Albanese Could Bring an End to Coalition’s Political Prosecutions

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Albanese Political Prosecutions

The ongoing authoritarian creep witnessed under the Morrison government was ultimately rejected at the polling booths last weekend.

Indeed, the shift away from both major parties has made it clear that the trajectory the nation was on isn’t the favoured one.

The mounting surveillance state laws that have been passed over the close to a decade of Coalition rule have been a bipartisan project, so it’s somewhat doubtful that a shift from Liberal to Labor is going to result in a recommended winding back of the ongoing national security framework.

The Albanese government, however, might be expected to pull back on some of the other excesses of the Morrison years, especially in terms of lack of action on climate, the crackdown on press freedoms and the utter refusal to consider a substantial anticorruption body.

There are distinct signs that change is coming under Albanese. New foreign affairs minister Penny Wong has pledged a respectful relationship with Pacific nations, particularly in terms of climate, while a federal ICAC seems destined, especially with the Greens and independents demanding so.

But then there are other less sureties. Morrison and Dutton were pressing for war with China, and Albanese’s first step in office has been to join a meeting of the Beijing-focused Quad alliance, while there are still questions remaining as to whether some the political prosecutions might end.

A death in the family?

“Enough is enough,” then federal opposition leader Albanese responded in February 2021 to a question about the ongoing incarceration of Julian Assange in the UK. “I don’t have sympathy for many of his actions but essentially I can’t see what is served by keeping him incarcerated.”

Right now, the WikiLeaks founder’s future is hanging by a thread, after he’s been remanded for three years in London’s Belmarsh Prison awaiting a final decision on whether the UK will hand him over to the US to face espionage charges carrying up to 175 years behind bars.

The White House is pursuing the Australian journalist over his 2010-11 publishing of the details of classified documents revealing US war crimes leaked to him and exposed whilst he was in a foreign jurisdiction, at the same time that other major publications globally revealed the same information.

The UK and the US are Australia’s closest allies. Over the last decade, no Australian PM has ever spoken out in Julian’s favour until Albanese did so prior to taking office. And it’s understood that now he’s in office he could at least discuss the Australian citizen’s releasee with Biden or Johnson.

Currently, the UK court system has greenlighted Assange’s extradition to the US, and the final decision is set to be made by UK home secretary Priti Patel within days. It’s also readily understood that the extreme prison conditions Assange could be subjected to in the US would likely kill him.

Settling old scores

Former shadow attorney general Mark Dreyfus is expected to be appointed the next federal chief lawmaker after the new prime minister returns back from his Quad discussions in Japan, which will place the prosecutions of certain other Australian whistleblowers in the new AG’s lap.

Dreyfus told the Guardian on Tuesday that if given the nod, he’ll be seeking an early briefing on a number of matters, which will include the prosecution of Bernard Collaery for his alleged part in exposing the Australian government’s illegal bugging of the Timor-Leste cabinet offices in 2004.

The decision to prosecute former ASIS agent Witness K and barrister Bernard Collaery over revealing the illegal spying operation carried out by the Howard government was taken in mid-2018 by then AG Christian Porter, five years after the pair had been raided in relation to the matter.

While Witness K decided to plead guilty to conspiracy to reveal classified information and received a suspended sentence last year, former ACT attorney general Collaery has vowed to fight his charges and the circumstances of his case have consistently become more Kafkaesque as it proceeds.

There are ongoing disputes over the prosecution wanting to present “court-only evidence” that can’t be viewed by Collaery or his lawyers. This had been on the proviso that a special counsel be appointed to examine it on his behalf, but the government now wants to renege on this condition.

Support for dropping the Collaery case is strong in the community, and the constant calls from government for further secrecy around the case are only heightening his cause, with institutions, such as the ACT Bar Association, having called for the case to be brought to an end.

Punishing the messenger

The final recommendation of last May’s Senate Inquiry Into Press Freedoms report was that the prosecution of former ADF lawyer David McBride, in relation to his having exposed Australian war crimes in Afghanistan, be urgently reconsidered “on strong public interest grounds”.

McBride’s prosecution is yet another score the Coalition wanted to settle, despite the fact that the lawyer had followed the correct procedures set out in the Public Interest Disclosure Act 2013 (Cth), before going to the press.

The PID Act stipulates that a whistleblower can go public after internal disclosure channels have been exhausted or proven unsuccessful.

Although, Dreyfus is yet to comment on whether McBride’s case will be one of the matters he’ll be calling for an urgent briefing in relation to.

The Brereton report was published by the Coalition in December 2020. It uncovered Afghan war crimes similar to those revealed by McBride. The inquiry identified 36 matters to be considered for criminal investigation, yet the ex-military lawyer continues to be the only one charged.

Greater protections likely

During a brief stint as federal attorney general in 2013, Dreyfus drafted and oversaw the passing of the PID Act, which failed to protect McBride, as well as former ATO officer Richard Boyle, who publicly exposed questionable tax office practices after his internal disclosures proved unfruitful.

The public interest disclosure laws have been known to be lacking since the statutorily required Philip Moss inquiry released its 2016 report, which made 33 recommendations, on which the Coalition failed to act upon, even waiting until December 2020 to respond to the report.

Soon-to-be reappointed attorney general Dreyfus, however, did promise last October that an elected Labor government would act upon the Moss recommendations, as he’d always understood that the PID regime would need honing after it had been assessed.

So, while there’s a real chance that the Collaery case, and potentially those of McBride and Boyle, could dramatically change with the appointment of Dreyfus to the position of AG, it’s yet to be seen whether Albanese has the guts to speak up and save the life of Julian Assange.

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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