news The Greens have called for the Federal Parliament to hold a wide-ranging inquiry into Australia’s electronic surveillance efforts, as pressure grows on the nation’s intelligence agencies to come clean on their covert activities in a manner similar to which is being seen internationally, and revelations by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden continue to create aftershocks in Australia.
“The Government is running out of places to hide as the diplomatic fallout widens over Australia’s uncritical subservience to US surveillance overreach,” a statement issued by the Greens this week said. “When Parliament resumes next week the Greens will seek support from the Attorney General and Shadow Attorney General for a wide ranging public inquiry similar to that occurring in many countries including the US and some of our closest allies.”
“The NSA’s out-of-control surveillance culture has caused massive uproar all over the world, but the two major parties in Australia have maintained tight-lipped silence since the Edward Snowden broke cover and blew the whistle,” said Greens communications spokesperson Senator Scott Ludlam. With further revelations that Australian embassies are being used as branch offices for the NSA, the regional backlash has begun in earnest. That silence is no longer possible.”
“Sunlight is the best disinfectant. While the Government will no doubt try to hide behind ‘national security’, one of the most troubling things about the NSA’s surveillance programme is how much of its vast scope has nothing whatsoever to do with national security,” Ludlam said.
In Opposition, Coalition MPs such as Malcolm Turnbull, now the Communications Minister, also expressed concerns about surveillance activities being conducted by groups such as the US National Security Agency.
The Sydney Morning Herald reported in August that the Australian Signals Directorate was in a partnership with British, American and Singaporean intelligence agencies to tap undersea fibre optic telecommunications cables that link Asia, the Middle East and Europe and carry much of Australia’s international phone and internet traffic.
Subsequently, the newspaper reported in late October that the ASD was using the nation’s embassies to intercept phone calls and internet data in neighbouring countries. Over the past week The Guardian reported that the ASD worked alongside America’s National Security Agency in mounting a massive surveillance operation on Indonesia during the United Nations climate change conference in Bali in 2007.
The news has caused diplomatic ructions between Australia and international partner nations such as Indonesia. Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa on Monday labelled Australia’s response to complaints that the embassy was used to collect data and eavesdrop on Indonesian interests as unacceptable.
The principle Members of Parliament responsible for discussing the issue are the Attorney-General George Brandis, and the Shadow Attorney-General, formerly the Attorney-General under Labor Prime Ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd, Mark Dreyfus. However, both have been reluctant to discuss the issue of surveillance in public, citing national security concerns and an unwillingness to comment on current operations.
There are already some forums which exist that allow politicians such as Ludlam to attempt to hold some of the Australian agencies concerned to account for their actions with respect to surveillance operations. For example, hearings held by the Senate’s Environment and Communications Committee, for instance, as well as other parliamentary committees, do provide forums for these kind of issues to be raised.
Similarly, a detailed inquiry was held this year into legislation raised by the Attorney-General’s Department which would have significantly expanded data retention and telecommunications surveillance powers held by law enforcement agencies. The inquiry resulted in a number of the proposed powers being shelved.
Ludlam’s right. Given the continual revelations coming out of Fairfax journalist Philip and The Guardian (especially associated with NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden), there is clearly demand for a parliamentary inquiry to be held into surveillance and intelligence-gathering issues.
However, I don’t expect either Labor or the Coalition — and especially not the Attorney-General or Shadow Attorney-General, who normally back everything the law enforcement and intelligence agencies want — to support the creation of such an inquiry. That’s simply not the way Australian politicians work. Despite the concerns of the public on the issue, very few politicians seem willing to take up the cause of holding our national spy agencies accountable.
Image credit: Screenshot of the film Prism by Praxis Films, believed to be OK to use under fair use