Censors, Censures and Campus Cops

Justice Minister Michael Keenan today elucidated new changes to the controversial “Schools Security Programme” that would involve the employment of security personnel to oversee campuses at fifty four schools across the nation.

“It’s a commitment that we made prior to the last election to make sure that we were partnering with schools that might be at particular risk of intolerance”, the Minister stated in his address to the senate.

The program has existed since 2007, however until now the legislation has excluded the use of security personnel, limiting the available avenues of spending to stronger fencing, CCTV surveillance and anti-ramming devices.

Schools receiving the $18 million include 22 government/independent schools. 29 out of the 54 are located in New South Wales, with the majority in western Sydney.

Despite increased security in American schools since the events at Sandy Hook in December 2012, there has been almost no reduction in the number of school shootings in the United States. Measures similar to the ones proposed under the new Schools Security Programme, including CCTV surveillance, stronger fencing and security personnel seem to have made no impact on the frequency and severity of the killings, raising the question as to why the Coalition believes the measures will be successful if implemented here.

A 2013 report on the Impact of Security Measures on Students, by the U.S. National Association of School Psychologists, regarding potential impact of security measures in schools, stated that: “There is no clear evidence that the use of metal detectors, security cameras, or guards in schools is effective in preventing school violence, and little is known about the potential for unintended consequences that may accompany their adoption.”

The report goes on to highlight the potential for these programs to increase criminality in students and to strengthen “street culture with its emphasis on self protection”. It also highlights the inherent implication of guilt on behalf of the student that accompanies the use of CCTV surveillance.

This is a situation that is not only likely to distract children from learning, but may also foster paranoia and self-censorship. The nature of school shootings is unpredictable, with often little to no warning that the events were going to occur until after the fact. It is unlikely that employing security guards to act as a bulwark against violence in schools will accomplish anything but a militarisation of our learning environments, colouring the social environment of our schools with an authoritarian palette.

We need to ask ourselves whether measures that have failed to deter the crimes they are established to prevent in other nations are worth the potential destabilising effect on our own school communities. Are we really so afraid of the spectre of terrorism that we are willing to surround our children with armed guards?

I sincerely hope the answer to that question is a resounding “no”.

As of approximately 1pm today, Attorney General George Brandis was censured by the senate, with a motion of 35-32, in regards to his actions towards Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs. The motion was proposed by Senator Penny Wong.

Senator Penny Wong's censure motion.

Senator Penny Wong’s censure motion.

Christine Milne, Greens party leader, in sympathy with Wong, stated that “We do not believe he is fit to hold the office of AG and not only that, his behaviour has demeaned the senate and the parliament.”

Milne says the government should have focused on the situation for children in detention rather than attacking Triggs

Labor senator Jacinta Collins has drawn attention to the fact that the Forgotten Children report is not, as Ian McDonald lazily alleged last week, a partisan affair, it features criticism of both sides of politics and also focuses the amount of time children are in detention.

Independent Senator Nick Xenophon has proposed a royal commission into children in detention, a suggestion most Australians will likely agree with. He does not believe Brandis is unfit to hold office, however believes that the Attorney General has erred “significantly” on his handling of Gillian Triggs. He supports the first four parts of the motion but not the last.

It seems that this is only the second time in our political history a censure motion has been successfully passed against an Attorney General, the first being on the 4th of April, 1973, where Senator Lionel Murphy was apparently censured “because of certain actions connected with alleged Croatian terrorism in Australia and the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation.”

The “Croatian terrorism” mentioned refers to concerns over local Utasha groups plotting to assassinate the Yugoslav Prime Minister during his visit to Australa. The Utasha was a Croatian fascist movement that had allied itself with Germany in World War Two and had active cells in Australia at the time.

The then Attorney General raided ASIO headquarters on March 16th, 1973, ordering police to open sealed filing cabinets due to concerns about ASIO’s failure to respond adequately to the aforementioned threats, finding that the security organisation had little information on the threat to the Yugoslav Prime Minister and confirming public perceptions that they were neglecting a key security issue. The Utasha group had been involved in several bombings in Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra and Brisbane during 1972, causing no deaths but damaging property and injuring members of the public.

There is little solid information available about the censure and the events leading up to it. Opinion seems to be split about whether the raid was necessary or an overreach of political power, with this scathing article by conservative magazine Quadrant opting to bat for the latter position, while this article by Andrew Zammit aligns with the former.

What is clear is that Murphy supported legal measures to strengthen the public’s ability to access government information, to remove censorship and to implement a Bill of Human Rights. Amongst the reasons for drafting the bill, the Attorney General stated that, “in criminal law, our protections against detention for interrogation and unreasonable search and seizure, for access to counsel and to ensure the segregation of different categories of prisoners are inadequate. Australian laws on the powers of the police, the rights of an accused person and the state of the penal system generally are unsatisfactory. Our privacy laws are vague and ineffective. There are few effective constraints on the gathering of information, or its disclosure, or surveillance, against unwanted publicity by government, the media or commercial organisations”.

Considering the rumours of CIA involvement in the sacking of Gough Whitlam in 1975, one year after his establishing the Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security which served to investigate ASIO’s activities, condemning many and leading to reforms, and their strong links to ASIO, it seems odd that two prominent Labour politicians who had spoken out against the organisation were removed from power so soon after their criticism of the security organisation.

In the senate today, George Brandis refused to comment on the allegations that the secretary of his department conveyed an offer of a specific role to Gillian Triggs at their meeting in Sydney on the 3rd of February, telling parliament that “There is nothing more to say.”

Whether the Attorney General is telling the truth remains to be seen, and with secrecy in the Coalition at an all time high, one thing we can be sure of is that gathering reliable information on the internal affairs of our government will be painfully hard for anyone outside of the party itself.

Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison, two likely candidates for the Prime Minister’s role should leadership concerns continue, have allegedly been using Wickr, an app which allows “private, encrypted and self destructing data” to be electronically shredded to leave no trace of messages, to communicate to one another over the last few weeks.

The irony of the situation is palpable, and a perfect demonstration of the hypocrisy in those who routinely ask us to surrender our privacy for our own safety.

If the ministers have nothing to fear, why are they hiding?

A bipartisan report released on Friday backed the government’s proposed data retention scheme, but demanded more certainty about the customer details that would be stored and the agencies that would be permitted access.

Although the report was tabled in the House of Reps, apart from the Chair, Deputy Chair and the Government Whip, no extra debate was permitted.

The lack of debate on a piece of legislation which, if passed, will undermine the basic right to privacy of every Australian citizen seems to be contrived in the interests of opacity. I believe the only honest, reasonable way forward with regards to metadata retention and the broader role of government surveillance in the lives of the citizenry is total transparency.

There must be a national debate on the issue of surveillance and privacy, and in order for the conversation to be meaningful, the public must have access to information that concerns them, namely the agencies responsible for collecting data on the public, the systems, programs and techniques used to do so, the timeframe of these activities and details as to the involvement of foreign states in assisting and overseeing these activities.

Pudgy Figures and Figures Fudged: George Brandis, Education Reforms and the Penal System

Figures used to produce secret government modelling on university fees were “invented by department officials” according to the education department’s associate secretary, Robert Griew.

“In each case, while presented as assumed facts and informed by departmental analysis and research, these figures were essentially invented by departmental officials for the purpose of providing material for analysis based on assumed patterns of behaviour,” he wrote.

The government did not want to release documents detailing the impact of deregulation on regional higher education and the potential cost of cuts on individual institutions.

While largely unsurprising, this is another example of failure to live up to even the most basic forms of transparency and accountability by the Liberal government. A few questions that need answering:

Why were the figures invented rather than being based on actual data?

How does invented data provide a reliable and accurate set of prediction on which we can model changes to the education system?

Why were the documents relating to the impacts and potential costs of these reforms not available to the public, whom they affect, for review?

Answers to these questions would be a step in the right direction for our Prime Minister, whose actions of late have landed him in hot water not just with the electorate but also with many of his own party members, as evidenced by the spill several weeks ago.

The ABC and the Seven network have both reported that Malcolm Turnbull has been advised that he has the numbers to slide into the top job without much turbulence. Whether this is wish-thinking on the behalf of the source and/or the networks remains to be seen. Turnbull himself refused to comment on the issue, telling reporters that he’s “a member of parliament… I’ll leave [the press] to speculate about all that stuff.”

And speculate we will.

If Turnbull does move up the ladder in the Liberal Party, he’ll certainly have his work cut out for him. Dealing with a large body of people at the best of times is difficult to say the least, dealing with a party of strong minded ideologues, most of whom fall almost entirely to the right of the political spectrum, is likely to be a management nightmare. If Turnbull can elicit some sense of collegiality within the party, and force compromise out of some of the more extreme members, we may see a turn around in the party. He has already made statements defending Gillian Triggs after her vilification by fellow party members, and seems to support a push for more transparency around sources of funding and internal activities in general. At the very least, if Turnbull becomes Prime Minister we can wave goodbye to the madness the pious Roman Catholic reminiscer extraordinaire has wrought on this country over the last two years.

Another interesting piece of information the government would rather keep hidden away from the public eye is the apparent failure of the Australian Bureau of Statistics to accurately report the amount of prisoners in the penal system. The ABS records only the number and characteristics of people in custody on a single day – 30th June – each year.

This is despite more than $3bn being funnelled into the system per annum.

Without accurate data showing the demographics of prisoners, their behaviour, length of imprisonment, whether they are first time or repeat offenders, what socio-economic and lifestyle factors contributed to their incarceration and so on, it seems unlikely that any improvement can be made in the system. It is essentially being run blind.

If reforms need to be made in any area of our society, surely the penal system is a prime candidate. Countries like Norway have implemented rehabilitation oriented systems of incarceration, lowering recidivism rates to just 16% in some areas, as opposed to 38% according to “SCRGS 2006. Report on government services 2005”, the results of which were published in this study on recidivism by the Australian Institute of Criminology. Rather than following the predictable and tired governmental response of “doing it our way”, perhaps we can adopt a humble attitude and admit that we have much to learn from the successes of other nations.

George Brandis has come under fire from ex- Human Rights Commissioner Graeme Innes, who stated in this article written for The Guardian, “I was a human rights commissioner under five attorneys-general from both sides of politics, Brandis [has been] the only one to question my integrity.”

Staffers for Brandis apparently berated Innes for his criticism of retail giant Myer’s CEO Bernie Brooks, who had made comments disparaging the National Disability Insurance Scheme, stating that the money that was earmarked for the project “could have gone through [his] cash registers.” In addition to the callousness of the comment, having previously worked for Myer and being privy to the internal culture there I find that scenario highly unlikely.

Innes went on to say that “Part of our democratic system, and the rule of law, provides that a key duty of any attorney general is to defend judges and statutory officers doing their jobs, because they are not in a position to easily defend themselves. Far from defending, Brandis has attacked. It is he who has made the serious error of judgement. He has “shot the messenger”. Triggs has advocated human rights compliance by Australia – she has done her job.”

Along with his support for mandatory metadata retention, a program which has been slammed in courts across the EU for being a serious threat to human rights and the privacy of citizens, these revelations paint a picture of Brandis as being wholly unconcerned with fulfilling the role he is employed to, seeming instead to be more focused on supporting schemes to expand the influence and control of the state in the lives of every-day Australians.

It is for this very reason we are in desperate need of transparency when it comes to funding and the internal activities and correspondence of our elected officials. We cannot afford to turn a blind eye to the monetary forces and concealed influences that shape policy in this country. Urgent reforms in this area are not only important, but necessary for the country to progress and grow into the exponentially increasing complexity of the digital age.

I had to cut todays update short due to time constraints, so some important information was omitted. Rest assured, I’ll be publishing a more extensive review of current affairs in Australian politics tomorrow, but until then, have a wonderful night friends.