Nicola Roxon’s speech last night has left Labor figures fuming, and not just because of her relentless focus on attacking Kevin Rudd.
Roxon’s desire to exhume the Rudd-Gillard conflict for the purposes of belting Rudd — she mentioned him no fewer than 36 times during the course of a speech intended to honour Labor legend John Button — doesn’t just bode poorly for Labor’s capacity to stop talking about itself. It gives carte blanche to Rudd spear carriers to discuss what happened behind closed doors during the Gillard era, even if Gillard never called a female premier “Bambi”.
But as part of her spray at Rudd, Roxon also let fly at the Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security over its handling of its inquiry into national security reforms.
“We also need to encourage and embrace more debate in the party and the parliament — and find ways to better use the broader brainpower around on tough issues. Disappointingly, even senior and experienced MPs were shunning a chance to be in debates on complex issues — like the resistance and begrudging response I received when I commissioned the respected joint intelligence committee of the Parliament to assess a list of new powers and proposed changes to our intelligence laws that agencies like the federal police, ASIO and ASIS had requested. In my 15 years in parliament I’ve never seen such an unenthusiastic response from a committee being given a serious, real job to do — including, I am sad to say, senior Labor figures.”
This is a self-serving representation of the process that led to the JCIS declining to recommend a data retention regime earlier this year. “Very over the top comment and grossly unfair,” NSW senator Ursula Stephens, a JCIS member, called Roxon’s comments last night. Other committee members are also deeply angry.
To recap: the Attorney-General’s Department had been pushing for a data retention regime since Labor got into power in 2007. When Roxon inherited the portfolio in December 2011, the issue had lain fallow since mid-2010. In early-May 2012, she announced she’d written to the committee asking it to consider reforms to national security legislation, including, data retention. The Department had prepared a draft discussion paper containing 44 proposals for that inquiry, and Roxon wanted it done by July 31.
That is, Roxon wanted the committee to examine a huge number of changes to national security legislation, including one of the greatest incursions into Australians’ basic rights since the Cold War, in just over ten weeks.
The committee told Roxon the deadline was too short. In early July they announced an end-of-year reporting timeframe. Even that timeframe proved impossible to achieve; the committee in its report earlier this year described it as “a highly compressed and unachievable time frame of less than six months.”
But a key problem was the discussion paper. The paper devoted just two lines to discussing data retention. What data was to be retained wasn’t clear — Roxon had to write to the committee in September to clarify that it wouldn’t include content data, but would reflect the EU data retention directive. Moreover, despite Roxon’s apparent haste, AGD was reluctant to tell the committee basic information like whether it had prepared draft legislation for data retention, and what consultation it had undertaken on it.
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“Perhaps it wasn’t the committee’s work ethic that really bugged Roxon, but the composition.”
John Faulkner publicly criticized the paper in hearings. The Secretary of the Attorney-General’s Department, Roger Wilkins, later agreed that it was “fair criticism” that some proposals in the discussion paper had been inadequately described. The committee in its final report complained:
“One of the most controversial topics canvassed in the discussion paper — data retention — was only accorded just over two lines of text. This lack of information from the attorney-general and her department had two major consequences. First, it meant that submitters to the inquiry could not be sure as to what they were being asked to comment on. Second, as the committee was not sure of the exact nature of what the attorney-general and her department was proposing it was seriously hampered in the conduct of the inquiry and the process of obtaining evidence from witnesses.”Importantly the Committee was very disconcerted to find, once it commenced its inquiry, that the Attorney-General’s Department (AGD) had much more detailed information on the topic of data retention. Departmental work, including discussions with stakeholders, had been undertaken previously. Details of this work had to be drawn from witnesses representing the AGD.”
So in saying that Labor figures like John Faulkner engaged in “resistance and begrudging response”, Roxon skips over that she provided the committee with a huge task to complete in too short a time with a discussion paper that by everyone’s admission, including the authors, wasn’t good enough and a department that withheld information from the committee.
Crikey understands that some intelligence agencies, who had pushed hard via AGD for data retention, were aghast at Roxon’s handling of the issue and the damage it did to the chances of a data retention regime being established.
Roxon also complains about the committee providing an “unenthusiastic response from a committee being given a serious, real job to do”.
In fact, Roxon’s problem was that JCIS indeed decided to do a serious, real job. It invited submissions and held public and private hearings. The committee received over 200 submissions. The members — who included now-Attorney-General George Brandis, Coalition backbencher Phillip Ruddock and independent Andrew Wilkie — adhered to committee tradition and worked together to produce a unanimous report; all members, with one exception on the Labor side, put aside partisanship in the interests of exploring what they knew to be important reform proposals and, in the case of data retention, one of the most important civil liberties issues of this generation.
Perhaps it wasn’t the committee’s work ethic that really bugged Roxon, but the composition. Nearly all of the Labor members of the committee were supporters of Kevin Rudd — the chair Anthony Byrne, Faulkner, Ursula Stephens, Mark Bishop — and Rudd himself was on the committee while a backbencher, although he played little role in the national security inquiry. Perhaps her comments were part-and-parcel of her broader attack on Rudd.
But it’s not hard to also read them as a lament that the committee declined to tick-and-flick her reform proposals, thus giving her political cover to introduce data retention well ahead of an election. Instead, alone among western democracies, Australia has had a public debate and proper parliamentary inquiry about data retention thanks to a committee that decided to do its job seriously.