In a single article today, The Australian’s resident neo-con Greg Sheridan and right-wing Labor MP Michael Danby have inflicted serious damage on the process around consideration of data retention in  Australia.

Data retention is among the slate of proposals for national security reforms currently being considered by the Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security. Danby is a junior member of that committee. For over seven months, it has been working  through the issues around extending the powers of intelligence and law enforcement agencies in areas like retaining telecommunications user data. Despite the disparate make-up of the committee, which includes politicians as different as John Faulkner, George Brandis, Phillip Ruddock and Andrew Wilkie (the Greens aren’t permitted on the committee), it has brought a thorough and painstaking approach to the task.

It grilled the Attorney-General’s Department at length over the flaws in the discussion paper prepared for the inquiry, complained about the lack of hard detail in the proposals, particularly around data retention, and consulted widely with industry, civil society groups and agencies.

And despite concerns within Liberal ranks about the proposals, committee members have kept their counsel on these complex and sensitive issues within the confines of the committee process. Until now.

Danby has spoken to Sheridan about both his own views and, evidently, the committee’s internal processes and timetable, giving vent to his own desire for data retention. The result is a beyond-parody screed for data retention from Sheridan in full “I never met a dictator I didn’t like” mode. It is difficult to overstate how profoundly dumb Sheridan’s article is, even by his own standards. He actually invokes, in all seriousness, a work of torture-promoting fiction — Zero Dark Thirty — as evidence of the need for data retention. He dismisses opposition to data retention as coming from “the Greens, the far Left and some in the Liberal Party”, ignoring criticism from the Institute of Public Affairs, legal groups, industry (who will have to bear the likely very high cost of implementing data retention, which Sheridan dismisses) and online activists who note that easily-accessed encryption destroys the point of data retention.

Sheridan also singles out Liberal MPs for criticism elsewhere in the article as well. He offers the remarkable, ludicrous statement “Let me make a prediction. Without this legislation there will inevitably be a mass terrorist event in Australia and then the legislation will pass in 12 hours.”

That statement is entirely at odds with the views of intelligence and law enforcement agencies. No such concerns have been expressed publicly by agencies such as the AFP or ASIO, or by the Attorney-General’s Department, which has not been above deception and overstatement in its campaign on behalf of data retention. It’s an hysterical, entirely unsupported overstatement that perfectly demonstrates the absurd mindset of the security state.

So, the result of the Danby-Sheridan collaboration? A profoundly ignorant article that invokes torture and shrieking threats of mass destruction, sourced from a member of the committee charged with giving mature and thorough consideration of highly-sensitive changes. An article that confirms the conspiracy theories and paranoia of every opponent of national security powers, that appears to justify the dismissiveness with which many data retention advocates have treated the JCIS process. An article that gives Opposition members carte blanche to do some media backgrounding of their own, reflecting on the attitude of Labor MPs to national security and civil rights.

Agencies like the AFP and ASIO must be appalled at this cavalier, crassly political treatment of what they regard as a highly important issue, treatment that in another context might almost seemed designed to discredit the process currently underway to consider extensions to their powers. Danby and Sheridan have done them real damage.

It may be typical of the nonsense Sheridan routinely spouts. But as for Danby, what on earth was he thinking? And what on earth will the government be thinking if it continues to allow such an irresponsible MP on such an important committee?

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW