news Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has declined a request to comment on the Federal Government’s controversial surveillance and data retention policy, despite significant public demand for the Liberal MP and the Coalition in general to do so.
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 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”.
Yesterday, Delimiter highlighted the issue in an email to Turnbull’s office, highlighting the extensive public criticism of the proposal, and the fact that the issue was strongly related to core liberal (liberalism) values such as privacy, freedom of speech, the freedom to associate and curtailing government intervention in the private life of citizens. These concepts are core tenets underpinning Liberal Party values.
In response, Turnbull’s office said only that the MP would comment on the issue ‘down the track’.
The Shadow Communications Minister’s refusal to comment on the data retention and surveillance package comes despite significant public demand for him to do so. On Tuesday Delimiter invited readers on Twitter to re-tweet a message asking the Opposition to comment at all on the issue, including Turnbull’s Twitter address in the message.
Some 61 people re-tweeted this message, and a further 148 re-tweeted a follow-up tweet noting that they would like to see Attorney-General face a higher degree of media scrutiny on the issue through an interview on the ABC’s flagship national affairs program 7:30, which has been notable in recent weeks for its stringent approach to fact-checking politicians.
Turnbull’s reticence to comment also comes as other figures within the Coalition have not been as silent as the Member for Wentworth.
Earlier this week 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!”
And yesterday, Ciobo continued his attack on the surveillance package on Twitter, re-tweeting comments which the IPA had made to the parliamentary inquiry into the matter. “The suite of policies proposed in the Attorney General’s Discussion Paper add up to one of the most significant attacks on civil liberties in Australian history,” the IPA’s representatives told the inquiry. “Many of the proposals breach the rule of law, severely curb civil liberties, and threaten freedom of speech.”
Turnbull’s reticence to comment also 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.”
In my view, Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has a responsibility to comment on the surveillance and data retention package which the Attorney-General’s Department is currently trying to push through into legislation. Turnbull is one of Australia’s leading proponents of liberalism, and as the IPA has pointed out very clearly, much of the package being pushed forward at the moment runs directly contrary to that philosophy. Then, too, isn’t Turnbull Australia’s Shadow Communications Minister? This seems to be pretty clearly in his portfolio.
I, for one, would be severely disappointed if senior Liberal figures such as Turnbull quietly stood by while a system of universal surveillance was imposed on Australians. I’m not sure what more it takes to get senior politicians engaged with this sort of proposal, but if four dozen requests through social media to Turnbull in the space of half an hour and the Victorian Privacy Commissioner describing the proposals as being akin to a “police state” aren’t a signal that something of interest to the Member for Wentworth is going on here, I don’t know what would be.
Image credit: Office of Malcolm Turnbull