By Adam Carlton
Lawyer and former ACT Attorney General, Bernard Collaery, has been committed to stand trial. His alleged crime? to defend a former spy, who leaked the fact that Australia was bugging the meetings of the cabinet of the government of East Timor.
On Tuesday 5 August 2019, the Magistrates Court in Canberra ruled that defending the whistleblower is a breach of national security, and therefore, done this therefore, provides grounds to be sent to stand trial.
Speaking outside the court, Bernard Collaery observed that at stake is “the integrity of Australia’s parliamentary democracy, the moral and ethical integrity of Australia’s political leaders,” and suggested, that Australia is at a “turning point,” over whether or not, there is going to be a serious attack on the existence of the notion of freedom of expression, against the abuse of power and equality before the law.
This all began when in 2004, when the former spy Collaery is defending and known as Witness K, no longer felt he could not longer go along with spying on a foreign government. He saw this as wrong and a direct violation of international law, just so Australia could thwart efforts by the new East Timorese government, to maintain control over oil and gas resources in its own East Timor Sea.
Witness K tried long and hard to convey the message of wrongdoing through official channels, and constantly came up against a brick wall. He eventually sought Bernard Collaery for help. This resulted in the arranging for evidence, to be presented at a hearing in 2013. But the lawyer’s home was raided by Federal Police and documents relating to the case were seized. The witness had his passport confiscated.
Since then, there have been constant attacks on the two from government sources, and ongoing harassment and pressure not to continue.
Something else was brought up in the effort. The then minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer, had a personal association with Shell associated Woodside Energy, the company eventually awarded lucrative contracts to exploit the East Timor Sea resources, after the Australian government used its regional power to shift territorial boundaries to the cost of East Timor.
Anywhere else, this would have been called a conflict of interest, and continuing as corrupt behaviour. Downer subsequently resigned and and was give na lucrative consultancy contract with Woodside, the benefiting company.
The treatment of East Timor was especially odious, because, the new nation had just emerged from a brutal Indonesian occupation, and a shattered economy and society. The oil and gas reserves were needed to get the nation and people back on their feet. Australia’s dirty games made this all that much harder.
Although it is all now on the public record, Downer and others who were complicit, have never faced police attention and have never been charged with a crime. This treatment has been reserved for those who are trying to reveal this dirty linen for us all to see.
To insist that the airing of blatant wrongdoing is a breach of Australia’s national security interests is not only false. It is extremely dangerous, lowering the bar, by equating national security to the preservation of privilege.
When Bernard Collaery stands on the dock, Australia’s legal system will be put on trial. The outcome will be a political one, revealing if it has been effectively harnessed as a weapon in the hands of the powerful. Or will it show some resilience, choose to resist the pressure, and act with some independence?
Whatever the outcome, it will have some serious implications for Australia’s much talked about democracy.