The Federal Government’s proposal to extend the Telecommunications Act to enable employers to monitor email usage shows that the national security state mindset that afflicted the Howard Government and its bureaucrats is alive and well under the Rudd Government.

The source of this proposal is the Attorney-General’s Department, which in recent years under Phillip Ruddock and his Secretary, Robert Cornall, has led a number of successful initiatives to curb the basic freedoms and rights of Australians in the name of public safety. They include the successive iterations of the Howard Government’s draconian anti-terrorism laws and the outrageous ban on internet discussion of euthanasia.

Cornall’s most recent effort in this vein was an attempt in December to silence judicial criticism of ASIO by complaining to the NSW Judicial Commission about Justice Michael Adams, who found that ASIO agents had kidnapped and falsely imprisoned Izhar ul-Haque. The Commission rightly binned his complaint.

Now Cornall has convinced Robert McClelland that the private sector should be deputised to spy on its employees in case they turn out to be terrorists. But only in the critical infrastructure sector, McClelland assures us – which narrows it down to good corporate citizens like Telstra, airport owners, Sydney Water, petrol companies and the banks. Phew.

As Katherine Wilson demonstrated in Crikey yesterday, the extension of snooping powers to employers is part of an ongoing co-option of the private sector into the national security state framework. In particular, the protection of “critical infrastructure” has allowed the development of a complex and highly-rewarding partnership between governments and the private sector.

The critical infrastructure protection framework is overseen by Attorney-General’s Deputy Secretary Miles Jordana – John Howard’s international adviser who was at the centre of the children overboard affair and the false weapons of mass destruction claims on the basis of which Australia joined the attack on Iraq.

The private sector, across areas such as transport, communications, IT and energy, is a willing participant in the process of establishing a system for monitoring and protecting their facilities and the public infrastructure they use, all in the name of preventing or effectively responding to terrorism. After all, the process allows companies access to government funding for the maintenance and upgrading of monitoring and information-collection systems they would otherwise have to invest in themselves, enables – in the name of greater security – the development of new regulatory requirements that raise the barriers to entry for possible competitors, and transfers an element of operational risk to taxpayers.

And all in exchange for attending a few working group meetings a year and learning several dozen acronyms (language specialists – check out this page for a particularly bad case of Bureaucratic Acronymitis).

In return, governments get compliant supporters of the absurdity of the national security state – the state that requires us to suspend our critical faculties and accept long screening queues at airports, security agents who abduct people and gaol sentences for making a joke about bombs in the wrong place.

The test for any of these national security proposals should always be what might be christened the Haneef Test: would you trust the clowns who bungled that investigation, either through malice or incompetence, with even greater powers than they already have? And in this case, even if you trusted the judgement of the Australian Federal Police or ASIO, would you trust employers with the power to monitor your communications?

McClelland has promised consultation on the proposals. He should chuck them out entirely. And get rid of his two Howardist hold-outs, Cornall and Jordana, while he’s at it.

Peter Fray

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