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.