The Australian Greens have alleged that there is a "bipartisan agreement" between the Australian government and Opposition to ignore the contribution whistleblowers such as Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden make to democracy.
Speaking to an Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) conference in Sydney, Greens communications spokesperson Scott Ludlam took aim at comments late last week from federal Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus that Manning and Snowden are not whistleblowers.
"We have, over the last day or so, seen our attorney-general declare that people like Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden are not whistleblowers and respectively cutting them loose indicating that the Australian government doesn't support the kind of legal protection that really should be [given] to whistleblowers who disclose war crimes," Ludlam said.
"I would argue there is a bipartisan agreement to simply not talk about it. To not make eye contact with any of us and pretend it is all going to go away."
Alluding to the US government's PRISM surveillance program, Ludlam said the reticence to engage on a public debate about whistleblowers is tied to a tacit endorsement of mass surveillance by the major parties.
"It is something which I and a large number of people believe is extremely dangerous, and which breaks the democratic compact that in a democracy: Ordinary citizens should not be subject to indiscriminate dragnet surveillance, nor should they be subject to online censorship," he said.
The federal government's position is that Snowden and Manning's actions do not constitute whistleblowing, because they were not leaking information about government "wrongdoing".
Continuing, Ludlam argued that the PRISM program, as well as proposals such as the Australian government's shelved plan for a data retention bill, constitute a "surveillance agenda" on behalf of Western governments. This agenda, Ludlam claimed, was beginning to result in people self-censoring their behaviour online.
"What the surveillance agenda brings about is a regime of self-censorship, where people will restrict the kinds of communications they have and advice they seek — be that healthcare or sexual health, as two obvious examples," he said.
"We know from experience in Germany that when a national data retention regime was in the process of being implemented, people changed their browsing habits and the kind of health advice they sought, because they figured that it was all going to be archived and potentially used later.
"These are dangerous times, and this is a dangerous debate which needs to be had."
Ludlam said that while US citizens have protections against mass surveillance accorded by that country's Bill of Rights, citizens of other countries did not have these protections. As such, a global agreement — such as the one proposed by German chancellor, Angela Merkel — guaranteeing protection to citizens of all countries is required.
"The kind of global agreement that we are going to need goes beyond simply making the surveillance more transparent," he said. "Some of these programs in my view need to be closed down, so they need to not exist anymore."
The issues of privacy and citizen protections have also been receiving attention within academic and policy circles. Last week the increasing privatisation of intelligence gathering in the US prompted a call for a national debate on the extent, cost, and consequences of Australia's own security and intelligence outsourcing.