news Federal Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus has flatly refused to take part in a live election interview on key technology issues in his portfolio, such as copyright reform, data retention, telecommunications surveillance and Internet piracy, stipulating instead that all questions on the issues must be submitted in writing.
The Attorney-General’s portfolio is a key one for the technology sector, during election periods or otherwise. Over the past several years, through several consecutive Attorneys-General under the Australian Labor Party (Nicola Roxon, Robert McClelland and now Dreyfus), the policies of the Attorney-General as well as the activities of the Attorney-General’s Department and other portfolio agencies such as the Australian Federal Police and the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, have constantly been debated in Australia’s technology press.
Some of the more high-profile issues have included the Government’s controversial support for new data retention and telecommunications legislation that would give law enforcement and intelligence agencies unprecedented power to look into Australians’ online lives; an ongoing series of closed talks held between the ISP industry and content owners such as movie studios; copyright and intellectual property law reform; Internet filtering and more.
Delimiter has invited Dreyfus to conduct an election interview on these and other related issues in the Attorney-General’s portfolio, either in person or via telephone, several times over the past week. However, a spokesperson for the Labor MP has repeatedly confirmed that such an interview would not be granted, citing Dreyfus’ limited availability during the election period. The spokesperson also would not commit to making Dreyfus available during a doorstop interview in Sydney, where the majority of Australia’s technology press is based.
Instead, the spokesperson has invited Delimiter to submit questions in writing via email.
Dreyfus is not known to have discussed issues relating to the technology industry during the election campaign; in addition, the Attorney-General has only commented in a limited fashion on such issues previous to the campaign, despite intense public interest in issues such as the Government’s data retention plans.
During the election campaign, Dreyfus has appeared to focus instead on a series of local launches to support regional legal services around Australia.
For example, last week Dreyfus attended the the William Light School Trades Training Centre in South Australia to make a funding announcement with fellow Labor MP Steve Georganas. That same week Dreyfus attended the launch of the ‘FareShare’ kitchen in Victoria, where the MP announced new funding for the region’s Homeless Persons Legal Clinic. That week, Dreyfus also visited another location in Melbourne’s outer north, with the Labor candidate for the seat of Scullin, Andrew Giles, where Dreyfus announced the Rudd Labor Government would provide an extra $480,000 over the next four years to the Whittlesea Community Legal Service in Epping.
This week, Dreyfus has made several other similar announcements regarding boosts to local legal facilities. For example, this morning Dreyfus was in Queensland with the Labor MP for Oxley, announcing an extra $320,000 for the South West Brisbane Community Legal Centre. Yesterday, Dreyfus was scheduled to appear on Sky News’ ViewPoint program, although it is not clear whether any issues relevant to the technology sector were discussed.
The news comes as a number of organisations and commentators in Australia have called for greater debate during the election campaign of digital rights issues.
For example, several weeks ago, as the election period kicked off, the Australian chapter of the global Internet Society, which aims to promote the open development, evolution and use of the Internet for the benefit of global society, called for both sides of politics to urgently discuss digital rights issues during the election. “The Australian Chapter of the Internet Society calls upon the major parties in the forthcoming Federal election to come clean on your policies and provide urgent clarity with respect to the increasing infringements on the online activities of Australians,” the group said in a statement.
“It is time the Australian people had a chance to participate in an open discussion on where the line sits between law enforcement, crime prevention and our right to privacy,” Narelle Clark, President of the Australian Chapter said at the time. “From s313 of the Telecommunications Act through secret proposals for metadata retention to PRISM, the Australian people might be forgiven for thinking they still lived in a penal colony. These actions need the clear light of the Australian sun.”
At the time, the Internet Society Board of Trustees, which was holding a meeting in Berlin, called on the global Internet community to stand together in support of open Internet access, freedom,
“Robert Hinden, Chair of the Board of Trustees, stated, “Berlin is a city where freedom triumphed over tyranny. Human and technological progress are not based on building walls, and we are confident that the human ideals of communication and creativity will always route around these kinds of attempts to constrain them. We are especially disappointed that the very governments that have traditionally supported a more balanced role in Internet governance are consciously and deliberately hosting massive Internet surveillance programs.”
In a commentary article for the Conversation, Sean Rintel, lecturer in strategic communications at the University of Queensland, wrote that both politicians and journalists were avoiding discussing digital rights issues during the election, despite the issues being of strong public interest.
“While in some ways this lack of focus on digital rights is a product of a lack of relevant announcements by political candidates, the lack of active reporting on these issues is also an indictment on the media given how much the digital rights issues raised by Edward Snowden, Bradley Manning, and Julian Assange cases completely dominated the news almost immediately prior to the election,” wrote Rintel. “… as a citizen I also require the fourth (and fifth) estate to investigate all aspects of the election, both what is said and what is not. For me this means asking politicians the hard questions about digital rights. For others it will be different issues that seem to have been missed in the perpetual present.”
The only parties known to have focused at all on online rights and privacy during the election are minor parties such as the Greens, the Pirate Party and WikiLeaks, which have all taken a position against increasing Internet surveillance, and towards further transparency of the process by which Australians’ digital rights are administered.
Delimiter also intends to invite Shadow Attorney George Brandis to a formal interview on digital rights issues during the election.
Wow, crybaby Renai, right? It’d be very easy to simply dismiss this article as the product of a jilted minor journalist who is unhappy that he can’t get an interview with an important and busy Federal Minister during an election cycle. Lots of people will ask me, after reading this article, why I didn’t simply agree to do an email interview with Dreyfus. Knowing my own ego as I do, this is a logical argument, and normally I am quick to level such conclusions at other journalists who write these kinds of articles.
However, I think this is a somewhat naive view in this case.
For starters, I’ve sent many questions to and interviewed Federal Attorney-Generals by email for the better part of a decade now. But the extremely secretive office of the Attorney-General and the Attorney General’s Department always gives very vague answers of only one paragraph per question in this kind of interview. As a journalist, I don’t see a point in conducting this kind of interview with Dreyfus, when I know that all I’m going to get back is carefully censored and extremely vague platitudes. The only real answers I’ve got from the Attorney-General’s portfolio over the past few years have come under Freedom of Information — and then heavily censored and redacted.
With a live interview of any kind, at least the subject can’t run away from the questions.
Dreyfus’ attitude also runs contra to the normal run of affairs about access to politicians. Delimiter has strong access to comment from other Labor Minister such as Communications Minister Anthony Albanese and Minister Assisting for the Digital Economy Kate Lundy, Parliamentary Secretary for Broadband Ed Husic. In addition, on the other side of the fence, we also have good relationships with Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Greens Communications Spokesperson Scott Ludlam. Even when it comes to Ministers from State Governments, we enjoy strong access.
Dreyfus is virtually the only Federal Government Minister or politician with any interest in the technology sector who won’t talk to Delimiter.
What we’re seeing at the moment, as Sean Rintel so perfectly wrote in his article for The Conversation, is a situation where both major sides of politics are completely unwilling to discuss what their policies are around Australians’ digital rights, because they know that both sides largely share the same policies, and that by and large those policies are incredibly unpopular.
Neither major side of politics wants to discuss out loud the fact that they support massively expanding Internet surveillance of Australians and storing data about every single telephone call or email conversation they participate in. Neither side of politics wants to discuss the fact that they are under immense pressure from content industries not to reform archaic copyright legislation. Neither side of politics wants to discuss Section 313 of the Telecommunications Act, which government agencies are using to secretly filter secret lists of websites from public viewing. Neither side of politics wants to discuss the secret talks the Attorney-General’s Department has been hosting for the past several years between the ISP and content industries. Neither side of politics wants to discuss Australia’s support for and participation in major US surveillance activities such as the NSA’s PRISM program.
The only people who do want to see these issues discussed are ordinary Australians, and the minor parties, such as the Greens, Pirate Party and WikiLeaks. Well, I suggest that if people do want to see these issues discussed in the remaining three weeks of the election campaign, that they raise their voice about it now and make some noise. Because there is a very limited window of opportunity.
I’d like to see, as a first step, the Greens, Pirate Party and WikiLeaks get together to hold an election debate on the issue, inviting the major parties as well. If they don’t turn up, the debate should be held and widely publicised anyway. I know that representatives from all these groups read Delimiter. I’d get onto that now, if I were you guys. After all, these issues represent a significant point of difference between the major and minor parties. Now is the time to exploit that, for all it’s worth.
Image credit: Attorney-General’s Department