Burying Information Down Under

Australian governments have long been obsessed with keeping secrets. That includes silencing whistleblowers and journalists.

by Project Censored
Published: Updated:

By guest writer Brian Martin

Timor-Leste is a tiny nation just to the north of Australia, also known as East Timor. In 2004, its newly independent government began negotiations with the Australian government over oil and gas in an offshore field between the two countries. To gain an upper hand in the negotiations, an Australian spy agency installed listening devices in Timor-Leste government offices during a humanitarian aid project.

This illegal surveillance might never have been known except that a member of the bugging operation decided to expose it. He was later known as Witness K. His whistleblowing led to a new round of negotiations that gave the Timor-Leste government a much more favourable agreement. This was important given the poverty in the country following decades of war.

The Australian government was seriously embarrassed. It had been exposed internationally as cheating in negotiations with an impoverished nation on behalf of a multinational corporation. More than a decade later, it was time for payback. The Australian government charged Witness K with revealing official secrets. It also charged Witness K’s lawyer, Bernard Collaery.

It might seem absurd for the guilty party to be taking legal action against a whistleblower and his lawyer. One interpretation is that this action served as a warning to anyone working for the Australian government: speak up and we’ll get you.

A Legacy of Secrecy?

Some people imagine that Australian secrecy and censorship stem from its first British colonization. Indigenous people lived on the continent for tens of thousands of years and had complex social systems. The first fleet of vessels from Britain arrived at Sydney Cove in 1788. The British government had previously exiled convicts to the American colonies, but after the war of independence, it sought a different dumping ground. The 1788 fleet brought a few British soldiers and numerous convicts, many of whom had been found guilty of trivial offences. Today their status has changed: Australians are proud to have a convict as an ancestor, especially one who arrived on the first fleet.

Along with soldiers and convicts, the first fleet imported many British customs and social arrangements to the distant continent. This included a punitive attitude towards underlings and a rebellious streak among convicts and later settlers. It also imported a murderous attitude towards the Aboriginal people who occupied the land, many of whom were displaced, hunted down, enslaved and killed, in what is now called settler colonialism. It followed a path like that in the United States, Canada and New Zealand.

Unlike the US, there was never a revolutionary war in Australia. The six Australian colonies obtained independence as a single country in 1901, in a peaceful process. This meant that British institutional forms were adopted without much change. Among them was a penchant for secrecy and suppressing dissent.

However, there is another side to Australian history, one in which people thumb their noses at authority, which might be interpreted as the positive side of convict history. In the 1800s, campaigners successfully introduced pioneering social innovations including the eight-hour day, votes for women, and the secret ballot, sometimes called the Australian ballot. Into the next century, the labour movement continued to exercise its strength for social causes beyond the immediate interests of workers. In 1938, workers in Port Kembla, south of Sydney, refused to load pig iron on ships to Japan, whose military was waging war in China. The federal government exerted its pressure to overcome the workers’ resistance to exporting potential war materiel to a hostile power. The attorney-general, Robert Menzies — later a long-serving conservative prime minister — acquired the nickname “Pig Iron Bob.”

In the 1960s, building workers in Sydney refused to work on projects that impacted on the environment when there was a citizens’ group calling for preservation. These “green bans” were an assertion of worker and community values over profit, spread across Australia and were copied in other countries.

The Whistleblowing Story

My interest in these topics began in the late 1970s when I came across cases of environmental teachers and researchers who encountered obstacles, including being denied tenure, having publications blocked and being denied access to research materials. I learned more through contact with these individuals and eventually characterised their treatment as “suppression of dissent.”

The difficulties that dissenters faced were not just in the environmental area. Attuned to this issue, in my reading I started coming across instances in all sorts of fields. People who read my articles contacted me with additional stories. I learned that suppression of dissent was prevalent throughout government, companies, churches — even environmental, feminist and Indigenous organisations!

In relation to freedom of speech, there’s a peculiarity about Australia. Unlike nearly every other country with a representative government, there is no equivalent to the US First Amendment — no formal legal protection for freedom of speech in either a constitution or a national human rights act. You might imagine that this would mean speech was excessively inhibited, but that’s not what I observed. I read a lot about suppression of dissent in the US and other countries. All the evidence suggested that restrictions on speech were just as common as in Australia. I read how, in the US, constitutional protection for free speech often meant nothing in practice. It was nice rhetoric often with little substance.

When thinking of “freedom of speech,” the focus is on a few special circumstances, especially speaking in public forums on political issues. But this much-touted freedom ends at the entrance to the workplace. In the US, as elsewhere, workers have no free speech. Furthermore, many people are afraid to speak out against dominant views because of the possibility of reprisals.

I came to believe that censorship by governments or other powerful groups was less important than self-censorship. The fears and expectations of authorities become so embedded in people’s thinking that they do not even consider speaking out. This applies to journalists, teachers, police, indeed just about every occupation and role.

In the 1970s, the idea of whistleblowing began to take hold. I read the book Whistle Blowing based on a conference organised by Ralph Nader, and other books and articles. Whistleblowing was closely related to what I called suppression of dissent in that many whistleblowers were subject to reprisals, in other words suppression. I preferred “suppression” because it put the focus on perpetrators rather than the targets, but “whistleblowing” became the dominant way of thinking about the issues.

In the early 1990s, an Australian whistleblowing group was set up. Unlike in the US, where many of the most prominent and effective organisations, notably the Government Accountability Project, have paid staff and advocate for a select few whistleblowers, the group Whistleblowers Australia has always been a self-help and mutual-help organisation, most of whose members are whistleblowers, with all the work done by volunteers. This reflected the political culture. In the US, lawsuits play a big role in social struggles, and there are many opportunities to use the law to promote social reforms. In Australia, this possibility is much more restricted. Activists instead would seek support from trade unions — as in the case of the green bans — the Labor Party or one of the minor political parties. In Australia, without a bill of rights, free speech disputes are more likely to be fought out through direct action than through the courts.

In Whistleblowers Australia, we heard from workers from all walks of life, including the public service, teaching, policing, the military and private enterprise. During my years as president of the organisation, 1996–1999, I talked with hundreds of whistleblowers. Nearly everyone who contacted us had already spoken out and suffered reprisals, so it was too late to give advice on trying to avoid the repercussions of whistleblowing. This was not so surprising because, at the time, many callers didn’t think of themselves as whistleblowers. They said they were just doing their job, for example reporting a matter to the boss, and suddenly their world fell in, as they were subjected to ostracism, petty harassment, denunciations, punitive transfer, demotions and dismissal. Many were sent to psychiatrists who certified them insane so they could be dismissed: this was a common reprisal technique. Some started believing what bosses and colleagues said about them.

Jean Lennane, a whistleblower and long-time president of Whistleblowers Australia, was a psychiatrist, and acutely attuned to whistleblowing stories. After hearing a patient’s story, in some cases she said, “You’re not insane. You’re a whistleblower.”

There was another thing striking about whistleblower stories: their frustrations with official channels of redress. They reported going to the boss’s boss, the board of management, ombudsmen, auditors-general, anti-corruption bodies, politicians and courts. Their stories were remarkably similar: none of these channels worked. Of course, if their disclosures had been properly addressed or if an appeal body had provided restitution, probably they wouldn’t be ringing Whistleblowers Australia, often in desperation. Even so, the stories were revealing, and besides I learned about Australian research showing that whistleblowers reported that appeal processes hardly ever helped, and sometimes made things worse.

If whistleblower laws don’t provide protection, but only the illusion of protection, and other official channels are similarly ineffectual, what does work? Jean Lennane said only two things reliably helped. One was talking with other whistleblowers, which provided essential validation that their experiences could be understood, and that they weren’t the problem. The second thing was publicity, especially media coverage.

In Australia, media ownership is highly concentrated. Rupert Murdoch began his media empire-building with his father’s sizeable newspaper business; News Corp, the Australian wing of Murdoch’s international behemoth, dominates in many parts of the country, competing with a few other major players for the biggest audiences. Yet despite this media oligopoly, the media remain one of the strongest allies of whistleblowers, at least those with highly significant cases, because stories about corruption and reprisals against workers who speak out make for appealing copy. On some occasions, journalists take the side of employers, but more commonly they portray whistleblowers positively. Over the decades I’ve seen a transformation of the connotations of the label “whistleblower” from stigmatised troublemaker to courageous truth-speaker, and much of that transformation has been due to the way whistleblower stories are reported. It used to be that whistleblowers were called “dobbers,” an Australian term for snitches, but this has become far less common over the years.

Media stories can provide powerful support for whistleblowers, but it needs to be said that few are able to obtain this sort of support. Someone who reports on the underpayment of workers at a small business is unlikely to find a journalist with the time or interest in doing a story. Revelations about the underpayment of workers across an entire business sector are far more likely to trigger media coverage.

If journalists are sometimes de facto allies of whistleblowers, especially for big-time corruption, is there any countervailing power? 9/11 provided the answer.

Indonesia and Australia

Just to the north of the Australian continent lies a large and highly populated archipelago. Most of it was colonised by the Netherlands and became known as Indonesia, which gained independence in 1949 under the charismatic leader Sukarno. Under Sukarno’s “guided democracy,” Indonesia’s Communist Party grew enormously, becoming the world’s third largest, after the Soviet Union and China. This was not welcome in Australia, caught in the fiercely anti-communist Cold War mentality at the time.

In 1965, following an alleged coup attempt, the Indonesian army led a massive slaughter of communists and others, with up to a million people killed and hundreds of thousands of others put in prison camps. The Australian and US governments did nothing to stop the killing; if anything, they facilitated it. In the language of Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman, this was a “benign bloodbath,” namely one serving the interests of the US government.

The genocide brought to power the military leader Suharto, who ruled as a dictator for decades. The Australian government sought good relations with the regime, with little criticism in the media.

One of the southern islands in the archipelago, closest to Australia, was Timor. The western half was part of Indonesia. The eastern half, called East Timor, had been colonised by Portugal, and only obtained independence after a left-leaning military coup overthrew the Portuguese fascist regime in 1974. Soon after East Timorese nationalists declared independence, the Indonesian military invaded. The subsequent war and 24-year occupation was devastating to the East Timorese people, with perhaps a third of the population dying from fighting or starvation.

The Australian government welcomed the Indonesian annexure of East Timor. During the Indonesian invasion in 1975, Indonesian troops murdered five Australian journalists. The Australian government has not yet held the perpetrators to account.

The United Nations condemned the Indonesian invasion and occupation. Only one Western government in the world recognised Indonesian sovereignty over East Timor. That was Australia’s.

In the 1980s, the East Timorese resistance downplayed armed resistance and promoted protest in urban areas. In 1991, Indonesian troops massacred hundreds of funeral marchers, an event that was witnessed and recorded by Western journalists. When British filmmaker Max Stahl, who took footage of the massacre, arrived in Darwin, Australian customs officials searched his luggage for videotapes. This was the Australian government helping out its Indonesian counterparts to cover up an atrocity. Wisely, Stahl had entrusted the videotapes to a friend who smuggled them out of the country. Stahl’s footage became an important part of a film by crusading journalist John Pilger, “Death of a Nation,” that helped mobilise international support for the cause of East Timor.

Suharto maintained power for decades, helped by the Australian and US governments, but in 1998 his authoritarian rule was brought to an end. The Asian financial crisis hit Indonesia hard and there were open protests. When police responded harshly, this triggered even greater protests, a cycle that continued until even Suharto’s supporters urged him to resign. This was an example of “people power” bringing down a dictator.

Elections were held and the new Indonesian government held an independence referendum in East Timor. When the vote went overwhelmingly for independence, pro-Indonesian militias, covertly supported by the Indonesian military, went on a killing spree, terrorising the population. This was a shining moment for the media in Australia, which acted in solidarity with the East Timorese, as did many Australians in public protests. All media outlets ran front-page stories about atrocities and published numerous letters to the editor condemning the Indonesian actions. Eventually the Australian government felt obliged to act as part of a UN force that stopped the killing.

Migration Matters

The Australian government pioneered extremely harsh treatment of asylum seekers who arrived in the country by boat. Detention camps were set up, including ones outside the country, in the Pacific island nation Nauru and on Manus Island, off the coast of New Guinea. Asylum seekers were transferred to one of these camps and kept there indefinitely, even when they were certified as refugees. The government went so far as to legislate to exclude the Australian mainland from being “Australia” for the purposes of the Refugee Convention, to which the government was a party. This legal trick meant that asylum seekers arriving by boat on the shores of the Australian continent were not considered to have arrived in the legal entity “Australia.”

Conditions for asylum seekers detained in Nauru and Manus Island were terrible. Detainees lacked the usual opportunities for education, employment and community participation. Worst of all, they were detained for the indefinite future, which had a damaging effect on mental health. But no one in Australia was supposed to know. The government prevented journalists from visiting the camps by refusing to give permission for visits and passed a law making it a crime for employees who ran the camps and visiting medical personnel to reveal anything about the conditions there.

The secrecy around the treatment of asylum seekers exemplified an emerging pattern. Whenever both major parties agreed on a policy that potentially caused outrage among segments of the population, efforts were made to hide information about the damaging sides of the policy. These efforts often were targeted at whistleblowers and journalists.

On many crucial policy matters, the two major parties had nearly identical positions. In some cases, this was said to be the result of wedging, explicit or implicit. When in government, the Coalition would propose a policy anathema to sections of the Labor Party but appealed to some voters. A policy with racial aspects or that threatened civil liberties would serve well for this sort of wedge. The Labor Party, not wanting to lose votes by being accused of being soft — on crime, terrorism, national security or whatever — would meekly acquiesce to the policy. This generated momentum leading to some of the world’s worst practices. But wedging is only part of the story. Labor, when in government, introduced some of the most oppressive policies. One of them, initiated in the early 1990s, was mandatory detention of asylum seekers.

The Terrorism Factor

The 9/11 attacks reverberated across the Pacific. They occurred just before the 2001 Australian national election, enabling the Liberal-National Party Coalition to retain government. The government joined the invasion of Afghanistan and later the invasion of Iraq without seeking parliamentary support. Critics argued that joining the “Coalition of the willing” in Iraq actually increased the risk of terrorist attacks in Australia.

The only significant terrorist attack affecting Australians was in 2002. It was in Bali, in Indonesia. A nightclub was bombed, killing 202 people, 88 of them Australians. As a proportion of the population, this was about half as deadly for Australians as 9/11 was for Americans, but it didn’t have the same symbolic value. The Bali nightclub did not embody Australian values as would have Parliament House or the Sydney Opera House.

The lock-step policymaking of the two major political parties has been nowhere more evident than in national security. The 9/11 attacks triggered the passing of numerous anti-terrorism laws, with drastic impacts on civil liberties. What seems to be different is that, in Australia, years later, additional laws were passed under the banner of anti-terrorism, many of which have significant implications for whistleblowers and journalists.

In 2018, laws were passed making it a criminal offence to speak out or report on matters of national security. You might think this was to stop espionage, but the laws are more general. They cover misuse of funds, intelligence operations killing civilians, bribery, harassment and just about any other problem you can think of. Whistleblowers and journalists are directly targeted. Penalties for violations include up to ten years in prison.

Earlier, in 2015, laws mandating the retention of metadata were passed. Phone companies and Internet service providers are required to maintain, for two years, records of every call made: not the actual message, but the sender and receiver numbers, when the call was made and how long it lasted. This was passed with support from both major political parties despite experts testifying against it.

The implications for whistleblowers and journalists are obvious enough. If a journalist breaks a story about corruption or abuse — and there are plenty of potential stories of this sort — it is possible for the police to obtain data about every call to and from the journalist’s phone. With these numbers, it may be possible to determine the source of the journalist’s information. From a whistleblowing point of view, it means it is unwise to contact a journalist using one’s own phone. Instead, the options are to use a public phone far from one’s home, use some other method to disguise the source of the call, or make contact face-to-face.

Then came a law enabling police to demand access to encrypted communications. Companies are legally required to provide this access. Journalists became even more vulnerable to police accessing their communications.

In passing these laws, the politicians’ rhetoric was about police using these powers to track down would-be terrorists, paedophile rings, organised criminals and other dire threats to the public. No doubt this is exactly what the powers will be used for, but there is bound to be a temptation to use the powers against anyone who exposes government malfeasance. This temptation existed before, even without the extraordinary powers.

The latest extension of police powers is called “identify and disrupt”. The new law, passed in 2021, gives the Australian Federal Police the power to access anyone’s computer — this includes their phones — and to delete, modify or add information. The AFP can also access social media accounts and send out messages seeming to come from the target. How does the AFP get access to computers and social media accounts? The law includes a provision to make orders, for example to phone companies and ISPs, to give covert access.

The identify-and-disrupt law sounds nice for dealing with paedophile rings and terrorist groups: the AFP can use its powers to infiltrate nefarious networks, identify perpetrators, collect information and, as the name of the law indicates, disrupt operations. The trouble is that the law does not restrict the powers to just terrorism and paedophilia. It is entirely open. It does not require too much imagination to see how it could be used against whistleblowers and journalists. After all, in the US, the espionage act passed during World War I is now regularly used against national security whistleblowers.

What is distinctive about all these laws is severe penalties for revealing anything about their operation. The penalty for revealing anything about an identify-and-disrupt operation is years in prison, and likewise for revealing anything about accessing metadata or encryption breaking. The result is a complete cover-up: crimes can be committed without publicity or accountability.

As a result of this secrecy, there is very little public information available about the uses of the numerous anti-terrorism laws. It might be that they are being scrupulously used to protect the community or it might be that they are being abused to cover up government criminality.

It’s revealing to take notice of the difference between rhetoric and reality. Whistleblower laws are widely touted as the solution to the problem of reprisals for speaking out in the public interest, yet there is little evidence that the laws actually provide protection. Meanwhile, the anti-terrorism laws are so widely construed that they can readily be used against whistleblowers. On top of this, prosecutions of whistleblowers send an unmistakable message: speak out and you could be the next one on the rack.

Challenging Corruption

Most Australians have few direct encounters with corruption, so media reports are the main way they learn about it. Therefore, preventing public disclosure is crucial for corrupt operators, which helps explain their animosity towards whistleblowers and crusading journalists.

One of the tools used to maintain silence is the law of defamation. Australian defamation law is favourable towards plaintiffs — the onus of proof rests with the defendant — with the result that powerful players are often protected from scrutiny. In the state of New South Wales, criminal activity became systemic during the government of Sir Robert Askin, who was the premier — akin to a US governor — from 1965 to 1975. Journalists knew that Askin, a former police officer, was receiving bags of cash from gambling and prostitution interests, but they never ran any stories about this because they knew Askin would sue them for defamation. Shortly after Askin died in 1981, the National Times — a weekly newspaper — ran a front-page story titled, “Askin: friend to organised crime.” Because Askin was dead, he could no longer sue and the truth could be told.

Despite the risks, journalists have played a major role in exposing big-time corruption. Chris Masters worked for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, a government-funded national media organisation. In the late 1970s, he investigated police corruption in the state of Queensland and produced a television series titled “The moonlight state.” With revealing footage, the story was enough to force the state government to call a royal commission into corruption, with lasting benefits. However, Masters paid a serious price. For the next decade, he was tied up defending legal actions for defamation.

In the mid-1990s, it was the turn for New South Wales. A few independent politicians held the balance of power in state parliament and used their leverage to push for a royal commission into police corruption. Royal commissions have extraordinary powers of investigation. They can covertly intercept communications and compel individuals to answer questions under oath. Most royal commissions are tame affairs, not disturbing the status quo, but a few of them use public hearings to expose problems. These hearings are gold mines for journalists, who can freely report on everything said.

The NSW police royal commission was one of the rare crusading variety. The commission was able to turn a corrupt police officer, who became a whistleblower. He wore hidden cameras in conversations with corrupt cops. The videos were played at commission proceedings and then on television, with dramatic impact.

Two key members of Whistleblowers Australia were closely in touch with police-corruption matters, through various informants. Jean Lennane said the royal commission hearings and the attendant media coverage had been instrumental in clearing out some of the corrupt operators, but, she told me, it was only a partial success, perhaps a reduction in corruption by one third.

In 1996, on becoming president of Whistleblowers Australia, I travelled around the country meeting whistleblowers in every capital city. Because the police royal commission in NSW was getting headlines around the country, at every stop people would say to me, “You think police corruption is bad in New South Wales? Well, it’s just as bad here, but no one’s paying any attention to it.”

Whistleblowers and journalists can do only so much to expose wrongdoing. They face the formidable obstacle of governments intent on silencing dissent. My experience talking with hundreds of whistleblowers led me to some unconventional conclusions. Nearly everyone thinks that whistleblowers need protection and that the way to provide protection is through whistleblower laws. Journalists report on the need for whistleblower laws and politicians tout their introduction of whistleblower laws but, from my perspective, they offer only an illusion of protection. In fact, the laws are sometimes worse than nothing, because workers think they’re protected when in practice they’re not.

Meanwhile, there is relatively little attention to the ways that dissent is silenced: defamation laws, official-secrets laws gagging government employees, ineffective freedom-of-information procedures, mass media silence about national security matters, and the host of anti-terrorism laws that deter disclosures and investigative journalism. What this means is that the façade of protection gets all the attention while business continues as usual. I argue that workers need to develop their understanding and skills to bring about organisational and social change. The idea that authorities will provide protection, when it is usually some other authorities that are the problem, keeps workers thinking that there’s someone, some white knight, who will be their saviour. It’s more promising to believe in solidarity, in working together for change, and to learn from social movements.

Resistance

When the government overreaches, it can trigger resistance. In 2019, the Australian Federal Police raided the home of journalist Annika Smethurst over a story she had written the previous year about plans for government surveillance. The AFP also raided the headquarters of the ABC, treating journalists as criminals for doing their jobs reporting on government activities.

These raids triggered an unprecedented alliance of Australian media organisations. The ABC is regularly attacked by conservative politicians and commentators for being biased, but Smethurst writes for the Murdoch media, often an antagonist of the ABC. The government raids thus brought together erstwhile sparring partners in a common cause to resist government interference with the media. The resulting alliance was called Your Right to Know, and for about a year there were powerful stories and imagery in all the major media groups.

Michael West worked for many years as a financial journalist for the Fairfax media group. Many of his stories in two major dailies, the Melbourne Age and the Sydney Morning Herald — often cited as the two most respected newspapers in the country — exposed corporate malfeasance. After losing his job in the relentless downsizing of mainstream media, he set up Michael West Media, an online outlet for political and economic reporting, featuring stories of corruption.

Another trigger for resistance is the prosecution and persecution of Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks. Assange is a publisher rather than a whistleblower, but nonetheless he has been pursued by the US government for actions, alleged to be crimes, that were also committed by the New York Times and other mainstream media outlets that published WikiLeaks revelations. Assange is a highly polarising figure, but his imprisonment has become a rallying point for many who support whistleblowing and journalism.

Assange is an Australian citizen, yet Australian governments seem to have taken little interest in his welfare. This is a sore point for Australian activists, who see the government’s inaction as a reflection of its hostility to whistleblowers. Amazingly, the US government seems to assume it can use its own laws to prosecute foreign citizens living outside the country. Famous whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg is reported as saying that extraditing Assange to the US “would mean that journalists, anywhere in the world, could be extradited to the US for exposing information classified in the US.”

In the long run, Assange’s biggest impact may not be WikiLeaks or its famous revelations such as the collateral murder video, but rather the idea of anonymous whistleblowing through dedicated online portals. Major Australian media organisations have set up their own websites for making anonymous tips and disclosures. Whatever happens to Assange and WikiLeaks, the ideas that motivated them have well and truly proliferated.

When I’m approached by someone who wants to report wrongdoing, my advice now is to remain anonymous if at all possible. This reduces the risk of reprisals and might enable staying on the job, continuing to collect information and making further disclosures. Decades ago, numerous people appealed to Whistleblowers Australia for help, but nearly all of them had already spoken out and suffered reprisals. It was too late to remain anonymous. There has been a gradual shift so that now we receive more calls from workers who haven’t yet spoken out. Often I say, “Keep a low profile, gather more information, and wait until you have another job before you act.” This shift is a sign that a few more workers are thinking about how to be effective, realising the risks and taking precautions. Most likely, a prime factor contributing to the shift is media coverage about whistleblowing, including public-interest leakers.

The prosecutions of whistleblower Witness K and his lawyer Bernard Collaery exemplify the viciousness of the government’s assault on whistleblowing, but they are not working as well as the prosecutors would like. The government’s legal team has tried trick after trick to draw out the case and to keep as much of it as possible out of the public eye. The team even argued that some evidence is so sensitive that it must be tendered to the court in closed session and not revealed to the defence.

Witness K could not stand the strain and after several years pleaded guilty to breaking official secrecy provisions. He was convicted but received a suspended sentence. The prosecution of Collaery continued, but he was not alone. In their defence, an organisation was formed, Alliance Against Political Prosecutions (AAPP), that has supported K, Collaery and a few others. As each new episode in the long-running case against Collaery unfolded in Canberra, the national capital, AAPP organised a small vocal protest outside the courthouse. AAPP’s efforts helped keep the issue in the public eye.

Few members of the public would remember anything about the Australian government bugging Timor-Leste offices during negotiations over oil and gas reserves nearly two decades ago. This gross violation of international law would have been forgotten, but with the prosecution of K and Collaery it was repeatedly brought to public attention.

The national election of May 2022 brought a Labor government to power, the first in nine years. The new attorney-general, Mark Dreyfus, terminated the case against Collaery. This was heralded as a triumph for justice, but it can also be seen as politically advantageous, reducing the salience of an embarrassing prosecution that implicated figures in both Liberal and Labor governments.

However, the secrecy surrounding the bugging of the Timor-Leste negotiating team continues. Former senator Rex Patrick, a transparency campaigner, sought access to documents about the federal government’s cabinet discussions about negotiations with Timor-Leste, which should be available from the National Archives. The new Labor government sought to block the release of the documents. Before the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, the government refused to reveal its reasons for non-disclosure, instead presenting its reasons in a secret hearing from which Patrick was excluded. It seems addiction to secrecy is hard to break.

Campaigners continue to push for K to be pardoned and Collaery compensated for years of being prosecuted, and to oppose the prosecutions of whistleblowers David McBride and Richard Boyle. The Alliance Against Political Prosecutions still has work to do.


Further Reading

Alliance Against Political Prosecutions

Keiran Hardy, Rebecca Ananian-Welsh and Nicola McGarrity, Democracy Dossier: Secrecy and Power in Australia’s National Security State (GetUp, September 2021),

Human Rights Law Centre, Safeguarding Democracy (Melbourne, 2016),

Your Right to Know

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Susan Connelly, Cynthia Kardell, Susan Maret, Lisa Slater and Richard Tanter for helpful comments.


Brian Martin is emeritus professor of social sciences at the University of Wollongong, Australia. He is the author of 22 books and hundreds of articles on dissent, nonviolence, scientific controversies, tactics against injustice, and other topics. He is vice president of Whistleblowers Australia and hosts a large website on suppression of dissent. http://www.bmartin.cc/