To its credit, Labor under Bill Shorten has adopted a stance of policy bravery on economics. Time and again it led the debate on politically difficult issues, or in areas considered untouchable by politicians. It dragged the government kicking and screaming to reform on superannuation tax concessions. It went to an election promising not one but two carbon pricing schemes and negative gearing and capital gains tax changes. And far from it being a political suicide note, it came within a couple of seats of winning.

On national security, however, Labor under Shorten has made a different calculation. It has decided that not merely is discretion the better part of valour but that it must not allow even a glimmer of daylight between itself and the Coalition on the relentless crackdown by the latter on basic civil rights. That applied under Abbott. It applies even more under Turnbull.

But not even Ten Flag Tony, at his most hyperbolic, proposed a national CCTV surveillance system to track all of us whenever we’re in public, which is what Malcolm Turnbull is now pushing. Not even Abbott wanted to turn us into China, where the government devotes massive resources to monitoring everything its population says and does. Where is the opposition? Where is the scrutiny and rigorous scepticism? Nowhere to be found.

It’s true that, for direct impact, if there was some bizarre choice to be made between policy bravery on economics and policy bravery on civil liberties, it’s both a policy and political no-brainer. Labor’s economic policies stand to improve the material circumstances of Australians over the long run. Civil liberties are nebulous, diffuse — it’s hard to spot the benefits of protecting them, and the “losers” in such a debate are often pretty unpleasant people. It’s a politically thankless task.

But it’s not a choice. Labor could have walked and chewed gum at the same time, identifying areas of overreach — like Turnbull’s surveillance state proposal is — and objecting. Does it not believe it has the political skills to make that case? Are the scars inflicted by John Howard still there, a decade on, lingering the corporate memory of Labor?

Whatever the short-term politics — perhaps Labor increases its currently good chances of winning the next election by playing coward on national security, maybe it doesn’t — the long-term impacts will be there. More surveillance means a greater chilling effect on society. Surveillance leads to less trust between citizens, to a greater reluctance to express oneself, to whistleblowers more easily being identified. It’s hard to see the specific consequences, because the chilling effect will always be measured in counterfactuals and negatives. But it’s real. That story that never got written exposing government corruption, because a whistleblower was too scared. That journalist who decided not to pursue a matter in the public interest because of the institutional power that could be deployed against her. The woman who was stalked because she dated a policeman who could track her every movement. The innocent terror suspect banged up with no redress because of racism and desperate politicians.

In the fight against this crazy obsession with surveillance, Labor went missing. The Greens stood up. Nick Xenophon stood up. Hell, even David Leyonhjelm stood up. But democracy only really works properly when an opposition opposes.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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