Opinion: When it comes to sweeping new national security powers, Australia does not have a Opposition political party.
Time and time again over the last decade, the two major parties have been in lockstep on a series of significant, technology-focused powers handed to authorities ostensibly for national security reasons, with Labor sometimes raising concerns but waving through the new powers anyway.
Often these national security-focused bills relate to handing authorities more powers over data and to crack down on technologies such as encrypted messaging.
This has happened with metadata retention laws, anti-encryption powers and most recently last week with the broad hacking powers handed to authorities to, among other things, covertly take control of online accounts and “disrupt” data.
Labor has shown an abject unwillingness to stand up and push even for amendments to any piece of legislation that the government says relates to national security.
Whatever you think of the necessity and proportionately of these new powers, it’s a disservice to all Australians that we don’t get a substantial debate about these laws, and an Opposition that we can be comfortable in knowing will push back against the possibility of government over-reach.
Just last week, two pieces of legislation – the hacking powers and one allowing spy agencies to pick up domestic data – sailed through Parliament with bipartisan support, despite concerns around their scope, necessity and the rushed process behind their introduction.
Labor unsurprisingly supported the Identify and Disrupt bill, despite several MPs echoing the concerns of civil and digital rights and legal experts.
And just the next day it was revealed that the national security committee, the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS), had conducted a five-day secret inquiry into a new piece of legislation allowing spy agencies to inadvertently or unavoidably intercept communications by Australians in Australia.
The legislation was given the green light by the committee with some slight changes, and had bipartisan support before independent MPs or the general public had even seen it.
Again, it marked a significant expansion of the state’s powers, particularly in terms of technology, and one that warranted a real debate over the need for such powers, not a closed-door inquiry by a committee that features only members from the two major parties.
The passing of those laws typified Parliament’s approach to any technology-focused national security laws in the last decade.
The Coalition will propose new laws and claim they are needed to protect Australia and Australians, ranging from a crackdown on encryption to a data-sharing deal with the US.
The government will always focus on how these powers will help to crack down on terrorists and pedophiles. Hard to argue with that. But they won’t mention that these powers will be applicable to far less significant crimes.
If we’re lucky, the legislation will be referred to the bipartisan PJCIS for inquiry, which will hear from a range of groups concerned about the expansion of powers.
The committee will then likely table its report including recommendations touching on the fringes of these issues, and then rubber stamp the bill. Both major parties will point to this process as Parliament working as it should.
But even when the government doesn’t meet all the recommendations of the PJCIS – as is what happened with the Identify and Disrupt bill last week – Labor will still be too afraid to vote against the legislation or to even move amendments to meet the national security committee’s calls.
It was one of Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s more outlandish stretching of the truth earlier this year when he claimed that two national security-related pieces of legislation did not have bipartisan support.
Even for a Prime Minister who regularly plays hard and fast with the truth, this was particularly erroneous, with Labor of course offering unwavering support for these pieces of legislation.
Labor will always end up supporting these types of technological encroachments, and the Coalition knows it. And it’s to the detriment of all Australians to not even have a proper Parliamentary debate on these issues.
On the recent foreign intelligence bill, Greens Senator Lidia Thorpe labelled the process as being in “contempt of democracy”.
It’s hard to argue with, and it’s a term that could be applied to the process behind any national security legislation in recent years.
Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.