Does Abbott have the cyber-patience Australia needs?

With an election year approaching, will Prime Minister Tony Abbott manage to resist the urge to act tough on cyber security?

Prime Minister Tony Abbott met with "business leaders" to discuss the cyber threat on Wednesday last week. "We're working to protect Australians online, to provide confidence, as well as peace of mind, for households and business," he reportedly said.

The meeting was hosted by the Business Council of Australia, and from the outside it had a usual-suspects feel about it -- representatives of banks, the Australian Securities Exchange, Telstra, and Foxtel, those sorts of business leader. As the government develops its new cyber-security strategy, expected to be completed later this year, this is a routine consultation.

But several paragraphs into The Australian's story was a mention that parliamentary secretary Christian Porter has been given responsibility for strengthening the partnership between government and business on cyber security. Curious.

Porter is an interesting choice in this role. While he isn't well-known in eastern Australia, he's served as both Attorney-General and Treasurer of Western Australia, and before that a senior state prosecutor, amongst other things. Eminently qualified, it would seem. One political columnist reckons he could even be a future Prime Minister.

It's good that the cybers are getting some high-level attention, but I have reservations about creating yet more centralisation -- centralisation that kinda misses the point of having cabinet ministers.

The risk isn't just more of the chaotic, control-freak management style we've seen coming out of the Prime Minister's Office. It's also that cyber security will be drawn into Abbott's national security hyperbole.

"National security now seems to define and dominate his leadership. That works for him politically, but it carries a risk. To keep national security on the front pages, he has become locked into a spiral of ever-rising risk assessments and increasingly draconian policy responses," wrote Hugh White, professor of strategic studies at Australian National University College of Asia and the Pacific, earlier this week.

"Already his risk assessments are seriously exaggerated and many of his responses are ill-considered."

The Australian government already sees the internet as a threat -- full of terrorists and criminals whose communications data must be retained, copyright infringers who must be stopped, and so on. The last thing we need is for the cybers to be turned up to 11 and made part of the inflated national security rhetoric.

We actually know what the problems are, broadly speaking, and we've already started working on them. The Australian Cyber Security Centre (ACSC) is up and running, and its coordinator, Major General Stephen Day, has outlined the first steps.

Ideally, the government's cyber-security strategy will help Day map out further steps, and tell other organisations how they fit into the grand plan. If Porter's role is simply to be the PM's link to the business community as that strategy is developed, then all well and good. But given Porter's skills, Abbott might be tempted to expand his role, bringing more of the cybers directly into the PM's realm.

My fear is that towards the end of 2015, when Abbott starts setting himself up for an election year, he'll want to be seen to be "doing something" about the cyber threat. That he'll want to be seen as "tough on cyber". That he won't have the patience to let ACSC and others get on the job they've started.

I hope not. The last thing the Australian internet policy needs is some of Abbott's ill-considered tough-man national security policy responses.

Show Comments