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The police raid of ABC has united Australia's fractious media

Australian Broadcasting Corporation's headquarters in Sydney. Photo/Getty Images

The media are crying foul as police search reporters’ homes and offices after leaks of state secrets.

Before it happened, the idea police would rummage through the underwear drawer of a female Canberra political journalist while hunting for the source of leaked official documents was the stuff of an airport thriller. Or the dreams of a lascivious spymaster.

So, too, was a police raid on the Sydney headquarters of the national broadcaster – the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) – also in search of leaked documents. Or, rather, the leaker.

Both happened this month, leading to a rare consensus among Australia’s fractious media companies that the state’s powers to muzzle a free press had gone too far.

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Journalists – naturally – loudly celebrate recognition that they’ve obtained government secrets; they see it as a measure of their prowess, often over-blowing the state’s reaction. But, so heavy-handed were the raids on the home of well-regarded Canberra press gallery journalist Annika Smethurst, political editor of Sydney’s Sunday Telegraph newspaper, and, a day later, the ABC, that clearly, something had changed. Journalists, after all, have long obtained information governments don’t wish them to have. That’s their job.

In Smethurst’s Canberra apartment, police hunted the source of confidential correspondence she had obtained between the all-powerful Department of Home Affairs and the Defence Department about how the vast electronic spying capability of the Australian Signals Directorate – it snoops on foreign powers – could be extended to home soil. Police said they needed to poke through the 32-year-old’s underwear drawer as that was a likely place a journalist would hide a USB stick.

At the ABC, the police were searching for the source of hundreds of pages of classified Australian Defence Force documents leaked to the broadcaster that revealed allegations of unlawful killings and misconduct by Australian special forces in Afghanistan. It was not as if either leak was fresh: the ABC broadcast stories based on its leak in 2017 and Smethurst published hers over a year ago.

What has changed is the size, culture and powers of Australia’s police, intelligence agency and domestic security complex, now run largely by a network of ex-military men.

Australia is a world-beater at enacting national security and counter-terrorism laws. About 75 have been passed by Parliament since the 9/11 attacks in the US – far more than there or in Britain. They also go further in heightening government secrecy.

Created just 18 months ago, the new mega Department of Home Affairs took over responsibility for Australia’s domestic spy agency (ASIO) and the national police (AFP), as well as running Australia’s border protection and immigration.

At the top is the hard man of Australian politics, the arch-conservative Minister for Home Affairs, former Queensland copper Peter Dutton, who is fond of banishing Australian criminals with the most tenuous connection to New Zealand back across the Tasman.

Just below him is bureaucracy hard man Mike Pezzullo, chief of the Department of Home Affairs, who sees dark threats to Australia almost everywhere.

In a March speech to a Canberra think tank, Pezzullo set out his grim foreboding, invoking the 1986 Tom Clancy novel Red Storm Rising, in which unfolds World War III between the Russians and Nato: “I can see a Red Storm Rising … terrorist use of a biological or nuclear weapon; a massive cyber-attack; increasing attacks on our democratic institutions and our social cohesion by subversive means.”

Hawks such as Dutton and Pezzullo have prevailed in Australia in large part because it lacks the robust protection for free speech and press freedom afforded by the US Constitution and New Zealand’s Bill of Rights Act.

Until that happens, no underwear drawer is safe.

New Zealander Bernard Lagan is the Australian correspondent for the Times, London.

This article was first published in the June 29, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.