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Fear dominates political conversations and slowly strengthens the acceptability of secrecy in 21st-century governments. Ben Eenhoorn, CC BY

Mutated conventions: how secrecy in the name of security harms democracy

Secrecy is anathema to democracy. Without transparency, government may contravene its peoples’ values and violate human rights with impunity.

Governments rarely declare themselves corrupt, confess to lies, or admit to participating or being complicit in crimes. They have many resources and connections at their disposal, including media, police, military and security agencies. This mean critics are easily discredited or vilified.

An open criminal justice system, free media, active civil society, whistleblower protection and the ability of victims to be heard are essential checks for preventing, exposing and redressing state abuse of power. However, Australian governments – and particularly the incumbent Coalition – are systematically shutting down these avenues of scrutiny.

Secrecy and the border

Australia’s deepening pall of secrecy is rationalised as essential to protect operational matters and intelligence that, if revealed, would jeopardise national security.

Traditionally, operational matters and intelligence have, in limited circumstances, been exempt from the open government principles that mandate freedom of information. But these exemptions have been relatively narrow, open to challenge and frequently subject to public interest tests.

Exemptions to openness for operational matters and intelligence weren’t designed to prevent contentious government policy being scrutinised. But the government’s resort to claims of secrecy for intelligence or operational matters – or “on-water matters”, in the context of Operation Sovereign Borders – is now used as a tactic to deflect awkward political questions and avoid scrutiny and accountability.

The 2001 Tampa election was a watershed moment in Australian politics. It marked a new phase in the overlapping of politics, national security and the control and management of information.

In the lead-up to that election, then-prime minister John Howard and his ministers managed to parlay the plight of several hundred desperate asylum seekers to electoral victory. They did so by manipulating fears about “boat people”, “illegals” and – in the wake of the September 11 attacks – terrorists.

Managing the story was essential to ensuring that the wages of fear became the currency of electoral success. The government’s strategy included ensuring no “humanising images” of the asylum seekers became public.

False accusations that the asylum seekers threw their children overboard assisted the strategy by amplifying the fears of sections of the electorate that were racially ambivalent or prejudiced. Though the government managed the information well enough to get re-elected, it was later revealed that the asylum seekers never threw their children overboard.

Since 2001, Australia has had a number of elections where national security – particularly counter-terrorism and border protection – were critical elements. Today, security stories beat a constant tattoo at the heart of politics.

John Howard parlayed the plight of several hundred desperate asylum seekers to electoral victory in 2001. AAP/Julian Smith

Alternative stories

Unofficial security stories can be damaging to governments. In 2007, it was revealed the government and the Australian Federal Police had unfairly treated and unjustly vilified an Indian national working as a doctor in Brisbane, Muhamed Haneef.

What started as a story about a terrorist in our midst quickly morphed into one of abuse of power when Haneef’s lawyer released information contradicting the official narrative.

Legislation passed in 2014, which criminalises reporting of “special intelligence operations”, makes it far less likely that official stories, such as the one that presented Haneef as a major threat to the Australian community, can now be publicly contested.

In the 14 years since Tampa, there has been a shift from attempting to manage national security stories to controlling them. Strategies of information control include: refusing to release information; refusing to answer questions; criminalising the release of information by unofficial sources; and creating a category of acquiescent “embedded” journalists and lawyers through covert and overt security vetting processes.

Another strategy is providing immunity from prosecution to security agencies. The result is that contentious or illegal activities committed by these agencies are never revealed, contested or adjudicated through processes of open justice.

Secrecy facilitates an uncontested space for officially sanctioned stories about security. The “national security” stories that support governments, police and security agencies set up clear binaries between the vulnerable public and threatening enemies. These provide a stage for political leaders to act and speak resolutely about threat and protection, champion laws that are tough but fair, and represent the police and security agencies as empowered, capable and operating solely in the national interest.

Under the guise of national security, governments, police and security agencies frequently engage in breaches of human rights, are influenced by partisan politics, exaggerate threats, generate fear for party political reasons or, in the case of police and intelligence agencies, organisational gain.

Also, many measures that are championed in the name of security are poorly targeted, ineffective or counter-productive.

The spread of secrecy under the banner of operational matters and intelligence excises uncomfortable facts that complicate or contradict sanitised stories about politics and security. Secrecy is a weapon of information control that valorises official stories and outlaws those who expose governments and police and security agencies to scrutiny.

This article is part of a series on breaking political conventions. Look out for more articles exploring various political conventions in the coming days.

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