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Something doesn’t add up

The PM was in particularly woolly form today

There’s a line of John Howard’s that Malcolm Turnbull is particularly fond of parroting. “Politics is governed by the iron laws of arithmetic,” he’ll say, to explain why the electorally successful Nationals deserve an extra seat in cabinet, or why it’s so damn hard to get things through the Senate.

That’s just one of the reasons it was confusing to hear our prime minister insist that the laws of Australia trump the laws of mathematics.

Turnbull was announcing plans to expand the surveillance powers of our security agencies. A journalist from ZDNet asked Turnbull if the laws of mathematics would trump the laws of Australia – or, in other words, if there were insurmountable practical obstacles to his plan. Turnbull replied, “Well, the laws of Australia prevail in Australia, I can assure you of that. The laws of mathematics are very commendable, but the only law that applies in Australia is the law of Australia.”

You might think this was widely reported because it was the odd line out from an otherwise straightforward press conference. The problem is that it was entirely typical – just one of many fuzzy, woolly lines from a prime minister who either did not understand what he was announcing or had no interest in explaining it properly to the voters upon whom he is about to impose these laws. (The latter is my bet.)

What Turnbull wants is for tech companies to ensure security agencies have access to encrypted messages. Right now, many of our communications (iMessage, Facebook messaging, WhatsApp) are encrypted, meaning they can’t be read by anyone except the person sending the message and the person receiving the message. That’s not just true of terrorists, it’s true for all of us.

Turnbull’s main message was that the internet shouldn’t be a dark shadowy place where criminals can do what they want. I agree with him. I also have sympathy for the argument that the law must be modernised to keep pace with changing technologies.

But just because I wish something were true doesn’t mean there’s a simple way of making it so.

There are several problems with Turnbull’s plan but the major one is easy to understand: if you force tech companies to remove protections from their communications software so that security agencies can get in if they need to, then you’re creating a weakness that anyone can take advantage of. As Bernard Keane points out in a useful wrap here [$], tools to allow such hacking have been stolen before, from both the CIA and the NSA.

But Turnbull sidestepped such issues by being completely unclear about what he was actually announcing. He wouldn’t say how exactly he wanted the tech companies to provide this access, which is kind of the whole point. He described the idea that the tech companies would refuse as a “hypothetical”, even though it’s not, because this is exactly what they have done in other countries, and already seem to be doing here. He could not say what he would do when they refused. He also acknowledged that criminals could just use their own homemade encryption systems to sidestep such laws.

The attorney-general, George Brandis, did say that the British Investigatory Powers Act 2016 would serve as a model for the type of coercive powers that might be available as a last resort. The Act very clearly allows the government to demand that tech companies insert security weaknesses into their software, so presumably that’s what the government plans to do.

So it might have been nice if the PM and his minister had come to the press conference with some intention of saying this out loud, and explaining how it would come to pass, and how the privacy of the rest of us would stay protected, not just from security agencies but from sinister forces wanting to take advantage of us.

The sad truth is that Turnbull can do whatever he likes in this space. As the Guardian reported at the time, in the UK, the government “faced with public apathy and an opposition in disarray … did not have to make a single substantial concession to the privacy lobby”. In Australia, the Opposition is not in disarray – instead, it’s just entirely on board. Bill Shorten today indicated that Labor was in like Flynn [$]. Politically speaking, the complexity of the technology, plus widespread public nervousness about terrorism, means anything goes.

This seems unlikely to be the last security announcement we’ll hear for a while. We should hope the next is better explained.

Stepping away from the laws of mathematics and back to the iron laws of arithmetic for a moment, if I were Turnbull right now I’d be calling Barnaby Joyce, the leader of the PM’s electorally successful coalition partner, to make sure he’s onside for everything coming up. Lately, Joyce has seemed increasingly willing to distance himself from the Liberal Party.

That might just be smart politics when a Queensland election might be called at any time, but Joyce was very specific in an interview with the Guardian today. His statement that “The message going back to punterville is ‘it’s like a philosophers’ club down there’” might be seen as broad commentary on Liberal internal wars. But there’s no getting away from the fact that his next point was about Turnbull: “You are arguing about Menzies’ view on conservatism …” The Nationals’ position on the Clean Energy Target also seems to be in play.

Whatever questions Joyce might have for the PM about his plans, Turnbull should be prepared with better answers than he was today. 

And in late breaking news, Greens senator Scott Ludlam this afternoon resigned from the Senate effective immediately. He learned in recent days that he has dual Australian–New Zealand citizenship, having been born in New Zealand, which renders him ineligible for the Senate. Ludlam, one of a handful of parliamentarians who is at all knowledgeable on the internet – encryption, metadata and surveillance – will be a huge loss, not just to the Greens but also to Australian public life.

In other news


BOOKS

‘Between Them’ by Richard Ford

Ford’s latest work is a son imagining what his parents felt about their own lives

Stephanie Bishop

Between Them: Remembering My Parents is comprised of two separate essays. The first focuses on Ford’s father, Parker, and the second on his mother, Edna. Both parents came from the rural South, where there was little money and minimal education. Ford tells a story of them rising to higher stations than anticipated, but which, in retrospect, appear modest and underwhelming.”  READ ON


THEATRE

Modern family

Does the playful transgression of Caryl Churchill’s ‘Cloud Nine’ still have the capacity to shock?

Richard Denniss

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About the author Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly was an adviser to prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. He is the Monthly’s politics editor.

@mrseankelly
 
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