Nicola Roxon’s appointment as Australia’s first female Attorney-General presents several opportunities to address issues handled poorly by Robert McClelland.
McClelland’s period as Attorney-General was characterised by an apparent readiness to accede to virtually any demands for greater regulation that emerged from the Commonwealth bureaucracy. ASIO’s powers were extended — in an blatant effort to enable to spy on WikiLeaks — and a bill to enable foreign governments to obtain information about what Australians have been doing online and with mobile phone services remains under parliamentary consideration, despite criticism from the government’s own MPs. McClelland also appeared unable to comprehend the basic requirements of his role as First Law Officer, when he arbitrarily concluded that Julian Assange had acted illegally in relation to WikiLeaks’s US diplomatic cables, before an Australian Federal Police investigation concluded he was wrong.
Roxon, who has a strong legal background, would do well to commence her spell at attorney-general by taking a far more sceptical view of bureaucratic demands for ever-greater powers for law enforcement and intelligence agencies. She could start by reading the bipartisan report of the Joint Select Committee on Cyber-Safety’s report on the Cybercrime Bill, which while inadequate, spells out a number of flaws in that bill.
She could also make an unequivocal statement that Julian Assange is, once his legal obligations in Sweden are exhausted one way or another, welcome to return to Australia where he will be afforded the full legal protection to which an Australian citizen is entitled.
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Roxon has also inherited privacy from Brendan O’Connor, who was Australia’s first minister for privacy. O’Connor himself was a diligent advocate for privacy and a discussion paper on a statutory right to privacy remains on foot. But the government’s overall willingness to protect privacy must be strongly questioned, courtesy of its willingness to sign up to US-inspired trade treaties that remove basic privacy protections at the behest of the copyright industry, and its ongoing consideration of ISP data retention laws.
Roxon could send a strong signal that privacy is an important issue for the government, and that it is prepared to work to protect Australians’ privacy, including in the face of attempts by other countries to erode it.