Beyond National Security:

An Interview with Scott Ludlam

– Odette Shenfield interviews Scott Ludlam | Dec 21, 2015


On December 1st, in the wake of the Paris attacks and during the Paris Climate Negotiations, I sat down with Greens Senator Scott Ludlam to talk about national security.


Why do you think the discourse of national security is confined to the right? Do you think this is a discourse the left should adopt?

No, not really, and my hesitancy first of all is about even breaking it down into simple left/right categories, because what’s going on here is a bit more complicated. Politicians are offering national security here and elsewhere with authoritarian undertones, because they align their political objectives with objectives of national security. Whereas I think more informed commentators are likely to talk about human security.

For example, national security at the moment is being used as a shield against Australian surveillance of the Timorese over gas negotiations. In 2004, ASIS, the Australian overseas intelligence agency, is alleged by the Timorese authorities and an internal whistleblower, to have bugged the Timorese cabinet rooms to help prejudice the gas negotiations. Now those allegations haven’t been tested in court yet, but that’s the Australian government, and they deny these allegations, but the allegations are there.

The whole thing is being shrouded under this thing of ‘national security’ when it would appear there is a strong case to argue it was simply commercial espionage. It’s being used as cover for all sorts of things. I don’t think national security is a very useful veil when it’s thrown over things – national security powers are being used to target climate change demonstrators. There are two dozen people under house arrest in Paris at the moment, using anti-terrorism laws to keep them off the streets.

Do you think then that the ‘human security’ paradigm – in which the referent for security is the individual rather than the state, and humanitarian, economic, and social issues are linked to security – could be a more promising discourse? While this discourse is occurring in academic literature, it’s not very prevalent in public debate.

At the moment, competing national priorities are the reason that we still don’t have an international agreement around emissions targets. When nation states gather at climate summits, they’ve got their domestic populations at home, whether they’re democracies or not, who they are arguably there to represent. But what happens is they are representing their national interest, which means the global interest in a stable climate just keeps getting pushed into the future, and there’s a reasonable chance that’s about to happen again in Paris.

If you start talking about human security, then it’s harder to hide behind national interests. It becomes harder to substitute the corporate interest for the national interest, which is what frequently happens. It becomes harder to substitute the needs of arms manufacturers and call that the national interest. It diffuses the boundaries of nationalism, because we’re all human. The people fleeing Syria are human, the people stuck on Christmas Island are human, Australians trying to pay the rent are human. It’s a wonderful leveller, whereas the national security debate, more often than not, gets kind of ratcheted up into a hyper-competitive framework.

Former US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales referred to certain provisions of the Geneva Convention as “quaint” due to the advent of terrorism. How can defenders of human rights counter the idea that human rights are a pie in the sky ideal that must be sacrificed for national security?

It’s an incredibly dangerous line of argument. If you want to follow it all the way down the rabbit hole, watch what Donald Trump is up to. On the right wing of US mainstream politics now is open fascism – right out in the open, it’s not apologising for itself. They want to round up Muslims and export them. They want to build a wall to keep Mexicans out. They want a database of people with particular religious ideas. It’s hyper-masculine and completely unhinged.

So that’s where that line of argument ends up, when you argue that national security concerns, however ill-defined, mean we have to dismantle human rights and individual freedoms – freedom of association, religion, press, communication. It means violating the very things that you’re standing to protect.

Terrorism has existed in various forms for centuries. It’s traditionally been the way less powerful actors have fought back against those with greater military numbers or sophistication. And, that’s one of the elements. The other, obviously, is the mutated form of terrorism that Western countries and Islamic countries are facing at the moment. The attacks are now on civilian targets. They are just ordinary people going about their lives, whether it be in Beirut or in Paris. It’s an attempt to turn the extremists mainstream. The basic dynamic that’s underway at the moment is that you’ve got these really small groups of violent extremists whose attacks on ordinary civilians in Paris and Beirut, are an attempt to get those states to fight back and target ordinary Muslims. And that’s how they’re going to vault themselves from extremism to legitimacy. That’s what they did in Iraq in 2006. So for the Trumps of the world, or their less overt analogues here in Australia, they’re playing precisely into the hands of violent extremists.

So, for those seeking to defend human rights against claims they must now be sacrificed for national security, what would you say?

How far do you want to follow that line of logic? You end up in a police state. They’re authoritarian ideals that are directly opposed to the kind of human rights that have made our society so strong in the first place.

The way the current debate is generally framed presumes we have to choose between democracy and national security. Do you have thoughts on the fact that these two goals are posed as contradictory?

That’s been reasonably well thought-through, hasn’t it? I think the way that you resolve that tension is to make sure that the security agencies are given the powers and resources they need to target the violent extremists, disrupt them, and take those individuals out of society and isolate them. And that doesn’t threaten democracy if it’s done according to the rule of law, and all these century-old legal protections around, you know, probable cause, or presumption of innocence, the ability to have your case heard in an open court.

If you prosecute really violent networks according to those principles, (and there’s no reason at all why you can’t, because that’s been going on for decades) then you protect the rule of law, but you also give agencies a free hand to go after and disrupt those violent networks. So, for example, use a search-warrant, use warranted interception over targeted networks, because that’s bounded and constrained and discriminate, and you’ve got judicial oversight. Rather than having indiscriminate, unwarranted surveillance across the entire population of innocent people in the hope that we might pick something up.

I don’t think it’s as much of a tension as advocates of mass surveillance, for example, tend to say it is.

On the point of what we have today – indiscriminate mass surveillance, do you think people are adequately concerned about the laws that are currently being introduced? Are there any pieces of legislation that haven’t been picked up on as much by the media that you’re particularly concerned about?

I guess the Citizenship Bill got a lot of media attention. But it was more on the politics of it, that Abbott had this quite substantial rebellion, not just from his backbench, but from some of his senior colleagues, including Mr Turnbull apparently. Media reporting around the Bill tended to revolve around, “Isn’t it interesting that the Liberal/National Party is really split on this thing?”

There wasn’t as much analysis of what it means to be dumping violent extremists in other countries that might not be as well able to cope. There’s the whole civil rights side here about protection, and rule of law, the importance of citizenship entitlements that I think has been reasonably well discussed. But I think the idea that you would take somebody who your agencies have assessed as a security threat – severe enough to have their citizenship renounced – and dump them somewhere else, and leave them for someone else to deal with, is kind of immoral.

International lawyer Ben Saul has recently written an article in the Sydney Morning Herald arguing these laws would make the world more dangerous, would you agree with this sentiment?

Definitely. If these people are as violent as the agencies are advising us, they should be prosecuted and spend decades in Goulburn Supermax. They shouldn’t be left wherever else they happen to be.

Regarding current surveillance laws, do you think the public is as concerned as they should be? I’m sure you’ve talked to people who think that surveillance doesn’t affect them as long as they’re not doing anything wrong?

We had an event recently in Sydney that Julian Assange spoke at via video-link, and he said that it may be that surveillance doesn’t impact you one little bit, that you’re of no interest at all to agencies, and no one cares what you say, or what your secrets are or about your personal stuff. And that’s likely true for large numbers of people.

But society relies on categories and cohorts of people who actually do need really strong protections of their privacy and communications, whether they be journalists, or public interest whistleblowers, or the global financial system for that matter, or the global diplomatic core – take your pick. There are large numbers of people – people fleeing domestic violence, political dissidents – who really rely on confidentiality. Democracy relies on it as well.

So even if it doesn’t creep you out that you’re just kind of an open book, to nameless security agencies with warrantless powers who can basically go through your stuff without just cause (it creeps me out but if it doesn’t creep you out I guess that’s okay), then at least acknowledge that there are a lot of other people in society who you depend on, whether you know it or not, having those protections.

A lot of these laws don’t have sunset clauses, and commentators seem to be quite worried about ‘purpose-creep,’ where laws are introduced to counter terrorism and are subsequently used for many other purposes.

Yes, there are a couple of dozen agencies that are lined up outside George Brandis’ office demanding to be let back into the data-retention regime after he was bragging about cutting them out during the debate in March. So, yes, the scope creep is designed into some of this legislation – it’s designed into data retention.

When data retention passed, one of the only good things they did was sharply reduce the number of agencies that were allowed access to warrantless metadata. So if you’re a Council, or one of two or three other dozen agencies, and you want metadata access – ask the cops. If there’s good enough reason, they’ll allow access. And we said at the time, well they’re going to be straight at you wanting access. They’re going to want to come straight back through the door, and they’ve written the door into the bill. And, within a couple of months Borderforce had been allowed back in. There was a piece in the press recently that demonstrated that dozens of agencies were lining up asking to be let back in.

Are you particularly worried about these laws being used to target environmental activists, or what some government members refer to as ‘eco-terrorists’?

Yes. There are plenty of examples from overseas and here about these powers being used and deployed in the name of national security against campaigner with the aim of disrupting them. For instance, forest protestors in Victoria, climate change demonstrators all over the world, farmers – people trying to stop gas fracking in the United States, have all been targeted.

The language around eco-terrorism, or just outright terrorism is pretty scary. George Christensen, a Queensland LNP Member has drawn that inference. He has called us terrorists. And he’s not being ironic, or just saying it for effect. He means it. So there’s no question.

The way to prevent this from happening is with transparency. It is with warrants, judicial oversight, and well-drafted laws. You can’t prevent all instances of corruption but if the laws are to protect national security then they should be constrained to that. Currently they aren’t at all.

buckinham-ludlamScott Ludlam at the Bentley Blockade, courtesy of Jeremy Buckingham

Are you worried that the seemingly never-ending threat of terrorism risks giving rise to a permanently expanded executive government and defence power?

Yes, because the other half, which we haven’t talked much about is the foreign policy response. For instance, in France, the government immediately went on the offensive and increased bombing in Syria, as if they had discovered a whole pile of targets they hadn’t noticed before. There is no question that this will lead to an increase in civilian casualties on the ground in Syria and in Iraq. This simply amplifies that cycle of violence that guarantees to create the next generation of terrorists.

There was a statement made by a number of senior US drone operators a couple of weeks ago to the United States government saying they were sick of what they were doing. They said they had seen first hand the amount of carnage that was created on the ground, that no one else gets to see unless you’re there; that they were basically doing the recruiting for some of these extremist organisations with the number of innocent people they were killing.

Activists and commentators have been referring to the Paris Climate Summit as a ‘peace summit.’ Do you think people need to be drawing greater connections between climate change and global security?

It’s tragic – the way in which people have been drawn into referring to it in terms of security. But yeah, we’ve been drawing on work that’s been done by civil society groups, but also by really advanced military nations like the US and the UK that have been very deliberately dragging climate security into defence policy and defence doctrine, not always in a way that we’d like. We don’t want to see the debate militarised.

But, confronting how serious the issues are and the threats that it poses, at least that’s welcome. It’s acknowledging that the problem exists. And there’s no question at all that climate change is an extraordinary threat, as a multiplier of different threats and as a forcing agent on weak states or failing states: mass movement of people, cross-border movement of people, it’s all there. While this has never really been right at the front of the climate movement’s agenda before, it’s certainly part of the mix.

Odette Shenfield is a Demos Editor.

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