Labor will decide if Australia chooses mandatory data retention

The music is about to stop on the dancing around the issue of data retention in Australia, and the former government needs to make its plans clear to the electorate.
Written by Chris Duckett, Contributor

Now the conservative Liberal government has played its hand by revealing it wants a scheme that will mandate the collection and storage of metadata for two years for each and every resident in Australia, the only thing standing between an unwilling populace and yet another step towards a surveillance state is the Labor party. God help us.

A bit over a year has passed since the Gillard Labor government shelved its data retention plans, and moved onto other battles that it wanted to fight. In this case, the fight was against itself, and history shows that Gillard and her lieutenants were ultimately unsuccessful in preventing a Kevin Rudd return to the Prime Ministership.

In the chaotic, fast-paced few months of the Rudd resurrection and the ensuing election campaign, both the Liberal and Labor parties decided that the best decision on data retention was no decision, and the issue was kicked down the road to be revisited at another time.

With today's revelation that Australia's national security committee has approved the idea of a mandatory data retention scheme, the time for parliamentarians and the electorate to re-engage on the issue is now.

In less than twelve months, the Abbott government has decided that the issue is important enough that not only should Australia have a mandatory data retention regime, but it so pressing that not even the otherwise-knowledgeable Minister for Communications, Malcolm Turnbull, should be told about such manoeuvres in policy.

"The issue that you're talking about I've seen speculated in the press, hasn't come to Cabinet yet and I'm not in a position to add to the speculation," he told journalists this morning.

Given that Turnbull had "grave misgivings" about Labor's dancing around the idea of data retention when it was in government, and that Brandis and Turnbull have failed to see eye-to-eye on the much less intrusive co-signed copyright infringement discussion paper released last week, it is little wonder that the potentially problematic minister was not informed of a decision which will see the Member for Wentworth take even more heat from the electorate than he is already subjected to over the NBN rollout.

That the conservative Liberal government is a fan of mandatory data retention, and that Attorney-General George Brandis is its primary cheerleader, should not arrive as a total surprise.

Over recent months, Brandis has been making declarations supportive of a metadata retention scheme, and late last year referred to metadata as a contestible concept.

"I, myself, on the basis of having been informed by the evidence of those several witnesses during the course of the last parliament, thought that the prime minister's description of metadata as 'essentially billing details' was a perfectly accurate shorthand description of what is a contestable concept," Brandis said.

By April, helped along and infuriated with the revelations from Edward Snowden of the Five Eyes surveillance to which Australia is a part, Brandis was beginning to wrap the discussion around surveillance and national security in a blanket of terrorism protection.

"Just as the technology employed by terrorists, agents of espionage and organised criminals adapts and advances, so too must the capabilities and powers of our law enforcement and security agencies," he said at the time.

"I must confess frankly that, as the minister within the Australian system with responsibility for homeland security, the more intelligence I read, the more conservative I become."

"The more deeply I come to comprehend the capacity of terrorists to evade surveillance, the more I want to be assured that where our agencies are constrained, the threat to civil liberty is real and not merely theoretical."

Just last month, Brandis admitted that data retention was under active consideration and said the western world was heading towards such schemes.

The writing was on the wall, we just had to wait for the drapes to fall away to give us the big reveal.

Covered in a veil of counter-terrorism, and arriving in a procession of Australian flags and nationalism, Prime Minister Tony Abbott welcomed the proposed introduction of a mandatory data retention scheme as a necessary tool in the "Team Australia" arsenal. It would naturally be protected by a "whole range of safeguards", he said, without naming a specific element designed to protect the populace from the sort of illegal eavesdropping on spouses and ex-lovers that NSA agents are now known to have performed.

Even without a data retention scheme, history has already shown that Australian authorities are more than willing to hand over bulk uncensored metadata on Australian citizens with other Five Eyes nations. Not only does this mean the Australian population should be concerned about what its intelligence organisations could do with the collected data, they also need to be concerned what the agencies of the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, and New Zealand could do with the data stored.

But regardless of what plans George Brandis found shelved by the previous government, and the deals needed to get the legislation through the current Senate, the state of Australian politics is such that for data retention to survive, it will need the backing of the Labor party to avoid being torn down when the Liberal government is no more.

To that end, the Labor party today once again kicked the issue down the road, with Opposition Leader Bill Shorten committing his party to "considering" the issue over the coming days and weeks after a briefing from the government on the issue.

In a sign that perhaps the political establishment will not consign the country to a form of small government that is big enough to want warrantless searching of browser history, Shorten said that in the pursuit of national security, the government must make sure it respects citizens and not treat them as criminals by default.

"[We need to] get the balance right between making sure we have strong national security, and the rights of citzens to their legitimate privacy," he said.

"Once liberties and rights are handed away, it is very difficult to get them back."

For the sake of the ongoing privacy of 23 million people, Shorten and his brethren would do well to remember how hard other people throughout history have fought to regain rights.

Because whether we, the Australian public, like it or not, all that stands between Australia and a legislated mandatory data retention scheme being fully operational next year is a political party that has skirted and leered longingly at just such a proposal when it was in government — and that situation should fill each and every one of us with dread.

It's up to Labor to prove us wrong, and do the right thing.

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