One of the most intriguing supporting actor performances of the Abbott government has been that of Attorney-General George Brandis. His first nine months in the job have been marked by two characteristics: a political tin ear responsible for his botching the proposed reforms to the Racial Discrimination Act, and his sudden, enthusiastic support for a crackdown on internet service providers at the behest of the copyright industry.

Today Fairfax reported that the government may be on the brink of forcing ISPs to monitor their customers’ internet usage and warn about filesharing, and perhaps censor access to well-known filesharing sites. Brandis has previously flagged his enthusiasm for forcing ISPs, via either a “voluntary” code or some regulatory system, to police filesharing, which would cost ISPs millions of dollars, raising internet access prices across the board (call it the Brandis Levy).

This is exactly what the copyright industry — movie, media and music transnationals, most of them American — have long sought. Forcing ISPs to police their users is the outsourcing of copyright enforcement from the copyright industry itself — which has failed miserably at the task for over a decade — to another industry, and to government. It is a position the US government has aggressively and persistently pursued through a series of multilateral and bilateral trade deals, including the Trans Pacific Partnership currently being negotiated.

This raises the issue of the role of Brandis’ chief of staff, Paul O’Sullivan. O’Sullivan was a remarkably senior figure to be appointed mere CoS to an Attorney-General. He is a former head of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, ambassador to Germany and high commissioner to New Zealand under the Rudd government, as well as adviser to then-prime minister John Howard. Yet he is now only the senior staffer to a middle-ranking minister, though there is speculation he will be moved into a more senior role in time.

What’s missing from O’Sullivan’s CV is any political experience; he may have been adviser to Howard, but that was on national security, not exactly a domestic political issue. Brandis’ stumbling efforts to sell s.18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which have managed to alienate even  pro-Coalition groups and portrayed the government as eager to support the rights of bigots, suggests poor advice, particularly as Brandis himself — a Queensland lawyer with a hypertrophied ego — is not the most natural politician.

But another aspect of O’Sullivan’s CV might explain Brandis’ enthusiasm for implementing the agenda of the United States copyright industry. Bob Carr’s Diary contains this interlude from June 2012:

“Breakfast this morning with Paul O’Sullivan, former head of ASIO and just retired as High Commissioner in New Zealand. He does not echo the line that we are too close to America. The reverse. He thinks we should aspire to be in a different class of ally, not an ally like Holland or Canada but a country that can be relied on pretty well all the time. This is novel. The first time I’ve encountered this notion on the alliance, at least explicitly expressed.”

A country that the US can rely on pretty well all the time appears to be an accurate description of Brandis’ emerging pro-copyright industry stance, in which Australian ISPs would be required to implement the surveillance and enforcement agenda of US copyright companies.

O’Sullivan’s apparent view that Australia should, in effect, subordinate its sovereignty to the US in order that we can always be relied on might also explain the substantial hardening of Brandis’ rhetoric on issues around mass surveillance and national security. Since becoming Attorney-General, Brandis — who still portrays himself as a Voltaire-style free speech advocate when it comes to climate denialism — has flagged that he is being given access to national security information that makes him more hostile to civil liberties.

“The more intelligence I read, the more conservative I become,” he told a Washington security think tank. Brandis’ phrasing was important — he has long portrayed himself as a genuine, traditional liberal, in contrast to more conservative colleagues.

The Attorney-General’s sharpening of his rhetoric and the increasing clamour from intelligence and law enforcement agencies suggests that data retention — which is mass surveillance under another name — will soon be revisited, although the government refuses to say when it will respond to the Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security’s report on data retention and other security reforms.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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