Australia has a reputation as a stable, prosperous democracy. There are no looming external threats and no violent opposition movements. Yet despite this, in the past two decades Australian governments have passed numerous laws giving police and security agencies ever more powers for surveillance and repression.
These laws are intended for dealing with terrorists, paedophile rings, organised crime and other dangers to the public. There is little indication that Australian governments or agencies have plans to start applying their powers against civil society groups, but the potential is there.
It's useful to understand Australian laws as part of a wider worldwide pattern of struggles between governments and citizens. Around the world, empowered citizens have learned how to bring down repressive governments. Think of the Philippines, where the people power movement in 1986 ended the rule of president Ferdinand Marcos. Think of Indonesia where President Suharto rose to power during a genocide in 1965-66 and maintained power until 1998. He capitulated not to an armed resistance movement but to protest in the streets. Then there was Serbia where the student-led movement Otpor, which used humour as its trademark form of resistance, inspired popular opposition to ruthless president Milosevic, causing him to resign after a fraudulent election. Otpor succeeded after bombing by NATO, which devastated the country, did not. There are other examples of popular resistance such as the Occupy movement, Black Lives Matter and #MeToo.
Sophisticated rulers understand the danger. Some of them, such as in Russia, China, Turkey and Egypt, have developed methods to keep populations under control and help prevent the rise of popular opposition movements. These same methods are ideal to lay the groundwork for a more repressive government in a place like Australia. With the right sort of preparation, all it would take is the election of a suitably devious leader, one who will use the available apparatus to maintain and cement power. Trump tried this, but he was an incompetent amateur.
To help think about what's happening, imagine that you want to prepare Australia for a ruthless ruler, so that little additional effort will be needed to subjugate the population. Five methods are important: monitoring the population, ensuring impunity for state agents, pacifying protest, creating enemies, and fostering public acquiescence.
An important part of preparing for a dictator is monitoring the entire population, so the government – especially secret parts of it – can track everyone's movements and conversations. With this sort of monitoring, it is a short step to squashing budding resistance. But how can such a monitoring system be justified? Easy. Just say it's there to protect the population from terrorists. Or from dangers like cyber criminals or paedophiles.
In Australia, the legal basis and apparatus for comprehensive monitoring are well advanced. For communications, metadata retention and encryption breaking enable the pervasive tracking of threats to those in power. For the location of individuals, car tracking systems help, and so do the myriad security cameras. The use of credit cards enables the identification of transactions, including when and where they occurred and exactly what was purchased. Most effective of all is the ubiquity of mobile phones, which enable tracking people's locations and activities. Access to social media activities offers a better understanding of people's desires than users themselves. Government participation in the world's most extensive surveillance system is a bonus.
A second important part of preparing for a dictator is ensuring that state agents - police, military, spies - can undertake activities without restraint. In Australia, this has long been the case, exemplified by existing secrecy provisions that make most government employees afraid to expose abuses. Then there have been recent improvements: laws criminalising whistleblowing and journalism relating to national security. In Australia, "national security" is so broadly conceived as to encompass just about anything. These laws are a step towards the holy grail of abusive rulers - impunity.
Third, protest needs to be kept under control. Knowing that popular opposition is a dire threat to authoritarian regimes, the challenge is to give the appearance of allowing opposition while throttling it.
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