I’ve tried to keep this blog divorced from my normal journalistic work, but this is a big deal. Australia, the US and the UK are heading back to war. Make no mistake, this has nothing to do with defeating militant Wahhabism (ever heard of Saudi Arabia?) saving ancient desert cultures from genocide (ever heard of Western Sahara?) or bringing peace to the Middle East (ever heard of Israel?).
Ever heard of oil?
On August 8, investors in two of Iraq’s biggest oil companies awoke to some distasteful news. Petroleum explorer Afren had released a statement admitting it would suspend output at its Barda Rash oilfield in Iraqi Kurdistan, despite the authorization of US air strikes the day before. Meanwhile, Genel Energy had also announced it was withdrawing non-essential personnel from two Kurdistani fields as a “precautionary step.” In other words, oil companies lost confidence in the ability of Kurdistan’s security forces to hold the line against the rapidly advancing Islamic State group. Within hours, the United States made good, and began bombing Iraq for the first time in years. The reason why seems pretty straight forward.
As usual, Australia is expected to pitch in.
Ever heard of opportunism?
Today two of Australia’s major cities were put under siege, in what the head of the Australian Federal Police (AFP) described as the “largest” counter-terrorism operation of its kind in the nation’s history. Eight hundred police officers raided 25 sites across the cities, in what can only be described as shock and awe. Just one prosecution of an IS member could be a boon for not only Abbott, but also the national security industry.
It’s a stroke of good luck that this mammoth operation comes as Abbott is pushing fervently to ram through yet another wave of draconian counter-terrorism legislation. Among the most controversial measures Abbott is demanding is mandatory data retention for telecommunications companies. In other words, Abbott wants your phone and internet company to keep records of what you’re doing online, and who you’re speaking to over the phone. He then wants ASIO and other national security bodies to have access to this data — seemingly with little real oversight. Abbott also now wants to give the national security sector AU$590 million over the next four years to beef up surveillance of Australian citizens, install biometric scanners in airports and fill the cracks in Australia’s national security apparatus. ASIO’s director-general David Irvine has even made a rare public statement earlier this year in support of data retention. It’s highly unusual for an ASIO head to issue an opinion on public policy, but let’s face it: something needs to be done to make everyone warm up to these extreme reforms. Hardly anybody who really understands these Orwellian proposals believe they are necessary to fight terrorism. Abbott has tried to justify these encroachments on civil liberties by claiming returning IS fighters are the greatest threat the country has faced in a decade. Only problem is, the government has already admitted only around 60 Australians are suspected of currently fighting with IS and its rival, the al Nusra Front. Surely, we already have the resources to watch 60 suspects? Abbott needs something better to convince the country it needs to surrender its rights in the name of counter-terrorism.
Meanwhile, the PM has a war to drum public support for. Six hundred Australian troops have been committed to Barack Obama’s coalition (of the willing?) in Iraq, along with a handful of aircraft. The only problem is Abbott’s approval rating is fresh from the gutter. A July Newspoll put Abbott’s disapproval rating at 70%. A mere 34% of Australians believed he was the best choice for PM. Julia Gillard had comparable approval ratings when she was dumped by Labor. Since Abbott began peddling his IS fear agenda in earnest last month, his approval rating has benefited dramatically. Fear sells, and it seems Abbott needs something foreign and scary-sounding to rally the nation behind him if he is to stay afloat. Refugees, IS, whatever.
Everyone goes home happy
In this context, a shock and awe show of force by Australia’s counter-terrorism industry couldn’t have come at a more politically convenient time for everyone involved. If Abbott can successfully use today’s events to intimidate the public, his national security gift bags will drift gracefully through parliament, while the nation goes back to war in Iraq to defend big oil from an army of black-clad ninjas with a penchant for doing doughnuts in US tanks, committing shocking human rights abuses and showing off their sweet video editing skills on Youtube. Put into submission with Abbott’s signature brand of fear mongering, perhaps most of the Australian public will be happy to see our rights eroded and our nation back at war. Even the NSW police ought to be pleased. Earlier this week, Wikileaks revealed the police force shares the company of repressive security organizations in countries like Qatar and Bahrain, as buyers of “weaponized malware.” NSW police have spent around AU$2.5 million on malware that can log keystrokes, take screenshots and remotely extract other information from your computer, smart phone and other electronic devices. This technology has been used to crack down on political activists and journalists abroad; but perhaps the NSW police can use today’s events to justify secretly wasting millions of taxpayer dollars on this garbage. But, I saved the best news until last: Genel Energy announced last week it was already back in business in Kurdistan, thanks in large part to Obama’s efforts. It seems like a win-win for everyone, except the Australian Muslim communities targeted by heavy-handed policing, and Iraqi civilians who are tired of having barrel bombs dropped on them from Baghdad.
If after reading this, you think a grand conspiracy is afoot (as most of the internet tends to do), then you’ve missed the point. This is a story of opportunism and cynical politics. Abbott will milk this day for all it’s worth, and the national security industry will get to justify its most decadent self-indulgences. Carpe diem!