In March this year I listened to the then Australian Signals Directorate’s (ASD) Director-General Mike Burgess’ speech to the Lowy Institute. Mike Burgess, who is now in a similar role for the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), took the podium to draw some recognition to the ASD’s operations and espouse the greatness of the ASD as a place of challenging and rewarding work.
He grasped the interest of audience members by highlighting the intellectual prowess of the organisation’s personnel, and pointed out the ways in which the organisation served the community by keeping us safe. Two of the great drivers in our society, intellectualism and security, when put together make the role of an ASD member look magnificent.
Our society is extremely taken by the desire to be safe. Security for many in the public is a way to secure comfort and distance the things that we cannot control. However, I think our society is lauding security (and intellectualism) too much. Whether we are aware of it or not, we are making significant sacrifices for our security, and I think some of the time we are making the wrong sacrifices.
Security Requires Sacrifice
Many Australians were reminded of the sacrifices needed to maintain security during the fairly recent Australian Federal Police (AFP) raids on journalists, and the revelation that these were authorised by an agency not bound by Australia’s Freedom of Information Act. We are putting critical elements for the functioning of our political system at risk as the necessities of the security of the state and journalistic inquiry carry out their tight dance (in which we hope both can keep their feet).
However, we are also inhibiting what we want our society to be, because our desire for security is also eroding the compassion our society might be able to provide.
Overly Valuing Security Erodes Compassion
This is evident in Australia’s stance regarding asylum seekers, which lacks the compassion we would wish to be tangible in our society. Fear of societal change and the perceived security threat have been the driving force for policy conditions that lack compassion. This has stopped us from helping the needy. We could do far more to assist asylum seekers if we made the effort to care for them instead of fearing what changes they would bring. Also, in many cases, the way we deny access and help to asylum seekers has been in contradiction to international agreements.
We need to change our priorities so that compassion for others can stand up to the mighty needs of security. We ought to be prepared to take risks to make the good in our society tangible. Else we will be reduced to defending something that isn’t really worthwhile.
Moral Underhandedness and the Needs of the Time
Additionally, the common idiom ‘If you can’t beat them, join them’ is all too frequently a path to evil. Although I suspect Australia will be involved in some kind of significant conflict within the next thirty-or-so years as the stability of international relations seems shaken. I do not think we can justify the mimicry of things we judge to be deplorable.
In the wake of Australia’s ban on several systems developed by Huawei, a Chinese technology company, because of risks that they may have intentionally planted security flaws in them, Australia is now considering a bill which would have our technology do the same.
There is a move to allow our security agencies to force technology developers to create ‘backdoor’ systems, which Australia could exploit to disable foreign infrastructure. I think Australia was justified in refusing to accept technologies from Chinese developers on the basis of China already having such a law. Many aspects of this strategy seem appropriate in terms of security, but the idea grates with my sense of what is right.
I further think many Australians view it as a deplorable idea, yet our government is thinking to mimic China’s law. Whether it is possible might be questioned, but we ought to find better solutions to our security risks that do not resort to moral underhandedness.
Can We Find Balance?
I do not think it is possible to have the kind of security we desire based on our efforts to attain it – the world has enough nasty viciousness to preclude it. We need to temper our stride for this unattainable goal, measuring out a more balanced desire in which doing good can outweigh security.
I think this is much easier to say as a Christian whose security is ultimate – being secure even against death – but I think we all fall into the trap of seeking security above all else, and in the wrong places. Perhaps if we have greater recognition of compassionate risk-taking as the challenging and magnificent pursuit that it is, we will bring our society to have greater balance.
Alexander Gillespie is an Arts Honours graduate of the University of Sydney. Particular fields of interest include Nineteenth-Century migration history, conceptual philosophy, social policy and ecclesiology. He currently lives in Sydney with his wife and enjoys researching and writing.