Wednesday 4 March 2020

Reds Under Dutton’s Bed.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that's all.

Call me paranoid, but I feel something disturbing is going on.

Last Monday 25, Mike Burgess, director general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), highlighted the three most serious threats to Australian national security:
  1. Foreign interference/espionage.
  2. Fundamentalist Islamic terrorism (ASIO’s primary concern).
  3. A real and growing “threat of rightwing extremism”.
A low-tech terrorist attack (using knife, gun, vehicle) is “probable”, Burgess said, and will remain so for the foreseeable future.

He also praised recently enacted laws giving security services search and seizure powers over computing and telecommunications hardware and unencrypted data and forcing communications services to assist such agencies. Federal Minister for Home Affairs and Burgess’ boss, Peter Dutton, has been a key proponent of such laws within the Morrison Cabinet.

Although I haven’t seen any comments about its legal aspect, the address was object of interest by commentators, because of the importance Burgess gives to rightwing extremism. Moreover the event itself is a first (ASIO is generally described as “very secretive” and journalists aren’t frequent guests at its headquarters).


But it’s not just ASIO. The entire security apparatus of the State, under Dutton’s parliamentary portfolio, seems to have been very busy.

A week earlier (Wednesday 19) the heads of three other intelligence/law enforcement federal agencies gave an also unusual joint public address at the National Press Club in Canberra.

In that address the Australian Federal Police (AFP), Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC), and Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre (AUSTRAC) argued their case for yet additional surveillance powers.

It wasn’t Islamist terrorism or foreign interference, however, what concerned them; it was child sex abuse.

Used in messaging applications, end-to-end encryption enabled, they argued, “deviant and perverted offenders ... to evade law enforcement detection”. Therefore, new legal powers are needed to either decrypt those messages or force encryption providers to hand them their unencrypted content.

I’m sure criminals use end-to-end encryption, but journalists and their sources, among others, also use it very legitimately to protect their sensitive communications against State eavesdropping. What about them?

One would have thought that that would have raised eyebrows among journalists, particularly after the Federal Court dismissed the ABC’s legal case against the AFP. However, at least those present at the event (which was televised) seemed more interested in the AFP’s negative to investigate the case of federal Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction Angus Taylor’s doctored documents.


Then, on Tuesday 25, making reference to Burgess’ remarks, Peter Dutton (remember: the boss of those top cops and spooks) suddenly dropped this:
“If somebody is going to cause harm to Australians, I just don’t care whether they’re on the far right, far left, somewhere in between, they will be dealt with.
“And if the proliferation of information into the hands of rightwing lunatics or leftwing lunatics is leading to a threat in our country, then my responsibility is to make sure our agencies are dealing with it and they are”.
Readers can compare by themselves what Dutton left out from Burgess’ (and the other security bigwigs’) assessments. Here I’m interested in what he added to them.


Like many police officers, ex-cop Dutton seems prone to hallucinate about dangerous red hordes lurking under his bed. Unlike most of his former colleagues, Dutton has a high profile job. Therefore, many noticed when he added “leftwing lunatics” to the list of threats and, as a consequence, asked him about that. Some went as far as calling his parliamentary office asking for clarification … with perturbing results.

Journalists, too, were intrigued. David Speers, the new host of Insiders, was the latest.

Dutton’s rather scornful answer boils down to this: He’s too busy to discuss semantics; “leftwing lunatics” were present all along in the top cops’ assessment, for Islamic terrorists, he adds, are nothing if not … leftwing (!?).

In other words, “leftwing lunatics” means whatever Humpty Dutton chooses it to mean – neither more nor less.

And, remember: he may not be the master -- yet -- but he’s pretty close to him.


I am sure card-carrying members of the “sensible middle” feel the lunacy in Dutton’s “leftwing lunatics” remarks; many are even likely to find it all vaguely threatening. It’s not the first time the Morrison Government aroused such feelings.

Ultimately, however, most will probably shrug it all off: it’s others who should worry about that (by coincidence, I wrote about those others last time).

The reader, of course, doesn’t need to agree, but I, for what it is worth, think that attitude may be unwise. Given the plasticity in the labels Dutton uses for his targets, who’s to say the sensible reader him/herself isn’t -- to his/her utter surprise -- a “lunatic”? Your sanity does not depend on a clinical diagnosis, after all, but on Dutton’s let’s say idiosyncratic assessment.

If I were a journalist, I’d keep my eyes peeled.

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