Remember that story about a frog sitting in a pan of water on a stove? Someone turns up the heat, bit by bit, the frog lies back and closes his eyes, and before he realises what's happening he's cooked.
The heat's rising on the wriggling green amphibian that's Australian democracy. Already it's turned blood-warm and sluggish, in a way I've not seen in my lifetime. Australia's never really been a place for talking political philosophy - let alone conspiracy - late into the night in smoky dark cafes. We've always favoured cricket over critique.
But we do have a strong and stubborn anti-authoritarian streak in our chequered national history. We're rightly proud of mateship and the "fair go". We respond well to plain speaking, especially in the face of abuses of power. Think Ned Kelly, Tom Kenneally, even Ian Chappell.
So why don't most of us know or care that our Federal Parliament recently passed laws - that have just come into effect - giving our secretive internal security organization, ASIO, unprecedented powers to instigate detention for questioning of anyone they consider may have information about something to do with terrorism, even though that person is not themselves a suspect? The new legal regime potentially applies, for example, to journalists who poke around in the finer political details of the story of the two Australians detained at Guantanamo Bay, to housewives who visit Iranian asylum seekers in Villawood detention centre, and to academics who think and write too probingly about North Korea.
The new law doesn't guarantee confidential access to a lawyer of the detainee's choice. It allows detention for up to seven days - and much longer if the authorities can make their case jump through some tight, but not watertight, technical hoops. Procedural safeguards are built into the new regime, but these don't meet the minimalist requirements suggested by the Law Council of Australia, and are a light year away from the wish list articulated by human rights lawyers and civil libertarians.
The original ASIO bill was much more draconian and strongly opposed in that form by the Labor Opposition. But Labor signed onto the amended legislation, as well as the rush-it-then-see timetable set for its passage before Parliament's winter recess. Labor's leadership also appears to have accepted the ideological core of the Howard government's justification of the move. Namely, its mantra-like claim that we must compromise our liberty in this way for the sake of security.
Perhaps there's little public agitation about this new law precisely because the Coalition and Labor reached consensus on it. Without clear mainstream opposition to this bill - the Greens, Democrats and One Nation opposed it in the Senate but without Labor lacked the numbers - and accompanying parliamentary and media fisticuffs, the Australian public might be forgiven for thinking Telstra was the only serious game in Canberra that week.
Maybe, too, Australians don't know or care because we no longer care to know. The Howard-Beazley-Crean years have drained the energies and optimism of many civic-minded individuals, across formal party political divides. Although this period has corresponded with substantial on-paper growth in our national and household economies, many of us are now struggling with a corresponding growth in insecurity of access to fulltime employment and accompanying benefits, affordable education and health care, and downtime with our loved ones. Throw in legitimate anxieties stemming from the terrorist bombings in New York and Bali - and illegitimate, more dangerous ones fanned by dog-whistling by key personnel in both major parties on border protection, multiculturalism, and law and order - and it's no wonder increasingly we want Nigella licking her own fingers, or the sweet but vacant lot that is Reggie Bird. Not Lateline dissecting DIMIA.
My preferred smallscreen escapism these days is The Secret Life of Us. Bad choice - or maybe not - because the other week it packed a timely political punch.
VOICEOVER: "Maybe there are no moral absolutes - maybe it comes down to how many people are standing with you or walking out the door …. How do you hold onto your beliefs when you see you're living in a world being taken over by the dark side? When evil not only goes unpunished, it's rewarded?"
In times and terms of darkness, there are always shades of grey. Clearly, John Howard isn't Adolf Hitler. Clearly, the current leadership, powers and procedures of ASIO and other Australian intelligence organizations aren't those of the Gestapo or the Stasi. But that doesn't mean we can safely swallow everything we're told by and on behalf of these people and organizations - including about what's in the interest of our national or personal security. What we already know about "children overboard", and what 's emerging about flows of intelligence inside government in the leadup to this year's war on Iraq, suggests it's an important time for us all to tune into some devilish detail.