In praise of a messy democracy: Transparency, freedom, and spy scandals

Christian Kerr writes in defence of an opaque security service in the Weekend Australian this week. There are two main thrusts to his argument: first, that democracy requires intelligence services that operate in secrecy. The second essentially conflates all those have defended the publication of this information with the actions of Julian Assange.

The first argument is the most powerful. Kerr writes:

The democratic state needs an intelligence apparatus to protect its democracy from threats from fundamentalists, absolutists and other enemies of liberty.

This is certain. What it neglects is that once in a while, the enemies of liberty make it to the highest levels of the public service or are democratically elected to positions of power. Or are created there (absolute power corrupting absolutely and all that). I am by no means suggesting that all intelligence operations be carried out in the bright light of public scrutiny, or that every decision to tap phones or recruit agents be public knowledge. The point is that, especially in the highly-securitised post-9/11 environment, overreach happens, and democratic discussion of the procedures used to reach decisions is valid and necessary. Sure, Snowden leaked details of operations, not procedures, but without the subsequent global outrage and embarrassment this debate would never have happened. These leaks have shone a hot bright light on the things that are carried out in service of the liberty we democratic citizens enjoy, and have inspired a debate about the lengths we should go to protect that liberty. Perhaps we will decide that the lengths gone to are actually just about right and nothing needs to change, but the act of debating it is healthy for our democracy.

Kerr’s portrayal of democracy as a “delicate balancing act” is telling. Seen this way, democracy is a fragile thing, best left in the hands of elite professionals and liable to be broken in the raucous hands of the mob. This simultaneously belittles the capacity of Australian citizens to make adult decisions in concert with their peers and – I put to you – overestimates the capacity of our politicians to do the same. Democracy via representation is inevitable given the size of modern states, but elections are only one small part of holding our representatives to account. Our democracy is robust enough to cope with citizen engagement on an ongoing basis, and this engagement requires transparency.

Kerr’s second argument – in which he essentially accuses all those who support the ABCs decision to publish the Snowden revelations of Assange-cultism – is weaker. He writes that Assange “divides the world into heroes and villains and is quick to purge and denounce those he decides are enemies”. This is true. Quick to dish criticism out, Assange seems unable to take it. He is a crusader; I suspect he has strong authoritarian tendencies, and is not the sort of person I would like to see running my country. Kerr’s horror at the release of WikilLeaks cables to the Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko, allowing him to crack down on internal opposition, is beyond justified. I share it. But I think that on balance, Wikileaks has done a lot for Western democracy – go figure.

To suggest that we “wide-eyed Wikifans” must, in supporting transparency and democratic debate, endorse all the actions of the Wikileaks founder is ludicrous. It does, however, square nicely with Kerr’s picture of democracy: we choose somebody to represent us and then do no more than cheer them on until we reach the next election, trusting that whatever they do behind closed doors is in our best interest.

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