“Skype. That’s a telephone that you use on a computer?”

That was Philip Ruddock, yesterday, at the hearings into the data retention bill by the Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security. Ruddock distinguished himself at an earlier hearing in December when he dwelt at length on why internet cafes weren’t subject to the bill, apparently being unaware that internet cafes have ISPs and don’t run their own internet access service.

Ruddock is a dogged advocate of mass surveillance, and he has already proposed that data retention be extended to five years instead of two. He has repeatedly argued that mass surveillance is justified because the “right to life” is more important than the “right to privacy”.

Ruddock’s police state ideology is one thing. But his staggering ignorance of the most basic matters relating to communications is quite another. And it is apparent from the hearings of the committee so far that Ruddock is not alone in not understanding the basics of communications technology — a failing members evidently share with the Attorney-General himself, who doesn’t understand the concept of metadata at the heart of his own bill.

For a committee charged with vetting the most serious assault on a free press and privacy in a generation, and one that has sought to expand its oversight role in relation to intelligence and security matters, this is unacceptable. MPs and senators purporting to represent the national interest in relation to security and intelligence have no excuse not to understand the basics of the bills that are scrutinising. The inevitable result will be the toxic combination of profound ignorance and surveillance state thinking that in the US delivered industrial-scale, illegal NSA surveillance.

If JCIS wants to be taken seriously as the oversight body on intelligence, its members need to dramatically lift their game.