News that the Coalition aims to give police the power to demand ID papers at airports came as a significant blow to Australian civil rights last week.

Defence is, after all, a Liberal issue, and when you look at what Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has done with the judiciary, people seeking asylum, and certain failed crackdowns on visa fraud, giving police the power to demand ID without proper cause just sounded like another step in the slow march to inevitable, absolute surveillance.

What was shocking was how little opposition Dutton and Co faced. Because even in an election year, and with both legal and security experts criticising the new powers as authoritarian, unnecessary and likely to increase racial profiling, Labor leader Bill Shorten couldn’t muster more than “well do you have the money to continue eroding civil rights?” as a response.

Today, Crikey looks back at some highlights of Labor failing to speak out against the Coalition’s attacks on civil liberties (AKA its job).

Spying on Australians

Dutton’s behind-the-scenes push to give the Australian Signals Directorate powers to spy on Australians made headlines in April. Described as giving off “shades of Big Brother” by the otherwise deeply conservative Daily Telegraph ($), a proposal to turn the foreign spy agency against Australian civilians came as both a shock to ASIO and AFP, who traditionally hold that power via warrants.

But while the Tele and even Foreign Minister Julie Bishop hit out at a policy that could, in theory, only add to Dutton’s discretionary powers, Labor was apparently more outraged over the policy being leaked, rather than, y’know, the massive breach to privacy it would entail.

And while they did provide some lip service to the separation of powers, that particular criticism rings hollow when you consider…

Consolidating the Home Affairs mega-department

When news broke that Dutton would like to oversee our intelligence agencies and procure some more discretionary powers for himself, please and thanks, critics went in hard. Most of the proponents seemed to come from Coalition politicians and bureaucrats; no one at ASIO, the AFP, or anywhere else, really, seemed to want domestic intelligence under the new Home Affairs mega-department.

This included shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus, who hit out at legislation introduced earlier in the month that would add intelligence to citizenship, freedom of information and other areas over which the Home Affairs Minister already enjoyed unprecedented discretionary power.

This was only, however, after Labor voted for the bill anyway.

Facial recognition database and metadata retention

The list of cyber-spying initiatives Labor might criticise then just blindly accept goes back years. All state parties, including Victoria’s superficially progressive Andrews’ government, signed up for the terrifying new facial recognition database in 2017.

The federal party also passed George Brandis’ metadata retention laws in 2015, despite the fact few in Parliament, let alone the guy advocating for the changes, were quite clear on what metadata was. The only person who apparently did, perennial nerd Scott Ludlam, is now gone thanks to our apparently never-ending citizenship crisis. Speaking of citizenship …

All things immigration

This feels like a cheat, because it goes without saying that Labor has rolled over on everything immigration-related since it ate itself during the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years.

But the party’s capitulation here bears highlighting. Not only do they support indefinite offshore detention and refoulement (AKA turn-backs), Labor has waved through the Australian Border Force Act in an attempt to silence offshore whistleblowers, and even, in 2015, hastily joined forces with the Abbott government at the last minute to make indefinite detention on Manus and Nauru legal.


There are, as always, signs of hope when it comes to Labor. Just this week new MP Ged Kearney hit out at indefinite offshore immigration detention. But as the party moves towards its national conference in July, there persists a frustrating attitude that action on refoulement and offshore detention is too politically risky, and the issue is settled.

Defence is after all, as another Labor Right opposition leader’s chief of staff once said, “a Liberal issue”.

Best to let them have it, and not even try making it a Labor one.

What’s YOUR favourite Labor rollover? Write now to [email protected]!

Peter Fray

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