Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Today by Paddy Manning

The PM’s bad faith
Would you buy a used bill from this man?


A minority government in a hurry is resorting to the kind of dodgy high-pressure sales tactics you might expect from a prime minister with a background in marketing. On a downhill run to an election, in a parliament it can barely control, the Morrison government is today simultaneously rushing to pass its encryption laws, which should not be rushed, and delaying removal of discrimination against LGBTIQ schoolkids, which, with a bit of good faith, could be done immediately and without fuss. Calling a press conference to offer an urgent conscience vote in the house on a bill his government has just agreed to defer in the Senate is a cynical stunt that ill-befits Australia’s PM. Voters beware.

With Labor’s support, the government is rushing to pass encryption “access and assistance” legislation today, citing a heightened terror risk over Christmas. This urgency is suspect because the laws give tech firms 28 days to respond to requests from police or security agencies, and real questions remain about the potential weakening of systems used every day to secure online banking, mass transit, public health, etc. Christian Porter last night described the deal with Labor as a “massive win for the Australian people” that would make the country safer from terrorists and criminals. The government’s national cyber security adviser Alistair MacGibbon gave a reasonable-sounding defence of the laws in an interview on the ABC’s AM program this morning, explaining they would restore telecommunications interception powers that police have had since 1979, but which have been undermined by encryption. The government has taken months to draft legislation to fix a problem that security agencies have been facing for years, only to suddenly ramp up pressure on Labor in the final week of sittings, accusing Bill Shorten of being soft on terror. Morrison told [$] The Australian that “Labor are quite happy for terrorists and organised criminals to chat on WhatsApp, leaving our security agencies in the dark.”

The reality? As Karen Middleton reported in The Saturday Paper, security chiefs last week refused to endorse Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton’s assertion that the terrorism threat risk would increase unless the encryption bill were passed before Christmas. Digital Rights Watch board member, human rights lawyer and author Lizzie O’Shea told Sky News today: “There’s no way agencies can make use of the powers currently drafted. Tech companies would not be ready to cooperate. This is a manufactured rush. When agencies ask for powers, our job isn’t just to say ‘yes’, but to ask ‘why’. It’s not good enough to say that because it’s a problem, we must rush through this bill without looking at consequences.”

Crikey’s Bernard Keane writes [$] today that the laws are a win for hackers and criminals, and will result in

government-approved malware being released into the wild by IT companies, to be harvested by criminals, foreign governments and anyone looking to circumvent the encryption that safeguards our privacy and ability to undertake commerce online, and which protects companies from commercial espionage. All in the cause of identifying terrorists – all of whom, as we keep seeing time and time again, are already known to security agencies.

MIT’s Daniel Weitzner told the ABC’s The World Today that it was unclear how the big US tech firms might respond, or whether they might choose to quit Australia.

Where encryption is highly technical, and should not be rushed, removing the Sex Discrimination Act exemption that allows religious schools to discriminate against LGBTIQ students (but not staff) is simple, and could be done in a parliamentary heartbeat. The PM said as much himself in the lead-up to the Wentworth by-election in mid October, declaring that he would “ensure amendments are introduced as soon as practicable to make it clear that no student of a non-state school should be expelled on the basis of their sexuality”. Under threat of a revolt from the religious right, the Morrison government has been stalling and dissembling ever since.

Labor introduced a straightforward bill to amend the Act, to carve schools and other education institutions out of the exemptions afforded other religious institutions. But this week in the Senate, the government sought to introduce amendments that would make it lawful to engage in teaching activity that “is in good faith in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of a particular religion or creed”. Labor’s advice was that this amendment would reintroduce a right to discriminate, and could not support it. The Greens likewise warned that the amendment would expand discrimination. In the Senate, the government agreed to put off the debate and Labor agreed, although Penny Wong admitted today: “It’s a disappointing outcome because it means LGBTIQ kids now face the prospect of returning to school next year knowing that they could be expelled or discriminated against because they’re gay.”

Minutes later, the prime minister rushed off to a press conference to offer to introduce those very same objectionable amendments into the house, and, if the parties could not agree, offered to resort to a conscience vote. Never mind that the government has very little time remaining for all members to weigh their consciences and explain their decisions, Labor would never allow a conscience vote on anti-discrimination legislation. The PM’s offer was nothing of the sort. Bill Shorten complained the parliament was “yet again descending into high farce”. Deputy Opposition leader Tanya Plibersek launched a fiery attack against the “wicked” scare campaign, given that nothing in Labor’s bill would prevent religious schools from teaching the tenets of their faith. “I don’t understand how anyone who has a conscience thinks it’s okay to discriminate against children.” It’s another day in a dysfunctional parliament.

since this morning

Australia’s economy appears to be slowing much more rapidly than expected, the ABC reports, with today’s national accounts showing GDP grew by 0.3 per cent in the three months to September, or 2.8 per cent over the year.

Defence Minister Christopher Pyne has contradicted ABC reports that the $50 billion submarine project faces cost and time blowouts. 

in case you missed it

The AFR reports [$] that former Labor minister and ACTU secretary Greg Combet has succeeded Garry Weaven as chairman of IFM Investors, overseeing $630 billion in industry superannuation. Combet immediately flagged a stronger push to use workers’ retirement savings to take direct stakes in companies.

The Guardian reports that Labor and the Greens will attempt to prevent the Morrison government from underwriting new coal-fired power, as the energy policy battle moves into its next phase.

There were moving scenes in federal parliament last night after the tabling of a landmark report into stillbirth in Australia.

Fairfax Media reports that Scott Morrison is leaning heavily on the nation’s most senior bureaucrats, and a top-secret panel of “wise elders”, to find a way through the political and diplomatic minefield he created by suggesting Australia could move its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

by Margaret Simons
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‘Oldboy’ director Park Chan-wook takes on a le Carré spy drama, with genre-rattling results

Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is also the author of three books, including a recently updated unauthorised biography of Malcolm Turnbull, Born To Rule?


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