On the Road to the Republic of Orwell?
By Louis A Coutts*
The 1949 novel “nineteen eighty-four” by George Orwell has become famous as a frightening prediction of life in 1984.
Not too many people these days are familiar with the book’s contents but many give a sigh of relief that Orwell’s picture of 1984 is not quite how things have turned out. After all, we live in a democratic society which guarantees fundamental rights.
Another view of Orwell’s novel is that it constitutes intellectual plagiarism given the similarities between the circumstances of his main character and the hero in Arthur Koestler’s novel “Darkness at Noon” published in 1940. Koestler’s hero was based on the true story of the detention, torture, trial and execution of Nikolai Bukharin during Stalin’s purge in the late nineteen thirties. Accordingly “nineteen eighty-four” was more an historical recounting of past events rather than a prediction of the future. In this context we can rejoice that Orwell’s “nineteen eighty-four” in England was really 1938 in Stalin’s Russia. So it never happened! Or did it?
There were three principle themes in “nineteen eighty-four”.
The first was that everyone was subjected to constant surveillance by technology that by today’s standards was archaic. This information was fed back to the ubiquitous but anonymous BIG BROTHER.
Secondly, one of the Departments of government was the Department of Love but in reality existed to ferment hatred of enemies of the state.
Thirdly, interrogation of detainees in solitary confinement but often accompanied by torture to extract meaningless answers was a basic technique for dehumanising “suspects”.
We would never want these circumstances to be part of our Australian democratic society. It is fair to say that most of us do live our daily lives in a belief that there is no risk that we will ever experience such a society. Perhaps we need a little reassurance.
Let us start with BIG BROTHER. In 1984 the surveillance was by way of TV scrutiny and strategically located microphones that fed all the conversations back to BIG BROTHER which was some mysterious person or organisation that kept tabs on everyone. It was pretty inefficient as it was possible to find locations free from bugging devices. Today, our communication systems are much more sophisticated and ubiquitous. We have the telephone (land line), mobile phone, TV, Internet, electronic payment systems, satellite navigation and perhaps a host of others that are less obvious.
By virtue of a piece of legislation with the almost unintelligible title The Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Amendment (Data Retention) Act 2015 all of these communications systems are accessible to organisations approved by the Attorney General. (Recently, the Victorian Minister for racing applied for metadata to be available to the racing industry).
The providers of these communication services such as internet and telephonic providers have to keep detailed information for two years in relation to every activity recorded. The time, date, telephone number and the duration of the call that you made the other day to someone are just some of the data that are accessible to BIG BROTHER. There it is, all of this information available to some unknown person in some remote and unidentified location in an organisation such as ASIO.
Then of course every activity taken by you on the internet is recorded and kept for BIG BROTHER. Walk down the street or just about anywhere and you are a star on CCTV. Use your credit card and there is the transaction available to BIG BROTHER for two years. That is not to mention the ease with which your telephone could be bugged and your conversation listened to by BIG BROTHER. The real truth of the matter is that we haven’t the faintest idea of the extent of this surveillance that intrudes into our everyday activities.
As a result of the revelations of Edward Snowden, it seems that we could listen in on the conversations of the President of Indonesia. How do we know whether BIG BROTHER is listening to our telephone conversations?
We still live in a free society…?
Should we be worried? We still live in a free and democratic society. But then there was the troubling case of Mamdouh Habib, an Australian citizen, arrested by US authorities and subject to “rendition” (kidnapping) to Egypt and torture…with the torturer indemnified against prosecution. In other words, it is “open season” on the poor victim. According to Mamdouh: “These people [used] electric [shocks] on me, [gave] me drugs, beat me for no reason – they wanted me to say something I haven’t done”.
After they had finished with him they gave him back to US authorities who took him to Guantanamo Bay and placed him in solitary. The problem was that he was innocent, and he was finally released. The further problem was that BIG BROTHER in Australia knew all about what happened to Habib, and sanctioned it.
Dr Haneef, an Indian doctor working in Australia was a bit luckier. He was arrested, locked up in solitary and “interrogated” for a month but not “tortured” (provided solitary is not torture). They had to let him go because he was completely innocent. Then there were the bikies in Queensland who were arrested walking down the street to buy an ice cream, locked up in solitary for 23 hours a day for a month before finally getting bail. Subsequently they turned up to court only to find that the prosecution didn’t have a case to present. The fact that we are totally innocent these days doesn’t guarantee us free passage.
Then there is the Department of Immigration and Border Protection to protect us from all sorts of evil people and enemies of the state. Those ‘crooks’ seeking refuge in Australia from persecution and who risks their lives to escape are demonised, locked up indefinitely in off shore detention centres as a form or punishment to send a message to their folks back home not to try the same trick. Do we hate them? Well some do and we are certainly encouraged to do so.
Terrorists are an easier target. We really are encouraged to hate them. They have no redeeming feature and threaten our security. I can understand the policy of encouraging hatred of these misguided homicidal maniacs but once hatred becomes part of our national persona we have to start worrying because we can then hate bikies and all the other terrible gangsters who do terrible things like murdering innocent women.
But I can’t help feeling that hatred breeds hatred – somehow, we have to find another way of communicating our resentment at their behaviour.
The thing is that in these three ways, we can’t say that we have a completely clean sheet against the Orwell republic’s scorecard. Perhaps we just deviate a little from the path of the rule of law. The problem is that there is always a starting point on the path to lost innocence. Deviate a little here and a little there…and one never knows where we will end up.
What we do know is that democracy is a fragile system that requires constant care and vigilance. When we start abridging democratic freedoms in order to preserve democracy we are eroding the fundamental protection that guarantees democracy.
Yes, we are a far cry from Orwell’s republic but we need to be careful that our trajectory doesn’t take us too much further down the track.
* Louis A Coutts is retired from a working life as a management consultant, business doctor, lawyer and educator. He blogs at: https://louiscoutts.wordpress.com/ He is a member of Civil Liberties Australia, and is working to produce a major 2016 conference on the Rule of Law for the Australian chapter of the International Commission of Jurists (of which he is an honorary life member).