A quiet word

Apparently, the Director-General of ASIO has been getting in touch, quietly, with a number of government MPs, warning them that their anti-Islamic comments are potentially damaging to national security. They have been complaining about this as an infringement of free speech. Their comments have been made to News Corporation publications (which have published similar comments and could be subject to the same criticism). Julie Bishop has defended ASIO’s actions, but she is in the wrong.

It’s highly unlikely that the MPs in question would have been upset if ASIO had warned off MPs who were seen as being too soft on terrorism. But their hypocrisy doesn’t justify ASIO’s intervention in politics. Both MPs and newspapers are entitled to freedom of speech, and shouldn’t have security officials telling them what to say or not to say.

On the other hand, freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequences. Having accepted the judgement that government MPs are acting in a manner prejudicial to national security, Turnbull and Bishop can’t sit on their hands. They should be telling the MPs in question to choose between keeping quiet and moving to the cross-benches, where they can say whatever they like without implicating the government.

51 thoughts on “A quiet word

  1. I doubt even Turnbull, riding as high as he is in the polls, has the gumption to dictate to backbenchers on free speech.

    Far right Coalition MPs moving to the cross benches seems unlikely. It would not accomplish anything for anyone as it won’t affect the existing gridlock, and there is great disincentive for the MPs to lose endorsement for next year’s election. Few of them are made of as stern stuff as Windsor and Oakeshott. Turnbull kicking them out also seems unlikely as party rules allow for public backbencher squabbling.

    Basically, MT can tell the MPs to shut up, the MPs can tell him to rack off, and nothing is done… and the media would never blame the Libs if something does happen. Canberra in action!

  2. What’s the problem? If you are going to have secret police then clearly they will act secretly to manipulate public opinion.

    Hasn’t this always been the case with spooks?

    IN fact having our spooks as a catspaw for America means they are the threat to national security.

    Hasn’t this always been the case?

  3. Perhaps ASIO should open a file on these guys…that’s what they do with the rest of us 😦

    I think it is reasonable for ASIO to present its assessment of the implications of LNP members, who are the government ministers and senators, speaking out in the manner that they have been doing, and for that presentation to occur in one of the regular security committee meetings with the PM and relevant ministers. It is then the job and the duty of the attendees to pass on whatever security advice they have received, or the bits deemed admissible to a cabinet meeting, and to explain to the cabinet what ASIO’s assessment means for the government’s own behaviour. That would be the proper channel, I would guess.

    Speaking directly with individual ministers and senators sounds like an over-stepping of ASIO’s role, but, I confess to not knowing specifically if that is the case in actual fact or not. If not an over-step, it is certainly unusual.

  4. @Donald Oats

    Umm, what exactly is ASIO’s “role” Donald ? If a politician asks a question of ASIO, and ASIO responds directly to that politician, then what is that ? Does anything like that ever happen, d’you reckon ?

    And why exactly is ASIO advising some politicians of the likely consequences of their thoughtless ramblings “intervention in politics”, ProfQ ?

  5. Can you be anything but astonished at the arrogance of the Coalition right faction?

    To think that ASIO have had to go to the lengths they have, of issuing a public statement, with Paris barely a fortnight old and Bali still within recent memory, is enough to dumbfound an onlooker.

    For these cranks to then turn around and argue the toss in the wake of it, is beyond conception.

  6. I’m not sure what the problem is here, unless I’m missing something? ASIO has not restricted the MPs speech, it has pointed out that their comments are having consequences, and if ASIO are taking this path you’d hope ASIO are seeing a strong causal link between the comments and other…stuff.

    The MPs can ignore the advice, but one suspects what they’re actually upset about is having their comments tied to consequences.

  7. How is this limiting free speech? Why do the uptight rich whities of the modern Anglosphere equate the consequences of free speech with the restriction of free speech? What a bunch of entitled cry-babies.

  8. I’m not convinced the ASIO Director has crossed the line regarding free speech per se, although he’s probably stepped outside his authority in providing advice directly to backbenchers rather than via his Minister and/or Cabinet. Obviously elected MPs should not be told what to say by security officials, but it doesn’t appear that that’s what’s happened here. It seems that the ASIO Director has asked, rather than told, MPs to tone down their rhetoric. Nobody seems to be seriously suggesting, or implying, that MPs are obliged to do what the ASIO Director tells them.
    For mine, the line that’s been crossed is more that the ASIO Director should have advised the Attorney General that the MPs’ remarks were compromising its operations, and let him or Cabinet deal with it, rather than going to the MPs directly.
    That said, it needs it be nipped in the bud. Bureaucrats, particularly secret intelligence agency ones, trying to directly influence MPs, rather than going through the established channels, is an unhealthy development.

  9. @LJS

    Don’t be naive. Does Centrelink telephone selected politicians and whisper in their ear?

    Would you really think it ok for the A-G’s to ring up selected politicians and give them verbal, unrecorded and uninvited guidance on legislation going through Parliament?

  10. If they’re worried about the chilling effect of, “perhaps you shouldn’t have said that”… perhaps they shouldn’t be saying to the DG of ASIO, “perhaps you shouldn’t have said that”.

    Remember, the DG hasn’t said anything publically: the backbenchers in question want to gag him from making private statements. I mean, as far as I’ve seen noone’s suggested that he’s threatened them, or that he’s telling any lies or has even said anything false accidentally: he’s just telling people things they don’t want to hear, and apparently being told things you don’t want to hear — from the professional whose job it is to make the analysis he’s making, btw — is censorship and should be banned.

    [it’s worth remembering that if you’re a coalition backbencher then by definition your work colleagues think that you’re less suited for high-profile public office than Chris Pyne.]

  11. ASIOs actions are grossly improper. The DG advises the PM and some other Ministers, its not a lobbyist.

    Imagine the outcry if ASIO spoke privately to Labor MPs and “warned” them that supporting checks on electronic monitoring would lead to deaths from terrorist actions.

  12. Was Tony Abbott spoken to? From PM to being scolded by a public servant! Oh, the ignominy!

    It would be proper for the D-G to go through the PM or relevant minister. It would also be logical and efficient. The D-G is not doing his job properly if he is going through the wrong channels and if he is ringing people individually at such a low level. Doesn’t he understand procedures and protocols? Hasn’t he learned to delegate? I’m a bit worried he’s not up to the job.

  13. The problem with the DG trying to get the message out via the PM and his backers is that he knows the backbenchers will discount the message because of their perception that Turnbull is benefitting from it. They would not trust him or his role. The DG has, I presume, sought to circumvent this by delivering his message unfiltered directly to those he wants to hear it.

    I think that doing this via news conference is fine; doing it via private phone call leaves it open to misrepresentation as to what was said, so prob wasn’t a great idea, even though I presume the intention was not to be seen to publicly embarrass them. He was probably underestimating the stupidity of the people he was trying to convince.

  14. @Ivor

    What case, Ivor ? I hoped that use of “if” signaled that I was asking a hypothetical.

    But I can imagine an occasional politician asking ASIO, or at least some branch of the ‘homeland defense’ complex, an occasional question. Like, for instance (and please excuse the Melbourne centricity of the example): if you are putting a fence around the MCG to keep the terrorist bombers away from solid stuff (and away from groups of people, I expect), shouldn’t the fences be extended to include Richmond railway station where large numbers of people congregate on MCG games days ?

    Would that be a legitimate question for an MP (State and/or Federal) to ask, d’you reckon ?

  15. A curse on those right wing MPs.

    They gave ASIO a precedent for future interference, sometime in the future something worthwhile instead of right wing fantasising will be kyboshed.

  16. @GrueBleen

    This topic is not about exposing ASIO’s “hypothetical” dirty trick.

    By injecting your imaginary “hypothetical” – you are only blowing smoke and scattering mirrors.

    If there are legitimate questions, or need for advisings, then there are legitimate Westminster mechanisms for dealing with them.

    ASIO (and the rest of our spookdom) are reknown for giving false advice or partial incomplete advice. We went to war in Irag because some spook told the Prime Minister a firetruck was a chemical weapons vehicle. This led to Andrew Wilkie’s resignation.

  17. The always excellent Laura Tingle gets it right today when she says

    The same people who rail about the threats from Islam take spectacular liberties – against official advice – with our national interest, purely in support of furthering their political agenda of damaging the new prime minister.

    But it should not be the head of ASIO who tells these knuckleheads to pull their heads in. It should be Malcolm Turnbull.

  18. A few random rants. From memory, DR Lewis has worked his way up to his current position through the Howard-Rudd/Gillard-Abbott/Turnbull regimes, and kept a pretty low profile in the process. It’s indicative of the state of play within the LNTP (Lib-Nat-Tea Party) that the near-brainless clowns dump on DRL (through the bromancer Sheridan, of course), a fellow with his pedigree one might suspect is hardly your average anarcho-syndicatalist (given Duntroon? and all that). He is a person with the nous to actually save their bacon if and when the stuff hits the propellor. Brings on the opening scene from that flash Froggy Filum ‘Ridicule”. Anyway, just goes to illustrate their insatiable sense of self entitlement and continual white-anting of common decency. Oh, and for DR Lewis to to stick his head above the parapet and take the direct approach to the problem, methinks, indicates a very high level of concern. From previous observation, it’s much less likely that he has made an error of judgement (apart from expecting the yapping clowns to take a Bex and have a good lie down).

  19. @22B

    Oh, and for DR Lewis to to stick his head above the parapet and take the direct approach to the problem, methinks, indicates a very high level of concern.

    Yes, that occurred to me as well.

  20. The issue here is that members of parliament have to be told what should be obvious. Perhaps the Director General of ASIO should have asked the Chief Rabbi to explain the process of scapegoating and its implications.

    Then again, as we witnessed in the latest unhinged Republican debate, I doubt Mr Abbott is capable of self-reflection, which I suggest is the common characteristic. The cultural system that people live in, without them being aware, probably disconnects politicians from the electorate, except in very abstract ways, like opinion polls. Noticeably, Mr Abbott ignored those as well but rather relied foolishly on the 24 hours news cycle. The combination of micro-managing select groups, overt framing of news stories and vilification of out groups with implicit and explicit violence (the war against terrorism) can be called “plantation politics”. Increasing inequality is the dominant feature of social and political existence. The US historical evidence points both to the effectiveness of this approach and its violent consequences

    Put simply, people such as Mr Abbott are childish(too harsh?) and dangerous, and perhaps Mr Lewis felt he had no choice but to confidentially warn him of the consequences of his words.

  21. @Ivor

    “This topic is not about exposing ASIO’s “hypothetical” dirty trick.”

    It isn’t Ivor ? Well gee that’s really good because I wasn’t even trying to “expose ASIO”. Now what on earth made you think I was ?

    “… you are only blowing smoke and scattering mirrors.”

    Wau, am I really that good, Ivor ? Thanks for the compliment, mate I’ll try to keep up the good work.

    “… there are legitimate Westminster mechanisms for dealing with them.”

    Well that’s really, really good to know. Because after all, a “Westminster mechanism” is so much better than a colonial Aussie Canberra mechanism, isn’t it. So when Tony Blair (what is it with Tonys ?) went to war in Iraq and helped drag us along with him, it was because of a “legitimate Westminster mechanism”. I’m so very reassured by that.

    “ASIO (and the rest of our spookdom) are reknown for giving false advice …”

    But, but, Ivor, if “they” give false advice, how exactly does this renowned “legitimate Westminster mechanism” work ? I really wouldn’t want to think that this “legitimate Westminster mechanism” was, in fact, inferior to just having an MP ask a question. Actually, mate, isn’t MPs asking questions just a central part of that renowned “legitimate Westminster mechanism” ?

  22. @Tim Macknay

    Yeah, yeah, mate, but just think who, and what, ASIO (and its venerable leaders) throughout its inglorious history, have had a “high level of concern” about.

    Why (he modestly claims), I might even have been one of them. At least I went to some anti Vietnam War marches and I protested the hanging of Ryan (all night long at Pentridge).

  23. @GrueBleen

    What the topic is and what you are playing at are two completely different things.

    We all know that MPs ask questions – so what, that is not the point.

    There was no question and there is no hypothetical issue should a MP want to raise a question – this is all your own confused meanderings.

  24. @Ivor

    “What the topic is and what you are playing at are two completely different things.”

    Really, Ivor mate, really ? Well you know us confused meanderers don’t always know what our meanderings are meaning. So please, do enlighten me, mate, do enlighten me: what exactly is “the topic” and what exactly is it that I am “playing at” I await your incisive analysis.

    “There was no question and there is no hypothetical issue should a MP want to raise a question – this is all your own confused meanderings.”

    Well there I go again, just not understanding that “legitimate Westminster mechanism” that you’re so keen to expound upon. C’mon. Ivor mate, sock it to me, tell me just what this wondrous “mechanism” is.

  25. Uncle Milton :
    The always excellent Laura Tingle gets it right today when she says

    But it should not be the head of ASIO who tells these knuckleheads to pull their heads in. It should be Malcolm Turnbull.

    ASIO is under the AG, actually. Formally, Turnbull only has responsibility for his portfolio, and PM&C isn’t the biggest department in terms of acts administered.

  26. @Ivor

    Oh Ivor, I didn’t think that you’d go for a copout like that. You’ve condemned me to eternal (or at least lifetime) ignorance.

  27. @Tim Macknay

    Ok, so it appears that “normal procedure” precludes the head of ASIO from communicating directly to members of parliament and all communication from ASIO has to go through the Prime Minister. Is that

  28. @Tim Macknay

    Ooops. sorry. Bad keystroke. To resume:

    Ok, so it appears that “normal procedure” precludes the head of ASIO from communicating directly to members of parliament and all communication from ASIO has to go through the Prime Minister. Is that how it is supposed to work ?

    Even for, say, an independent ? So if Nick Xenophon says something that compromises Australia’s security, then the head of ASIO would have to inform the PM who would have to exert PM’s authority to call Nick in for a dressing down. Is that how it works ?

  29. @Tim Macknay

    So you don’t understand my point but you’re happy to accuse me of “arguing for argument’s sake”. Do you find that this kind of vapid hostility endears you to people ? Just asking, mate.

    But I’m happy to try to explain what my “argument for argument’s sake” is. So, you say that you aren’t convinced that “he” – by whom I think we agree that you mean the ASIO head, Lewis – had a good reason to depart from “normal procedure”. By saying that, I take it that you believe that you know what this “normal procedure” is. I do not know what this “normal procedure” is. Thus I’m just trying to find out from people such as yourself who claim to know what this “normal procedure” is just what this “normal procedure” is.

    Has that helped your understanding ? I’ll try again just in case: I do not know what the “normal procedure” whereof you claim knowledge is, and I’d like you to explain it to me.

    So far all I’m getting is that Lewis is somehow at fault for talking to Hastie (a guy he personally knows well since they served in the defense forces together) and also to an MP (Dan Tehan) who is chair of the joint committee on intelligence and security. Is talking to these two guys the breach of “normal procedure” that you’re referring to ? Do you know where this “normal procedure” is defined, or is it just something that you made up in order to justify your arguing for argument’s sake ?

  30. @GrueBleen
    I take back my comment about arguing for argument’s sake – you seem to be venting. The reason I say this is that it isn’t possible to discern a clear position from your comments with regard to the ASIO chief’s speaking to the backbenchers (which is the topic of the thread). The only consistent thing is disagreement with other commenters’ remarks. Given the general tone of your comments, I take the remark about ‘vapid hostility’ to be projection. If I were you I’d go and do something relaxing – maybe take a walk, or meditate – before commenting again.

  31. Your area of expertise is economics, John. More articles like this, and you might find yourself getting ‘a quite word.’

  32. I think I understand you, GB. You’re asking what is the process for communication between ASIO and politicians/parliament/the PM. Who do they report to? Who do they notify if they have information? Given the nature of the organisation, these are serious questions that should have very fixed answers.

    But I don’t think that’s John’s argument, GB. He’s saying the nature of the information that Lewis has been giving out is not appropriate: notwithstanding there may be clear procedures for giving advice to the PM or government, and irrespective of whether Lewis followed protocol or not, it is not appropriate for that advice to be in any way political.

  33. @Mercurial

    Yes – plus other aspects and implications for Australia given both the noxious behaviour of different elements of the police state whether under Bjelke, Askin or Fraser.

  34. @Tim Macknay

    What a lovely piece of venting from you, Tim. Do you make it a practice to accuse others of your own grievous faults.

    Now if I were you, I’d do something really useful and read Mercurial’s post addressed to me. He actually does more or less grasp what I’m on about. And it isn’t really all that difficult to grasp.

    Though I guess that if you’re going to push your personal opinions and snap judgments then of course grasping what anybody else is on about isn’t your concern.

  35. @Mercurial

    Thank you for taking the trouble to grasp what I’m saying, Mercurial.

    Ok then, firstly, I’m not particularly concerned with what ProfQ’s argument is. If we were limited to that, then profQ would have to include a statement of the limits of discussion with every post he makes and disqualify everybody who goes outside them. I’m more concerned with following the argument wherever it may lead, even if that transgresses ProfQ’s original assertions.

    Secondly, yes, that is exactly what I am asking: before we can know whether or not Lewis’s communication is outside “normal process” we have to know what “normal process” or protocol or whatever you want to call it, is. I freely and repeatedly confess that I simply don’t know what this “normal process” is, and furthermore, none of the interlocutors in this discussion appear to know either. But we’re all sure that Lewis breached it. Why? How ?

    Lastly, you speak of “the nature of the information that Lewis has been giving”, but can you tell me what that information actually is ? Have we heard testimony from Hastie or Tehan as to what that information actually was ? Because that’s the only two people Lewis is charged with having spoken to. And one of them, to repeat, is the chair of the joint committee on intelligence and security. I’m very hard put to see – especially in the complete absence of any evidence as to what was actually said – that any communication between the head of ASIO and the Chair of the Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security on the general matter of the security of Australia could be anything but proper. Can you honestly advise me, from a genuine knowledge of what the protocol actually is (quoting chapter and verse would be really good) that it could be otherwise ?

    As far as i can tell, the idea that Lewis’s communication was political is a fabrication of the Murdoch press, and in particular of Abbott’s bromancer, Sheridan. It is apparently aimed at subverting Turnbull. Can you reliably testify otherwise ?

  36. Those MPs who made statements against Islam may not be aware that, contrary to the recent pronouncements by Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten, Bashar al-Assad, the Islamic President of Syria enjoys good relations with Syrians of all religions – the different branches of Islam, the small Jewish community within Syria and the Christians. As an example see Assad makes surprise Christmas visit to Damascus church (PHOTOS) (19/12/15) | RT:

    A Christmas choir had a surprise visitor overnight after Bashar al-Assad made an appearance at a church in the Syrian capital of Damascus where rehearsals were taking place

    The Syrian president and his wife, Asia, visited the Notre Dame de Damas Church, an ancient cathedral located just 2 kilometres from the rebel-held neighbourhood of Jobar in the eastern suburb of Ghouta in Damascus.

    Assad and his wife chatted with the men and women of the “Joy Choir,” who were practising ahead of a performance on Christmas Eve, state media said.

    The couple were seen smiling and posing for pictures with the group and also listened to the recital of Christmas poems at the church, which was hit by mortar fire on Friday.

  37. Disagree Prof Q.

    I think #3 is correct; ASIO are stating their assessment (a “fact”), not limiting free speech.

    I don’t have a problem with bureaucrats releasing their assessment/analysis directly to the public (not that this was such an action initially – it was private advice to MPs – but arguably became so with the respective MPs communicating it to their chosen media outlet) rather than this having to go through a “political filter”.
    I would actually prefer that Directors-General (bureaucrats), if they have something to say publicly, never do so standing alongside any politician and neither do they appear as “cover/propaganda” alongside any politician making a statement as seemed to be the case on security matters with the previous PM.

    I think it is encouraging, first that the advice accords with what is pretty self evident to any informed observer of international affairs, and secondly that we have a bureaucrat who rightly sees his duty to be to the parliament/country not to the governing political party.

    #13 We don’t know that similar advice has not gone through established channels as well.
    D-G may be of the view that some MPs are too stupid to understand it therefore nothing wrong in my view with also speaking privately (and to non govt MPs as well) so long as prepared for it to be in the public domain which in my view it should.

    #15 If Centrelink analysis formed the view that selected politicians’ statements were sufficiently deleterious to its delivery of services such that serious harm might occur to Australian citizens then I have absolutely no problem with Departmental Secretary communicating privately with said politicians provided that Department also prepared to release analysis publicly.
    Indeed one could make the case that as “duty of care” any public service head is obliged so to do.
    Health professionals have to jump through all sorts of hoops in their “duty of care” I don’t see why politicians should be any different.

    #17 I think you mean “not” supporting ….
    Again, no problem if that is their analysis, but they have to also release, or be prepared to have released, that analysis into the public domain.

    From my perspective;

    1.No infringement of free speech

    2. Release of bureaucratic analysis into the public domain should be welcomed.
    We can agree or disagree with the conclusions/advice, but open access to the professional analysis of our government departments can only improve public debate.
    Of course politicians, or perhaps more correctly their puppeteers, often don’t want that and so we end up with poor quality msm news commentary regarding Ukraine, Syria and China, and Julian Assange spends 3 years in Ecuadorian London embassy.

  38. President al-Assad: “Europe is exporting terrorists to Syria” ~ [Full Text + Full Video of the interview to ‘DUTCH NPO2 TV’ in English]

    Damascus, 17 December 2015 ~ President Bashar al-Assad affirmed that the majority of international reports about Syria are politicized, incredible and financed by the Qataris and Saudis.

    President al-Assad added in an interview given to DUTCH NPO2 TV that the western policy towards counter-terrorism file is not objective and not stable.

  39. @GrueBleen
    Well, your initial comment addressed to me was a response to a remark of mine to another commenter. I replied out of politeness, although your tone seemed unaccountably angry. However, I won’t make the mistake of engaging with you again.

  40. @Tim Macknay

    Yes Tim, I guess it would be wise if you didn’t waste both our precious time.

    But if you could allow yourself one last response, I am intrigued by your comment that my comment to you “was a response to a remark of mine to another commenter. I replied out of politeness although your tone seemed unaccountably angry”.

    Apart from not grasping the relevance of your response being to another commenter, my question is: how did you determine that my tone was “unaccountably angry” ? I am quite fascinated by how people decide such

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