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Men In Black, Suits

For some months now we have been hearing reports that the Gillard Government have asked the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, better know as ASIO, to send agents out into the field to spy on coal protesters around the country. These revelations have drawn the ire of the Australian Greens, with whom anti-coal protesters would in many cases have a close allegiance or at least some of the same political aims at least as far as environmental protection goes.

These revelations appeared in Fairfax newspapers this morning following a Freedom of Information (FOI) request by the media  outlet which was directed to the Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism. The application was said to be rejected because it involved a confidential document from an “intelligence agency”.

Senator Bob Brown, leader of the Greens has called on the minister responsible for the department, Martin Ferguson to agree to the release of the documents so that the extent of the involvement of Mr Ferguson in organising the surveillance of the protesters can be brought to light.

Revelations of security agencies, be they state or federal police or higher spying on protesters have been around a long time in Australia and indeed many states, notably Queensland in the mid-to-late 1900’s have been clearly observed to have actively participated in the surveillance of protesters. Queensland too came down hard on protesters who marched the streets in contravention of draconian laws during the Bjelke-Petersen era in Queensland,   arresting and charging many.

At university, it was also said that ASIO were involved in spying on certain protesters, particularly those of the loopy left who are supporters of groups like S0cialist Alliance and the like, the sort of groups against any use of intelligence services in the first place, be it for peaceful purposes or otherwise.

On occasion when observing protests during my student days, aside from the boys and girls in blue coming onto campus to ensure that protests didn’t get too rowdy and that the targets of protests and university property didn’t have damage inflicted upon them I could have sworn I saw besuited men snapping the protesters getting rowdy.

These were men adorned in black suits, with tell-tale sunglasses with mobile phones raised every now taking happy snaps of the not so happy revolutionaries engaging in chanting incantations, sometimes into the atmosphere and sometimes at the objects of their collective ire, university administrators, public figures and even the police. But then I could just be paranoid with an overactive imagination.

Is it really such a bad thing to have security services engaged in spying on groups in society that are causing a bit of noise, sometimes a bit of damage or even a lot or perhaps even engaged in acts as serious as eco-terrorism?

Perhaps if ASIO are engaged in observing your everyday kind of protest gig where a bunch of people are just getting loud and boisterous and not really causing harm to anyone or property then their attendance would be complete overkill. This is relevant if there is no particular person or group that is being targeted and it is just an issue is being prosecuted by a march of a small group with a few signs.

That all changes when there is someone or a group of people who police or intelligence agencies have identified as being a direct threat to a particular person or persons or the interests of an organisation. In that case, it is entirely justifiable for high-level intelligence agencies to be involved in the investigation and oversight of such militant people or groups.

In all other cases the men and women of our state police would more than suffice as security and surveillance, with the ability to arrest protesters disregarding lawful directions or committing criminal acts.

Surveillance of people in most cases is not a necessary evil, but it is a reality that we have to get used to in some situations, particularly if we have been a bit on the naughty side.

The Big Spill: All the Wash-up

This morning the ballot for the ALP leadership overwhelmingly confirmed that the ALP want Julia Gillard to continue to be the Prime Minister to take the Labor Party to the next election. This comes after a prolonged period of terrible polling dating back almost to the August 2010 federal election where the ALP Government swiftly lost its majority after Gillard wrested the Prime Ministership.

The Prime Minister won the leadership ballot today 71 votes to 31 for Kevin Rudd, a strong victory, though one that will continue to raise questions about the ongoing unity of the Gillard Labor Government nonetheless.

The lead-up to this big day was incredibly ugly, one of the most de-stabilising times for any party in my living memory (27 years).

The ugly, strong and vitriolic words started to accelerate a week or more before the Minister for Foreign Affairs decided, at a snap press conference at 1:30am in Washington DC to resign his posting, with Simon Crean coming out and declaring open warfare on Mr Rudd.

Those hurtful and damaging words and claims only intensified after that early morning press conference which signified the likelihood of a leadership challenge being brought to the Member for Griffith. This challenge came late last week with the Prime Minister calling for a spill with the former PM on his way home to announce his future, which was always going to be a tilt at the Prime Ministership.

Simon Crean continued his strong words against the former Prime Minister with notable contributions, for all the wrong reasons from Wayne Swan, Stephen Conroy, Nicola Roxon and others.

The Rudd camp could quickly count in its corner the likes of Kim Carr, Doug Cameron, Martin Ferguson and Robert McClelland, both of whom came out publicly and supported Mr Rudd. They were followed slowly by Chris Bowen and in an emotional weekend announcement, Leader of the House Anthony Albanese.

It was very clear, almost from the outset of the spill announcement, that the Rudd camp would struggle to get close to the numbers required to take back the leadership of the ALP Government. The Rudd camp thought that they would have around 40, but of course ended up on the comparatively low 31 votes.

So with the vote now dispensed with and the hostilities finally quelled, at least from the public view, what happens now for the Gillard Government, to borrow a phrase, in “moving forward”?

This afternoon one of the factional heavyweights, Mark Arbib resigned his post as Assistant Treasurer and Minister for Sport and as a Senator for NSW, citing the need to heal the party and also family reasons for his shock decision. This will lead to at least one new face in the Gillard ministry.

More importantly, the Government need to find a new Foreign Minister, with Craig Emerson, the Trade Minister acting in the portfolio until a replacement is announced. Dr Emerson was in the frame for the job in the wake of the Rudd resignation from the post, but you would think him acting in the portfolio means that someone else would be chosen to take on the role full-time.

I have maintained for over a week now that Simon Crean was behind the scenes angling for the job in the event of Rudd going to the back-bench or leaving the parliament altogether. I said this for dual reasons, one that Simon Crean was the first to come out strongly against Kevin Rudd for backgrounding and causing de-stabilisation and two, because Mr Crean has had a long history in parliament and was Trade Minister under Kevin Rudd in fact, a portfolio under the same department as the Minister for Foreign Affairs.

On the Foreign Affairs front still, the other option being put forward in the media is for Stephen Smith to go back to the role that he held under the leadership of Kevin Rudd, though this seems unlikely as he has much work left to do in defence.

The Prime Minister will also need to work out whether she will replace any of the ministers that spoke out against her leadership and who, if any Ms Gillard would replace them with.

On that front, one Rudd backer, the Infrastructure and Transport Minister and Leader of the House, Anthony Albanese in his teary, heartfelt speech offered his resignation from the front bench which was not accepted by the Prime Minister. This signals that the Gillard Government will try to portray a sense of unity within the Government.

Other Ministers, like Robert McClelland, Chris Bowen, Martin Ferguson  and Kim Carr, all Rudd backers, according to some commentators, may face demotion or replacement in a reshuffle in the wake of this damaging time in the ALP. The former and the latter both faced demotion in the last ministerial reshuffle which occurred last year.

It is arguable that for the sake of maintaining the last shred of a facade of unity within the ALP caucus that Gillard should keep all of the key Rudd backers there in their respective places.

This challenge today has also shown that there is a not insubstantial percentage of the Labor caucus that think the Prime Minister is doing a bad enough job to be replaced with the peoples choice, Kevin Rudd and consequently does not shut the door on Rudd or another candidate taking the job if poor polls continue in the election year.

The damage is far from over and the Liberal/National Party Coalition will certainly be out to capitalise on all the material provided to them over the last few weeks in particular and undoubtedly events back to the successful leadership spill in 2010 and the goverment are certainly pedalling up a very steep hill indeed.

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