Greater rigour needed in classifying secrets

Australian Conservatives Release

It might sound counterintuitive, but when parliament considers its response to police raids against the media, greater protection for journalists does not need to be the main game.

Conservative Party leader Cory Bernardi is urging a cautious response, saying while he did not want any inquiry to become a political exercise he saw nothing wrong with it but wants to see the arguments for and against it.

The Australian reports, the risk of raids can be minimised by injecting more checks, independent scrutiny and contestability at every stage of the flawed system of government secrecy that is the heart of this affair.

The AFP’s unwelcome knock at the door of reporter Annika Smethurst of News Corp Australia, followed by the raid on the Sydney office of the ABC, were mere symptoms of this problem.

Media executives and leading lawyers are already considering a shopping list of reforms aimed at easing the risk of more raids.

Their remedy would require policymakers to embrace a multistage reform program that starts with injecting more rigour into the system of classifying government secrets and includes changes to court procedures. Independent oversight of the classification system might mean a bigger role – and more resourcing – for the ­Independent National Security Legislation Monitor.

This part-time statutory officer already reports on the effectiveness of these laws. With sufficient support, the monitor would be well-placed to assess whether ­bureaucrats are making appropriate use of the system of classifying national security secrets.

After the events of last week, there is little doubt that this system is covering up matters that, while embarrassing, could have been made public without harming the nation’s security.

Fear of being publicly associated with such misuse of power might focus the minds of officials on real threats to this nation instead of wasting police time.

But regular reports on government secrecy are only part of the remedy and they would take place long after any dubious decisions had been made. The critical change should be the injection of greater rigour into the classification system itself.

The real harm from excessive secrecy has nothing to do with the media. It can deprive the community of information about government conduct that is necessary for the proper functioning of democracy.

Once officials classify material as secret, its unauthorised disclosure is a criminal offence, regardless of whether it should never have been secret in the first place.

It is therefore disingenuous for politicians to portray this debate as special pleading for journalists or a simple matter of law enforcement. The adverse impact on the media might have caught international attention, but it is not the key issue.

Far more important is the misuse of power by government officials, the misallocation of scarce police resources and the need to reform a system that has been keeping the community in the dark.

/Public Release. View in full here.