Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Press freedom and Hastie words on China

Whoever chose the venue for the first day of the federal parliamentary inquiry into press freedom had a sense of humour. At least, it tickled the funny bones of journalists assigned to the story when they learnt the inquiry was to be held at the New South Wales Masonic Club in Castlereagh Street, Sydney. Famous for centuries as a secret society, that organisation is not so furtive these days, and the hope of Australia’s major media organisations and human rights campaigners is that our government and its agencies will follow suit.

Scott Morrison handballed the inquiry to the joint committee on intelligence and security to head off a Labor push for a wider parliamentary probe into the way our laws have gradually eroded our freedoms, especially over the past decade. The committee is chaired by Western Australian Liberal backbencher Andrew Hastie. At first sight this should be comforting for those who are worried the inquiry is nothing more than some government window-dressing. Hastie, after all, is an outspoken defender of Australia’s freedoms.

The former special-forces captain in Afghanistan drew attention to himself when he warned that Australia should be especially wary in dealing with China. In an opinion piece late last week, he said Australia should not be as complacent as France was before it was overrun by Nazi Germany in World War II, adding that “we must be clear-eyed … to preserve our sovereignty, security and democratic convictions”.

Just how deep his own democratic convictions run are now facing a serious test. The senate, where the government lacks a majority, is leaving nothing to chance, setting up a second, broader inquiry into the laws around whistleblowers and journalists. Labor’s Katy Gallagher, in light of the Australian Federal Police raids on journalists in June, says, “Unlike the Morrison government, Labor believes in freedom of the press and the public’s right to know.” With his party supporting Labor and the Greens to set up the separate parliamentary probe, Centre Alliance’s Rex Patrick agreed it was essential to have an inquiry the government didn’t control. He said, “We don’t want to leave the fox in charge of the henhouse.”

Some of Hastie’s Liberal colleagues see his comments on relations with China as a shot across the prime minister’s bow for not being appointed to the ministry. Morrison was not impressed. He said the government is “very aware of the complexity of the world in which we live and we’ve fashioned our policies to address that”. Two WA senior ministers are believed to have acted on Morrison’s orders to put Hastie back in his box. The finance minister, Mathias Cormann, described the Nazi analogy as “clumsy and inappropriate”, while Attorney-General Christian Porter said Hastie’s views were a “radical oversimplification”. Porter says the government will rise to any efforts to diminish our sovereignty or influence our democracy “as it has in the past”.

Trade Minister Simon Birmingham urged Hastie to stop and think before he speaks out again on sensitive foreign policy matters. On ABC TV’s Insiders, Birmingham said any colleague should ask themselves a couple of questions: “Is the making of those comments in a public way necessary? And is it helpful to Australia’s national interest?”

Hastie was unrepentant on Wednesday when he told journalists outside the hearing room that “my voice is in my pen”. He said his opinion stands, adding, “I don’t resile from it … We’ve got a great democracy, that’s what democracies do, we debate, and so I welcome the contest of ideas.”

If Hastie has a mind to recommend amending or scrapping laws that criminalise journalists for doing their work or whistleblowers for revealing wrongdoing, he is getting no encouragement from the Liberal members of his committee. In the two days of hearings, they mostly ran interference against witnesses arguing for greater transparency and accountability.

The veteran Liberal senator Eric Abetz, left languishing on the backbench by both Scott Morrison and Malcolm Turnbull, questioned the ABC’s breaking of the law. He called its credibility into doubt for getting things wrong occasionally and needing to correct reports. The ABC’s head of news, Gaven Morris, retorted that this was surely evidence its protocols were working.

Fellow Liberal David Fawcett thought “it’s not all doom and gloom” because Australia, though its position is slipping, still rates higher on the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index than the United States or Britain. He joined other Liberals on the committee querying whether there should be exemptions, or shield laws, for journalists when foreign powers use reporters as cover for espionage. This view was also put forward strongly by Heather Cook, the deputy director-general of the country’s domestic spy agency, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation.

Cook wants no dismantling of the increasingly oppressive security apparatus. She told the committee, “Anything that makes it easier to disclose classified information would not be desirable.” The fact that the government can change the status of documents it leaks – as we saw in the medivac debate before the election – seems to be lost on this senior spook. Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus says, “One of the things about national security laws is that they don’t need to be seen and should not be seen as permanent.” Nor should they be seen as a blunt instrument with which to bludgeon Labor.

In his valedictory speech to the senate last year, former attorney-general George Brandis praised the joint intelligence committee for its bipartisanship. In a thinly veiled swipe at Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, Brandis said, “I have heard some powerful voices argue that the Coalition should open a political front against the Labor Party on the issue of domestic national security. I could not disagree more strongly.” His point was that such crude partisanship would rob the government of the public’s confidence as it might be seen to be merely playing politics. This was a warning Dutton ignored in the most recent sitting week, when he rejected most of the committee’s bipartisan amendments to the legislation on the temporary exclusion of foreign fighters. Dreyfus says Hastie pathetically failed to defend the committee against Dutton’s attack.

Hastie’s ears must have been ringing when he heard this warning not about China but about Australia from Rupert Murdoch’s Australian chief, Michael Miller: “Australians are at risk of losing their democratic freedoms.” Miller continued, “We may not be living in a police state but we are living in an ever-increasing state of secrecy.” Hugh Marks, the head of the growing media conglomerate Nine Entertainment – with its stable now including the old Fairfax papers and the Macquarie radio stations around the country as well as the Nine television network – said Australia’s laws were “gagging the media”.

These concerns were echoed in the submission from the National Security College of the Australian National University (ANU), written by the head of the college, Professor Rory Medcalf, and senior adviser Katherine Mansted. Picking up on comments that Morrison made last month, Medcalf and Mansted wrote that Australia’s foreign policy is “undergirded by support for liberal values and freedoms”. They added, “A perception – even if erroneous – that Australian journalists face undue government pressure risks diluting the credibility of Australia’s advocacy for liberal values and its legitimacy as an influential power in the Indo-Pacific, including in the context of the Pacific ‘Step Up’ initiative.”

Medcalf and Mansted say other players in the region, “most notably China, have heavily invested in and successfully expanded the footprint of state-controlled traditional and social media … It is imperative that Australian media is able to counter-balance the rise of state-controlled propaganda and information manipulation by being a source of trusted news and reporting.” To guarantee this credibility, they continue, Australian journalists must be “able to expose wrongdoing should the need arise”.

Their comments were made all the more relevant by Morrison’s attendance at the Pacific Islands Forum in Tuvalu. Along with Australia and New Zealand, the forum comprises 16 other Pacific Island states and micro-states. The US, France, Britain and China, among others, also sent delegates. It’s testimony to the rising anxiety over Beijing’s push to buy influence in the region.

Professor Michael Wesley, an Asia–Pacific expert at ANU, has another sober perspective for anti-China hawks in our defence and security establishments. Wesley told ABC Radio’s AM program, “Most Pacific leaders, at least the most outspoken of them, don’t see China as a threat at all. They see China as an opportunity.” He says casting China “too much in threat terms … really doesn’t resonate at all in the Pacific”, adding that “by demonising too much, by talking up the threat too much, I think we close off the opportunity of really working with China and developing a region and a world that is comfortable for both China and countries like Australia”.

One of Morrison’s closest allies, Alex Hawke, the minister for international development and the Pacific, seems to get it. Unlike the Dutton-aligned Hastie – a relationship noted in government circles – Hawke is more measured in regard to China. He says Australia “[welcomes] all partner countries who want to help on climate projects, on health projects, education projects … that will positively impact Pacific Island countries”. Hawke, not so hasty to provoke China, clearly has a measured judgement of where Australia’s national interests lie.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 17, 2019 as "Pressing on with China". Subscribe here.

Paul Bongiorno
is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.