"If the cabinet and the national security committee had a considered discussion about imposing data retention, why are its senior figures so fundamentally confused about what data is?"One of the problems is Brandis himself, a man with a hypertrophied estimation of his own talent and political judgment. This is the man who singlehandedly killed off the government's commitment to amending the Racial Discrimination Act with his "people have the right to be bigots" quip, which shifted the entire focus of that debate from s.18C and its impact on free speech to the idea of giving licence to bigotry. Yesterday was another demonstration of his political ineptitude. But in this case greater blame should be attached to Brandis' staff, in particular his chief of staff, Paul O'Sullivan. O'Sullivan is a very experienced public servant, diplomat and former head of ASIO. He has remarkably impressive credentials for a ministerial COS, but he lacks political experience, given his sole stint as a ministerial adviser was as foreign policy adviser in John Howard's office. A good COS must be across both policy and politics, and must be aware of their minister's strengths and weaknesses and plan accordingly. As a former chief spy, O'Sullivan is surely across the technical issues around metadata, but manifestly failed to ensure his minister was properly briefed on the issue of the day, and had some workable talking points, before he went on television to discuss it. The obvious question in all this is: if the cabinet and the national security committee had a considered discussion about imposing data retention, why are its senior figures so fundamentally confused about what data is? Perhaps the government has been forced to move more quickly than it wished to. Data retention isn't in the second tranche of national security legislation and is still being developed with telcos and ISPs (which must be sick to death of being consulted about the issue). In the hastily prepared media release for the announcement of the national security reforms (there's a repeated paragraph), data retention isn't even mentioned. But the Telegraph's Simon Benson revealed the scheme well ahead of the government's announcement on Tuesday, meaning there was no chance it wouldn't be the focus of attention. Those inclined to conspiracy theories might also wonder if the inclusion of browsing history isn't part of an ambit claim to be abandoned by the government in the spirit of compromise and "getting the balance right" between privacy and security when the matter comes before the Senate. The inclusion of browsing history is of course a huge threat to privacy. But the real problems with data retention relate to how it empowers governments and corporations to pursue whistleblowers, politicians, journalists and activists who want to hold them to account. Dumping browsing history won't change that.
Brandis’ disastrous data definition reflects a confused government
The government's stumbling over data retention raises the question of how prepared it was for this debate.