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Oct 5, 2017

Labor’s cowardice has delivered us into a surveillance state

When Australia's civil liberties needed protecting, Labor went missing. The consequences are nebulous -- but very real.

Bernard Keane — Politics Editor

Bernard Keane

Politics Editor

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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29 comments

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29 thoughts on “Labor’s cowardice has delivered us into a surveillance state

  1. RegT49

    Bernard, I think your point is valid, but the political consequences for Labor for “standing up” then facing the hysterical onslaught from the MSM means there’s no room for courage in opposition in Australia. Not an excuse, just a fact. The MSM will no doubt pillory the Greens and NEXT, but the consequences for them are insignificant compared to the impact on the Opposition’s tenuous hold on credibility.

    1. Raaraa

      Perhaps this is an issue with the MSM. I mean it would have been great if they are diverse enough to have viewpoints for and against. But at the moment it looks like at any time someone takes a different viewpoint, they are hammered for it.

    2. Wallywonga

      Well it’s probably Turnbull’s last card to play in trying to turn around those polls isn’t it? Even had a conference to put the Labour premiers on the spot, in the hope one would falter. You can bet that MSM editors (mostly Murdoch) will have their fingers poised over the print button, with appropriately supportive headlines if any Labourite assertively resists the security measures.
      The coalition have had a bloody good run playing the refugee card, but this issue finally seems to have become passe to MSM, although cuddles Dutton still gives it a try.
      Doesn’t say much for the health of bipartisan democracy, however, does it?

  2. old greybearded one

    Not turn us into China, turn us into England. It is as bad. The trouble is that both sides are unprincipled in this debate. The terrorists win, we lose our freedoms. I am reminded of the report on the Kelly Outbreak from the Victorian Royal Commission. The chief cop reckoned that the harassment of family members beyond reason was a major factor. I reckon Ned was in need of mental assistance, but reading the treatment of his family and the poor Irish in general you see how to build a terrorist. Has all this surveillance made England safer? All the “terrorist” cases in Australia recently are about people well known to the police and with no doubt as to their identity. What has been manifest is incompetence.

    1. Marilyn J Shepherd

      And yet the AFP claim to have foiled stuff without anyone ever asking for evidence or details or facts

  3. PaulM

    Maybe the ALP isn’t cowardly on National Security, Bernard. Have you ever stopped to think that, maybe, in its drift to the right, it has come to believe the same mantras which occupy the rest of the Anglosphere?
    One minor quibble. It is by convention, only, that the leader of the largest non-Government party is called the Leader of the Opposition. There is nothing by way of convention which prevents the ALP agreeing with the Govt, it’s just that in cases like this, it forfeits the right to be considered to be exercising leadership

  4. Marilyn J Shepherd

    Why would the ALP say anything about this? They cheered when Howard bombed Afghanistan, only mildly dissented over Iraq, called Assange a criminal, backed the abuse of Hicks and Habib, love jailing and trading babies and parents around the world so why on earth would they care about civil liberties for anyone at all except themselves.

    1. Will

      I think you make a very good point, Marilyn. Labor has shifted well to the right on foreign policy – and hence security policy – in recent decades. But it does seem too, that ever since Whitlam, Labor has become terrified of crossing the American intelligence establishment (to the point where you even see Labor characters like Arbib and Danby feeding it political intelligence on Labor people). I’d wager Labor’s received Langley’s instructions (implicitly or explicitly) to stand down on the issue of public surveillance. There’s the cowardice.

  5. Carroll Frank

    Tony Abbott opposed everything for opposing’s sake. That did not make for good democracy. It meant Labor had to rely on the wily Nick Xenophon who is always ready to extract his pound of flesh.

    1. old greybearded one

      Very true. Democracy is not served by constant cross chamber warfare, just look at the US. It is served by thoughtful opposition. It is also not served well by large majorities. Abbott set new low standards as opposition leader. I never thought to see such a clearly unfit person in such a position. Having seen him first hand, I could not believe it. But here we are becoming more and more like a totalitarian state.

  6. Rais

    From the way State and Federal Labor leaders have lined up today it doesn’t look as if Labor support for the surveillance State is due to their cowardice in the face of a Coalition wedge. It’s their policy. The actual Opposition is the Greens, NXT and possibly Libdems.

  7. Srs21

    Come on Labor…..don’t agree with this. Think…..do we really need to be under constant surveillance. Some maybe but not the majority.This is Australia, you know ” fair dinkum, true blue, kind hearted always fighting for the battler” were not China or North Korea. Use your commonsense. Once those laws are in, we’ll never be able to get rid of them. Cancer on our Aussie society.

    1. CML

      Before you get too carried away…I listened to Mark Dreyfus (shadow attorney general) on RN Drive last night, and he was adamant that Labor has NOT agreed to pass ANY legislation regarding these matters until the Labor Party has had a chance to look at what it contains. He further said that the ALP reserves the right to request changes to said legislation to protect the civil liberties of the general public. Further…I understand that there could be constitutional questions for the FEDERAL government, if it chooses to introduce ‘blanket’ measures on the 14 day detention without charge.
      So…we all need to make sure that the State governments, particularly those of the Labor persuasion, adopt similar precautions.
      The message is: start contacting your STATE member!!

      1. AR

        CML – is there anything a “Labor” pollie sez that you don’t believe?
        Dreyfus, FFS!, look at his piss-weak Whistle Blower Act, which took 2 years of grovelling before bureaucrats before being forced to parliament by Wilkie and only prevented from making their situation worse by Green amendments.
        And he was once a noted civil rights lawyer – what is it about those soft green leather benches, are they pumped with some soporific mind control tanning chemicals?

  8. Always Carefree

    Or alternatively both major political parties egged on by the economist class who believe in the fairy tails of their profession turned Australia into a melting pot of every race and religion on earth all in the name of “growth”. If you hadn’t noticed lots of those races and religions on this earth have centuries and millennia of history of not getting on much. And in fact having a quite definite desire to kill each other.

    You really can’t complain when you’ve supported the import of at least some people representing every long standing hatred on Earth within the borders of a single nation when the government feels it has to take whatever measures are necessary to try and stop the powder keg going off

  9. Woopwoop

    And 10 year olds detained for 14 days! Aren’t these people parents? Do they know how naive and innocent 10 year olds are?

  10. ozziejack

    I despair of Australian politics at the moment. I am not sure whether Malcolm is announcing a policy or backflipping a previous announcement. Bill sits there often silent relying on his Union connections to stay there long enough. There seems to be a total lack of leadership on both sides – no vision for Australia and no inspiration. No wonder the Australian public is fed up with politicians and politics in general. Both sides of politics used to have inspirational leaders – where did they go?

    1. Emanuel Grima

      Yes like Clive Evatt and others who kept Labor out of office for over 20 years. Not to add a certain leader mentioned in this edition of Crikey. Yes they were very inspirational

      1. PaulM

        Perhaps you mean HV (Bert) Evatt!

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