Comment: Data retention: protecting us from what, and how?

Australia will toughen laws to target home-grown terrorists and those who fight overseas on fears violent jihadist citizens in Syria and Iraq will return home, officials said on August 5, 2014. (AFP)

The government announced it will introduce new counter-terrorism measures for a safer Australia - but neither the Prime Minister nor the Attorney General can explain how they will work.

It’s amazing how quickly the political cycle turns nowadays. Things that used to take years now happen in months.

On Tuesday, while trying to explain his proposed national security laws, Tony Abbott was reduced on ABC radio to telling a journalist “You’re trying to say that nothing is certain, nothing is constant, that all is flux, that the current Government is as bad as the Gillard government; we’re not.”

Normally it takes until the last 6 months of your third term in government before you play the “just remember we’re not as bad as the last mob” card.

Usually by now a first term government is just finding its feet and moving ahead off the back of its first budget. But given the dud response to the Budget, and the subsequent drubbing in the polls, Tony Abbott appears to have already hit the panic button and reached for the national security lifeline, clutching at it like a drowning man to a snake.

And yet rather than be saved, he has been bitten.

“So, let me get this straight: because of 150 people, of whom the police and ASIO are already aware of, and of whom police can already obtain a warrant to monitor their and any of their associates’ internet and telecommunications use, every Australian’s metadata needs to be retained for 2 years?”

His announcement on Tuesday of a raft of new “security measures” smacked of a rushed job – from the media release issued by the Prime Minister’s Office which contained a repeated paragraph, to the clumsy suggestion that the proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act were being dropped to help fight terrorism.  

It betrayed a lack of competence of policy and politics.

Given the issue of data retention has been around for a number of years, there was no excuse for the Prime Minister and Attorney General when stepping up to the microphone to not be able to clearly articulate answers to questions such as “What is metadata?”

Yet on Wednesday, Tony Abbott went from in the morning suggesting metadata would include your browsing history, to putting out a statement suggesting it wouldn’t. Things weren’t helped when later that evening, George Brandis, in one of the more embarrassing interviews you will see with David Speers on Sky News, seemed to first suggest it would be included then that it wouldn’t.

As the Chief Regulatory Officer of ISP iiNet, Steve Dalby tweeted after Brandis’ interview, “Completely clear. As mud. AG Brandis explaining metadata.”

The announcement has not just been embarrassing for all involved but has also showed a lack of cohesion in the government. The Minister for Communications, Malcolm Turnbull on Tuesday morning told reporters the data retention plan hadn’t been before cabinet. He was not included in the announcement, and was missing for two days after while the government foundered. On Thursday he appeared and attempted to calm the waters.

Lenore Taylor in Guardian Australia reported that during the eventual cabinet discussion on the policy, Mr Turnbull “became exasperated and angry at the lack of factual information about how it would work in practice.”

He’s not alone.

The clumsiness with which the government has handled this has been led by the Prime Minister, with his odd link of the security measures and the end of the Racial Discrimination Act.

When asked on ABC’s AM why he was dumping the changes to section 18C of the act, Mr Abbott responded by saying, “Well we have a very serious home-grown terrorist threat.” 

When asked to explain that link, he replied, “Well, I want to crack down on the kind of incitement to terrorism which we are now seeing in our community. I want to crack down on that and the changes to 18C were a needless complication”. 

It takes a fair stretch to argue that making it legal to racially abuse someone complicates the ability for ASIO to stop terrorism, but when you need to force everything into a national security frame, such leaps of logic are required.   

But what is this national security issue? The Prime Minister on Tuesday “stressed” that the terrorist threat had not changed, and yet he argued we need to change the definition of terrorism, prevent people from travelling to certain countries, retain every single person’s metadata for 2 years and provide an extra $630 million in funding to the intelligence agencies.

The best reason the Prime Minister could come up with was as he told David Koch on Sunrise, “we have had some 150 Australians go to Syria and Iraq to engage in terrorist activities. By comparison, we had some 30 Australians go to Afghanistan about 15 years ago to join the Taliban.”

So, let me get this straight: because of 150 people, of whom the police and ASIO are already aware of, and of whom police can already obtain a warrant to monitor their and any of their associates’ internet and telecommunications use, every Australian’s metadata needs to be retained for 2 years?

Please.

The terror justification lasted less than a day because on Wednesday the Prime Minister made it clear the new laws will be used for “general crimes”.  

Unfortunately, neither the Prime Minister nor the Attorney General has in any way been able to explain how these proposed measures will prevent any attacks or crimes here. Whenever they attempt to explain the reason for the policy, they mention cases where police were successful due to following current practices under the current law.

Their argument seems to be that because the laws have worked in the past they need to be changed so they can work like they have in the past.

Australians may agree on intrusions into their privacy if they believe that the threat is real, that the measures are needed, and that the government can be trusted to competently carry out the task.

Greg Jericho is an economics and politics blogger and writes for The Guardian and The Drum.

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