are sacked not because of negligence or incompetence, but because they have become political embarrassment; when the cost of losing them becomes less than the cost of hanging on. Rudd did not believe Garrett had reached that point so end of story – for now. But Garrett has been shown to be vulnerable. The opposition will not give up the chase, and could have better luck next time.

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