Estimates isn’t what it used to be. Way back when, sessions could go all night and public servants would frequently be waiting until 3am to have the likes of Bronwyn Bishop bully and insult them.

Sometime in the Keating years, they reduced the annual number of sessions from 4 to 3. In more recent times, they ended sessions at 11pm, adding a faint sense of civilization to proceedings. Then, in the last years of the Howard Government, as part of its manic determination to curtail any accountability, Estimates was made shorter, so that politicians had to rush through their questions or place them on notice. Labor has not been inclined to restore the more languorous approach of previous years.

To make things worse, there aren’t that many Coalition senators interested in taking a patient, forensic approach. Simon Birmingham is one, but then he has a brain and uses it, which puts him way ahead of a lot of his colleagues. The likes of George Brandis and Michael Ronaldson fancy themselves as inquisitors but don’t measure up. But the Greens senators do, because accountability is their bread and butter and Estimates is their chance to shine.

Which makes the exchange between Senator Scott Ludlam and Minister for Delaying Things Stephen Conroy and his officials on internet filtering last week especially interesting. Asher Moses has written about the exchange for the Herald, as has the estimable Stilgherrian here. Ludlam was conducting his first Estimates hearings and impressed immediately. Old head, young shoulders, that sort of thing. Hopefully he will spend much of the next six years making life most difficult for the Government.

The Ludlam-Conroy exchange is worth examining in detail because in it Conroy showed all of the reasons why he and his Department are not to be trusted on the internet filtering issue.

You could tell Ludlam got under Conroy’s skin pretty quickly because the Minister, who normally enjoys Estimates and is never short of some banter, rapidly defaulted to his now-standard suggestion that anyone quibbling with the Government policy on regulating the internet is a paedophile.

The immediate cause was Ludlam’s insistence on asking what other countries had mandatory ISP-level internet filtering. The answer, among democracies, is zero, but clearly Conroy and his officials didn’t want to admit that. Several times Ludlam tried and each time he got the runaround. First he was disingenuously told by an official that the UK, Canada, New Zealand and the Netherlands had ISP-level filtering, which prompted Conroy to say “this is not some one-off excursion,” about his own policy.

But Ludlam homed in. What countries had mandatory filtering? That’s when Conroy suggested Ludlam might like child pornography. He wasn’t deterred. What countries had mandatory filtering? “We are looking at the opt-out provision,” Conroy immediately replied, as if making a bid for non sequitur of the week. Perhaps aware that it was also complete rubbish, he continued “it depends on which way you are looking at it.”

Presumably, as in, looked at another way, it’s not “opt-out” at all.

“It can mean the opposite of what it sounds like, so it does get a little confusing,” he continued. That indeed confused Ludlam, so much so that he momentarily forgot that Conroy had entirely ignored the question. But eventually he backtracked to it. Which countries had mandatory filtering? “The situation across the countries actually varies quite considerably,” averred Deputy Secretary Abul Rivzi. Actually, that’s not true about mandatory filtering. Actually, no one else has mandatory filtering. Actually, Conroy wasn’t telling the truth when he said “this is not some one-off excursion.” Rivzi explained the UK situation in some detail, before eventually adding that, um, it was voluntary. Actually.

Senators 1, Public Servants 0, to use a sporting analogy the Minister would understand.

Of course the real score is about Government 6, Free Speech Zilch, because Conroy is well advanced in plans to impose a filtering scheme that is not, despite Conroy’s claims, just intended to block material of the sort currently banned by the Australian Communications and Media Authorities’s wholly useless blacklist of websites.

Conroy keeps asserting that any claims he wants to censor the internet are hysterical misreporting. But when pressed, he and his officials start dancing around the issue. When Ludlam tried to tease out what specifically would be blocked under mandatory ISP filtering, Conroy first tried to head him off by claiming that everything was still up in the air. “You are jumping ahead of where we are actually at in the development of it.” “We are just at the very early stages. You are actually jumping ahead.” “We are actually only in the early stages…”

Actually.

When that doesn’t help, Conroy goes to his default position: he’s just trying to block what’s illegal anyway. “We would be enforcing existing laws,” Conroy told Ludlam. And “I am not looking to blanket-ban some of the material that it is being claimed I want to blanket-ban, but some material online, such as child pornography, is illegal,” he told The Age today.

Well that’s OK then. Who can object to blocking what’s already illegal?

Do you know what’s illegal on the internet under Australian law? It’s not just child pornography or bomb-making manuals. Any material classified RC or X18+ by the Classification Board is outright banned – which includes non-simulated sex (and even simulated sex, and for that matter anything dealing with “intense adult themes” is banned if access isn’t restricted).

This means material that is available in bagged magazines in newsagents across the country is illegal online. Makes sense huh? Despite the claims of Conroy’s officials, the UK doesn’t have such a nonsensical online restriction.

Don’t like porn? Well, gambling is banned too. Australian sites, that is – we haven’t yet moved to an outright ban on access to overseas gambling sites, but Nick Xenophon wants us to.

If you’re still relaxed, are you aware that, under changes introduced by Phillip Ruddock, “counselling suicide” on the internet is a criminal offence? Despite claims to the contrary from the Howard Government, this was directly aimed at stifling debate about euthanasia and the work of euthanasia support groups and campaigners. And despite the fact that, as Electronic Frontiers Australia has pointed out, the suicide rate has fallen since the internet became widely available.

To say nothing of Australia’s reflexive support for music and film multinationals’ draconian attempts to prosecute file-sharing.

And under Conroy’s filtering scheme, all of these restrictions have to be interpreted by a bureaucrat when deciding whether to ban a website, or perhaps ban whole ranges of content based on keyword searches.

But Conroy refused to even discuss how much “overblocking” of content he would regard as inappropriate. Too early to say, actually.

The real worry here is that there is no science or evidence-based policy for what is blocked online in Australia. The Howard Government’s decisions on stifling free speech online were based on moral panics, not well-considered policy. The Rudd Government will be no different. The role of Nick Xenophon and Steve Fielding, who wants to impose his own warped sexual morality on the rest of us, will be important to a Government that relies on their votes in the Senate.

But they’re not the main problem – the Government itself is. And Conroy is working overtime to keep the Government’s assault on free speech out of sight as much as possible.

Peter Fray

Save 50% on a year of Crikey and The Atlantic.

The US election is in a little over a month. It seems that there’s a ridiculous twist in the story, almost every day.

Luckily for new Crikey subscribers, we’ve teamed up with one of America’s best publications, The Atlantic for the election race. Subscribe now to make sense of it all, and you’ll get a year of Crikey (usually $199) and a year’s digital subscription to The Atlantic (usually $70AUD), BOTH for just $129.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW