by GREG BARNS
Last week was a busy one for Attorney-General Nicola Roxon and a dangerous one for the citizens of this nation.
Ms Roxon announced on May 4 that she wanted to give law enforcement agencies the power to bug phones and intercept emails for up to six months, and on the same day she, and her junior minister Jason Clare, announced a series of agreements with the US secretary of homeland security Janet Napolitano on data sharing.
These two announcements ought to alarm Australians because both potentially involve major incursions into, and erosion of, liberties. And without Australia having the protection of a national human rights law, there will be no chance to declare any such laws unconstitutional or inconsistent with human rights.
Ms Roxon has requested the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Intelligence and Security look at changes to existing national security laws so that ASIO and other agencies like the Australian Federal Police can intercept telecommunications for six months before having to renew their power – currently it is a 90-day limit.
There would also be super warrants, so called because they allow a single warrant to intercept a person’s phones, computer and any other communication tool. The Attorney-General will also get the power to vary the terms of warrants.
There is also a proposal to give government the opportunity to impose a heavy hand on telecommunications providers, with Ms Roxon asking the committee to “consult on measures to address security risks posed to the telecommunications sector, and whether the Government needs to institute obligations on the Australian telecommunications industry to protect their networks from unauthorised interference”.
Ms Roxon boasts that the public will have a say on national security laws, but given that the last attorney-general not to be captured by ASIO and the law-and-order control junkies in the attorney-general’s department was Whitlam government minister Lionel Murphy back in the 1970s, one can assume that Ms Roxon’s boast is a hollow one.
This announcement got little airplay last week, yet if the proposals become law, they will have a major impact on our rights.
Imagine, for example, how a Julian Assange would have been dealt with under these laws. It would have been ridiculously easy for ASIO and others to surveil every device Mr Assange used – his mobile phone, laptop, iPad and whatever else.
If he were found to be getting his hands on some decent leaks which the government did not want to see the light of day, then the attorney-general could vary the warrant to ensure such materials were captured. There would be no scrutiny by a court for six months.
To make it easier for the Australian government to keep tabs on you, Ms Roxon is also proposing that telecommunications companies keep data for two years. This means that if someone comes to the attention of the law enforcement agencies, they can trawl through every email, text message and phone number.
All of a person’s life can be exposed to a curious ASIO agent, and the subject of the warrant will never know.
Alarming stuff indeed, and it is now coupled with vaguely worded statements made by Ms Roxon and her US counterpart Ms Napolitano last week. Two of those statements should elicit questions from the media and those with an interest in liberty.
One was a joint statement on countering transnational crime, terrorism and violent extremism “which commits Australia and the US to share law-enforcement data to combat crime and expand information sharing to counter violent extremism”.
What does “violent extremism” mean in this context, one might ask? Environmental groups and the Occupy movement might fall into this category if seen through conservative eyes. And should an Australian government be handing over to the US data about its own citizens without their being judicial safeguards in place?
The second statement related to Australia “working more closely with the US on information and intelligence sharing. In particular, targeting and risk assessments to combat transnational organised crime, including terrorism”.
This is phenomenally and worryingly broad. Would Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks have come within the realm of transnational organised crime? Our Prime Minister seems to think so. And what if the Australian government provides information about an individual who is completely innocent of any association with organised crime or terrorism and that person is refused entry into the United States? Will that person have any redress?
When it comes to national security and sharing data with other nations, the need for protections, safeguards and redress by individuals wronged should be of paramount importance because the consequences for them and their family of being entangled in that shadowy and brutal world can be life-threatening.
Yet both of Ms Roxon’s announcements seem not important enough for the media to pursue. They are too interested in the short-term low-hanging fruit of former Labor MP Craig Thompson and the Speaker Peter Slipper.
No doubt, however, when Ms Roxon has her way and there is a scandalous case of abuse of power by ASIO, the AFP or their American counterparts the media will get interested. By then it will be too late to awake our community to the fact that the curtailment of liberty in this country is marching along without any real check or scrutiny.
Greg Barns is a barrister and National President of the Australian Lawyers Alliance. View his full profile here.