Witness K and foreign interference hypocrisy



'This Parliament will not allow interference in our elections or in our democratic processes,' Senator Penny Wong declared recently. 'We will not allow these to be subject to foreign interference, and we will not allow the covert subversion of our politics by foreign interests.' It sounds like a perfectly reasonable aspiration, but not if you happen to be East Timor.

Christian PorterOver this last week, two remarkably contradictory things happened in Canberra. The Australian Attorney-General Christian Porter (pictured) shepherded through Parliament some of the most significant changes to foreign interference laws in recent times (the subject of Senator Wong's speech). It was also reported that he signed off on charges laid against Witness K, a former officer of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, and his lawyer, former ACT Attorney General Bernard Collaery.

Witness K and his lawyer are alleged to have conspired to share information about ASIS's illegal bugging of East Timorese offices during negotiations over natural resources in the Timor Sea. East Timor was due to lead evidence about this conduct in a case brought in the International Court of Arbitration in the Hague.

In other words, Witness K and his lawyer are accused of conspiring to reveal information about foreign interference in democratic processes and the covert subversion of politics by a foreign power. The kind of conduct they are alleged to have conspired to reveal is the kind of conduct the new foreign interference laws purportedly aim to prohibit.  

As East Timor's resources minister Alfredo Pires said in 2015 of Australia's actions, 'if I was to do a similar thing in Canberra I think I would be behind bars for a long time'. This astounding level of cognitive dissonance appears to be a particularly Australian phenomenon (exhibit B being outrage generated by a sports commentator pronouncing names correctly in the proper performance of her duties).

The bugging of the East Timorese during the negotiations over the Timor Sea is a deeply disgraceful part of our national history for many reasons. It is yet another sorry example of how the Australian government's engagement with Timorese people always unfolds in ways that suit Australian interests. Aid workers have been put at risk, given the bugging was facilitated under the cover of an aid program.

To make matters even more unsavoury, Alexander Downer and other public officials went on to work for Woodside Petroleum, ultimately a key beneficiary of Australia's negotiating efforts.  There was disquiet reportedly within ASIS that the agency had been diverted from other important work to focus on this matter.  


"The treatment of Collaery and Witness K looks a lot like an attack on freedom of speech — except of course that many of the usual free speech warriors have elected to stay silent thus far."


These developments have implications for us all, not just Witness K and his lawyer. 'One crucial question here,' writes Professor Clinton Fernandes, 'is whether ASIS has been used in other operations to benefit well-connected corporate entities, to the detriment of Australia's real national security needs.' But instead of any meaningful response to Fernandes' question, or proper accounting for the general misconduct, we are witnessing the entire political class doubling down against any person who has worked to make such a reckoning possible.

The treatment of Collaery and Witness K looks a lot like an attack on freedom of speech — except of course that many of the usual free speech warriors have elected to stay silent thus far (curious!). But it is also more than that. As Bernard Keane has pointed out repeatedly, Witness K was not a whistle blower. He sought the appropriate authorisation to disclose what he considered to be wrongdoing to a lawyer and was given it. A lawyer attempted to use his account as evidence to advance a claim in a legal process. This was made impossible when Witness K's passport was cancelled and he could not travel to provide evidence in the Hague.

The proper adjudication of allegations of misconduct has been thwarted by intelligence agencies and their ever-expanding idea of national security. To paraphrase one senior lawyer, this looks a lot like contempt of court.

We are witnessing the consequences of a rebalance of power away from democratic institutions that respect the rule of law, and towards the sprawling surveillance state. It has been decades in the making. Paul Keating was the last prime minister to cut ASIO's budget (a consequence of the fall of the Soviet Union) but it is almost impossible to imagine a politician of any stripe proposing anything similar today.

It is imperative that we resist the double standard we witnessed in Canberra. National security, when defined by the surveillance state, means exploiting vulnerable people abroad, putting Australians at risk, crushing dissent, and evading accountability for wrongdoing. It means growing an enormous spy agency that blurs the lines between the interests of the nation and those of corporations. It means protecting a small class of people at the expense of the rest of us.

If we are to force politicians to do their job properly, we must reject the surveillance state's understanding of what constitutes national security, and demand that these agencies be brought under democratic forms of accountability.



Lizzie O'SheaLizzie O'Shea is a lawyer and writer. Her book on technology, politics and history will be published with Verso in 2019.

Topic tags: Lizzie O'Shea, East Timor, Penny Wong, surveillance, Witness K



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Existing comments

‘See how they love each other’ applies as much to a Christian minister of foreign affairs in Australia negotiating a treaty with a Christian country on weekdays and sharing a Christian ummah with them on Sundays as to the least member of the faith.
Roy Chen Yee | 04 July 2018

Lizzie O'Shea has provided a succinct summary of Australia's blatant abuse of advantage over the small neighbouring country we were ostensibly supporting after 24 years of Indonesian occupation. Additionally, she has warned us of the rapidly increasing erosion of civil liberties in the name of national security. We do well to heed her warning.
Ian Fraser | 04 July 2018

Good one Lizzie, A case of massive hypocrisy by our elected leaders! It seems we will do our upmost to stop foreign interference in our democratic processes by the imposition of unjust , unethical and undemocratic laws to stop perceived enemies ( ie Russia, North Korea and China) attacking our country, yet we are happy to prosecute morally upright citizens and lawyers who are prepared to show our spooks are at it too, but against a small, poor struggling country whose rights to their legitimate resources to develop their people, threaten the profits of multinationals in a unsavoury relationship with our political leaders. How sick has our Nation become morally?
Gavin O'Brien | 04 July 2018

'Defence of the Realm' is a phrase that British intelligence has used as a motto to justify its nefarious activities since the days of Sir Francis Walshingham under Elizabeth I and it continues under Elizabeth II. Anti-Monarchists (Republicans?) cannot claim such regal defence so they do everything 'In the National Interest'. And as the Royal Commission into Child Sex Abuse many Christian leaders kept Mum 'for the good of the Church'. In the end the only defence that John Citizen has is the Rule of Law. And when the Law is compromised by politicians the one remaining bulwark is the Fourth Estate (covering all mass media). And what are we seeing before our very eyes? The ABC News crew being denied access to Nauru. We need more writers like Lizzie O'Shea.
Uncle Pat | 04 July 2018

Thank you Lizzie for an excellent article. Apart from the latest dastardly action by the Turnbull Government against Bernard Collaery and Witness K and the actions by ASIS and ASIO in 2004 and 2013, Ii should be remembered that the East Timorese have been treated appallingly by Australian governments for a long time. The two men assisted Timor-Leste to get justice in the Timor Sea – the recognition of a maritime boundary that conforms to international law and access to all its resources in its half of the Sea Timor needs all of these resources because of what its people suffered during the 24 years of illegal and brutal occupation by the Indonesian dictatorship which resulted in a decline in a third of the population, sickening human rights abuses, 80% of its infrastructure destroyed and a large proportion of the population left traumatised and experiencing high levels of unemployment, high child mortality, malnutrition etc. It is the poorest nation in SE Asia. To our great shame, all Australian governments supported the takeover by the Indonesian military (TNI) in 1975 by officially recognising it, by arming and training the TNI (while knowing full well that it was committing genocide and gross human rights abuses) and by being an apologist for Indonesia when TNI crimes were exposed. This was a very disgraceful way to treat a nation whose people had suffered greatly during WW2 because of the support they gave Australia. During the war, Australia invaded Portuguese Timor in the hope that it would stop the Japanese attempting to use it as a base to attack Australia. About 70,000 East Timorese out of a population of 500,000 perished during the war and up to 40,000 East Timorese were summarily executed by the Japanese military because they lived in villages that supported the Australians The only high point in this whole shameful saga in the role that Australia played in INTERFET, the UN peace-keeping story that pushed the TNI But even then Australian leaders were very reluctant saviours. Now our leaders should apologise to Timor-Leste for their past shameful conduct, drop the charges against Witness K and Bernard Collaery and pay back all the proceeds it has taken from the oil and gas in Timor’s half of the Timor Sea which is evidently worth billions of dollars.
Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 04 July 2018

Fantastic Article & so accurate! Please ensure every one of our current politicians - especially the Labour Party & the Independents receive this urgently!
Mary O'Byrne | 04 July 2018

It seems tat such behaviour is no impediment to being appointed to a plum job after quitting parliament. A great story from Lizzie.
Brian Brown | 05 July 2018

Sorry to disillusion you, Mary O'Byrne, even if this article by Lizzie O'Shea was read to 90% of the MPs in Canberra under hypnosis, they would wake up asking: Has this woman been reported to ASIO?
Uncle Pat | 05 July 2018

We're all very concerned about K and his lawyer. Good for us (pats on the back all around!) Both the left and right sold Indonesia and Timor out in 1975. But that's just another chapter in the story of being a deputy sheriff right? Read Pilger's "Rape of Timor... sounds like fun" for a little more background. Reflect on Howard's gaming of the Tampa crisis and how our favourite so-called "man for others" concrete salesman picked up that torch for political benefit. Given that most of our foreign policy is hammered out in the birdcage marquee after a few glasses of veuve is this really that surprising? Australia isn't even a criminal cartel; we're a thuggish racketeer's little brother along for the ride and a few overpriced baubles - most of which are sold to us by companies that pay NO TAX on the profits they "earn" from us. Always bear in mind why we are being watched brothers and sisters: "The greatest enemy of the prophets of the apocalypse is an engineer" The bag of tricks is empty - best of luck chaps.
stephen | 06 July 2018

Excellent article. I wish that Eureka could maintain this quality of analysis on all topics. Hard to see these actions are not criminal. It’s also hard to see how they will not see the light of day at some stage...
Patrick | 06 July 2018


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