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May 29, 2014

Politicians are under surveillance — what will they do about it?

The discovery that politicians are under surveillance when whistleblowers contact them should drive a serious attempt to protect the latter from surveillance.

Bernard Keane — Politics Editor

Bernard Keane

Politics Editor

While the specific circumstances surrounding the “inadvertent” monitoring of Senator John Faulkner and his dealings with a parliamentary whistleblower inside Parliament House have some way to play out, the case has served to focus on the growing difficulty of providing safety for whistleblowers in a mass surveillance environment.

The CCTV spying on a Department of Parliamentary Services whistleblower that revealed he had contact with the Labor veteran infuriated Faulkner, and he’s not alone, with other senators saying they regard DPS as out of control and in need of a full inquiry. That matter is currently before the Privileges Committee, to which Faulkner immediately referred the matter after the head of DPS, Carol Mills, anticipated Faulkner’s questioning in the Finance and Public Administration Committee on Monday and volunteered that there’d been an incident in which “appropriate” accessing of internal Parliament House CCTV footage in investigation of a possible code of conduct breach by an APS employee had “inadvertently” come into conflict with “the protocol of the protection of members’ and senators’ rights to do business in the building”.

Fairfax journalist Philip Dorling first reported claims that CCTV was being used to track whistleblowers providing information to Faulkner inside Parliament House in 2011. The claims were denied at the time, and the denials were accepted by Faulkner and others — meaning Faulkner is even angrier about the matter than he otherwise would be.

Faulkner sought advice on the use of CCTV and parliamentary privilege from the Clerk of the Senate, Rosemary Laing, and her response suggests there is serious trouble ahead for DPS.

“In my view, the circumstances do give rise to concerns that a contempt of interference, or attempted interference, with the free performance by a senator of the senator’s duties as a senator may have been committed. Disciplinary action against a persion that has the tendency or effect of hampering the provision of information to senators could readily constitute an improper interference with the free performance of a senator’s duties as a senator and, therefore, a contempt. The use of electronic surveillance of a senator’s office for unauthorised purposes to intimidate persons who provide information to senators is also capable of being found to be a contempt.”

The key phrase there is “for unauthorised purposes”, but as Mills’ initial argument to Faulkner makes clear, there is also the potential for what the executive and its administrative agencies regard as appropriate and authorised use of electronic surveillance to “come into conflict” with the rights of elected officials to conduct their business — including meeting with whistleblowers.

The broader context for this is another form of electronic surveillance: as we’ve known for some time courtesy of Senator Nick Xenophon, the Australian Federal Police has obtained the telephone records of MPs and senators in the hunt for whistleblowers and leakers, as well as those of journalists.

This applies, of course, to real whistleblowers, not the unnamed politicians and senior bureaucrats who happily leak to the media to push a particular agenda. The AFP will never obtain metadata to determine which colleague has revealed what a minister said in cabinet; there’ll be no investigation of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service or Australian Signals Directorate officials spruiking their successes to state-aligned journalists in the national dailies.

That journalists are the subject of casual surveillance (and, yes, collecting metadata on someone is surveillance) by law enforcement agencies seeking to establish the identity of whistleblowers is regrettable but an established risk of contemporary journalism, one that media companies should be far more proactive in addressing. That elected officials are subject to in effect the same surveillance risk, but with the added threat that one of their own workplaces is under CCTV observation, is arguably a more serious and direct threat to democracy, with the potential to intimidate would-be whistleblowers from providing information to politicians capable of using it more effectively than journalists can.

We’ll ignore for the moment the potential for politicians to be monitored either by our own intelligence agencies or by foreign intelligence agencies of our close allies: it’s not merely law enforcement agencies that can obtain metadata of politicians without a warrant, but a wide range of agencies including those with regulatory or tax-collecting functions. The Australian Tax Office, financial regulators, departments like Health and Environment, even non-government entities, can all seek metadata, widening the potential for politicians to be monitored to identify who is contacting them.

Some of these issues are being picked up in Greens Senator Scott Ludlam’s current inquiry into the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act 1979, and there is support even from the Attorney-General’s Department for significantly narrowing the range of bodies that can access metadata without a warrant, something also backed by the Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, which now appears semi-comatose.

Maybe, in the face of institutional inertia to address the pervasive threat of surveillance not merely to journalists but to politicians themselves, the Privileges Committee is the best body to try to establish some basic defences for whistleblowers seeking to raise concerns with politicians, rather than going straight to the media.

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7 thoughts on “Politicians are under surveillance — what will they do about it?

  1. paddy

    Good luck to the poor sod who thought spying on John Faulkner was a good idea.
    Of all the people to p*ss off!
    He’ll no doubt spend his last month as a senator making lots of waves about this. (And rightly so.)
    There’ll be more heads on spikes than you’d see in a particularly bloody episode of Game of Thrones.

  2. Brendan Jones

    > we’ve known for some time courtesy of Senator Nick Xenophon, the Australian Federal Police has obtained the telephone records of MPs and senators in the hunt for whistleblowers and leakers, as well as those of journalists.

    It’s disturbing how the AFP cracks down on whistleblowers, but ignore corruption. Many examples:

    I wrote to Labor Justice Minister Jason Clare to ask why the AFP had not acted on my corruption complaint in six months. I never heard from him, but I was called and threatened by an AFP officer who told me to drop it.

    Even when the story was reported last year, still did nothing.

    And I’ve written to LNP Justice Minister Michael Keenan 9 times. He’s done nothing.

    The AFP are a joke.

    Trivia: Did you know the AFP owes its existence to a couple of guys who egged Billy Hughes at a political rally in Warwick, and Hughes wanted personal control of their prosecution? After that he used them on his political enemies, including (wait for it) the Queensland Government, raiding the Queensland Government printing office.

  3. Scott Grant

    “The claims were denied at the time, and the denials were accepted by Faulkner and others”. Hmmmm. I am reminded of William Blum’s second rule of Watergate: “Never believe anything until it is officially denied.”.

    I thought of this recently as I watched Tony Abbott in question time emphatically denying something or other. I forget what. Amusingly, he appears to think that people will believe what he says.

  4. graybul

    Operation Sovereign Borders has been such a success by means of an imposed imperative of secrecy, denial of accountability and employment of ‘Immunity’ as a defence . . it was inevitable other branches of Government would broaden the threat. Even if by extension (R.A.N. use of “inadvertently” getting lost) Mills response to Faulkner’s outrage at being under surveillance was due to ” . . an APS employee had inadvertently come into conflict with the protocol . . . “. The Abbott Government is creating an environment conducive to “inadvertent mistakes”.
    “The price of freedom, is eternal vigilance”

  5. CML

    So, how can we find out who is visiting the offices of GOVERNMENT senators and members??!!!
    That would be far more useful information, given the alleged corrupt fundraising and other activities of the LNP.

  6. klewso

    “You can trust a politician!” – not like us plebs?

  7. Ian


    I can’t think of a better use of Faulkner’s last month as senator than putting heads on spikes as you put it.