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Federal

Aug 23, 2012

And softly went our privacy into the night

Little concern appeared to attend another significant extension of the powers of intelligence and law enforcement agencies yesterday.

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With the passage of the Cybercrime Legislation Amendment Bill 2011 in the Senate yesterday, the Australian government gained the power to demand the storage of citizens’ personal data from telephone and internet usage at the behest of foreign governments. This was necessary, we were told, because Australia had to accede to the European Cybercrime Convention.

The convention, described by the US Electronic Frontier Foundation as “one of the world’s worst internet law treaties”, is designed to enable governments to investigate citizens of other countries for activities ranging from terrorism, fraud and child p-rnography to filesharing, political activism and dissent. Crikey’s coverage of the bill’s progress is here.

In the end, as expected, only the Greens opposed the bill, despite shadow Attorney-General George Brandis’ complaint that the government hadn’t even bothered to respond to the report on the bill by the Senate Committee on Cyber-Safety, which found several serious flaws in the legislation.

Brandis at least showed up for the debate. The performance of Labor MPs and senators in debating this serious intrusion on Australians’ basic rights has been abysmal. Apart from duty minister Joe Ludwig, the only senators from the government side who made the effort to discuss it were Tasmanian Helen Polley and NSW’s Matt Thistlethwaite. Nick Xenophon, Scott Ludlam, who had carriage of the bill for the Greens, Brett Mason and Brandis all spoke on the bill; Ludlam, following an epic effort on cluster munitions immediately before the Cybercrime bill, led questioning of the government and unsuccessfully moved amendments.

It was a similar pattern in the House of Representatives almost exactly a year ago when the bill was passed there: nine Coalition MPs and Adam Bandt spoke on the bill, to only six Labor MPs.

One of the innumerable tasks associated with passage of a bill for ministerial advisers is to queue up government speakers and give them talking points (based on material prepared by public servants) with which they can put together a contribution to parliamentary debate. The result, sometimes, are a collection of speeches that have a certain haunting sameness about them, but at least in this case the contributions of Labor MPs like Michelle Rowland, Gai Brodtmann, Graham Perrett and Justine Elliot reflected apparent interest in the issue.

Nonetheless, the sullen quiet with which this bill has passed bodes poorly for the broader range of “reforms” either proposed by the government or put forward for consideration, at the urging of officials in the Attorney-General’s Department, in the current Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security’s national intelligence inquiry. Many are from a wishlist of significant extensions of surveillance powers put forward by intelligence agencies and the AFP through AGD, whose officials could most charitably be described as having a depraved indifference to the basic rights of citizens.

Unfortunately the government, certainly under former attorney-general Robert McClelland as well as incumbent Nicola Roxon, has been disinclined to place any barriers in the way of the ambitions of AGD and its agencies. To Roxon’s credit, she has taken the initiative of inviting JCIS to conduct a public inquiry into the AGD proposals, including data retention, to which the cybercrime legislation is a precursor, something the Howard government never contemplated when undertaking the savage assaults on basic rights that formed its counter-terrorism and sedition laws.

Nor, it seems, have more than a handful of Labor MPs shown any enthusiasm for explaining why they’re prepared to support still further reductions in Australians’ rights to be free of the threat of surveillance.

Indeed, the bill has, some angry ranting from Crikey and the occasional newspaper coverage aside, gone through with barely a murmur. Australians appear genuinely uninterested in the steady curtailment of their right to privacy at the hands of intelligence and law enforcement agencies. It’s a peculiar condition for a citizenry that doesn’t have particularly high level of trust in its state institutions or its politicians.

AGD, ASIO and the AFP must be delighted and looking forward to driving the next set of extensions to surveillance powers, ready to roll even before the current set have received Royal Assent.

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