Tuesday, October 20, 2020

ASIO powers threaten activists

Journalists and advocacy groups could face compulsory questioning and the fitting of tracking devices as part of a proposed expansion of Australian Security Intelligence Organisation powers, legal experts have warned. Ahead of senior ASIO officials giving evidence to Senate estimates today, Guardian Australia reports that the legal advice prepared by progressive group GetUp warns environmental and human rights advocacy organisations may be caught by a definition of “acts of foreign interference” that includes clandestine acts “otherwise detrimental to the interests of Australia”. The changes would allow the agency to question adults over espionage and foreign interference, and also lowers the minimum age for compulsory questioning from 16 to 14 years. ASIO argues the compulsory questioning power wll be subject to strong safeguards, including oversight of the inspector general of intelligence and security.

Two staff in the federal government’s Department of Infrastructure are under investigation regarding the controversial $30 million “Leppington Triangle” land deal. The breaches relate to the public service code of conduct and conflicts of interest. The land for Western Sydney Airport attracted attention for being purchased at ten times its market value. The Australian National Audit Office has launched three internal probes into the deal, department secretary Simon Atkinson told Senate Estimates on Monday. The Australian Federal Police confirmed it was investigating potential “criminal offences”. Auditor-General Grant Hehir said this was the first time he had ever contacted the AFP about an audit. “We came to a view that there was information we found which we couldn't explain and was suggestive of the fact the Commonwealth may have been defrauded,” Hehir said.

Financial crime experts have called on the federal government to introduce long-delayed laws that would force Australian lawyers and accountants to report their clients if they move money in a suspect fashion. This follows revelations of an international investigation into Australian taxpayers using a shady Puerto Rican bank linked to tax evasion. The Sydney Morning Herald highlighted the case of Australian lawyer Patrick Flynn, who advises clients to set up labyrinthine tax arrangements in order to hide information from authorities and to communicate using “military grade encryption”.  

Russian hackers targeted this year’s Olympic Games in Tokyo with the aim of disrupting them, the British Foreign Office said. The UK officials said Russia’s GRU military intelligence carried out “cyber reconnaissance” against officials and organisations in alleged attacks before the Games were postponed until 2021 because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Officials did not specify the nature or extent of the cyber-attacks in detail. At the same time, the US Department of Justice announced charges against six Russian GRU officers for alleged cyber-attacks serving “the strategic benefit of Russia”. The group sought to disrupt the 2018 Winter Olympics, the 2017 French presidential election, and Ukraine's power grid, US prosecutors said.

Public office with (alleged) benefits
A week after her secret relationship with a politician being investigated over corruption was first revealed, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian is still facing questions over what she knew. Today, MIke Seccombe on what the Premier’s connection to a disgraced MP means for her political future.

“The first sign something had shifted came in late August, when letters began arriving from the Department of Home Affairs. Written entirely in English, they were addressed to refugees who had been brought to Australia for medical treatment and then remained in the community. The letters announced that these people would be shifted to a different visa class. They would be given work rights for the first time, but beyond that would lose all government support. They would be evicted from their housing and their income supplements ended.”

“Imagine a federal minister who has a stake in a company alongside other members of his family. Imagine that company is accused of illegally poisoning more than 28 hectares of critically endangered grassland. Imagine the minister talks to senior officials in the office of the future treasurer. Perhaps there is an intercept of the conversation. Perhaps a federal integrity commission is investigating claims the minister lobbied to have environmental protections removed while the treasurer was still minister for the Environment.”

“One night we got to talking about Vincent Lingiari and the 1966 Gurindji walk-off from Wave Hill Station in the Northern Territory, a seminal event in the dawning land rights movement ... I knew the broad outlines of the fabled, unfathomably long strike, and Kev had a few more details. My notebook contained a line I’d jotted down a few months before – ‘From little things, big things grow’. And when Kev said, ‘Let’s write a song about that old man, about the strike,’ we were off.”

“The music at Biba salon in St Kilda on Monday morning can barely be heard over the phones. They’ve been ringing nonstop as desperate Melburnians try to snatch up any booking they can – for most, it’ll be their first haircut in months … Biba Salon is not alone – hairdressers around Melbourne say they are now booked out for months. Alyx Hitchins, the owner of Forma Salon in Elwood, says her email system nearly crashed during the premier’s Sunday press conference.”

“The border between Victoria and NSW could open within a month if case numbers in Victoria remained low, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian has said. Her comments came as Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said he hoped NSW and South Australia would reopen to regional Victoria as soon as this week.”

“In January 2019, Santosh and Amita received a new delivery request. They accepted it, but Uber’s app gave them a ‘recommended’ route that required them to take an immediate left turn. ‘We were in the right lane; we could not take left turn,’ Santosh says. ‘We went straight. We were late by 11 minutes.’ Uber blocked Amita’s access to the app, cutting her off for good.”

“A huge feline figure carved into an arid hillside over 2,000 years ago has been discovered in southern Peru, according to the country's Ministry of Culture. The ancient geoglyph, which measures 37 metres across, forms part of the Nazca Lines, a collection of hundreds of mysterious artworks etched onto a plateau ... The cat joins an array of other zoomorphic drawings found across the region's landscape over the last century, including depictions of a hummingbird, a monkey and a pelican.”

Max Opray is Schwartz Media’s morning editor and a freelance writer.