Yesterday Australians were once again asked to swallow a weakening of our civil rights masquerading as a safety measure.
Amidst the broken record appeals to a dangerous external threat to the nation in the form of the “death cult” Islamic State, prime minister Tony Abbott introduced the idea that Australians could benefit from the creation of a new, “flexible” department dedicated to preventing terrorism.
Such a department could oversee all existing forms of law enforcement in the nation, including ASIO and the AFP.
The likelihood of corruption under such a model seems unreasonably high. If one organisation within the government has regulatory powers over our systems of mass surveillance in addition to the highest levels of law enforcement, and that department is expressly dedicated to stamping out “terrorism”, it would not be unthinkable that such a department could quickly fall into the role of aggressively quashing political dissent.
The means of doing so at the disposal of such a department would be further reaching and far more pervasive than even the Stasi could have hoped for, with current programs within ASIO allowing agents to access the email records, phone calls and online chat activities of citizens, along with their associated metadata. It would be trivial for such an organisation to imprison political activists, and under new legislation journalists would be unable to report on any such abuses, facing up to ten years imprisonment.
There is a proposed mechanism of accountability in all of this, which would supposedly feature the commonwealth ombudsman, Colin Neave, as having oversight over the way metadata is collected and used. This is out of step with statements made to The Guardian Australia by Neave himself that his office would not play a formal oversight role in the scheme and would give advice only at the attorney general’s discretion.
Citing a report commissioned by his own government, Abbott voiced his support for the measure, along with a review of the current terrorism alert system and new strategies to counter violent extremism.
These strategies do not, according to the governments own report, which you can find here, extend to a review of the systems and departments already in place, despite enormous public backlash following the revelations of Australia’s involvement in the Five Eyes surveillance network, a global dragnet coalition comprised of the security agencies of Canada, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Australia and the United States.
The report does state, however, that there is a need to employ “increasingly intrusive and sophisticated monitoring measures”, citing the disclosure of classified documents by Edward Snowden as a causal factor in the need to broaden the scope and power of local security agencies. This does not seem to reflect rulings by the Court of Justice in the EU, which called metadata retention, part of the proposed extensions to security agency powers, a “wide ranging and particularly serious interference” with the fundamental rights to respect for privacy and the protection of personal data.
Nor does it reflect the data collected on the efficacy of such programs. A report by the New America Foundation, available here, states that “an in-depth analysis of 225 individuals recruited by al-Qaeda or a like-minded group or inspired by al-Qaeda’s ideology, and charged in the United States with an act of terrorism since 9/11, demonstrates that traditional investigative methods, such as the use of informants, tips from local communities, and targeted intelligence operations, provided the initial impetus for investigations in the majority of cases, while the contribution of NSA’s bulk surveillance programs to these cases was minimal. “
The report seems to recognise this in a round about way, even if it does not take into account the implications therein, stating in a few different ways that lone terrorist attacks by people who don’t use telephones or the internet in planning and executing their activities are nigh on impossible to detect and most likely cannot be prevented.
In summary, it seems that the government is relying on the tried and true methods of fascist administrations throughout our history, that is, painting a picture of an external threat that poses grave danger to our citizens, if, and only if, it is not kept at bay by ever increasing state power.
This rhetoric is too tired and worn to allay the fears of any critically minded individual, and is blatantly out of step with the actual, measurable severity of the threat of terrorism to Australians.
The Coalition is trailing once again in the polls, at 47% according to a poll published in the Australian newspaper on Tuesday, and it is beginning to become transparent to most Australians that these proposed measures are little more than desperate vote grabbing by an incompetent government of ideologues, interested solely in their own continued employment.