Liberal backbencher slams “Gestapo” data retention


news The first sign of tension has emerged within the Opposition over the Federal Government’s proposed new surveillance and data retention powers, with a prominent Liberal backbencher describing the proposal as being akin to tactics used by the Third Reich’s notorious Secret Police.

The Federal Attorney-General’s Department is currently promulgating a package of reforms which would see a number of wide-ranging changes made to make it easier for law enforcement and intelligence agencies to monitor what Australians are doing on the Internet. For example, one new power is a data retention protocol which would require ISPs to retain data on their customers’ Internet and telephone activities for up to two years, and changes which would empower agencies to source data on users’ activities on social networking sites.

In general, the package of surveillance reforms has attracted a significant degree of criticism from the wider community over the past few months since it was first mooted. Digital rights lobby group Electronic Frontiers Australia has described the new powers as being akin to those applied in restrictive countries such as China and Iran, while the Greens have described the package as “a systematic erosion of privacy”.

In separate submissions to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security inquiry into the reforms, a number of major telecommunications companies including iiNet and Macquarie Telecom, as well as telco and ISP representative industry groups, have expressed sharp concern over aspects of the reform package, stating that “insufficient evidence” had been presented to justify them. And Victoria’s Acting Privacy Commissioner has labelled some of the included reforms as “being characteristic of a police state”.

The Institute of Public Affairs, a conservative and free market-focused think tank, wrote in its submission to the parliamentary inquiry on the matter that many of the proposals of the Government were “unnecessary and excessive. “The proposal … is onerous and represents a significant incursion on the civil liberties of all Australians,” wrote the IPA in its submission, arguing that the data retention policy should be “rejected outright”.

So far, senior Opposition figures have been extremely quiet on the issue, with the Coalition believed to be generally supportive of the new measures. Shadow Attorney-General George Brandis, for example, would only say in July that he would “examine” the issues in the proposal “carefully”, while Shadow Communications has not yet publicly commented on the matter.

However, last night on the ABC’s Lateline program, long-time Liberal MP Steve Ciobo broke ranks with his party colleagues to severely criticise the surveillance package. “I think that this proposal is akin, frankly, to tactics that we would have seen utilised by the Gestapo or groups like that,” Ciobo said, echoing the Victorian Privacy Commission’s concerns about the surveillance proposal leading to a police state. Challenged about the statement on Twitter, Ciobo elaborated: ” What’s obscene about that statement?” he asked. “The only obscene thing is a proposal to monitor and record the entire population!”

The Liberal MP’s reference to Gestapo techniques is most likely a reference to the fact that the Secret Police of Hitlerite Germany was to a large degree concerned with collecting and collating a wide array information on German citizens, as an example of what French philosopher Michel Foucault has referred to as a “panopticon”, where authorities use the idea of universal surveillance on targets to influence them to self-police themselves. Although the comprehensiveness of the Gestapo’s information abilities has been since questioned by historians, the idea of controlling populations through universal surveillance is one that has persisted in political theory.

Since the advent of new surveillance technologies over the past several decades, such as surveillance cameras and telephone and Internet monitoring technology, the idea has persisted within political and law enforcement circles. Wikipedia states, in its page on Panopticism: “A central idea of Foucault’s panopticism concerns the systematic ordering and controlling of human populations through subtle and often unseen forces. Such ordering is apparent in many parts of the modernised and now, increasingly digitalised, world of information. Contemporary advancements in technology and surveillance techniques have perhaps made Foucault’s theories more pertinent to any scrutiny of the relationship between the state and its population.”

Ciobo is known for having an interest in technology as well as security. After being elected to the House of Representatives in 2001, the Liberal MP sat on the House of Representatives Standing Committee for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts from 2002 through 2004. In addition, he sat on the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, which is currently examining the surveillance proposal, from 2005 until 2007. Ciobo has a history as a lawyer, with bachelor and masters’ law degrees from Bond University and the Queensland University of Technology respectively.

The news comes as Attorney-General Nicola Roxon has this week sought to play down the implications of the Government’s proposed new surveillance powers. “As you will be aware, there has been a lot of press coverage about one component of the reforms – and that is data retention,” Roxon told a conference in Canberra this morning. Roxon’s full speech is available online here in Word docx format.

“Many of you will recall the disturbing murder of Cabramatta MP John Newman in Sydney in 1994. Call charge records and cell tower information were instrumental in the investigation and subsequent conviction on Phuong Ngo. These records allowed police to reconstruct the crime scene. Many investigations require law enforcement to build a picture of criminal activity over a period of time. Without data retention, this capability will be lost.”

“The intention behind the proposed reform is to allow law enforcement agencies to continue investigating crime in light of new technologies. The loss of this capability would be a major blow to our law enforcement agencies and to Australia’s national security.”

The issues raised by the new surveillance powers being proposed by the Federal Attorney-General’s Department go right to the heart of traditional liberal (as in liberalism, the philosophy which sits at the heart of the Liberal Party mindset) values. Freedom of speech, privacy, the freedom of the individual, the freedom to associate, minimal government intervention in everyday life … these are all values which the Liberal Party in general espouses, and I am not surprised to see Liberal backbenchers start to speak up about the draconian and Orwellian scheme which Labor is attempting to impose on Australians. This, after all, is a core Liberal Party role — to focus on the individual and stop the Government from having too much power to intervene in our lives.

I suspect that, as with the Internet filter and other similarly odious policies before it, what will happen with this new package of surveillance powers is that Liberal backbenchers will increasingly begin to raise the issue privately in party meetings and eventually publicly. At some stage, the message will get through to prominent Liberal leaders such as Joe Hockey, George Brandis and Malcolm Turnbull, and we will perhaps start to see these senior figures enter the data retention debate.

Image credit: Recuerdos de Pandora, Creative Commons


  1. I’m surprised the Liberals don’t make a point of difference with the government on this issue, and with internet filtering. As you point out, it’s right up there with their traditional values.

    Is it because it doesn’t gel with their “war on terror” scaremongering, or because they don’t want to piss off the religious conservatives on internet filtering? I imagine there’s quite a few tech savvy people who may not otherwise vote conservative, but could be swayed by the LIbs opposing policy like this.

    I’m not one of them, but I certainly feel pretty uncomfortable about it.

  2. As as been shown over at least the last 20 years or so, both the Liberal and Labor governements are nothing but puppets of the US (eg. Iraq, Afghanistan, Julian Assange etc). We all should know who is really pulling the strings.

    Just like Sweden has had directives from the US re: The Pirate Bay & JA, don’t expect any Australian government to go against their masters.

    • Very true Trev. The Yanks are pulling the strings via so called ‘free trade’ agreements, which is the reason the Libs won’t be too vocal about it. Or if they do become vocal, it will only be only to the beat Labor over the head, but as soon as they get into power, I’m sure they’ll bring it in on the sly .

      Both parties need more backbone to stand up to Yanks and their increasingly overreaching fascistic policies.

  3. “Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, ‘regretted.’ Believe me this is true. Each act, each occasion is worse than the last, but only a little worse. You wait for the next and the next. You wait for one shocking occasion, thinking that others, when such a shock comes, will join you in resisting somehow.
    Suddenly it all comes down, all at once. You see what you are, what you have done, or, more accurately, what you haven’t done (for that was all that was required of most of us: that we did nothing).” Martin Meyer on 1930si Germany “They Thought They Were Free”.

    Australia, 2012. Too damn prophetic for me

    • It’s true, this is exactly how Germany was led down this garden path. You can bet I and others will be resisting this kind of policy in Australia every step of the way.

      • +1 to that.
        There will be plenty of people trying to help. Sadly, I doubt many of those will be in the mainstream media, unless & until the Opposition choose to make a big noise out of it.

  4. You know, this kind of article helps crystallise my thinking.

    As much as I think the current Liberal party are a bunch of nutters who will tear down anything good that’s been done over the past few years, there’s NO WAY IN HELL I’m voting Labor at the next election…

    All the LNP need to do is come up with a reasonable NBN policy, admit climate change is happening and needs to be addressed, and vigorously oppose this data retention, and they’ll romp it in.
    (though I can’t see the first two happening while Dr No is the party leader…)
    I figure the first two are the issues that cost the LNP the last election, and the third could easily cost Labor the next one.

    • Unfortunately many of us do not believe in the man made global warming campaign – seeing it as more of the same propaganda we see in the war on terror or think of the children, though in this case as a global tax to fund the UN in its quest for global socialism. Got an email from Jindabyne the other day, 2 metres of snow on the ski fields, more forecast, best season since 2000.

      The NBN risks being a very expensive boondoggle – not sure why we needed a national network to resolve a local access issue. Access could have been handled by councils – along with roads, footpaths and water pipes. Some government assistance with training and trunking networks to the neediest and Bob would have been our uncle.

      I am pi**ed at the mandatory strip searches at airports by DNA destroying full body scanners (supported by both major parties). This is the problem with politics, the price of my vote is different to the price of yours. It will be interesting to see if they romp in or just stumble across the line because many of their former supporters are questioning the direction that the liberal compass actually points either because they are a bunch of old men who are genuinely lost or because they have abdicated their responsibilities pursuing a small target policy.

      • I wont argue the science of climate change with you, that’s a discussion for other sites (other than to say “best season in 10 years” means 9/10 recent seasons have been worse than it was only 10 years ago – but that’s year-to-year weather variability anyway), but it clearly *is* an issue for a large proportion of Australians – how else did the Greens get such a large proportion of the vote?

        And the NBN won a lot of votes to Labor, or at least away from the LNP. The independents that handed government to Labor also stated that it was a key factor in their decision, IIRC. So I stand by my assertion, that those two issues, more than any other, cost the LNP coalition the last election.

        Personally, I think the Greens have much better policies than either of the two major parties on rights & privacy (which is kind of weird, really, the Greens, who are frequently accused of being socialists, standing up for individual rights more than the supposedly small-L liberal politicians…)

        • As someone who always votes ‘below the line’for senate elections… always filling the 50+ boxes carefully.

          Vote for the Sex party, the Pirate party, the Greens, anyone you like and really want to see get a seat.
          Just do not vote above the line and let them pick your voting preferences or candidate for you. Its your vote. Use it to the fullest, at least then you have the satisfaction of knowing you did the most you could to get what you want from politics on voting day.

          Sad but true.

    • You don’t understand Godwin’s law…

      Godwin’s is about hyperbole, not about direct analogy.

      eg. “I was banned from the forum for expressing my opinion, it’s like it’s Nazi Germany over there” would be a Godwin.

      Comparing fascist or totalitarian acts with the acts of the Nazi’s is appropriate, particularly in regards to police state tactics, where the Gestapo figured highly (being the secret police…). Data retention is exactly that, the presumption of innocence is removed and your data is captured ‘just in case’. And once they have it, who has access to it?

      • No, I think it is you who doesn’t understand. The fact that Nazis did something doesn’t necessarily make it bad, so what is the point in the comparison? A comparison to Nazism is never constructive, it is only useful for fearmongering or distraction.

        If a politician or anyone else wants to criticise something they should actually comment on the issues and why they are bad, not just say “oh hey look, it’s kinda similar to stuff some bad guys did 70 years ago”. The former is valid commentary, the latter is just pissing in the wind.

        • Saying comparisons to the Nazis are ‘never’ constructive is itself not constructive. The issue at hand is giving our police the records of your movements on the internet. I don’t think anyone is suggesting the current politicians will immediately become Nazis when this policy is in place, but think of the successive governments that will one day have access to these powers. We must not dismiss the lessons learned from Germany’s history out of hand.

          • “The issue at hand is giving our police the records of your movements on the internet.”
            You’re right, that is the issue at hand, and it’s what we should be focusing on. I’m glad we agree.

          • You are very closed minded. History has shown these sort of powers can be abused, this is not hyperbole, it is documented fact. Some of the powers used by the Gestapo were brought in before the nazis, with only benign intentions. If I recall correctly they made extensive use of census data to find jews, it would be hyperbole to suggest that a national census is a bad thing because Hitler misused it, but we are talking about a very serious increase in police power. You can’t just throw historical context out of a debate because it makes you uncomfortable.

          • “Uncomfortable”? I would suggest the only uncomfortable people here are the ones who have so little morality of their own that they feel the need to derive it from history.

        • If comparisons to nazism are never constructive, it becomes impossible to learn any lessons from nazism.
          I think your stated premise is too absolute. I would agree that careless comparisons, or those used without context (or in the wrong context) are not constructive.

  5. It is about time that the LNP started making some serious noise about this issue.

    Unfortunately remarks by one back bencher are not a statement by the LNP condemning this proposal. Perhaps the LNP are too focused on winning the next election and not on the issues that have a long term impact on the Australian population. The silence from the opposition can only be interpreted as support for this draconian proposal.

    Supporting either of the LNP or Labor at the ballot box is no longer an option it would seem.

  6. And here we are taking another one in the butt, what happened to Australians ? I remember back in the seventies Aussies really cared about what was happening in their country and acted accordingly I remember being involved in one such protest/rally where vehicles involved where seen from one end of the horizon to other with 10’s of thousands of people and what was that for ??? to legalise CB radio really minor compared to this outrageous package of reforms.
    Other countries go up in arms, protest on the streets and have nation wide protests/strikes for lesser things, eg Australians… poor baby boomers loosing their right to retire at a respectable age and what do we do nothing….argh Im sick of talking about it. We deserve what we get because we sit on our hands and let it happen..

  7. I don’t agree with the terms of “Gestapo” as it is nazi related (in Germany you could get yourself into trouble for mentioning such things).

    While I never liked Data Retention – think of it as IR Laws – it’s a form of oppression.

    Perhaps it’s a taste of their own medicine in a different way.

    It’s abit late to think Coalition and LNP members are in the clear of their stupidity.

  8. I find it hard to believe that any politician would trust any IT employee.

    I wouldn’t in that position. Laws might be against it, but anyone with the access likely has the skills to hide their evidence. The IT people I’ve met are all raging liberal hippies at heart. Some of them work for government departments that would have to deal with this stuff. They’re highly skilled and professional, but I’d have no expectations that they would stand for this crap.

    Bradley Manning was just a pleb user, these guys run the systems.

    You’d be a pretty dumb politician to trust your private conversations to them after enacting this.

  9. I disagree that the proposed changes are against the core values of the Liberal party. The Liberal party nowadays is very far removed from the values and principles it was founded on.

    Their pandering to big business, religious oligarchy and conservative (by nature authoritarion) interests define the current Liberal party and are pretty conflicted with liberalism.

  10. Accountability will be the loser. Whistleblowers and informants will no longer have anonymity. It will only be a matter of time before the information held becomes a political weapon like those of tyrants past.

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