The Politics    Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The end of privacy?

By Russell Marks

The end of privacy?
This week, and possibly tonight, the Senate will pass legislation that authorises constant surveillance by the state of citizens’ electronic communications

The Senate is likely to sit late tonight so that the Coalition and Labor can see their metadata retention bill into law. The Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Amendment (Data Retention) Bill 2015 passed the lower house last week only four hours after MPs were given 30 pages of amendments that had been worked out at the last minute between the offices of Tony Abbott and Bill Shorten. Those amendments have been reported as improving protections for journalists, but only to the extent that security agencies that want to access journalists’ metadata will need to first apply for what is to be known as a “journalist information warrant”.

Such devices are warrants in name only, as Richard Ackland points out: the authority that would issue them will be made up of judges or lawyers that the minister can appoint and dismiss at his pleasure; journalists’ interests would be represented by “public interest advocates” selected by the prime minister; and those public interest advocates cannot communicate with the affected journalist. Indeed, the legislation makes it an offence to disclose or use any information about the existence or non-existence of a “journalist information warrant”, on penalty of two years’ jail. Such warrants, like the process for obtaining them, will be entirely secretive. The provision prohibiting anyone from disclosing the non-existence of a warrant is aimed at preventing what is known as “warrant canaries”. During the last decade, especially in the US, some media organisations have taken to including disclosures like these which inform readers that authorities have not accessed their data. As soon as authorities do access its data, the organisation removes its “warrant canary”, thus sending a signal to its readers. Under the new Australian law, even the publication of this kind of disclosure would become illegal.

The new legislation has been sold as an anti-terrorism and national security measure. But as Labor’s own Sharon Claydon pointed out last week, the latest ACMA annual report reveals that last financial year, government agencies were granted more than 500,000 authorisations to access Australian telecommunications customers’ phone, internet and address data for the purpose of enforcing existing laws. And while the new law will allow authorities to access the metadata of everyone except “journalists” (who aren’t defined) at any time without a warrant, it doesn’t require companies that operate public internet hot-spots and internet cafes, or international companies like Google, Apple and Hotmail, to disclose consumers’ metadata. Mass surveillance by Dutch, German and US authorities has been found to be unnecessary to prevent terrorist crimes. So apart from surveilling the electronic activity of particularly dumb criminals, and potentially filling in a gap left in the American surveillance regime, just what will the new legislation achieve? For one thing, it is likely to make it much easier to prosecute both whistleblowers who leak information – and journalists who receive it – from within government agencies.

The Round-up

Malcolm Fraser, 1930–2015

Matthew Knott and Josh Dye report in Fairfax: “Tony Abbott has called for the Liberal Party to be more magnanimous to Malcolm Fraser in death than it was to him in life, as parliament suspended operations to pay tribute to the former prime minister.”

Laura Tingle reports in the AFR: “Labor graciously acknowledged on Monday his many social policy legacies – including legislating Whitlam government reforms – and spoke relatively little of the Dismissal of the Whitlam government which once so bitterly pitted them against him.”

Inside Story is running an extract of Malcolm Fraser’s memoirs which were co-authored with Margaret Simons, and the Piping Shrike blog has some valuable reflections.

Travel expenses

Latika Bourke reports in Fairfax: “Labor is demanding Tony Abbott detail what work meetings he scheduled in Melbourne on Sunday after revelations he used a taxpayer-funded jet to attend a Liberal Party donor’s birthday party.”

Adam Gartrell reports in Fairfax: “Just days after delivering last year’s deeply unpopular federal budget, Joe Hockey billed taxpayers more than $20,000 for a series of VIP flights to spruik his economic plan to the Liberal Party faithful.”


Edmund Tadros reports in the AFR: “Two national polls have published divergent results on what voters think of the federal government: Newspoll shows the Coalition is now within striking distance of Labor, while a Roy Morgan poll shows the government losing support.”

Michelle Grattan’s analysis at The Conversation: “Tensions at senior levels of the federal government were on display when Julie Bishop reacted sharply to a newspaper claim that foreign aid was likely to ‘suffer a further small cut’ in the budget. She then very conspicuously rolled her eyes when Joe Hockey referred to the expenditure review committee.”

Latika Bourke reports in Fairfax: “Malcolm Turnbull said never before had there been ‘an optical movement more sensationalised’ and it was nothing more than what Mr Hockey would have expected.”

Mark Kenny comments in Fairfax: “Foreign aid was a lever pulled in the Abbott government’s first budget and apparently someone influential wants to give it another hearty yank this time around. Julie Bishop, though, is having none of it.”

Mike Steketee comments at The Drum: “There is no doubt the Abbott government is in diabolical political trouble, but the Liberals should not be counting on a leadership change for the miracle cure.”

Budget 2015

Anna Henderson and Dan Conifer report at ABC News: “Internal federal government frustrations over foreign aid spending appear to be resolved ahead of Joe Hockey’s address to the party room today.”

Latika Bourke reported last night in Fairfax: “Julie Bishop [planned] to confront Joe Hockey about an unsourced newspaper article that reported the foreign aid budget may be further cut in the May budget.”

Peter Martin comments in Fairfax: “The treasurer moans about Labor’s budget tricks, yet considers a similar sleight of hand.”

Lenore Taylor reports at Guardian Australia: “Over 70 mental health organisations have written to Tony Abbott imploring him to maintain $300 million in annual funding to mental health services that are preparing to sack staff as they face an end to commonwealth grants on 30 June.”

Satire at The Shovel: Government unveils new ‘Budget Danger Rating’ system

NSW election 2015

Bridie Jabour reports at Guardian Australia: “Labor referred the NSW government to ASIC over a report released by the bank UBS last week which was altered and reissued a few hours later to be more favourable to electricity privatisation.”

Bridie Jabour reports at Guardian Australia: “The NSW Labor Party has overestimated the potential dividends from electricity assets by more than $1.3 billion, according to forecasts by the parliamentary budget office.”

Will Glasgow reports in the AFR: “A re-elected Baird government would enforce widespread efficiency measures across the public service while the Labor Party has put the state’s ‘fat cats’ on notice.”

Wendy Bacon and Elise Dalley report at New Matilda: “The shake-up last year of women’s refuges by the NSW Government is having dire consequences.”

Heath Aston reports in Fairfax: “A retiring Liberal Party MP has recommended Liberal voters consider backing other parties in the upper house on Saturday because his own party has presented a ‘sliced white bread ticket’ that does not have a single female Liberal candidate in a winnable position.”

Bronwyn Stevens’ analysis at The Conversation: “In a tight NSW election, optional preferences could win the day.”

Seeking refuge

Shalailah Medhora reports at Guardian Australia: “A bill that would expand the powers of the refugee review tribunal (RRT) to deny asylum claims is set to pass parliament after Labor and the Coalition reached a compromise on amendments.”

Max Chalmers at New Matilda looks at leaked transcripts from the Moss Review to see what didn’t make the final report.

Nick Feik at The Monthly: “The only thing the government has come close to perfecting in Nauru is a system for destroying people, and a means to absolve itself of legal responsibility while doing so.”

Michael Gordon reports in Fairfax: “The Senate is set to launch an inquiry into abuse of women and children inside the Nauru detention centre after an independent report detailed allegations of rape, sexual assaults and intimidation.”


Stephanie Small reports at ABC News: “The federal government is trying to seal a deal on the RET by the end of March to spare emissions-intensive industries from hefty fines. After more failed negotiations, Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane shifted his focus to reaching a deal with the Senate crossbench.”

Eliza Borrello reports at ABC News: “The Labor Party has indicated it would wind back any deal the government struck with the crossbench to reduce the Renewable Energy Target, as hopes of a bipartisan deal fade.”

Thom Mitchell reports at New Matilda: “Developing nations around the world – rarely big emitters of carbon emissions – are ramping up their calls for radical global action to tackle the climate threat that is already looming large for low-lying countries.”


Gareth Hutchens reports in Fairfax: “High income earners are the biggest beneficiaries of the Reserve Bank’s interest rate cuts, while those of pensioner age lost nearly $30 with the last 25 basis point reduction.”

Matt Thistlethwaite comments at Guardian Australia: “The new China-led Asian bank is a global financial system shake up Australia should be part of.”

Marriage equality

Judith Ireland reports in Fairfax: “A major shift towards same-sex marriage is under way within the Liberal Party, with marriage equality advocates saying 11 Liberal MPs have privately switched to supporting a change since January.”

States of the nation

QLD – Joshua Robertson at Guardian Australia: “The Queensland government is to establish Australia’s first permanent disaster recovery agency to deal with a future of more extreme cyclones and floods brought on by climate change.”

TAS – Oliver Milman at Guardian Australia: “The Tasmanian government has been urged to scrap a plan to open up more of the state’s world heritage wilderness area to visitors.”

VIC – Matthew Knott in Fairfax: “Almost 90 per cent of Victorian principals say they do not have sufficient resources to teach children with disabilities, the highest proportion the country, according to a new survey.”

NT – Helen Davidson at Guardian Australia: “The Australian federal police have been tasked with investigating allegations against former Northern Territory police commissioner John McRoberts, who resigned earlier this year in the face of claims he sought to influence an ongoing criminal case.”

Listen to The Politics Podcast, with Rachel Withers

Russell Marks

Russell Marks is a lawyer and an adjunct research fellow at La Trobe University. He is the author of Crime and Punishment: Offenders and Victims in a Broken Justice System (Black Inc., 2015). 

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