news Greens Senator and Communications Spokesman Scott Ludlam has has accused Attorney-General George Brandis of delivering an “embarassing and borderline hysterical” and “infantile” display in Federal Parliament, due to the Liberal Senator’s continued refusal to answer basic questions about the surveillance powers used by Australian intelligence agencies.
In the Senate yesterday, Ludlam pointed out to Brandis that more than 6,000 organisations globally, including major technology companies and Australian groups interested in civil liberties, such as the Greens, Electronic Frontiers Australia and the Pirate Party, had joined a global Internet blackout against indiscriminate government surveillance. The event was known as “The Day We Fight Back” and was held yesterday.
The event has particularly been held following ongoing revelations by whistleblower Edward Snowden about the National Security Agency in the US, which have forced US President Barack Obama to place strict controls to the agency in terms of how it can utilise electronic surveillance. Snowden’s revelations have had a significant impact in Australia, and the Senate will shortly open an inquiry into surveillance locally.
“They are joining their voices with business, civil society organisations and even senior Republican and Democratic congress men and women to demand reforms to the dragnet surveillance conducted by the US NSA,” said Ludlam. “Does this government and, in particular, the Attorney-General recognise the legitimate concerns of Australians about indiscriminate surveillance, or does he honestly believe there are no reforms necessary here in Australia?”
In response to Ludlam’s question (you can watch the entire video here), Brandis said:
“I note that Senator Ludlam has today published on the Guardian website an article in praise of the American traitor Edward Snowden displaying a photograph of a bus bearing the signage ‘Thank you, Edward Snowden’ and under the headline ‘Today is the day we fight back’. Senator Ludlam, you celebrate and make a hero of this man who, through his criminal dishonesty and his treachery to his country, has put lives, including Australian lives, at risk. I wonder how you can sit in this parliament and hold your head up high when you celebrate a man who, through criminal conduct and treachery, has put Australian lives at risk.”
The Attorney-General further repeated a statement he has made several times before, stating that Australian intelligence agencies operated under “a strong framework of surveillance” and “under very strong statutory obligations and accountability obligations”.
Brandis noted that he had studies Obama’s remarks on the issue “carefully”.
“Australian governments, of both sides of this aisle, are always alert to ensure that the statutory framework which undergirds and provides for the accountability mechanism of our intelligence agencies is as appropriate and relevant as possible,” he said, before noting he would not comment further on what discussions it may have with other countries with relation to the issue.
In response, Ludlam described Brandis’ comments as an “embarrassing and borderline hysterical display”. “He was behaving like an infant; it was like having a debate with a four-year-old,” the Greens Senator said. You can watch the entire video of Ludlam’s reaction here.
“I think this parliament and millions of people around this country and around the world deserve better. They have legitimate and deep concerns about the surveillance activities of the US NSA and its partner agencies-including some in Australia-and their being treated with the contempt put on the record just now by the Attorney-General is completely unacceptable. If the attorney is not up to the job, he should set it aside for somebody who is.”
“The debate that is unfolding in the United States is actually, I think, quite profound,” said Ludlam. “In contrast, what we get here in Australia is the kind of infantile display put on the record earlier by our Attorney-General. It is completely unacceptable. Senator Brandis accused Mr Edward Snowden, a whistleblower whom I hold in extremely high regard-as do, I imagine, a majority of Australians and millions of people around the world-of being a traitor. You could almost see the spittle flying from his lips.”
“No evidence or justification was provided for the accusation that the revelations put into the public domain by Mr Snowden — through The Guardian, The New York Times, the ABC and other news organisations doing their job around the world — had created risk for Australians. No evidence at all was provided. They said exactly the same thing about the WikiLeaks revelations: the State Department cables, the war logs that disclosed war crimes, the cables that disclosed illegal activities by the United States State Department in the UN. There was no comment at all from the Liberal Party on those revelations. There was no comment at all about the fact that it appears these agencies have acted unlawfully in the United States or that a detailed set of reform proposals is now before President Obama. Instead, in Australia, there is complete silence — not simply silence, but the kind of content on display from our Attorney-General this afternoon.”
Ludlam concluded: “It is to be hoped that our present Attorney-General’s tenure is as brief as possible so that somebody can come into that office who has some respect for the positions that have been put-that these things need to be urgently reformed-and so we are not again treated to the kind of display that was put on the record earlier.”
Look, I want to say that there are two sides to this story, but I find it very hard to. Globally, Snowden’s revelations have caused consternation and parliamentary reviews of surveillance in virtually every first world country. The US President himself has been forced to act directly to curtail the NSA’s activities on this front. Republicans, Democrats, Liberals, Labor politicians; everyone is concerned about this issue; and that’s just the political sector. The private sector and the mass public are just as concerned.
In this context, the refusal, the abject refusal, by Brandis to say or do anything about the issue is, as Ludlam said yesterday, infantile. This is an important issue which deserves serious consideration. Australia’s Attorney-General cannot just get away with repeating stock phrases about how Snowden is a “traitor” and how he will not comment on intelligence matters. That approach didn’t wash in the US, and it’s not going to wash in Australia.
Image credit: Parliamentary Broadcasting