Is a secret agency needed for the wellbeing of a democracy? How can the secret agency guarantee security while, simultaneously, officially depriving society of individual liberties and rights? And how does a democracy administer such an agency without losing control of it?
These are a few of the questions Frank Moorhouse, author of Miles Franklin-award-winning novel Dark Palace, poses in his latest non-fiction work, Australia Under Surveillance (Vintage, $32.99).
The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) opened a file on the writer and began to keep him under surveillance from the age of 17. Moorhouse claims this was merely because he visited a Communist club while at university. He asserts that since then, the security service has had its “dirty tricks department” trying to discourage him and his writing.
However, ASIO did give him security clearance to cover military exercises in the Coral Sea while he was working for the ABC. So is Moorhouse’s opinion on the intelligence service unbiased? Hardly!
Moorhouse describes his narrative as a pensive peek at the grave transformation in Australian law and political thinking following the extensions of ASIO’s powers. The argument is that Australia may be legislating itself into a “national security state” and overriding freedoms of everyday Australians due to the increasing limitations on civil liberties since the Howard government.
Of all the special powers and practices of ASIO, the ones Moorhouse considers most dangerous are the weakening of the right to remain silent and the right to be represented by a lawyer. Whether he is correct is for the reader to decide.
Moorhouse’s opinions may be influenced by his personal experience, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worthwhile – especially when he suggests that we need a renewal of the bargain between citizens, our government and its secret agencies.
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